If you’ve never lived in the South, you might not be familiar with King Cakes. The brightly colored yellow-green-and-purple treats start popping up in the weeks before Mardi Gras. Though most prevalent in New Orleans, they are popular throughout the South. They’re delicious, they’re often shared at offices and parties– and yes, it’s Catholic in origin.
The name “King Cake” refers to the three kings, or three wise men. It emerged as a treat associated with pre-Lent celebrations, connected closely to Easter. Sometimes, there’s even a little plastic baby hidden somewhere in the cake – representing that same baby the wise men went to visit.
So it’s understandable that a friend recently asked me: “Um… is it weird for Jewish people to buy King Cakes?”
When asked this question, I resisted the urge to laugh it off and instead did a little reflecting (while munching on a delicious cinnamon-swirl piece of this tasty treat). Does the symbolism behind a food mean it’s proprietary to a certain group? Putting aside logistics that would obviously factor in for some observant folks, such as the laws of kashrut or halal – should foods be avoided simply because they’re associated with someone else’s tradition?
I recalled a few years ago, when a local bakery in Jackson, Mississippi, began promoting their all-new seasonal specialty: Purim baked goods. Yes! Fresh-baked, made-to-order sweet hamentaschen in multiple flavors — and savory bourekas, too. I was beyond excited that my favorite local bakery was offering Jewish treats, and so were my Jewish friends… and so were my non-Jewish friends. We all went out and bought those Purim treats in droves. (And thank goodness – if only the small Jewish community of Jackson had shown up to buy the baked goods, that wouldn’t have been very marketable.)
But one person did ask me: “Um, is it okay for a non-Jewish person to eat those triangle Purim-cookies?”
I assured them, without hesitation, that they were welcome to a cookie.
The question is not ludicrous. Eating is sometimes related to a statement of faith, whether it’s by following rules as to what we do and do not eat, or accepting a communion wafer at a Catholic mass.
But there is a difference between foods with ritual meaning and foods with cultural symbolism. Eating hamentaschen doesn’t make you Jewish, but it does give you an opportunity to learn a delicious tidbit about Purim and the story of Esther. Sharing a King Cake with co-workers is a delicious opportunity to enjoy Mardi Gras and share in a communal celebration. It’s a sharing of cuisine that has become a low-barrier sharing of culture.
In fact, I think the story of Esther itself makes the case for sharing in the culture around us. Esther was a nice Jewish girl who managed to save her entire Jewish community, not by avoiding the culture around her– but by fully immersing in it. She married the king, held on to her identity, and stopped Haman. Let’s remember she also did this over an extended dinner party, and now we recall Haman’s defeat by eating cookies shaped like his hat and named for his ears. (Creepy.)
Lots of special-foods have stories unique to one culture or another. Learning about them is fascinating, and feasting on them is even better.
In other words, let all of us eat (king) cake. And yes, I promise, in a few more weeks… I’ll share my triangle Purim-cookies.
Playing an active role in our local communities is a long-standing Southern Jewish tradition. Our community, Temple Israel in Columbus, Georgia, wanted to do even more with community engagement—so we reached out to Malkie Schwartz at the ISJL. With that help and guidance, our Community Engagement committee has been able to build an amazing relationship with the students and staff of Rothschild Leadership Academy (RLA), a local public middle school that serves students in 6th-8th grade.
During the summer, the committee approached Dr. Mike Forte, the Principal of Rothschild Leadership Academy and asked this critical community engagement question: What do you need?
Dr. Forte responded: “Help the kids read.”
And so began our community’s implementation of the ISJL’s literacy program Read, Lead, Succeed.
Read, Lead, Succeed is a program first piloted in Jackson, Mississippi. We’re excited to now be piloting it here in Columbus, Georgia. Read, Lead, Succeed uses I See Sam phonetics based reading materials. The I See Sam curriculum was designed to help young elementary school students so we’ve modified the program to better fit the needs of 6th graders. For example, our students read individually for privacy as well as personalized instruction. Additionally, we have added an “attitude assessment” that students take when they first begin the program and after completing other predesignated milestones. The program deftly integrates learning with a positive environment that fosters relationships and a love of reading.
Many of our volunteer team members were concerned the I See Sam system was too simple for the students. We quickly learned that there are many students who read below grade level and this program helped address gaps in their reading abilities. It comes down to that same question: What do you need? This program, and the system behind it, is filling a need.
Our Community Engagement Committee members have been personally impacted by this program. I asked some of them to share their thoughts and reflections:
“The success of Read, Lead, Succeed at Rothschild Leadership Academy is a marvelous manifestation of the trust we forged by listening. We listened to Dr. Forte describe the needs at his school. We listened to his priorities. After the commitment and excellence we showed through the gardening project, he and his staff were receptive to our suggestion to help in a deeper way.” – Mark Rice
“Initially, I was concerned that the books would be too easy for them … I was surprised to see that in fact, they were the level they were reading at. My heart went out to them. Their improvement and eagerness to learn each week motivated me even more. I am so proud of them and I know they will continue to improve. The need for someone to spend time with them reading is vital. The programs straightforward approach was very helpful.” – Suzanne Reed Fine
In the future, the Community Engagement Committee of Columbus, Georgia hopes to expand Read, Lead, Succeed by adding volunteers and students to the program at RLA. We also envision launching the program in the elementary schools that feed into RLA. We believe that preventing students from falling behind in elementary school will lead to greater success in middle school and beyond. We are proud for our Southern Jewish congregation to continue playing our part, working in our community and helping meet the needs that are right here at home.
At my congregation in New Orleans, I teach an adult beginner Hebrew class. There are many different types of students in the class: Jews who want to be able to better follow the prayers in Hebrew during services; Christians who want to be able to read passages from the Bible in the original language; Jews preparing for an adult bar/bat mitzvah; and those in the process of conversion to Judaism.
Last week I fielded a question from a woman in that last group. Her question was not about Hebrew, but about Judaism: “I am coming to the Rabbi’s classes, I have learned the history and holidays and all pertinent information, I am learning how to read Hebrew… but I still don’t think I understand what it feels like to be a Jew. What should it ‘feel’ like?”
I invited her to attend Shabbat services with me that Friday night and sit with me so I could show her in live action what being Jewish feels like to me – how praying, hoping, and coming together with other Jews moves me, personally. She was hesitant at first; wasn’t there an easier answer? Could she “Google it on her own,” or figure out some other way to get this question answered, on her own time frame and by herself?
Quite simply… no.
Judaism is a communal experience. Yes, we can learn information on our own, but when we attend a class or have a study buddy, that’s when there is debate and discussion— and that is the Jewish way to learn. Yes, we can pray on our own, but when we attend a Shabbat service, meet and greet others, and pray together, we share a bond with our community like no other—and that is the Jewish way to pray. Judaism is, above all, a shared experience. No matter how big or small our Jewish community, the fact that we come together is meaningful.That sense of connection—that is the way to “feel Jewish.”
I don’t know if there is a way to teach someone a feeling, but when you show them how you feel things and where you feel things and why, they begin to understand and maybe can feel it for themselves. My student did come to services last Friday night, and sat beside me. After being nervous about the initial peer pressure to get up and greet someone that you don’t know, she participated. After experiencing the connections, right from the beginning of the worship experience, she said to me: “This really is a communal experience.”
Quite simply… yes.