Every Jew has a seltzer story. From the adorable – my brother’s first word was “seltzer”—to the morbid – a family friend’s grandmother died due to a fatal de-capping (true story!) – the fizzy stuff is a familiar facet of Jewish life. For Jews from the most Hasidic to the most secular, this carbonated beverage is a touchstone, as ubiquitous in Jewish culture as it is on Jewish tables – rightfully earning its nickname of “Jewish champagne.” But why did seltzer become so synonymous with Jewish culture in the first place?
Funnily enough, the origins of seltzer actually have nothing to do with Jews. As Gil Marks explains in his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, in the 16th century a town by the name of Niederseltsers, near Frankfurt, Germany, “began producing a naturally carbonated tonic water called Seltsers Wasser… considered to have medicinal value.” Its reputed curative qualities made the beverage popular to Germans from Niederselsters and its surroundings, Jew and non-Jew alike. It was from the German word seltsers that we have the Yiddish zeltzer and seltzer vasser.
Thanks to an English scientist named Joseph Priestley about a century later, the artificial carbonation of water became possible. In his biography The Invention of Air, Steven Johnson describes how Priestley discovered that by infusing plain water with the off-gassing of fermenting liquid, he could “add [to it] an agreeable fizz that was reminiscent of certain rare mineral waters.” Yet commercial carbonization didn’t get into full swing until Swiss citizen Johann Schweppe (gin and tonic, anyone?) patented a method of mass producing carbonated water. Bolstered by its supposed health benefits and Temperance advocates alike — seltzer offered a “fun” (or maybe not, see here) non-alcoholic alternative to booze — seltzer’s popularity continued to grow throughout the 19th century.
So what does this all have to do with the Jews anyway? Well, at the time of the natural tonic’s discovery, it seems some inventive German Jewish businessmen were some of the first to sell Niederseltsers’ curative waters. With the advent of mass production later on, droves of German and Russian Jewish entrepreneurs jumped on the bubbly bandwagon, manufacturing seltzer themselves. As a cleaner alternative to the questionable water quality of the time (thanks, multiple filtration!) these manufacturers also developed a taste for seltzer and popularized it within the Jewish community as a status symbol.
It was also these Jewish manufacturers who brought their love for seltzer to America. For those who did not come with manufacturing credentials, producing and distributing seltzer presented a quick business start in the land of opportunity without much overhead: all you needed were some glass bottles and a capping machine. Along with the peddling of other Old World favorites like half-sour pickles and farmers’ cheese, seltzer men and their circuitous drop-off routes became a fixture of turn-of-the-century cityscapes, hawking a drinkable connection to the Old World up until today.
At the same time, seltzer was also a sparkling symbol of the new land of possibility for Jewish immigrants. The bumper crop of soda fountains and delicatessens that popped up had at their center the seltzer tap, from which thirsty customers could sip New World creations, like the egg cream and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, or stick with “two-cents plain” — a welcome digestive aid to the heavy Eastern European fare these locales served. Proof of American bounty, seltzer transcended public soda fountains to adorn the tables of American Jewish homes; a pareve beverage, it was beloved by Jews, observant and assimilated alike. With the home-carbonation possibility of the SodaStream, the drink became an even more readily available treat: the only things required being a tap of water and a full carbonation cartridge.
The invention of the original home-carbonation machine by a London gin distiller named Guy Hugh Gilbey in 1903 meant that seltzer could be made at home, on demand. This device was the ancestor of the SodaStream, which was widely popular in the United Kingdom in the 70’s and 80’s not only for the soda it produced, but also its catchy motto “get busy with the fizzy.” When SodaStream became an Israeli-owned company in 1998, the carbonated beverage yet again marked its connection to the Jewish people. Instead of the seltzer men of New York – a figure reminiscent of the shtetls of Eastern Europe – a sleek SodaStream shone with the updated patina of American Jewish identity, the fresh look of the Israeli machine replacing the Old World aesthetic of glasss
In that way, seltzer came to occupy a place in the Jewish psyche that loomed even larger than its requisite spot on the dinner table. As Alfred Kazin recalls in his evocative memoir A Walker in the City, “seltzer is still the poor Jew’s dinner wine, a mild luxury infinitely prized about water out of the faucets.” A thirst-quenching sip of seltzer thus held –and still holds – a flavor of nostalgia for American Jews: the effervescent taste of home. And while new players in the seltzer game like La Croix, Polar and Perrier are contributing to a recent “seltzer boom,” for American Jews, seltzer is a fad that has – and will always – retain its fizz.
Pronounced: PAHRV or pah-REV, Origin: Hebrew, an adjective to describe a food or dish that is neither meat nor dairy. (Kosher laws prohibit serving meat and dairy together.)