March 8, 2001
I once cooked Christmas dinner at the home of a Hollywood star. Her house was decked with green pine boughs and red velvet, and she set out, just for this occasion, a 16-piece set of Villeroy & Boch Christmas-pattern china. (This was in the days when I catered by night to support a daylight writing habit.) We cooked ham, yams, puddings -- a meal pretty much out of Charles Dickens or Martha Stewart, but with one exception.
Along with the catering contract, she passed us her mother's recipe for stewed brisket.
Her mother was Jewish, and even if the star had tenuous affiliations with her heritage, she was unwilling to celebrate a holiday, even Christmas, without that taste of home.
For a while I actually looked down on Jews whose only evident connection to 4,000 years of a remarkable heritage was a proclivity toward lox and bagels. It wasn't Judaism they were passing on to their children, but Foodaism, a kind of ignorant, happy-faced Jewish lite.
Hard as it may be for some to believe, the best aspects of Judaism are not found on a deli menu: the pursuit of justice, the world of learning, prayer and mitzvah, the ritualized ideal of a universal oneness. When Thomas Cahill wrote "The Gift of the Jews," it shouldn't come as a shock that he left Langer's pastrami and rye off the list.
Our seeming obsession with our food doesn't make us unique among people. Anthroplogists study food ways as a primary vehicle for cultural transmission: anyone who has spent time in a Chinese, Italian, Arab or Indian home knows that we're not the only ones entranced by traditional cooking.
And as Jewish food, like Jewish culture, has merged with America's mass culture, the days when what we ate defined us have gone the way of the egg cream. The Ashkenazi's bagels are more common than donuts, the Sephardi's couscous is on the menu at Lucques, and you have to wonder how long before gribenes turns up on the Atkins Diet.
All that being said, I don't turn my nose up at Foodaism anymore. The venerable delis our writers profile in this issue don't just bring many of us closer, if even in a fairly superficial way, to our heritage through food. They bring us together, period. They are where, for generations, many of us have met friends, celebrated another Sunday morning with family, argued over Israel, talked business or traded stories. In a world increasingly atomized by the Internet, they provide an inkling for the next generation of what the previous generation valued about community. From there, it is not too big a leap to explore the deeper values that the Jewish community shares. The disaffected parent who practices Foodaism today might spark a child, or grandchild, to explore Judaism tomorrow. There are a hundred gates back to Judaism, and who's to say that brisket isn't one of them? B'teiavon.