Some Morsels Of Insight Into Jewish Life, Culture | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

Some Morsels Of Insight Into Jewish Life, Culture

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Some Morsels Of Insight Into Jewish Life, Culture

A Q&A with ‘Rhapsody in Schmaltz’ author Michael Wex.

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Over the last decade, author-translator Michael Wex has become the public voice of Yiddish culture — especially for the non-Yiddish-speaking public.

A native of Canada’s Alberta province and a longtime native of Toronto, he has written a series of best-selling non-fiction books (in addition to a few novels; he also does song-writing and lecturing) that explain the Jewish language and Jewish way of life in a knowing, usually humorous tone. The non-fiction list includes three books: “Born to Kvetch,” “Just Say Nu” and “How to Be a Mentsh.”

Wex’s newest book is about food. “Rhapsody in Schmaltz” (St. Martin’s Press) looks at Jewish beliefs and behavior through a gastronomic lens, covering such subjects as the kosher laws and various halachic practices, Jewish history and the way Jews are represented on TV and in the movies.

Wex took some time away from his busy schedule of writing about — and thinking about — food the other day to speak with The Jewish Week.

If you look under “Jewish food” on amazon.com, 6,134 books come up. Why do we need 6,135?

A: What happens if you look under “Christian food” — do you get anything at all? [A search on amazon.com for “Christian food” turns up 6,859 results.] Jewish food is like Jewish everything else — whoever happens to be speaking is by their own definition the world’s greatest expert.

There seems to be a renaissance of interest in Jewish food going on, witness the popular “Deli Man” documentary, Ted Merwin’s Jewish Book Award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” about Jewish delis, and David Sax’s “Save the Deli.” Why this hunger for learning about Jewish food?

The recent interest in Jewish food reflects 1) the fear that this kind of food is going to be lost; 2) the Jewish version of the artisanal comfort food trend that we see in gentile circles; 3) a way of asserting on the part of the people who are in the most part not religious. This is a way of saying, “Yes, I am a Jew and I am proud to be a Jew.”

We know what Jewish food is. What’s “Yiddish food?” You eat it from right to left?

I use “Yiddish food” as a stand-in [for] Ashkenazic food — not everyone knows what Ashkenazic food is. This is the food that people who speak Yiddish eat. Yiddish food is a division of Jewish food.

Culturally speaking, what came first, the chicken or the egg? Or in this case, the bagel or the schmear? In other words, did Jewish society influence Jewish cuisine, or was it the other way around?

It’s simultaneous. The chicken appears with an egg in its hand, or whatever a chicken has to hold an egg with. The first act the Jewish people did as a people was to make a meal [on the eve of the exodus from Egypt.]

About the book’s title … Jews have argued if the Magen David or the menorah more accurately symbolizes Jewish history, our struggles and triumphs and accommodations. You seem to assign primacy to schmaltz. You would replace the menorah outside the Knesset with a giant jar of rendered poultry fat?

The same dishes existed among the gentiles among whom the Jews lived [in Europe] and they didn’t taste the same. The difference is what you fry stuff in, especially things that are fleishig or pareve. One of the things that made Jewish dishes Jewish was the use of schmaltz rather than butter or lard. Schmaltz lends everything a distinctive taste. Schmaltz marks the real difference between Jewish and non-Jewish cooking. Lard is invisible; it’s not supposed to have a taste. Schmaltz is anything but neutral.

You allude to Jews who keep kosher at home, eat treif on the road. How do you explain this behavior, and is it a disappearing phenomenon?

I don’t know about now. When I was a kid, I knew lots of kids whose family kept kosher at home, then would go to a [non-kosher] restaurant and eat. There’s a residual attachment to the dietary laws. You’re still thinking in a particularistic Jewish way.

Lethbridge, your hometown, is 2,054 miles from Toronto and a decent corned beef sandwich. The folks in Lethbridge know more from Boychuks — Zach, a recent player on the Hurricanes junior hockey team — than from boychiks. In southern Alberta, where did you learn to be a maven on Jewish food?

I didn’t learn it in Lethbridge, where the kosher food was shipped down. My mother’s family lived in Toronto — we used to visit them once a year; there was all this [Jewish] stuff, bagels and the like. Subsequently, I moved to Calgary, where there was a large Jewish community, a kosher butcher.  I came to Toronto when I was in high school.

In a biblical context, you write that the first action God gave to the on-the-move Children of Israel was instructions “to make dinner,” the first seder — He provided the menu, ingredients, side dishes, dining time, etc. So God is just a Divine maître d’?

Yes and no.

He’s giving them something to do, a task from which they will derive a tangible benefit. It’s not terribly complicated and it’s all greatly symbolic. One of the signs of freedom is that they’re not eating like Egyptians anymore.

Is it a coincidence that the most popular, most attended, most observed Jewish activity centers around a meal? So the secret to Jewish continuity is horseradish and dried crackers?

It’s no coincidence. That [the seder] is the meal that made us Jews. That’s the meal for which God was the maître d’. That’s why we are what we are.

Traditional — in the case of your book, Ashkenazic — food has its roots in Eastern Europe, from a time and place of oppression, “redolent of an elsewhere that nobody missed.” Why are we nostalgic, judging by our gastronomic choices, for an era that holds few fond memories?

The whole nostalgia thing is some sort of bizarre survivor’s guilt on the part of people who weren’t there. A lot of people came here before World War II, the great wave of Jewish immigration; those guys had no nostalgia. They didn’t have very much good to sat about the people among whom they lived. Then these places were wiped out … [the places you never wanted to hear about has been turned into a tombstone for everything you held dear. People felt guilty.

The food was the only thing that persisted. The language goes, the religion goes — surprisingly quickly. The food was a safe way of declaring your identity, of doing something Jewish.

Your book implies that the deli has played a crucial role as acculturation agent and equalizer, among Jews, and between Jews and the wider society — like the public school system in this country and the army in Israel. The Jewish waiter ranks with teachers and drill sergeants?

I don’t know if I’d give him that much power.

Delis as hangouts were an important thing. The deli replaced the synagogue [as a social center]. They served as a secular beit midrash.

What’s your favorite Jewish dish? Do you do your own cooking, or are you a deli man?

A bit of both.

My favorite: kugels. All kind of kugels.

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