“So, how do you Jew?” That rather provocative query was not a greeting, but rather the topic of Rabbi Avis Miller’s Rosh Hashanah sermon at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue last fall. And yes, one option is to “Jew by food.” Rabbi Miller described Jews who identify primarily through Jewish food or culinary customs as “gastronomic Jews,” a term that drew nods and smiles of recognition. People spilling from the sanctuary afterward continued to discuss food, tikkun olam (repairing the world) and other pathways outside traditional religious affiliation for connecting with Jewish life.
Rabbi Miller’s words touched on themes I think about often as well. After I converted, I turned to exploring Jewish (and then along with it, Italian) food to foster a deeper cultural understanding. Learning about Jewish food, making it and sharing it strengthened my connections to traditions, experiences and history. So, given Rabbi Miller’s sermon, it seemed a good time to sit down with my beloved first Jewish teacher (who converted me more than 20 years ago) to discuss Jews and food.
For some Jews, unfortunately, savoring Jewish food can be the last stop out the door of Jewish identity, Rabbi Miller said to me in an interview in her Chevy Chase living room (where after retiring from more than 22 years of service at Adas Israel Congregation, she now counsels interfaith couples and people interested in conversion). But, she adds, food can also be a powerful way in.
Although the term gastronomic Jew, she notes, dates back to around the 1970s, the phenomenon predates it by decades. But by the 1970s, people in all aspects of life began disengaging from formal institutions. For significant numbers of Jews, being Jewish starting becoming less about shul and, with Ashkenazic foods prevailing, more about bagels and lox on weekends, matzah ball soup for Passover and corned beef on rye whenever a respectable Jewish deli could be found. Author George Prochnik, whom Rabbi Miller converted, coined the term “bageloxy” to describe this approach.
Today, some 62 percent of American Jews say being Jewish is mostly a matter of ancestry and culture whereas 15 percent attribute it to religion, according to the Pew Charitable Trust. Thankfully for those leaning on the cultural aspect, the avenues for engagement with Jewish artistic events and food have been growing. Today, one can try many types of Jewish food—including hybrids like Jewish–Mexican and kosher-soul fusion. From the pulpit, Rabbi Miller cited the Jewish Food Experience® as a way to engage with a rich variety of Jewish foods and recipes (and gave a nod to several authors and cookbooks, including my Meatballs and Matzah Balls).
As an avid cook who regularly hosts Shabbat and expansive holiday dinners, Rabbi Miller treasures the tangible and evocative nature of Jewish food and food traditions. She knows the engaging potential of food for her family and friends as well as for the hundreds of men and women she’s helped convert to Judaism over the decades. She says with a smile that when people make their first great challah or fluffy matzah balls, it’s a moment of pride—a feeling I know well.
But beneath the hopeful aspect of gastronomic Jewish connection lies a concern. Is bageloxy enough? Rabbi Miller points out that people who say they are Jewish in their hearts (or in their stomachs) can have a meaningful connection. But alone such “cardiac Judaism,” as she calls it, can be difficult to pass on to the next generation. “We can’t give them Jewish heart transplants,” she says. Over time, Jewish community and continuity stand at risk of getting lost.
So, if you love babka and brisket, but lack deeper connection, then what? Rabbi Miller encourages those who find food to be their strongest bond to seek ways to cultivate it. For example, she suggested hosting or being part of monthly Shabbat dinners or a cooking havurah (small group of friends or like-minded Jews who get together). To help make it even more enriching, she proposed focusing on a different global theme each month.
I left the interview thinking about how exploring beloved foods often reveals a fascinating Jewish history. That, for me at least, strengthens the food as a marker of Jewish identity. And in thinking about iconic foods that mark Jewish identity, I of course thought of the bagel, brought to America by Eastern European Jews. But upon further thought, I found the bagel’s cousin, the bialy, to be a more interesting Jewish story, and in its making, a better symbol.
This flat round bread with onion in the signature center indent originated in Bialystock, Poland, a town with a large Jewish population before World War II. The Jews’ bialys, a variation of an Ashkenazic onion flatbread, appeared at almost all meals and came along with them to America in the late 19th century. But unlike the bagel, which eventually could be machine produced and was more easily split and varied, the bialy, which is best made by hand, mostly remained a specialty of Jewish bakeries and shops.
Making this Jewish bread well demands interacting with it (similar to challah). I think that symbolism makes bialys even more delicious and the sharing of them even more pleasurable. And adding to the rich symbolism, there’s room right on bialys to embrace other flavors and traditions enjoyed by Jewish communities around the world (including turning them into pizza bialys or shakshuka bialys—see the variations with the bialys recipe).
Bialys are one of so many Jewish foods that invite us in. In the spirit of Rabbi Miller’s sermon, though, we just have to make sure we stay awhile and make the most of it.