Tastes of Faith

Jewish Eating in the United States

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Leah Hochman
The Jewish Role in American Life, An Annual Review
  • West Lafayette, IN: 
    Purdue University Press
    , December
     2017.
     160 pages.
     $25.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781557537997.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Tastes of Faith: Jewish Eating in the United States is a welcome contribution to scholarship on Jewish foodways in the United States. Before it, there was no edited volume available that did precisely this work. The six chapters are organized loosely by their topical and methodological orientations. The first two chapters are historical/historiographic narratives of Jews and the food trade; chapters 3 and 4 take up cookbooks and foodways-based stories of culinary tradition between “here” and “elsewhere;” chapters 5 and 6 address contemporary American Judaism via the development of the American rituals of break-fast, and through an analysis of how an online-streaming series represents cultural Judaism in the form of food.

More specifically, Deborah Prinz, in a chapter adapted from her 2012 monograph, traces the histories by which Sephardic Jews brought chocolate from South America to places as wide-ranging as New Spain (now Mexico), the British Colonies, New York, England, Belgium, France, Latvia, and Israel. Prinz’s chapter is accompanied by historical recipes, and I can confirm that the drinking chocolate still tastes delicious even when modified to leave out the ambergris. Hasia Diner, well-known historian of Jewish foodways, contributes a pre-print of her entry in another collection on Jewish foodways globally, in which she examines the peddler in the history of Jewish migration over the long 19th century.

Eve Jochnowitz’s characteristically excellent piece examines Yiddish vegetarian polemics, bringing to light an under-examined and crucial moment in Jewish food history. In contrast with what is generally assumed about vegetarianism, i.e., that it is a new, contemporary Jewish sensibility, Jochnowitz unearths contours of a long and winding root of this Jewish food politics, and her data and analysis are mutually fascinating and delightful. Jeffrey Marx, for his part, informs us of the evolution of that crucial food, the bagel. Marx traces the bagel’s expansion from a thin, dense, transportable, and bracelet-like bread dipped in homely butter or schmaltz into a huge portion of comparatively softer dough, slathered with fluffy Yankee cream cheese, and adorned with opulent salmon in a combination that mingled old-world, Eastern-European flavors with new-world, cosmopolitan tastes.

Nora Rubel’s treatment of the break-fast as an American Jewish ritual is the third reprint in the volume, giving readers who may not have encountered it in Religion, Food, and Eating in North America (Columbia University Press, 2014) a chance to take stock of this mainstream American Jewish ritual. Finally, Rebecca Alpert shows how foodways signify what she calls a “cultural”—as opposed to observant, Orthodox, or religious—Jewishness in the online-streaming comedy/drama series Transparent.

Tastes of Faith admirably demonstrates that there is more to Jewish foodways than the observance, or non-observance, of kashrut. It treats a distinctly American Judaism, with thick cross-sectional slices of what makes this form of Judaism so particular. Even the volume’s intentional, slightly provocative cover art—featuring bagels, salmon, onions, and dill, but also guacamole, crumbled feta, and thinly-sliced ham on a heart-shaped plate—helps to stake its academic claim: demonstrably, a diversity of Jewish foodways are at home in America.

The text includes some of the most recognizable expert academic voices on its topic. There are many others who could and would appear in an edited volume intended to address Jews and Food in the US: however, this text arises out of a specific event at the Casden Institute in Southern California, and is part of the Institute’s book series. Its contents were likely not intended to be exhaustive, but rather, illustrative; in that spirit, it illustrates the breadth of work on the topic admirably. Of the six chapters, half are reprints. However, relatively few members of the volume’s target audience will own all three of the texts from which these chapters are derived. The price-point of the book also makes the proportion of new material more reasonable. Readers will not find much religious-studies theory in the analyses, but the use of “faith” in the book’s title further situates this volume in the post-Protestant US, where religion is often thus identified, and the contents themselves make the case for researching Judaism pluralistically. Perhaps the only real weakness in this important work is in the copy itself, which unfortunately contains frustrating errors and inconsistencies that distract from, and occasionally interfere with the reader’s understanding of, the important contributions in this otherwise impressive work.

This collection’s project as a whole is exciting, clear, valuable, reasonable, and in nearly every important way very well carried-out. In spite of the minor criticisms made here, Tastes of Faith easily recommends itself to all who, like myself, are interested in digging in to Jewish food and eating in America.

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aldea Mulhern is a Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at California State University, Fresno. 

Date of Review: 
September 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Leah Hochman directs the Jerome H. Louchheim School for Judaic Studies at the University of Southern California and is Associate Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. She received her BA from Pitzer College and her MA and PhD in religion and literature from Boston University. She has been a fellow at the Moses Mendelssohn Zentrum in Potsdam, the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, the Simon Dubnow Institute in Leipzig, and the Einstein Forum in Potsdam. She taught previously at the University of Florida and Boston University.

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