Last week, I bought my first can of gefilte fish at college. Gefilte fish is one of those odd foods that I refused to touch as a child; now, its jelly-like, quivering texture fondly reminds me of home. Back at my apartment, I excitedly wrenched the top open and thrust the can before one of my friends.
In turn, he eyed the gooey, grey fish and wrinkled his nose. “Jewish food looks gross,” he said dismissively, and the conversation promptly ended there. My gefilte fish can was shuttered and quietly placed in the corner of the refrigerator, never to be critiqued again.
This one little moment got me wondering, though — what exactly is Jewish food?
It’s definitely not something I could summarize in a sentence or two. What kind of Jewish food are we talking about here? New York lox and bagels? Israeli couscous? Russian potato salad?
Since leaving my predominantly Jewish suburb and going to college, a question that’s been nagging at me is, what do non-Jews think of Jews? What does the Hillel building symbolize to those who have never been there? How does the dry, flaky taste of matzah resonate with someone who has never had to eat it for a week straight? The question of Jewish food only made me wonder — do non-Jews think all we eat is gefilte fish?!
I’ve found that a word that floats around campus pretty often is “coastie:” a wealthy student from either New York or California who lives in one of of the two private dorms on campus. There are plenty of coastie jokes that go around; the ideal “coastie wardrobe” packed with leggings, a supposed affinity for Starbucks, their proud reputations as “daddy’s little girls.”
While most people don’t find anything particularly ominous about coastie jokes, there is some question as to whether these jokes don’t hint at anti-Semitism. After all, the private dorms were originally created specifically for Jews who did not have anywhere else to live on campus. “Coasties” are mainly defined by what they wear and how they talk, but the unspoken understanding is that they’re all mostly Jewish, too.
Personally, I don’t think there’s anything especially hateful about the “coastie” jokes. In a campus that is not predominantly Jewish, it’s easy to slap on a stereotype — as it is with any minority. What’s important to realize is that like any group of people, the Jewish people are startlingly diverse.
A quick glance at the Chabad website shows that there are Jews everywhere throughout the world; from Bogota to Beijing. You can travel the world and be surprised by how many Jews you find. You might also see that while some customs are similar, each different person has their own mannerisms, food preferences, wardrobe and priorities.
The definition of the average Jewish person is as hard to nail down as the question of Jewish cuisine. If anything, cuisine is a symbol of how varied and diverse the Jewish people are today.
Using food as a metaphor, then a falafel might be the exotic Israeli security guard you bat your eyelashes at from your tour bus. The fluffy challah might remind you of your rabbi, while a plate of babaganoush might make you think of your Moroccan-Jewish friend. The gefilte fish might be a goofy older relative— a little misunderstood at times, but stodgy and well-meaning all the same. Assuming that a gefilte fish is accurately representative of all Jewish food is as misunderstood as thinking that an
Argentinean Jew would act the same as a Jew from New York.
A few days ago, someone sent me a goofy quiz titled, “What Religion Are You Really?” Bored, I filled it out and was pleasantly surprised to get the result of “Hinduism.”
As a joke, I sent it to my same friend who had so quickly dismissed Jewish food earlier. An hour later, I got a message with his results —Judaism, of course. Maybe there’s a little more to the whole Jewish thing than he expected.