REVIEW: Feasting and Fasting

Joel Haber Tradition Online | December 27, 2020

REVIEW: Feasting and Fasting: The History and Ethics of Jewish Food, edited by Aaron S. Gross, Jody Myers and Jordan D. Rosenblum (NYU Press, 2020), 384 pp.
Reviewed by Joel Haber

Are we indeed what we eat?

There is undoubtedly some truth in that pithy maxim, but as with most aphorisms it oversimplifies things. If someone passionately loves the flavors of Thai food, and eats it regularly, does that make her Thai? Alternatively, might it suggest something about the multiculturalism of the society in which she lives?

These are the types of questions that food studies in general, and the present book in particular, delve into. Regardless of the answers, all such studies agree that food choices reflect more than sustenance alone. Among other things, diet can reflect culture, history, socio-economic status, gender roles, and religion. It is that last area that most concerns us here. By studying what Jews eat, with an eye both on kashrut observance and simple lived experience, we can develop a greater appreciation for Jewish uniqueness and even a deeper relationship with the religion itself. Feasting and Fasting straddles the line between the scholarly and mainstream branches of the fairly-new food studies field, looking specifically at Jewish gastronomy. To appraise this essay collection’s value, we must place it within the larger corpus of works on the topic.

As a scholarly subject, the study of food began about 200 years ago. Perhaps the first proto-work in the genre was The Physiology of Taste (1825) by French lawyer and gourmand Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. The “you are what you eat” adage traces its roots to this work, in a more verbose formulation: “Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are.”

At the start of the 20th century, it was still difficult to find academic treatments of gastronomy. Food was treated as the domain of a few exalted male chefs focused on haute cuisine, while it was paradoxically also derided as mere housewives’ work. Men who wrote cooking columns frequently did so using pseudonymous female personae. By mid-century, M.F.K. Fisher pushed food writing forward, with numerous books of essays on the subject. In the 1960s, Mary Douglas and Claude Lévi-Strauss also touched on food studies (with Douglas looking specifically at the laws of kashrut). 

Only in 1980 did academia begin taking food studies seriously. Consuming Passions: The Anthropology of Eating by Peter Farb and George Armelagos treated food choices and consumption as worthy of study. At around the same time, the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery began. University courses and full departments gradually cropped up, slowly popularizing the subject.

As the field expanded, “foodie culture” also exploded, providing these studies with a hungry audience. 1993 saw the birth of television’s Food Network, as well as Condé Naste’s purchase of Bon Appétit magazine. Beyond cooking technique alone, culinaria had gone mainstream. Food blogging took off in the new millennium, bringing new producers and consumers of gastronomic content.

As a segment within the broader field, Jewish food culture followed a similar growth pattern. The late Gil Marks, a food writer and historian who had been ordained at Yeshiva University, launched Kosher Gourmet magazine in 1986, then wrote many cookbooks infused with food scholarship. His work culminated in 2010’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. 1993 brought John Cooper’s Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food, a lesser-known study of Jewish food that is oft-quoted by serious students. In 1996, already respected for studies of Middle Eastern food, Claudia Roden published her magnum opus, The Book of Jewish Food. The past two decades have brought tens of excellent studies on specific Jewish food topics, ranging from mainstream to academic publications.

It should not be surprising that Jewish foodie culture also took off. Starting with Susie Fishbein and Kosher by Design in 2003, through Jamie Geller, Kim Kushner, Naomi Nachman, Chanie Apfelbaum, and Danielle Renov, cookbooks aimed primarily at Orthodox consumers have grown into a niche industry, fed largely by social media presences.

Meanwhile, Kosherfest began in 1989 and has grown into a massive trade show, with thousands of industry attendees sampling new gourmet kosher products and exploring the newest culinary trends. The Hazon Food Conference aims more at private individuals, spearheading (since 2006) the new Jewish Food Movement, exploring such topics as ethics, food safety, and sustainable agriculture. COVID-19 brought The Great Big Jewish Food Fest to online success (bring your own borsht, babka, bagel). 

Against this backdrop, Feasting and Fasting enters the picture. The growth of food studies and foodie culture in general, and within the Jewish and kosher world specifically, suggests a sizable potential market. Make no mistake, this book is an academic work, but the editors and publishers clearly hope to reach a more mainstream audience. This creates a certain schizophrenia in the book’s content, both for better and for worse. Few readers will equally appreciate all parts of the book, but there remains enough diversity here to offer value to all readers.

The book is divided into three unrelated sections, exploring Jewish food through the lenses of history, cultural studies, and ethical issues. While one might find minor connections between some articles in different parts, those through lines are rarely explicitly stated beyond a few comments in the introduction. While this is common in academic anthologies of this sort, mainstream readers should make the effort to look for such relationships among the disparate essays.

The history section is one of the best indicators this book is reaching for a mainstream audience. While interesting as a relatively brief survey, most of the material would be familiar to scholars and students of the field. Attempting to pump up its academic credentials, a footnote tells us this is “the first attempt to produce a comprehensive history of Judaism and food written by specialists in their respective time periods.” This may be true, but only due to that last claim about “specialists,” and it dishonors Cooper’s excellent work of a quarter-century earlier.

The section presents Jewish food’s history “as a dynamic cultural phenomenon.” Migrations and modernization brought technical changes to what Jews ate, while the strictures that dictated our eating habits also evolved. The first two chapters (“Food in the Biblical Era” and “Food in the Rabbinic Era”) highlight the rabbis’ innovations in relation to the laws of kashrut as expressed in the Torah.

David C. Kraemer’s study of the Rabbinic era effectively outlines the Talmud’s introductions and extensions, including food berakhot, increased separation of milk and meat, and restrictions on commensality (Jews and non-Jews eating together). These innovations are striking in light of the vast lacuna in the kosher laws as portrayed in the Torah itself, which offers virtually no reasons for the laws, opening the door for various interpretations or alterations via halakha, minhag, or even just popular practice. Jordan D. Rosenblum, editor of the book’s second section, previously wrote a more comprehensive study of this topic: The Jewish Dietary Laws in the Ancient World.

Some of Kraemer’s statements, via their shaded connotations, edge toward inaccuracy. While on an academic level Rabbinic Judaism can correctly be characterized as “sectarian” in the late Second Temple period, his claim that it remained so until the 7th century seems overstated. Furthermore, his implication that Karaite beliefs were a continuation from pre-Rabbinate times is not in keeping with mainstream views. Proving these claims might be out of the scope of the essay’s subject, but some citations to support his claims would have been welcome.

Mainstream readers will likely find the next two sections – dealing with the Medieval and Modern Eras – more interesting and relevant to their Jewish experiences. Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus’ essay on the medieval period highlights the effects of the Diaspora on Jewish food culture. Regional differences split Jews into variegated subcultures, most notably, the two hubs of Ashkenaz (the French-German border territory) and Sepharad (Spain). Reduced autonomy under Christian and Muslim control increased rabbinic authority, expressed via extensions to prior culinary restrictions. Brumberg-Kraus explores this in three main areas: increased separation of meat from dairy, wine restrictions, and kitniyot on Passover.

Jody Myers’ essay on the Modern Era explores the new challenges presented by industrialization and globalization. New kashrut questions in light of industrial processing, ethical questions growing out of urbanization, increased factionalism within the overall Jewish community, and the increase of halakhic stringencies are all rich topics she introduces that essays in the succeeding two sections revisit.

To me, Part 2’s cultural studies were most interesting, as they most purely express food studies. As a daily and universal human habit, food highlights a community’s distinctiveness. In my writing, I use Jewish food to reveal what it says about those who cook and eat it, rather than just exploring the foods’ history. While that is, of course, what most of the essays in this book (and of food studies in general) aim for, this section brings the endeavor to the fore.

Rosenblum’s “A Brief History of Jews and Garlic” is as enlightening as it is concise. In a few short pages, he traces the Jewish love affair with garlic from its Biblical roots (Numbers 11:4-6) through its associations with Shabbat by the Talmudic rabbis. He continues with the non-Jewish recognition of this affinity, and its weaponization for antisemitic purposes.

A few other articles should be of particular interest for Orthodox readers. In “Jews, Schmaltz, and Crisco in the Age of Industrial Food,” Rachel B. Gross explores American Jewry’s coming-of-age at the time of food’s mass production. Picking up on the “industrial kashrut” theme that Myers introduced, Gross follows the resulting growth of hashgaha organizations.

Even more intriguing – considering how quickly the details have been forgotten despite the subject’s relative recency – is Zev Eleff’s “The Search for Religious Authenticity and the Case of Passover Peanut Oil.” As a study of “lived religion,” Eleff highlights how peanut oil was widely accepted for Passover use by most Ashkenazim until the current century, with OU certification until 2001, and not included in the “forbidden by custom” category of kitniyot. The reversal, he posits, grew out of the “perceived authenticity” of those who were more stringent, banning its use on Passover. Thus, he presents kosher for Passover peanut oil as emblematic of the hegemonic struggle between the Litvish and Hasidish worlds.

Finally, in a prime example of food revealing culture, Katalin Franciska Rac reveals “How Shabbat Cholent Became a Secular Hungarian Favorite.” Surprisingly, sólet (as the stew is known in Hungary) is widely eaten by non-Jewish Hungarians, often including pork products, and not specifically as a dish for the Sabbath (theirs, on Sunday, or that of the Jews the day before). Rac succinctly shows how this reflects the historic integration of Jews into wider Hungarian society, and the two-way street of culinary influence between the communities. While many readers, aware of Hungarian Jewry’s penchant for stark separation from the secular world, may find this ironic, this should come as no real surprise. Hungarian Jews were divided into equally strong camps, with the insularity applying only to the Hasidic branch. The even larger liberal group in Hungary (known as Neolog Jewry) was among the Jewish communities of Europe most integrated with its local Christian majority. 

Part 3: Ethics is Feasting and Fasting’s most original section. Unfortunately, it is also the weakest. The introduction makes clear that these studies include a higher degree of “prescriptive” rather than “descriptive” scholarship. While that is acceptable, it remains less rigorous and thus somewhat less insightful.

The first two essays amount to little more than academic reportage, one about a synagogue-based community garden and another about a summer camp operating within the Jewish farming movement. The case studies hold some value, but there are barely any attempts at drawing broader conclusions from them.

One of the better pieces in this section is Elliot Ratzman’s “The Virtues of Keeping Kosher.” Ratzman tries to infuse halakha with the ethical ideals that he sees as more prevalent in non-Orthodox streams of Jewry. In so doing, he respectfully tries to elevate one via the other, rather than calling for a weakened observance in deference to liberal views.

Moses Pava writes the most fact-based article in Part 3. He closely followed the numerous legal cases against the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse. Pava highlights the divergent sides of owner Aaron Rubashkin’s interactions with different communities, including charitable activities and success in bringing kosher meat to far-flung communities alongside safety and health violations, underpayment, financial fraud, and fear-induced pressure on illegal workers. By examining the company’s mistreatment of workers, rather than their shehita practices, Pava touches on the moral and ethical questions raised by this episode.

Despite Part 3’s weaknesses from an academic or instructional level, it succeeds at one of its stated goals – to advance debate. Anyone interested in Jewish food who reads these seven essays will emerge with plenty of points for further discussion.

Overall, that is also a great summary of this book. While Feasting and Fasting may not be the best collection of essays on Jewish Food Studies ever compiled, it works well as an introduction to the topic, particularly for those first exploring it. As a broad-based collection touching on many of the subspecialties, it should provide genuine “food for thought” leading to further readings on specific topics. Finally, for those already more familiar with the field, the articles offer enough insights and “spicy nuggets” for them as well.

However much more we are than what we eat, this book furthers the discussion in relation to Jewish food.

Joel Haber researches and writes about Jewish food and its connections with Jewish history and culture at www.tasteofjew.com and is at work on a book that studies Shabbat stews from around the world.

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