Book Review | Essays Serve Jewish Food History

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book cover
(Courtesy of New York University Press)

Feasting and Fasting: The History and Ethics of Jewish Food

Edited by Aaron S. Gross, Jody Meyers and Jordan D. Rosenblum

New York University Press

It seems almost too perfect for an author named Hasia R. Diner to introduce a book about eating.

“The connections between food and Judaism cannot be understood independent of the tectonic shifts in the social, political, and cultural histories that Jews lived through,” she writes in the foreword of “Feasting and Fasting: The History and Ethics of Jewish Food.” Each chapter that follows is an essay written by a different author about the religious and cultural significance of Jewish food.

According to Aaron S. Gross, the editors hope “that this book heightens our appreciation about how the most familiar act of eating is also one of the most profound acts of meaning-making.” In many ways, Gross and his co-editors Jody Meyers and Jordan D. Rosenblum succeed — “Feasting” clearly establishes the central role of food in Jewish religion, history, culture and philosophy. However, the sheer scope of the topic leaves some sections feeling underdeveloped.

“Part 1: History” is divided into four chapter essays devoted to the history of Jewish food in the Biblical, Rabbinical, Medieval and Modern Eras. These sections offer the reader plenty of context with which to interpret the rest of the book, from the origin of dietary laws to their adaptations in the modern world. The authors in this section provide a balanced amount of information about Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi cuisines.

“Part 2: Food and Culture” documents how food has shaped Jews’ interactions with other religions and nationalities. The popularity of a traditional Jewish dish among non-Jewish Hungarians is used to explain patterns of cultural exchange in Katalin Francesca Rac’s “How Shabbat Cholent Became a Secular Hungarian Favorite.” Jordan D. Rosenblum’s “A Brief History of Jews and Garlic” examines the impact of garlic on Judaism from the biblical era to the modern day. In “Jews, Schmaltz, and Crisco in the Age of Industrial Food,” Rachel B. Gross explains the aggressive marketing of Crisco as “pure” during the early 1900s because it was parve and supposedly lighter than schmaltz, the cooking fat of choice for Eastern European immigrants.

These essays skew toward Ashkenazi issues and move the book’s focus more heavily on a European and North American perspective.

“Part 3: Ethics” addresses philosophical questions presented by the process of creating and consuming food. This section is almost entirely focused on Ashkenazi Jews in North America. Topics vary between human and animal rights abuses at a kosher meat company and the communal impact of gardening. “A Satisfying Eating Ethic” by Jonathan K. Crane addresses the practice of eating itself and reads like a Michael Pollan manifesto. Audiences familiar with contemporary diet culture and eating fads may be surprised at the level of mindfulness ancient Jewish thinkers brought to the act of eating, from Elijah’s recommendation to “Eat a third, drink a third, retain a third,” to Maimonedes’ advice to avoid snacking between meals.

“Eating well, or at least the eating well I see Judaism endorsing … orients consumers to pay attention to internal cues,” Crane writes. “Knowing the features of one’s own hunger requires listening to one’s body, not to industries plying snacks.” The rabbis of the Talmudic and medieval eras seem startling prescient in the face of skyrocketing levels of obesity, diabetes and other diseases that can be tied to relying on external cues like advertising to regulate appetite.

This book, like bitter herbs, is best consumed in small doses. It makes for an easy and enjoyable reading experience for those who peruse essay by essay. However, it seems repetitive to one sitting down to read it all the way through. The authors can’t help but repeat each other as their subject matter overlaps. The fact that Jews are forbidden from consuming blood because it represents the life of an animal is mentioned so many times it could be used as a drinking game.

The editors’ decisions on what to cover and what to leave out of this book also raise questions of balance. Why write about the community farming movement in North America without at least mentioning Israeli kibbutzim? Why include not one but two essays about cooking fats — Crisco and peanut oil — and only one essay about an actual dish, cholent? Why adopt an international focus for the sections devoted to history and culture but focus only on North America for the final section on ethics

Ultimately, “Feasting and Fasting” is best appreciated as a fascinating essay collection, but the lack of cohesion may leave some readers unsatisfied.

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