Tag Archives: Food

The Three-Hour Diet

by Rebecca Borison

Thanksgiving never really manages to excite me. Yes, it’s nice to be with family, but the whole feast aspect just isn’t that novel. I have that at least twice a week. It’s called Shabbat.

Judaism is deeply rooted in its attachment to the culinary arts. We like to eat. A lot.  While many Americans enjoy a piece of chicken and some broccoli for their Friday dinner, we’re working our way through challah, chicken soup, brisket, mashed potatoes, squash and brownies.

It’s no secret that food is an important aspect of our religion and culture. And sometimes this runs the risk of bolstering the “overeating epidemic.” It’s not easy to maintain healthy portions at the Shabbat table.

And yet Judaism still provides some opportunity for healthy eating. Unfortunately, it has yet to be scientifically proven that kosher food is better for you. Though some people, in the search for a path to healthy eating, choose kosher foods because they seem healthier, there’s no evidence to support the belief.

What keeping kosher does offer is the “three-hour diet.” In addition to the traditional separation of dairy and meat products, there are various customs regulating how long one should wait in between meat and milk. Some say that simply leaving the table is enough; others say that you should wait six hours after eating meat before you can eat dairy products. Many wait three hours, but you could easily adjust the title of the diet to the “six-hour diet” or even the “one-hour diet.” (Though I’m not sure an hour of no snacking would have much of an impact.)

What difference does it make if you can’t eat dairy for three hours after you eat meat products? You don’t snack. Sure, there are some flaws to this diet: not all snacks are dairy, and if you’re a vegetarian, this won’t work at all. But, if you do eat chicken or meat for lunch, and you abide by the traditional kashrut laws, that means you won’t be able to eat ice cream for three hours.

I know my biggest struggle with dieting is willpower. If I see a scrumptious-looking piece of cake in front of me, it’s just so hard to say no. But if it’s not up to me, if religious mandate dictates that I refrain, then I just can’t have the piece of cake. It’s a no-brainer.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is a panacea. If anything, it serves to balance out the ubiquity of food in Judaism. So if I eat a mind-boggling amount of food at Shabbat lunch, the next three hours are a no-snack zone, and I can give my body a little bit of rest from the eating. And if I do reach for the pareve jelly beans, they’re fat-free, so it’s no big deal, right?

Jane Ziegelman on Food and the American Story

97 Orchard, by Jane Ziegelman, tells the story of five immigrant families living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century. The stories of these Irish, Italian, German and Jewish families emerge through the food they cooked and the struggles they faced. Ziegelman chatted with Moment about American food, Jewish food and the place of immigrants in the American story.

What was the inspiration for 97 Orchard?

The inspiration was the tenement itself. A while back, when I was a graduate student at NYU studying urban anthropology, I heard that this new museum was opening on the Lower East Side devoted to America’s urban pioneers, immigrants who settled in tenement districts on the Lower East Side. I worked as a volunteer collecting oral histories from former tenement dwellers. They needed people to go around and collect histories of people that had once lived at 97 Orchard Street. One of the people that I met during that time was Josephine Baldizzi, [one of the women featured in 97 Orchard].

Anyone who’s been in that building feels its history and the sense of all of these people having lived there moving through the building. It’s a kind of haunted place in the best sense of the word.

Why did you choose these families specifically?

I chose the particular families because of the ethnic diversity that they represented.

Did you feel a special bond or closeness with any family or character in the book?

I really identified with the women. It seems to me that the men kind of check out in some of the stories in this book, and the women are the heroes of the story. In the Gumpert story, the father essentially abandons his family under the pressures of keeping his family housed during a particularly bad economic period. He buckles under the pressure and leaves the responsibility of caring for the kids to his wife, and she does what has to be done. That’s the story of these immigrants, that they take care of business. They find a way to do what has to be done, particularly in the interest of their children. These were people who had the ability to defer their own dreams and put aside their own needs in the interest of the next generation. And to me, that is really heroic behavior.

How did you decide that food was going to be the way through which you told these stories?

I’ve seen food as a really useful tool for interpreting culture and also as a way to enter the everyday lives of people who are not exactly like us. That’s part of the appeal of food. On one hand, food is something we all need. It’s a biological necessity. On the other hand, it’s tied up with all kinds of really profound human aspirations. It’s tied up with family and God and nature and our relationships to our community, so it stands at this really interesting point between heart and biology. It’s also just so incredibly concrete. I’ve always been interested in the way people lived and the texture and the tastes and the smells of everyday life, and I think food is a great way to get at that.

Is there such a thing as American food?

American food is defined by its diversity. It’s a direct reflection of the American people. This wasn’t always the case, but the immigrants who came to this country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries really changed the way we eat.

What about Jewish food?

There is no one Jewish cuisine—there are many Jewish cuisines. Jewish food is the food that’s important to us. That changes with geography and with time, so the category of Jewish food is this ever-shifting concept, but when you say Jewish food, I know what it is to me, and I think other Jews know what it is to them.

What is it to you?

To me, Jewish food is the food made by my grandmother. It’s chicken soup with kreplach, and it’s honey cake. It’s vegetable barley soup. It’s chopped liver. When I just got out of college and I got back to New York I’d meet my grandmother for lunch in the city, and we had to go someplace kosher, and our favorite place was Ratner’s. So everything on the Ratner’s menu—that’s Jewish food. The borscht, the blintzes, the kasha varnishkes and the knishes.

What was the most surprising thing you learned when researching the book?

The big surprise was how much farming went on in New York City, in the tenement district. There was this whole tradition of animal husbandry on the Lower East Side. The Jews raised geese and other kinds of poultry, the Italians raised goats and the Irish kept pigs. This was shocking to me. The life of children on the Lower East Side was also a real wake-up call, the fact that kids went to work at eleven or twelve years of age and that ten-and eleven-year-old girls were called ‘little mothers’ and bore the responsibilities of grown women.

Which immigrant groups are having the same kind of culinary influence on America today?

In New York, it’s people from Thailand, Vietnam, China—East Asians and Southeast Asians; Latin Americans and Mexicans; people from the Caribbean. Those are the three groups that are making their presence felt in New York. Caribbeans and Latin Americans are really active as street food vendors, so we’re seeing this kind of food on the streets. New York’s Chinatowns—and there’s more than one—are just extremely vibrant places, and Western people are discovering them and trying their food.

 

 

Israel Boycotts, Now Organic

By Aarian Marshall

Something’s afoot in the Park Slope Food Co-op.

If you are not a local of bourgeois Brooklyn, if the New York Times Metro Section isn’t quite your thing, you may have never heard of the co-op. It began in 1973 in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, founded by a “group of committed neighbors who wanted to make healthy, affordable food available to everyone who wanted it” (according to its website). Today, the co-op is famous for its organic emphasis, low prices, huge membership (roughly 15,000 New Yorkers belong), and rules so strict that one blogger likened the establishment to “a Soviet-style re-education camp.”  Co-op members must work for their groceries—one 2 ¾ hour shift every two weeks.

This kind of participatory grocery shopping creates a community that cares deeply about food—and that has the weekly newsletter and town-hall-meeting packed schedule to prove it. The latest issue to hit the Park Slope Food Co-op? Not that members have been discovered sending their nannies to fulfill their work requirements (that was last month). No: last week, BDS became the hot topic at the Park Slope Food Co-op.

The BDS movement, which urges participants to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel, began in 2005. It was launched by the BDS National Committee (BNC) and was initially endorsed by 170 Palestinian groups. Since 2005, the movement has gained steam: Elvis Costello pulled out of a concert set to take place in Israel; DePaul University discontinued its sale of Sabra Hummus; the University of Johannesburg cut ties with Ben-Gurion University on that grounds that the school was too closely linked to the Israeli military.

Park Slope Food Co-op, then, is just another frontier, another battleground upon which to wage intellectual, socio-political battle. And a primarily intellectual fight it is—the co-op imports few products from Israel, and divestment would mean very little financial skin off that nation’s back. So what does it mean for a food co-op, of all places, to take a political stand?  This question is not unique to the Park Slope Food Co-op—other American co-ops have raised similar ones—but the store is unique in that much of its membership, and much of Park Slope, is Jewish.

Things have changed since the period immediately following the Six-Day War, when being Jewish was synonymous with a pro-Israel stance. For Jewish liberals, especially, supporting Israel is fraught. As of March 2010, a Gallup poll showed that while 80 percent of Republicans viewed Israel favorably, only 53 percent of Democrats felt similarly. A 2007 study showed that only 54% of non-Orthodox Jews under the age of 35 are “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.”

For the American Jewish establishment—groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations—these statistics are disturbing. Why aren’t Jews coming out for Israel in the way they have in the past, especially when danger, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, looms so large? Barbara Mazor, a leader in the anti-BDS Co-op faction, told the New York Observer that she suspects some kind of “coolness” factor is at play: “From reading [the pro-BDS Co-op member’s] letters from the past two years, they don’t seem to have a terribly sophisticated understanding of the situation [in Israel],” she said. “I think they’re latching onto it like slogans. Like true believers, it’s the cool thing to do. You know, ‘I’m a progressive, and it’s a progressive cause,’ so I think that’s how it’s coming through, very thoughtlessly.” As a native Brooklynite (lo, I have been to the trenches), I feel as if I can confirm this impulse. For many liberal Jews, Israel is staid, embracing it akin to “drinking the Kool-Aid.” If Mom and Dad love it, if Grandma prays for it, it can’t be hip. And for Jewish youngsters on the cutting edge, who like their arugula organic and their kalamata olives fresh and imported, finding the next big counterculture thing—like BDS—is a social imperative.

But perhaps there’s something larger at work here than the fact that Israel has been endorsed by one too many bubbes. In 2010, writer Peter Beinart made waves when his essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” ran in the New York Review of Books. “Particularly in the younger generations,” he wrote,

fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, that are finding that young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.

American Jewish organizations, Beinart alleged, have handed Israel a blank check—“we will support you to whatever end.” But Israel has made decisions that have simply flown in the face of liberal values, he continued, and though these may be justified in the name of security, a frank dialogue concerning the clash between democratic principles and national safety has just not emerged. Instead, “groups like AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference patrol public discourse, scolding people who contradict their vision of Israel as a state in which all leaders cherish democracy and yearn for peace.”

Fair enough. But let’s get back to the original question, the one that started it all: should a food co-op take a political stand? Sure, we need a dialogue—but is a trumped-up grocery store the place to start? Way across the country, in Sacramento, co-op members have dealt with similar issues. A BDS campaign that began this summer has generated a spate of local op-ed articles, the majority of which come down against BDS. In a piece published by the Sacramento Press, Steven Maviglio (who happens to be the President of the co-op’s Board of Directors) concludes his tale of organic famers with the following statement: “[Talking to organic farmers] made me realize—despite the recent negative attacks and lawsuits by BDS on our store—what the co-op is all about: supporting local growers and providing organic food to the Sacramento community.”

I’m not sure I buy it.  Both co-ops state that they ascribe to the internationally recognized principles of the cooperative movement, which include, democratic member control.  Despite arguments that it’s not germane, a strict co-operativist would say that if co-op members want BDS Dialogue, that should be what they get.

And maybe that isn’t a bad thing. If we follow Peter Beinart’s line of thinking, then the co-operative conversation happening in Jewish Park Slope does not spell doom for the relationship between liberal Jews and Israel after all. “All points of view really need to be heard,” said one Jewish co-op member. “If we start proposing things like boycotts, it’ll prompt more discussion, and that’ll help educate people.” So perhaps the discussion spilling out onto pages of the Food Co-op’s newsletter (The Linewaiters’ Gazette), the discourse taking place in the cereal aisle (right between the steel cut oats and the organic bran) is a necessary one, one that is long overdue.

Stay Salty, Smoked Salmon

by Theodore Samets

Growing up, I was scared of lox.

Well, at least I thought it was lox. Turned out, the slimy, pinkish orange, cold fish I abhorred—but have come to love—wasn’t lox at all, as my parents called it. It was nova.

As I grew older, I fell in love with the stuff. But in rural Vermont, where I grew up, it can be hard to find anything but pre-packaged “smoked Atlantic salmon,” $5.99 for a four-ounce package.

Then, a few weeks before my bar mitzvah, friends of my parents brought some fresh lox back from Montreal. It looked the same as smoked salmon, but boy was it different. I was a man; it was time to give up kids’ fish and move to the grownup version.

I had been introduced to belly lox, and life would never be the same.

Incredibly salty, bright orange, and full of flavor, belly lox isn’t smoked; it’s cured. Fold it over a half of a sesame bagel—with cream cheese, of course—and you feel like you’re eating the real deal.

There is no debate as quintessentially Jewish as “nova vs. lox”; experts move beyond this question to “Russ and Daughters vs. Zabar’s” and “Montreal vs. New York bagels.” (For me, there’s no question: If there was a way to get fresh Russ and Daughters lox onto a just out of the oven “white” Montreal bagel, I’d be in heaven.)

Fans of belly lox know one thing: We’re in a minority. Indeed, on a recent visit to Russ and Daughters, I ordered lox, only to be asked by the woman behind the counter, “Are you sure that’s what you want?”

“Yes,” I responded, “Belly lox please.” Many people, it seems, order lox when they really want smoked salmon.

Despite the supposed Jewish affinity for either type of cold salmon, it seems accidental that lox is a Jewish food at all. Several years ago, a New York Times exposé looked at just how lox and a bagel became the stereotypical New York brunch.

In the essay, Erika Kinetz wrote that it was a feat of timing combined with the then-inexpensive costs that connected smoked fish to the Jews:

Eastern European immigrants would have appreciated lox both for its price—9 cents for a quarter-pound in the 1920′s and 30′s—and for its convenience. It was easy to handle — and pareve, making it acceptable with milk or meat. It fast became a staple.

Today, lox may still be a staple of the Jewish diet, but it’s certainly not cheap. My lunchtime order (belly lox and light plain on toasted everything) at Ess-a-Bagel runs $10.75 before tax, and a quarter pound of fish there will run you $9.25. That said, it’s worth every penny.

Despite the differences between lox and smoked salmon – and let’s be clear, these differences are important – there’s something that makes the fish a unique connector between Jews all over North America.

Kinetz points out that, historically, lox is more of a New York phenomenon than a Jewish one. The claim is verified by by Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish, where he writes, “The luxurious practice of eating lox, thought to be so typical of eastern European Jews, actually began for them in New York. Lox was almost unknown among European Jews.” Still, the fish has taken on a life of its own among Jews. Lox’s natural partner, the bagel—according to Rosten, first mentioned in print in the 1610 Community Regulations of Cracow, which stated that “bagels would be given as a gift to any woman in childbirth”—has been part of Jewish cuisine for 400 years, making “lox and bagels” an appropriate alternative for expressing oneself as Jewish in the ever-complicated “religion” box on Facebook.

Bagels may have the more overtly Jewish history, but they’ve become part of the American culinary mélange. (It’s hard to imagine, but less than 30 years ago, only one in three Americans had tried a bagel.) Even though it’s the bagel that’s Jewish more than lox, the orange fish still has a Jewish air about it, as it’s intrinsically linked to the food with which it is most commonly served.

If recent musings in the Times and elsewhere are any indication, the assumed Jewish connection to cold, salty orange fish isn’t going anywhere. In an era where Jewish leaders are worried that future generations won’t hold on to everything from federations to Israel to kashrut, lox seems safe.

Just don’t tell those young people that what they’re eating might not actually be lox.

Like a Yellow Star On Our Food

By Steven Philp

Kosher products are a common sight in most American stores; it is an industry that is recognized outside the Jewish community, employing both Jews and non-Jews in its processing and distribution. Americans are less familiar with halal products, even though they are consumed by almost 1.5 billion people. Yet people are starting to pay attention.

This week thousands of businessmen and women will congregate in Kuala Lumpur for the largest annual exhibition of halal products in the world. For seven years the Malaysia International Halal Showcase (MIHAS) has served as a lynchpin for the growing industry as it seeks to meet the demand of Muslims’ dietary laws. A press release from the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation, which hosts MIHAS, stated that last year’s event attracted “over 32,000 trade visitors from 81 countries.” With Muslim spending power increasing as their constituent nations emerge from the recession, this year’s conference is expected to exceed those numbers.

Yet the reception of halal products in countries with Muslim minorities has been tentative.  This past week, Struan Stevenson, a Conservative Minister for the European Parliament, added an amendment to a food bill that would have food labels read: “This product comes from an animal slaughtered by the halal method” or “This product comes from an animal slaughtered by the shechita method.”  The main bill, proposed by Jim Paice, the Food and Farming Minister to the European Parliament, seeks to label meat based on whether the animal was stunned before killing. According to an article by the Daily Telegraph, Paice is responding to demands from veterinarians and animal welfare activists who claim that the failure to stun an animal before its throat is slit causes “unacceptable levels of suffering and pain.” Currently, the failure to stun is legal under laws protecting religious freedom; in both halal and shechita, the animal is slaughtered while still conscious.

Although Paice believes that consumers should be informed which foods have been killed using the stun method and which have not, he has expressed resistance to Stevenson’s idea that they carry explicit religious labels. He is joined by the British Jewish interest group Shechita UK in opposition to the amendment. Their representative, Simon Cohen, explained that the proposal is “the 21st century equivalent of the yellow star, but on our food.”

Cohen is right, insofar that the requirement to label food with an explicit reference to their intended consumer is based in latent phobias. Only two months ago, American pastor Mark Biltz of El Shaddai Ministries—a Messianic Christian congregation in Bonney Lake, WA—posted a sermon online advocating for an increased awareness of “backdoor Sharia” vis-à-vis the prevalence of halal products in the United States. He cites the prohibition against eating food sacrificed to idols, explaining, “You could be eating beef, chicken… offered up to Allah and not even know it. I can just imagine at a Passover Seder the caterer unbeknownst to anyone is serving halal meat!” He then outlines methods by which one can ascertain what stores and restaurants to avoid for their provision of halal products. With its genesis in bigotry and misunderstanding, Biltz parallels arguments made almost a decade ago by white supremacist groups that kashrut was the façade for a special “Jewish tax.” Briefly outlined by an article posted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the conspiracy surmounted that if a food company did not pay the “tax”—and consequently did not receive the heksher—its products would be boycotted.

Halal and kosher products tend to occupy a shared space in a number of American stores intended for the general public, making access to them a mutual concern of the Muslim and Jewish communities. As we see in Europe, their similarities can cause them to be lumped together when considered from an outside perspective. We are fortunate to have access to a wide variety of kosher products in the United States.  In response to the high demand from the Jewish community, as well as other groups including Seventh Day Adventists, many non-Jewish stores stock their shelves with kosher goods. Even for many American Muslims, kosher products—subject to more stringent regulations than other foods—are a good alternative for the time being.  It is ultimately in our best interest to advocate for the availability of specialty products, and speak out against laws that restrict our freedom to consume food aligned with our religious values.  Kashrut and halal are not always the same, but they are not that different either.

Jewish History in China Boosting Sino-Israeli Relations

by Amanda Walgrove

Chinese and Jewish cultures are among the oldest remaining civilizations in the world. Besides the spiritual divide, both cultures highly value family life and educational pursuits, and although both have absorbed various other cultures, their central foundations remain strong. As developments in the Middle East have begun to change the landscape of Israel’s international relationships, China has become a central player for it. While China’s attitude towards Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons are worrisome, efforts are still being made to boost tourism, trade, and communicative cooperation between Israel and China. Most recently, on March 2, visiting Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming met with Israeli President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu with intentions of enhancing economic cooperation between the two countries. Although Sino-Israeli relations were first officially established as late as 1992, China’s history with people of the Jewish faith dates back to the eighth century.

Dr. Pan Guang, Director of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies Center and Dean of the Center of Jewish Studies Shanghai, has developed a recent project, Jews in China: Legends, History, and New Perspectives, which outlines the history of Jewish and Chinese relations, beginning with the four waves of Jewish immigration to China. As early as the eighth century, Jews from the Middle East traveled over the Silk Road to Kaifeng and formed a Kaifeng Jewish Community during the Song Dynasty. Many became government officials, doctors, clergymen, and businessmen. They assimilated into Chinese culture, learned the language, and began to intermarry.

While in China, Jews established a Chinese style synagogue in Kaifeng, influenced by Confucianism but modeled after Jerusalem synagogues. Jews had their own clubs, hospitals, cemeteries, and volunteer corps. Russian Jews had a fur bank in Shanghai, and opened the “Siberian Fur Store.” They founded over fifty newspapers that ran in over eight languages, such as the Israel Messenger (founded in 1904) and the Gelbe Post. The Kadoorie family opened a school for refugee children, free of charge, where many first learned to speak English. Mordechai Olmert, father of the former prime minister of Israel, grew up in Harbin. Most notoriously, China opened its doors to over 30,000 of refugees fleeing from the German occupation after 1938.

Not only did Chinese and Jewish cultures share certain core values, but they were also both subject to political persecution. After thousands of Jewish refugees arrived in Shanghai between 1937 and 1941, millions of Shanghai residents themselves became refugees after the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Nearly 35 million Chinese were killed and wounded by the Japanese fascists during wartime. Chinese were sympathetic towards anti-Semitic suffering. In his lecture, Guang noted that while prejudice may be imported, there has never been any native anti-Semitism on China’s soil. At the core, Chinese are influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, but they remain accepting of other spiritual aspirations. On a stone monument erected in 1489, Kaifeng Jews wrote: “Our religion and Confucianism differ only in minor details. In mind and deed both respect Heaven’s Way, venerate ancestors, are loyal to sovereigns and ministers, and filial to parents. Both call for harmony with wives and children, respect for rank, and for making friends.” In turn, Jews in China supported the Chinese national-democratic movement against Japanese aggression and many began working with the Chinese Underground. Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen famously acted as aide-de camp to Dr. Sun Yat-sen and rose to be a general in the Chinese Army.

Considering themselves, “old China hands,” Chinese Jews now live throughout the world and often return to their Chinese roots to visit old friends. Many have invested in business enterprises and taken advantage of their former home’s new upsurge of development. The commercially successful Shanghai Diamond Exchange Center, for example, was the brainchild of refugee, Shaul Eisenberg. But how do these amiable cultural assimilations tie in with current relations with Israel? Representative of the Schusterman Foundation and Project Interchange believe that by establishing and expanding Israel-related scholarship in China will create opportunities for deepened cultural ties and mutual appreciation between the Chinese and Jewish people, as well as an enhanced relationship between China and Israel. YNetNews.com writes, “Despite interest in Jewish culture, Middle East policy and even Hebrew language, few Chinese scholars have ever traveled to Israel, and Israel is rarely…the explicit subject of scholarly research.”

Today, Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, contains only 5,000 to 6,000 Jews (Guang argues that newspapers underreport the number at 3,000, excluding those that do not attend synagogue). While many Jews were pressured to leave China during the Cultural Revolution, the impact shared between the two communities stands strong today. Culturally, Jews in China became an academic hot topic during the 1980s and 1990s and subsequently extended to mass media. There is a wealth of Jewish how-to literature as well as a fascination with the Jewish mystique. Some Kaifeng Jews still follow dietary laws that resemble kashrut. Jordan Maseng, a native New Yorker working in China, recently opened up his own bagel shop in Beijing. Guang noted that there are over forty documentaries about Jewish relations in China but a narrative film has yet to be made. With a mixture of jest and sincerity, Guang admitted that he has many ideas but none of them seem good enough, rather adding the assertion, “We want a movie like Schindler’s List.”  Until that happens, Chinese Jews will continue to slowly contribute to the culture, while the rest of the Jewish population indulges in Chinese food.

Montreal Bagels Do It Better

by Lily Hoffman Simon

The Mile End neighborhood in Montreal was the heart of the Canadian Jewish immigrant community. The region brought bagels and smoked meat to Canada and beyond, giving new life to Jewish food. The legacy of this Montreal Jewish community is now hitting New York, with the opening of Mile End, a delicatessen in Brooklyn based on the renowned Jewish cuisine of Montreal. The opening of this deli is more than just a tribute to Jewish Canadian roots, however—it also reflects the tendency to turn elements of Diaspora culture into trendy, consumable commodities.

Mile End, the restaurant, is a hot topic among North American Jewry, inspiring mentions in Tablet magazine and The New York Times, among other publications. The Montreal community is excited as well, claiming that the restaurant’s opening marks the validation of the long-asserted opinion that Montreal bagels really are superior to the fluffier Southern alternatives. The deli acknowledges the supremacy of Montreal cuisine and illuminates the essential contributions of the Jewish community to North American culture. It is no news that Jewish pride is based on food, but to what extent? And to what extent is the American recognition of Jewish culture based on the ability to consume culture?

American society is based on consumption and an emphasis on a supposed multi-culturalism. In order to maintain distinct cultural practices in a society that tends towards assimilation, groups are forced to turn their respective cultures into something others around them can understand; overwhelmingly, this happens through the commodification of cultural elements. This makes sense—if North America is based on consumption and capitalism, a cultural experience needs to be something people feel is attractive enough to invest in, which tends to mean buying.  People can bop around in global food markets and stores, producing a sense of cosmopolitanism and international connection through exposure to different kinds of dress and cuisine. The opening of the Mile End deli contributes to this pattern by transforming the traditional Jewish experience of eating smoked meat into a trendy experience. The Mile End neighborhood itself is undergoing the same kind of cultural commodification. The area is now one of the hippest, multi-ethnic regions in Montreal. The roots of Jewish Montreal, culture, and cuisine are slowly being appropriated by consumption-driven cosmopolitanism.

The same logic goes for the way Jews experience other cultures. Take the example of eating Chinese food on Christmas. This North American Jewish tradition offered poor Eastern European immigrants the opportunity to feel worldly not through the mass extravaganza of spending that surrounds Christmas, but instead through cultural (and literal) consumption of exotic Oriental food. Not surprisingly, Mile End restaurant is going to be serving Chinese food this Christmas.

Jewish food has played a huge role in Jewish cultural development, making it a perfect gateway for non-Jews who wish to experience something Jewish. But a Jewish experience and understanding goes deeper than simply eating a bagel with cream cheese and lox. Experiencing a culture should include a deeper understanding of where it came from and how a particular cultural element developed, among other things. A connection to a culture and its true continuity cannot come only from consumption. It must come from real engagement with and understanding of a culture, and how it evolved. Mile End restaurant is perpetuating a superficial connection to Judaism, which has a necessary place—but that alone is not enough for Jewish continuity.