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Jews Don’t Eat That

 One day long ago, when I was five years old, my mother took me shopping at the local A&P supermarket. Over in the produce department I saw something dark purple in color and shaped like a large pear. I asked my mother, "What is that?" She answered, quite curtly, "Jews don't eat that."

When I tell this story in America, the punch line always gets a laugh. When I told this story last year in Hebrew on a tour bus of Israelis in Japan, I got a much different reaction. When I began describing the purple, pear-shaped object, they called out, "hatzil" in a tone of voice that condescendingly announced—"How could anyone not know what that was?" When I came to the punch line, "Jews don't eat that," the Israeli audience not only did not laugh but was indignant. Jews eat eggplant all the time. Did your mother think eggplant wasn't kosher?

When you have to explain why something is funny, even a true story, you've already lost your audience. But, this contrast in reactions gives me a chance to muse over just what "Jewish food" is to Jews who have roots in different regions of the world with different cuisines that they incorporate into their dietary traditions.

This trip to the supermarket with my mother took place in the Philadelphia of 1951. It was barely three years since Israel's independence. There were no falafel places with grilled kebabs, shawarma, or pita bread anywhere. The few kosher restaurants were either meat or dairy, both featuring basically Eastern European cuisine. There were kosher delicatessens and smoked fish appetizer places. These were considered "Jewish."

My mother was a first generation American-born child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. She learned how to cook and what to cook from her mother, with some subtle adaptations from decades of living in America.

Our post-World War II neighborhood consisted of Jews and Southern Italians. To my mother, an eggplant was something the "T'leyner" ate. A Mediterranean cuisine was nowhere on her "Jewish" radar. She did not even know any Jews with Mediterranean roots. Any Jews my parents and grandparents met in America who came from pre-State Palestine or the brand new State of Israel were Eastern European Ashkenazim like themselves.

When I tell my mother's eggplant story in America, I continue with the fact that years later during my student year in Israel, I saw eggplant being eaten by Jews all over the place. I developed a fondness for "salat hatzilim b'mayonnaise" that I often ate as an alternative to hummus. To this day, when I order a shawarma in pita and heap some fried eggplant into that little side bowl they give you, I think of my mother.

Here I am, a Jew eating that.

 

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Sunday, 17 October 2021

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