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Surprisingly, many of the foods we identify as Ashkenazi are not exclusively Ashkenazi

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Michael Wex delivering one of his “A Seat at the Table” lectures about the culture behind the classic Ashkenazi foods

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Food culture has taken on a whole new meaning since the community has retreated into their homes, more specifically, their kitchens. The pandemic has seen a shortage in grocery staples such as yeast, and flour, due to a significant rise in more traditional cooking at home. Thanks to YIVO Institute for Jewish Research you can now do much more than just cook and eat. A new free initiative, “A Seat at the Table” now lets you learn and experience the richness of culture behind the classic Ashkenazi foods.

YIVO, based in New York, is primarily aimed at preserving the rich Jewish Eastern European culture. “A Seat at the Table” is a wealth from their archives that has come together in a lecture series highlighting academics and savants of the Jewish food world, exploring the history and resilience of Ashkenazi Jews, their cuisine, and journey. Cooking demos and recipes are included along with material from the YIVO archives, and informative videos.

The course itself is comprised of several sessions, which were launched online, beginning May 1. Some of the traditional recipes available through the series include: challah, gribenes, and blintzes. 

Michael Wex, Canadian author of “Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It” found his way into Ashkenazi food after years of writing on Yiddish culture and language. He is featured on two videos discussing Yiddish food idioms, and Eastern European food, through the lens of the film. 

“The most important ingredient in any Jewish food is Shabbos,” Wex told TheJ.ca. “There are day to day foods that are kind of Jewish, but it wasn’t much different from what everybody was eating, except for the absence of pork and lard. The main Jewish foods that you think of are 85 per cent Shabbos and Yom Tov items.”

One of the fascinating aspects of this project is the insight into a food culture that many still have yet to learn. Wex shares that surprisingly, many of the foods we identify as Ashkenazi are not exclusively Ashkenazi.  

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Over the years, Eastern European Jewish communities had adopted the local cuisine at the time and specifically served them on Shabbat. “Eventually, these things fall out of fashion; the Jews go on eating them because they become associated with Shabbos or Yom Tov. You can see it when you look at sushi.  Twenty-five years ago nobody knew what it was. It’s one of those things that in a very short time, went from being ubiquitous to the point of fashion. Many Orthodox weddings have sushi stations now. If everyone else gets sick of it and stops, the only people left eating it are the Japanese and Jews. It will become a Jewish food eventually.” 

Wex bases this cultural hypothesis on history, as the same idea happened with potatoes. “At shul, they had a running discussion every Shabbos about: what were Jews eating before they ate potatoes? Potatoes were only cultivated in Eastern Europe in the 1850s. To my great grandparents, a potato was kind of like sushi or pot pie, something that nobody had when they were kids, and then it was everywhere. There was no potato kugel at Har Sinai (Mount Sinai).”

“See the MAGIC BORSCHT FOUNTAIN!!” Manischewitz invitation to New York State Food Merchants Trade Show, New York City, 1951 | Photo: Courtesy Michael Wex

“A Seat At The Table” tells a story of the diversity, culture, and economy experienced by Ashkenazi Jews, as seen through food. It is an opportunity to bring a fresh and educated take to something that for many, is the basis of their Jewish identity.

It is a thought echoed by Wex, who understands that for many, food may be their entire experience and connection of being Jewish. Providing the opportunity of experiential, as well as lecture-based learning, gives an opportunity for many to expand this relationship, right from the culture of their own home.

Michael Wex delivers two lectures: Jewish on Film and TV and Yiddish Food Idioms 

Dr. Deborah Mechanic is a Toronto-based chiropractor. For more information: drmechanicsbodyshop@gmail.com or @drmechanicsbodyshop.

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Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

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