Book Review: Kashrut, community and diversity

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Food as a means to teach about Judaism: that summarizes Lori Stein and Ronald H. Isaacs’ “Let’s Eat: Jewish Food and Faith” (Rowman and Littlefield). The work serves as a primer about Jewish history, holidays and lifecycle events, with an emphasis on Jewish food customs across the globe.
Stein, whose book/packaging firm has produced more than 200 books, and Isaacs, a rabbi who has served in the pulpit for more than 40 years, recognize that “Judaism is a complex religion” and that food alone cannot define it. However, foods can serve as a way to discuss diverse Jewish experiences across the globe. The introduction offers a short look at Jewish texts, major contemporary Jewish movements and some basic Jewish geography. The timeline at the end of the chapter is helpful, although it did feel odd that the last events take place in the 1980s.
Each holiday – including Shabbat – has its own chapter. Much of what is discussed will be familiar to those with a basic knowledge of Judaism. What is of greater interest are the customs – especially food customs – specific to different cultural heritages. Many of the discussions include a recipe so that readers can experiment with new dishes. The work concludes with a chapter about life cycle events and focuses on the “mitzvah meals” that often accompany these events. Each chapter ends with a section about traditions from around the world. 
My favorite parts of “Let’s Eat” are food customs with which I was not familiar. For example, in the past, Sephardic families celebrated Shabbat with khubz, a flat bread that contained no eggs and were sometimes flavored with sesame seeds or other Middle Eastern spices. Spiced flat breads were also featured in other cultures: Ethiopian Jews made theirs in a frying pan, while in Iran and India, the breads were baked.
The list of traditional foods for Rosh Hashanah goes beyond those normally found in Ashkenazic homes. For example, while I’ve heard of people eating fish heads during the holiday because the Hebrew word rosh means head, I was unaware of the Bukharan custom of using a ram’s head. Preparation includes removing the fur, but the eyes and teeth are still part of the head that’s placed on the table. According to the authors, this custom is still practiced in Israel. This was also the first I’ve heard about a Rosh Hashanah seder (although I am aware that people have done seders for other holidays). Like the Passover seder, foods are used as symbols, in this case, wishes for what will occur during the upcoming year. Foods used in the past include white beans (which are a request for good deeds and a strong heart), leeks (which ask that our enemies be cut to pieces), pomegranates (for a fruitful year) and many others. The authors encourage readers to create their own symbols and use them during the seder.
Other customs I found particularly interesting include:
The celebration of Chag HaBanot (Holiday of the Daughters), which takes place on the sixth night of Hanukkah. Jews from Yemen and North Africa open their synagogues to women who dance and bless their daughters.
The building of a huge snowman by Uzbekistan Jews during Purim. The snowman represented Haman and they threw spoiled food at it. The day concluded with a large bonfire that was used to melt the villain.
Various food customs for Sukkot. Italian Jews eat their version of a bagel covered with ricotta cheese, while Indian Jews celebrate a local harvest holiday, Khiricha (the pudding holiday), during which they eat a corn and coconut pudding.
While I haven’t tried any of the recipes in “Let’s Eat,” the instructions seem easy enough to follow. The book includes everything from a basic recipe for challah to stuffed food from a variety of cultures to sweets from different nations. It serves as an easy introduction to basic Judaism for those unfamiliar with the religion, or as a way for foodies to expand the meals that grace their holiday tables.