The Fundamental Jewish Cuisine

by Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D
University of Pennsylvania

	At Hanukah or Purim in universities all over the country, academics  
	are invited to take part in the annual "Latkes vs. Hamantash Debate."  
	The purpose of the debate is to argue about which is the archtypical 
	Jewish food, Latkes or Hamantash.  When invited to participate a 
	couple of years ago, I took my mandate very seriously.  The job of 
	the sociologist is, after all,  to uncover the hidden, to make 
	problematic the obvious, to explore the unexamined assumptions 
	underlying social convention.  Therefore, after pondering the question 
	deeply for ten or fifteen minutes, I determined that a fundamental 
	flaw has been made in the choices of cuisine offered.  Any true 
	historian of Jewish cuisine knows that neither the latke nor the 
	hamantash is the true, primordial, undisputed champion of Jewish 
	cuisine.  No, there is a food more basic by far.

	At first, foods like latkas, or hamantash, or matzo, for that matter, 
	come to mind.  But why?   We only eat these foods on particular holidays, 
	once a year.  How can they be basic?

	How about the three Ks -- kreplach, kishka, and knishes?  maybe once, 
	but today we forswear them -- too much cholesterol.

	Chulent, tsimmes or schmaltz?  Too fatty.

	A bagel with a shmear?   That is almost as good as its gets, but there 
	is one better.

	No, if we are what we eat, there is only one food that Jews have eaten 
	throughout time, and which sustained us through our most difficult 
	periods.  The one food to which we owe our very nationhood.

	And that food is: herring.
	Yes, herring.  Jews, both Ashkenazic and Sephardic, are from the 
	Mediterranean basin, and there is not a country that borders on that 
	great sea -- European, Asian or African -- that does not eat herring.  
	In Northern Africa, Western Europe, and Eastern Europe it sustained us, 
	and if the oneg shabbat at my synagogue is any indication, it sustains 
	us still.

	I remember the first time I encountered herring.  I was about five years 
	old, sitting on my Zayde's knee.  It was a Shabbat morning in Cambridge, 
	Mass, and my Zayde was having his usual breakfast before Shul:  Some 
	herring in cream sauce on leftover challah, with a seltzer water chaser 
	sprayed into his glass from a bottle.  He lovingly spread the herring 
	on the Challah, making sure to get plenty of cream sauce and onion, and 
	when he put it into his mouth, a little dribbled down his chin, which 
	he wiped with a finger and licked clean.  I'll never forget that moment: 
	sitting there on Shabbat morning, secure in my Zayde's arms, watching 
	him eat that herring, I thought to myself:  That's disgusting!  That's 
	the most revolting thing I ever saw in my life!  I'd sooner eat chopped 
	liver!  Little did I understand at that point the central place of 
	herring in Jewish history and culture.

	Let us turn to the sacred texts.  Herring has always been at the center 
	of great debate among rabbis and scholars in the Talmud.  Take, for 
	example, the eternal herring conflict:  Herring in wine sauce, or 
	herring in cream sauce?  Shammai took cream sauce, Hillel wine sauce, 
	and it was the subject of some of their most passionate debates.  In 
	fact, it was during just such a debate that Hillel pushed some herring 
	in wine sauce at Shammai, encouraging him to try it.  Shammai, 
	recognizing that the debate would never be settled,  cried out the 
	traditional phrase used in the Talmud to indicate an argument is a 
	draw: "taku!" he exclaimed.  "You're velcome!" replied Hillel.

	Herring also was prominently featured at another dramatic debate between 
	the two men.  In the greatest fish story of the Bible, Jonah is 
	swallowed, as you will recall, not by a whale, but by a dag gadol, a 
	big fish.  Hillel insisted that the fish was a herring.  Shammai, on the 
	other hand, insisted that it was a sturgeon.  Hillel made a passionate 
	plea for the herring, noting for example, that the lowly sardine is in 
	the herring family, while from sturgeon we get that most expensive of 
	foods, caviar, and since Jonah was simple man of the people, God would 
	not have sent a sturgeon to swallow him.  Hillel almost had the rabbis 
	won over, when Shammai produced a fisherman holding a typical, 12 inch 
	herring.  "Could this have swallowed Jonah?" he asked incredulously.  
	Then, in one of the most dramatic moments in the entire Talmud, Shammai 
	flung open a curtain, behind which was a 20 foot, 2,000 pound sturgeon.  
	"This could have swallowed Jonah!" he proclaimed, to the applause of 
	the Rishonim (the Achronim were late, as usual).  It seemed Hillel was 
	sunk.  However, never underestimate Hilllel, the man who said "If I am 
	not for myself, who will be for me?" and convinced others that this was 
	profound.  He casually plucked a grape from a nearby fruit basket, and, 
	holding it up for all to see, asked in a meek voice. "You see this 
	grape?  It is a tiny thing.  A simple man could carry hundreds of 
	grapes."  His voice began to get louder.  "Yet the Torah tells us that 
	when Joshua sent spies into the land of Canaan, it took two of them to 
	carry back a single cluster of grapes.  How big were those grapes?  The 
	size of an olive?  Hardly.  The size an etrog, perhaps?  No, even more, 
	even more."  Now Hillel was shouting.  "They were undoubtedly at least 
	the size of Shammai's head!  And if the Ribbono Shel Olam could make a 
	grape the size of Shammai's head, he could make a herring the size of a 
	sturgeon!"  Rashi comments that, shaken by this defeat at the hands of 
	the master, Shammai retired to Natanya and opened a shwarma stand.

	The Torah itself often speaks of herring.  Note this excerpt from Song 
	of Songs, the famous passage known as the "Psalm of Psolomon the 

		"I cast my net over the waters, and the catch is good.
		Yea, my lovers' lips are like twin herrings,
		pan-fried and drizzled with lemon butter.
		I will serve them on endive leaves;
		I will garnish them with goat's cheese and sprigs of parsley.
		Verily will I feast upon them,
		first carefully removing the bones."

	Who can forget how herring saved the entire Jewish population of Albania?  
	It was over 500 years ago when Zog, the King of Albania, decreed that -- 
	although some of his best friends were Jewish -- all adult Jewish males 
	in Albania would have to have their foreskins reattached.  The head 
	Rabbi of Albania, knowing the King's claim that he could solve any 
	riddle, made an offer:  he would tell the King a riddle, and if the 
	King could not answer it, the decree would be revoked.  The King agreed.  
	The Rabbi asked that famous Jewish riddle: "What is purple, hangs on a 
	wall, and whistles?"

	The King retired to his chambers for six days and six nights, but he 
	could not solve the riddle.  Finally, in exasperation, he summoned the 
	rabbi and admitted:  "I cannot answer the question.  What IS purple, 
	hangs on a wall, and whistles?"

	The rabbi replied:  "A herring, of course."

	"A herring?!" shouted the King.  "A herring isn't purple!"

	"Nu, so this one was painted purple." replied the rabbi.

	"But a herring doesn't hang on the wall!" said the King.

	"Nu, so someone hung THIS one on a wall."

	"But herrings can't whistle!"

	"So nu, then it didn't whistle." proclaimed the rabbi.

	Unable to defeat the logic, the King revoked the decree.

	In his monumental, 28-volume work, "Herring and the Jews," the noted 
	herring expert, Doug Maluach, develops the idea that herring is a 
	metaphor for Jewish existence, signifying the unity of the Jewish people.  
	Maluach tells the following tale about how the Ba'al Shem Tov first 
	became famed in the Jewish community.  A rival rabbi, the "Ba'al 
	Na'alyim Tovim", as he was known, challenged Shem Tov to explain how 
	Hashem could create Jews of so many different types.  How could Hashem 
	create Sephardim, he asked, who actually ate rice on Passover and talked 
	funny, making no difference between the letters "Saph" and "Taph"?  The 
	great Hasidic Master commented:  "There is herring in cream sauce, and 
	there is herring in wine sauce; still, the essence of each is herring.  
	So, too, there are Sephardic Jews, and there are Ashkenazic Jews, yet 
	the essence of each is their connection to the Torah.  The rest is just 
	sour cream and onions."

	Herring's metaphorical properties go deeper than Hasidic anecdotes, 
	Maluach points out.  Herring is pareve; it fits in with any meal, just 
	as the Jews scattered throughout the world fit into many different 
	countries.  All around the herring are the dangers of the deep -- the 
	shark, the barracuda, the jet ski.  Still they survive.  And, like the 
	Jew, the herring understands the importance of keeping their children 
	in schools.

	Need I go on?  Herring and the Jews, the Jews and herring -- it is part 
	of our souls, not the food of special occasions, not the latka of 
	Hanukah or the hamantash of Purim, but the Jewish manna, the food that 
	has sustained us day-to-day.  A famous Jewish man,  Mel Brooks (all 
	right, he intermarried, but who are we to judge?), once commented: "We 
	mock the thing we are to be."  And now I find myself, every Shabbat 
	morning, spreading my herring in cream sauce on challah, and licking 
	the dribblings from my fingers.  My kids absolutely refuse to watch me 
	eat it.  And that, Haverim, is how it should be.

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