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
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
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.