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 Pseaman":

"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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