In the Jewish culinary tradition, foods nourish the soul
Carol Ungar is excited to make use of the fresh lamb that is now becoming available in Israel for her family's Passover Seder. But for the Jerusalem-based writer, the spiritual meaning of what's on the plate is more exciting than trotting out the freshest ingredient or following the latest trend.
The daughter of Holocaust survivors was raised in New York City in a family that loved to cook and eat; she has lived in Israel since 1984. She became aware of how food could nourish the soul by watching her parents connect to their own childhoods over familiar dishes. "It was a culinary seance, to eat the food of the old country," says the daughter. "I didn't realize that foods had a meaning to them, a story to them." After digging deeper, she expanded her research to the spiritual symbolism and stories behind many Jewish recipes. She has collected them in the forthcoming "Jewish Soul Food: Traditional Fare and What It Means." The book covers many Jewish holidays and celebrations. "I grew up without grandparents. I never tasted a grandmother's food. So this is a way of reaching back in time," Ungar says.
Q. What are some of the meanings behind Passover foods?
A. You have matzo, which is paradoxical. It's the food of slavery because that's what the Jewish slaves ate and it's also the food of liberation. Some of the Hasidic masters say that when you eat the matzo you are eating a dose of faith because Passover is a holiday of faith. The whole idea of the people walking out of Egypt and following God into the desert is the ultimate leap of faith. It's kind of like a spiritual vitamin. There's also a whole year's worth of lesser-known symbolic foods.
Q. You write about challah as one of the foods that tells many stories.
A. I have 26 different challah shapes in the book. That was the first thing that really drew me into this subject. Not only do the shapes create such memories for families and children, they tell a story. There's a challah for Purim, which is a really fun thing. There are a lot of villains in Jewish history, like Pharaoh in the Exodus story and Haman in Purim. There's a Sephardic Jewish tradition where they make something called ojos de Haman, which is a challah that is supposed to be the shape of Haman, the bad guy. You put hard-boiled eggs in it for eyes and you gouge out the eyes during the meal. There are other symbols in challah — the scales of justice, the cycle of life. Braiding is a whole big deal, like the six braids, which reflect the 12 tribes of Israel.
Q. Where did Jewish food symbolism originate?
A. It all comes from the Torah. It's about connecting to God and creating a relationship with God and expressing gratitude toward God. Man's first dialog with God was about food — the forbidden food the first man and his wife ate was the first interaction between human beings and God. The table is supposed to be like an altar. The idea is you eat so you can have energy so you can perform mitzvah, which are the commandments, God's acts. We're all about finding the spiritual within the physical. Our holidays are supposed to be half for us and half for God. Half of it is having nice wine and something good to eat and enjoying. But enjoying in a way that says we have gratitude. It can bring a lot of joy, gratitude, and generosity.
Q. What do you want your readers to discover about Jewish foods?
A. People tend to make fun of Jewish food. They think it's heavy and it's not fashionable. These days even in the most traditional circles, people are going over to foodie culture, sushi, and all this sort of stuff. That's not bad. But it just seems a shame to throw away your own food traditions. Kreplach, for example, symbolizes God's mercy and God's justice. Every culture has some dough-pocketed food. I just thought kreplach was like ravioli or wontons. On some level that's true. But on another level, the Jewish people tend to look at everything through spiritual eyes. A lot of very profound, spiritualistic concepts come out through food. There are many different aspects of God coming out in a little dumpling.