Toronto-based author Michael Wex, 61, says that religious leaders from different Jewish traditions agree on very little, except the central role that food plays in Jewish life. “Most of the day-to-day rules of this religion have to do with food. This is always uppermost in people’s minds,” Wex says. His new book, “Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It,” takes a thorough, often lighthearted look at the food traditions that Eastern European Jews brought with them to North America. Wex is the author of a number of novels and plays about Yiddish culture, as well as the best-selling book on Yiddish language “Born to Kvetch.”
Q. What do you see as the difference between Jewish and Yiddish food?
A. What we think of as Jewish food — brisket, bagels, that kind of stuff — is really the food of Central and East European Jews from areas that were at one time Yiddish speaking. There are Jewish communities pretty much everywhere: North Africa, Spain, Greece, and Italy. And each of those communities has its own unique cuisine. But if you start in Germany and move east across Europe, the Jewish food in those areas was pretty similar.
Q. Why is there so much similarity?
A. Most of the signature, big-time Jewish dishes are connected in one way or another to either the Sabbath or other major Jewish holidays. The way religious practice breaks down is you have what’s called the Ashkenazi or the German rite. This determines a lot of things: how you pray, how you observe the holidays. This was pretty much the same across the whole Ashkenazi world. It forces a certain kind of uniformity.
Q. You say in the book that Yiddish food comes from the union of shabbes and schmaltz. What do you mean by that?
A. The Sabbath is a holiday that comes once a week. For people who haven’t grown up in this, it’s hard to conceive of how central shabbes, the Sabbath, is to Jewish life. It’s like having a major holiday once a week. It’s a religious commandment, an obligation, to eat well on the Sabbath. All these dishes, the brisket, chicken, kugel, kishka, tzimmes, were all originally Sabbath dishes.
Q. Why is schmaltz so important to Yiddish food?
A. Schmaltz really comes into it because of the dietary law. If you were looking for a cooking fat, you had . . . trouble. You can only cook in butter if you’re not cooking anything meat. The other main cooking fat everybody knows is lard. That’s a non-starter for the Jews. Oil was very expensive. So schmaltz, the rendered chicken or goose fat, replaced lard.
Q. How does it affect the taste of Yiddish food?
A. Where lard is fairly neutral as far as lending any kind of taste to what’s cooked in it, schmaltz, with the way it’s prepared — lots of onion and garlic — is anything but neutral. It lends Jewish food a particular taste. Every once in a while, you would have one of these dishes prepared, usually for reasons of health, with something like Crisco instead of schmaltz. You could tell the difference. Depending on your opinion it might be “This doesn’t taste bad once you get the [expletive] schmaltz out of it” or “This is lacking a certain je ne sais quoi.”
Q. Where do you stand?
A. I kind of like schmaltz.
Q. As tastes and religious practices change, is it difficult to hold on to traditional Yiddish foods?
A. It’s undergoing a huge revival. Here in Toronto and New York, you’ve got all these places opening that are serving exactly the kinds of food that I write about in the book: goose or chicken skin crackling, chopped chicken livers with schmaltz. Schmaltz is on the table again. It’s all these things that you couldn’t have found in a restaurant in the past 50 years. The last thing to go in ethnic culture tends to be the food.
Q. Why do you think that is?
A. The attachment to food goes back generations. It’s got powerful associations if you grew up eating it. That becomes a large part of your ethnic identity. As religious observance decreased over here, the presence of these foods decreased as well. From having some of these dishes pretty much every week, many people went to having them once or twice a year, usually when they had to go to their grandmother’s on Rosh Hashanah or Passover. It does show a commitment to retain your identity in the face of a vast number of rules that may seem completely irrelevant to you, that you don’t really know much about anyway, that are written in a language you don’t understand. It is a way of proclaiming to everybody — the outside world and yourself — this is who I am.
Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org