Archive for the ‘food’ Category
The Philadelphia restaurant Zahav is a bizarre place. The name means gold in Hebrew and the intent is to provide “modern Israeli” cuisine, whatever that means of country not yet 70 years old.
Let’s get this out of the way: the food at Zahav is delicious. I had a lovely time there and would go back in a heart beat, particularly if somebody else was willing to cover the bill (it’s not cheap). The service was good, the decor and ambience delightful. In short, I liked it; maybe even loved it. But that doesn’t mean my experience didn’t raise some questions worth pondering here at the ol’ Octopus.
To begin, they served octopus. I kid. They don’t serve octopus, or any shellfish, or any pork, or any food specifically forbidden by the Jewish laws of kashrut (those that determine what is or isn’t kosher). And yet, they might as well have. Because Zahav is NOT a certified kosher restaurant. The meat they do serve: beef, lamb, chicken, and duck, has not been properly ritually slaughtered, and is considered traif (unkosher). And while they do not mix meat and dairy together, they do serve as separate dishes alongside each other, which also qualifies as a no-no.
I went with my parents, who are not particularly adventurous eaters. We had some hummus-tehina, which was delicious. That was an appetizer of sorts. Then we ordered small plates. We got some fried cauliflower, and an assortment of chicken, lamb, and duck dishes. We also got some crispy haloumi, a kind of cheese, ensuring that our meal was not kosher. We got some ice cream for dessert for good measure.
In principle, I see nothing wrong with ostensibly Jewish restaurants serving non-kosher food. There is no more Jewish act than eating a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen in New York’s lower east side (it’s much holier than putting on tefiilin at the Kotel) and Katz’s pastrami is strictly traif. Speaking of Traif, the Brooklyn restaurant of the same name is, in my mind, a thoroughly Jewish establishment. By explicitly defying the laws of kashrut, it’s implicitly asserting their cultural significance. It’s not unlike the Yiddish-speaking Jewish anarchists of New York of a hundred years ago who threw lavish balls on Yom Kippur, thereby honouring the sacred day with their sacrilege.
So no, it’s not Zahav’s lack of kashrut that offends me. Nothing about the restaurant offends me. It’s great. But I would assert that the restaurant is hardly Israeli, and barely Jewish.
Let’s start with the food. The two tasting menus (neither of which we ordered) were given Hebrew names, one called “Ta’im” (meaning tasty) and the other “Mesibah” (meaning party). The meats were called “Al Ha-Esh” (on the fire, or on the grill). All very cute. And yet apart from the hummus, nothing jumped out as me as especially Israeli. I recognize that “Israeli” cuisine is really a hodge-podge of culinary traditions from all over the Jewish world: Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Mizrachi, and Ethiopian. But this felt more “nouveau” than “Israeli.”
According to my advisor Hasia Diner, there’s no such thing as Jewish food at all, except for matzo (the bread of affliction I’m suffering with now). All other ostensibly “Jewish” food is actually Polish, or Moroccan, or Rumanian, or from wherever Jews lived, but kosherized for Jewish consumption. But I really didn’t recognize Zahav’s food as very Jewish or Israeli. If you had told me it was a Spanish restaurant, I might have believed you, though I’d have wondered what happened to all the pork.
Then there’s the fact that the food at Zahav is served tapas style, in small plates. Small plates?! No Jew ever wanted a small plate of anything. I heard Jackie Mason‘s voice kvetching in my ear: “You call this a portion?” If I’m going to order something, I want mountains of it so I can stuff myself silly, not have one bite and be left hungry for more. Have you seen the sandwiches at Katz’s or Second Avenue Deli? That’s what a portion looks like.
And then there’s Zahav’s decor. It’s perfectly pleasant. There are a few Jewy markers, like the stained glass panels above the kitchen, the mezuzah on the front door, and the Hebrew writing on pictures on the bathroom door. There’s also a large photograph of an Israeli shuk, or marketplace, though you’d only recognize it as such if you knew what you were looking for. But for the most part, it just felt like your typical chic restaurant: lighting a little too dim, music a little too loud. And that music? Modern pop and hip hop, without an Israeli tune to be heard. Which is weird because Israeli music is actually quite good. I did catch one Matisyahu song, but that doesn’t really count.
And the lack of Jewish content in the food and decor was matched by the lack of Jewishness in the clientele. There were people of all different races and ethnicities and religions eating at Zahav. And that’s a good thing, and equally true of a place like Katz’s. But the difference, I think, is that everyone knows Katz’s is a Jewish deli. But I wonder if the non-Jewish clientele of Zahav realized that it was an Israeli restaurant, or was supposed to be an Israeli restaurant, or whether they just thought it was fancy, creative, exotic food in a swanky setting.
So to conclude, everyone should by all means go to Zahav. The food is delicious and makes for a wonderful dining experience. Just don’t expect it to be too Israeli, or too Jewish.
Just ate at Patsy’s Pizzeria in Spanish Harlem with my wife and my parents. Founded in 1933, Patsy’s is one of only two coal-oven pizzerias in Manhattan (they’re no longer allowed, but the restaurants were grandfathered in). Several other locations have sprung up, but they don’t have the coal-ovens, and they aren’t as good.
The pizza at the original Patsy’s was delicious, as usual. Which is why it might seems surprising that the restaurant, if certainly not empty, was not overflowing with customers the way comparably excellent pizza joints like Lombardi’s or Grimaldi’s or John’s might be on a Sunday afternoon.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that Patsy’s is not in the most convenient location. On First Avenue by East 118th Street, there are no subway stops nearby. Second is that the neighbourhood has undergone a demographic shift. Patsy’s was once at the heart of Italian Harlem, but the Italians have moved away, and Puerto Ricans have moved in. Now the neighbourhood is Spanish Harlem.
The customers at Patsy’s, for the most part, did not appear to be tourists, but they did not appear to be locals to the neighbourhood either. Everyone loves pizza, but in this location, the restaurant seems to be surviving rather than thriving.
I suspect this was not always the case. The story of the old neighbourhood is told brilliantly in Robert Orsi’s book The Madonna of 115 Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem.
The book describes the massive yearly festival of the Madonna that took place on the streets of Italian Harlem, how this religious ritual reflected an ethnic community’s attempt to maintain tradition while also adapt to their new American surroundings. I’m sure Patsy’s was always packed then.
After WW2 especially, though, Italians moved away from the neighbourhood, and Latinos, especially Puerto Ricans, moved in. Though also Catholic, these newcomers did not really embrace the tradition. Instead, other Catholic immigrants, like Haitians who lived further away, continue to participate in the the formerly Italian ethnic Catholic festival, as do Italians who return to their parents and grandparents’ neighbourhood.
That festival, however, only happens once per year. But Patsy’s Pizzeria remains, a delicious – and hopefully permanent – relic of days gone by.
I walked in to Kutsher’s Tribeca with my dad at about 12:45 PM. A smattering of other customers were there, but the place was large, so it felt more sparsely populated than it actually was. The decor is fancy, upscale, but the atmosphere was just to my liking: brightly lit, with barely audible music in the background (I like to see my food and converse with the people I’m eating with). Later, the owner, Zach Kutsher, told me that it’s a completely different restaurant at night. “We turn the music up, turn the lights down, have a whole different menu.” Now I’m barely 30, but I have the soul of an 85-year-old Jewish man in Boca. So I’d like to try the night-time food, but might find the place a little noisy.
Before I continue, let me emphasize that I highly recommend Kutsher’s Tribeca. The food I ate was absolutely delicious, and the service was excellent. My dining experience this afternoon was, on the whole, lovely.
It didn’t start off that way. When the waiter told me they made their own sodas (or soft drinks, in Canada), I decided to order their vanilla black cherry. Anyone with any sense of tradition (or any sense at all, really) knows you order Black Cherry at a deli. In Canada, that means Cott’s, which tastes like a super-sweet delicious brand of cough medicine, in a good way (I’m not kidding). Virgil’s, Stewart’s or Doctor Brown’s in the good ‘ol US of A work too. But this drink didn’t taste like any of those products. It tasted like drinking vanilla. Pure vanilla, with barely a hint of cherry. Now normally I don’t like vanilla because I consider it too plain, too, you know, vanilla. But this was too potent. The beverage wasn’t even the right colour, a clearish reddish liquid rather than a syrupy eggplant reminiscent of unrefined oil.
I told the waiter (politely) how I felt, and he immediately offered me another drink, on the house. He recommended the ginger ale. I acquiesced. Unfortunately, that came to a similar result. It tasted like drinking ginger. It was moderately more tolerable than the black cherry, but if I was wandering for 40 years in the desert, thirsty, and I was offered either of these two drinks, I think I’d hold off for the next oasis.
The third drink I was offered, again on the house, was an apple soda. This was actually quite enjoyable; tasted like drinking apple sauce, but in a good way.
But enough about the drinks. I still cling to the Jackie Mason stereotype that Jews don’t care about drinks, alcoholic or otherwise. I came to eat, and I ate well. My father and I shared a pastrami sandwich, though I easily could have had my own. They weren’t as massive as Katz’s, but they were much more affordable, and at least as good. The meat wasn’t as moist as Katz’s, but it was more flavorful, more reminiscent of Montreal smoked meat, at Schwartz’s or Brooklyn’s Mile End Deli, than your typical New York pastrami. The french fries were also good, and the matzoh ball soup was spectacular. Though it did not possess that comforting yellow glow I’m used to from deli soups, it tasted great, and came in a very hearty portion. And for dessert the chocolate babka bread pudding was divine.
Most interesting, however, was the conversation with the waiter; manager; and owner, Zach Kutsher, grandson of the owner of the famous Kutsher’s hotel in the Catskills, a Borscht-belt landmark which had a well-known and beloved kosher dining room. They were very proud of the place’s heritage, and the waiter insisted that there were “lots of Jews” there, not just the customers, but the wait staff, cooks, managers, and proprietors. Yet nobody we talked to would commit to calling Kutsher’s Tribeca a deli. The various terms they used included “deli-chic” and “upscale nouveau Jewish cuisine” and, like it says on the website, a “modern Jewish American bistro.”
This got me thinking about my advisor Hasia Diner’s book, Hungering for America, about how Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants used food traditions (or in the Irish’ case, the lack of said traditions) to consolidate their cultures in the United States. Jewish immigrants from all over Europe (and to a lesser extent Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East), brought different foods and recipes that blended together to create an American Jewish cuisine (similarly, Italian food was created in America, not Italy, where food is much more regional). Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, though not always strictly obeyed, provided an over-arching, unifying framework.
At the same time, developing these new, Americanized food traditions helped the immigrants integrate and acculturate. Today, Jews are thoroughly comfortable in America, integrated and acculturated. Restaurants like Kutsher’s, which shun the word deli but attempt to preserve something of the Jewish tradition, are all about asserting Jewish particularism within a modern, American framework. Kutsher’s is explicitly non-kosher, like the restaurant Traif in Williamsburg or Top Chef‘s Ilan Hall dressing up a matzoh ball with bacon. But in rejecting kashrut, they are also explicitly Jewish, building a new American Jewish culinary tradition, in line with all the modern techniques of nouveau cousine, but with a nod to the old country. Like my friend Noah Bernamoff of Mile End Deli, these Jewish culinary adventurers get to explore strange new worlds of food while still holding on to their Jewish roots. They get to build something new, a hybrid cuisine, Jewish, American, and whatever else entices them.
Kutsher’s does this all very well. For those who’d like a quiet deli feel and a delicious pastrami sandwich, go at lunch. For a swankier soiree with a health dose of Hebraic goodness, go for dinner. And come hungry.
Today was a day of contrasts in a city with many names. Today, it is Lviv, a Ukrainian city. Before World War II, it was Lwow, a Polish city. Before WWI, though still Polish, it was officially Lemberg, a city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And all the while, until the Second World War, it had a large Jewish minority, many of whom called it Lemberik in Yiddish. These name changes, though, only scratch the surface of the city’s fascinating and tragic history.
The city long had a Ukrainian presence, and the oldest church building, St. Nicholas, is Orthodox, dating to the 1200s. But for most of the past few centuries, Poles dominated numerically and culturally. In the late 18th century, when Poland was partitioned 3 ways, the city fell into the hands of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Through World War I, it remained mostly Polish, with a small Ukrainian minority, and a much larger Jewish minority. After the war, Poland became a nation, and though the Ukrainian population increased, they still remained the city’s third ethnic group, and the least important culturally. Then the Nazis came and murdered all the Jews, and then Stalin came and expelled all the Poles. Today, the city is almost entirely Ukrainian (with a small Russian minority), its ties to its past severed.
We hired a guide for the day, a superbly knowledgeable and friendly Ukrainian named Alex. The goal was to see mostly Jewish Lwow, but not to neglect the rest of the city. I thought of my recent discovery that my grandfather, Arnold Weinfeld, had attended Kazimierz University in Lwow from 1922 to 1926. My grandmother, Irene Weinfeld (nee Altstock) had been born and raised in the city. He was 12 years older than her, and they only met in 1944, after Poland had been liberated by the Soviets. But I imagine that they might have talked about beautiful Lwow in their courtship period. My wife, Julie, reminded me that our courtship was similar: we both graduated Harvard in 2005, but only met in New York a couple of years later. But we already had much to talk about, friends and places and memories in common, and that made the romancing all the smoother.
Thus, despite my unease at being in Ukraine, I felt excited to see the city that may have helped bring my grandparents together. Hiring a guide was the right decision, as seeing Jewish Lwow is more difficult that it sounds. We walked through the cobblestone streets, and stopped at parks and outdoor markets and decaying remnants of buildings where synagogues once stood. We saw a Jewish hospital, now simply a hospital with Stars of David adorning it. We saw doors that had once been entrances to Jewish shops, with the mezuzahs long stripped away. We saw the apartment where the famous Yiddish poet Sholem Aleichem lived, for a year in the early 20th century, en route to New York. Some of the places were marked with plaques. Others were not. Some of the plaques’ English text contained numerous spelling mistakes. Occasionally, the words “synagogue” or “Jewish community” in the Ukrainian text were scratched out.
Historian Omer Bartov wrote a book called Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present Day Ukraine. I haven’t read it, but the title says it all. Unlike in Poland, Ukraine has not made any effort to come to terms with, or even really acknowledge its Jewish past. According to Alex, the typical Ukrainian resident of Lviv probably has no idea that his or her city had once been a third Jewish.
Poland has not entirely exorcised its antisemitism, past or present. But they are trying. The rejuvenation of the Jewish neighbourhood in Cracow, the construction of the Jewish museum in Warsaw, the clear, beautiful monuments to the Jewish past throughout the country, the inclusion of Jews in Polish museums such as that commemorating Polish events such as the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, all point to this change in the right direction, a change towards objectivity in looking at the past, a change toward healing. In the essay that concluded his magisterial Postwar, the late Tony Judt observed that acknowledging and coming to terms with your antisemitic past, or at least beginning to do so, was the entry ticket into the European Union. Poland has done it. I believe Lithuania has done it. Ukraine has not.
Nonetheless, the city charmed me. We went from site to site, of the vanished Jewish past, but I imagined that my grandparents may have attended those synagogues, shopped at those shops, walked on those streets. We visited the university, now called the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, teeming with young Ukrainian students, and I imagined my grandfather in those same buildings. We went to several spectacular churches, pointing to the remaining religious diversity still present in Ukraine: from ornate Catholic churches to the dark, mysterious and beautiful houses of worship of the Ukrainian Orthodox, to the Greek Catholic cathedrals, somewhere in between. I came to enjoy the city that had made me uneasy just a day before.
In just a few days I leave Germany and I’m looking forward to finally heading home, though I find it hard to believe that soon I will be starting a semester’s work. Undoubtedly I will miss the relaxation of a country where weekend mornings find at least a dozen men drinking beer at the corner café by 10 AM. There are of course many things I won’t miss, particularly the phenomenon of dead Sundays, which compels you to join the men and their beers since there’s nothing better to do (my compromise has always been to have first a cappuccino, then a beer). I will also miss a certain German Gemütlichkeit, the admirable if always startling German penchant for nudity in nature, the haphazardness of Berlin, the tamed wildness of their forests. But most of what I will miss surrounds German food, and the way it is eaten here.
I was initially worried about what I would do for two months in a country that prides itself on its great hunks of pig, but I actually think it’s relatively easy to avoid meat in Germany, in part because it’s a wonder what they can do with a potato. There’s also a tradition of German vegetarianism tied in with other Lebensreform movements that began in the pre-World War I period (historian Steven Aschheim claims this was in direct response to Germany’s rapid industrialization), and most menus will offer a few decent vegetarian options. In any case, it’s hard to complain about their food when their beer is so nourishing.
Most symbolic (and since this is food we’re talking about, most enjoyable) for me is the German breakfast. Unlike the Italian breakfast, which is quickly finished off with a mini-pastry and shot of espresso, or the French breakfast, a paltry offering of white bread and bad coffee, the German breakfast can go on for hours. A variety of sliced cheeses and meats, boiled eggs, individual fruits and vegetables, delicious quark, cornflakes with whole milk, jams and rolls packed with nuts and grains (fascinatingly, what the Germans call a “Fitness-Brötchen” is just a roll packed with twice the normal nuts and grains). Overall there is a piecemeal quality to the breakfast. You see the foods in minimalist form, it is you who decide what to combine together, and in the end, you know exactly what you’re putting into your mouth.
Sheila Jasanoff writes that when passing its stringent 2004 law on growing genetically-modified crops, the German government, “sought to avoid controversy by opting for a legislative framework that reduced the risk of ontological mixing or impurity—thereby also minimizing the possibility of normative conﬂicts.” She goes on:
Key provisions included restrictions on the amount of land to be planted with GM crops, a national register to keep track of these crops, and a requirement that farmers pay damages to non-GM growers whose ﬁelds are contaminated by GM varieties. The horror of unregulated things, so prevalent in the German legal order, came through in a parliamentarian’s comments on the law: ‘In the interest of farmers and consumers, we do not want genetically altered foods uncontrolled and initially unnoticed to sneak onto our grocery shelves’ (Deutsche Welle, 2004b).
It is not hard to see how this emphasis on the ontological stability of food is ingrained in the very practice of eating in Germany. I’m of course coming from the perspective of someone already invested in certain eating practices. It’s not as if Germany has outlawed processed foods, which are easily found on supermarket shelves. For all I know, there may be thousands of Germans stuffing themselves silly with Cheez Whiz as we speak. Nonetheless, it is striking when I look back on my two months here and realize that, without having made any conscious effort, taking advantage only of what was on offer and even relatively cheap, I cannot think of one piece of food whose ingredients weren’t readily apparent to me: breads, yogurts, vegetables, eggs, fruits, potatoes, and so on. These have been the stuff of my diet and it lends some credence to the idea that the Germans have a very clearly defined idea of what “food” is, and it’s less important whether it’s a meat or a vegetable than whether their great-grandparents also would have recognized it as “food.”
Popular U.S. food activists, such as Michael Pollan and more recently, Jonathan Safran Foer, focus on encouraging localism, eating less or no meat, and pushing for government legislation to change the way food is produced (both in terms of cruel and environmentally-unfriendly factory farming, as well as our reliance on “monocultures of corn and soy in the field and cheap calories of fat, sugar and feedlot meat”). In contrast, the popular focus in Germany seems more firmly turned toward the threat of large corporations pushing GM-foods. Stores advertise themselves specifically as not carrying genetically-modified foods (in the US there is the more all-encompassing, fuzzy “organic,” and many stores carry both organic and non-organic products, leaving it to the customer to decide). German researchers have attempted in the past to keep GM-crop sites secret for fear that anti-GM activists would sabotage them. In contrast to Foer’s Eating Animals and Pollan’s Food Rules, German bookstores have recently been displaying Monique-Marie Robins’s Mit Gift und Genen: Wie der Biotech-Konzern Monsanto unsere Welt verändert (With Toxins and Genes: How the Biotech-Corporation Monsanto Is Changing Our World).
I’m no expert on why Germans might tend to focus more on global corporations and GM-foods than individual, vegetarian choices, but I can take a few guesses. First there’s the tradition of the small, European Union-subsidized farmer in Germany, and more pride in regional food and recipes (living in Bamberg this past month, it’s nearly impossible to get away from their local Frankish method of dousing everything in heavy sauces). There is a daily fruit market in Bamberg (an old, medieval city that emerged from WWII largely intact) in a square next to a street called “Obstmarkt” (i.e. fruit market). It makes me wonder if the city’s residents haven’t been buying their fruit in this square for centuries. There has also already been concrete government involvement in banning factory farm practices. In 2009 a German law passed making it illegal to keep chickens in small, individual cages (in the States, this has been banned only in California), there is a detailed system of numbering eggs according to how the chicken was raised, and recently there’s been a governmental scandal involving accusations of animal cruelty against a minister of agricultural resources. High politics and animals mix in a way they don’t in the US, and Germans may feel they have a better sense of where their meat came from, how it was treated, and how it connects to traditional norms of eating.
But beyond this, I think American food activism is still very much tied up in personal responsibility, while German activism focuses on attacking that which structures and pollutes our choices: the global, the (often American) corporation. In the end, while Pollan and Foer urge engagement with government, their suggested journeys are distinctly individualistic. Just as each of us must take a look at our carbon footprint, each of us must also work to change the world through our daily habits, our patronage of the green market and, if we are to eat meat, the local farm that we ourselves have visited. We are to vote with our forks, and by forks I mean wallets. Perhaps due to a history of corporatism, where industries/professions are expected to self-regulate and trusted corporations drive policy, Germans focus in on companies who have been remiss in their duties, such as agricultural corporations who endanger the purity of “food.”
To get to the point, all this makes me wonder whether an American discourse focused overwhelmingly on individual actions actually causes us to cede responsibility, to fail to hold the bigger picture responsible, and to leave those who lack the time and money to be “individually responsible” in the hands of corporations like Monsanto. Much of this thinking was sparked by an article I recently read by Leslie J. Reagan on miscarriage in America. She describes how there was a brief moment in the 1970s when herbicides/toxins like 2,4,5-T were recognized as causing miscarriages, but the media discourse soon shifted to zone in on individual woman’s responsibilities (e.g. no smoking, drinking, caffeinating during pregnancy).
Media coverage of the effects of industrial and agricultural practices on pregnancy proved short lived, however, and refocused instead on the individual woman. The shift from corporate to individual responsibility for miscarriage and other reproductive misfortunes had broad political ramifications, implying that the solution to the problem of miscarriage would be found in reforming individual women rather than reforming corporate practices… [P]regnant women found themselves scrutinized and criticized by strangers in restaurants and doctors in hospitals. The impact of this philosophy of individual mother-blaming was differentiated by class and race. Low-income women and African American women in particular bore the brunt of official punitive responses to mothers’ perceived misbehavior…
All of this rings very true. My sister just had her first baby, and while what she could eat and drink was the topic of weekly discussions (“Really? No coffee???”), not once did we give much thought to environmental factors that might harm the birth. And all this connects, I think, to the way food activists like Michael Pollan struggle when confronted with activists concerned with hunger and poverty, like Joel Berg. The two had a recent exchange in the New York Review of Books. With a focus on individual eating plans, activists like Pollan haven’t thought enough about how to change the system in such a way as to also benefit those without the money or time (Pollan really needs to recognize that having the time to prepare healthy foods can also be a privilege) to be “individually responsible” in the current sense of the phrase. And this prioritizing focus on personal responsibility can give ammunition to media commentators, who generally like to wallow in their obtuseness, and to take one example, portray urban single mothers as “lazy” or “welfare queens” because their body shape suggests stereotypes of slothfulness (as Pollan is right to emphasize, it is the stuff of cheap food that leads directly to high rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes). This discourse in turn allows the media to blame the urban poor for not taking responsibility for their own health and income.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the individual ethical, am a personal fan of localism and eating less meat, like a lot of what Michael Pollan says, but if this becomes the mantra of American food then we risk leaving a lot of people in the dust, and at the hands of media commentators, McDonalds, and Monsanto.
Sorry for the limited blogging. I just got back from my honeymoon in Kauai, Hawaii’s beautiful “Garden Island.” The main attraction on the island is its natural beauty.
Of course, as a historian, I’m often more interested in “unnatural” beauty, or that which is in some ways, artificial, human-made, that is to say, culture. And my wife and I got to take in some of that too. For example, we attended a “traditional” Hawaiian luau at our hotel. We ate ahi, and poke, and kalua pork and all the rest. And we watched hula dancers dance to Hawaiian music.
I am not even remotely an expert on Hawaiian history or culture, but reading a little book on the Hawaiian love affair with Elvis provided some background. While the native Hawaiian people of Polynesian descent possessed a rich religious heritage, their music was mostly mono-tonal until the arrival of Western instruments in the 1800s. As for the hula, the dance we saw appeared to be a hodgepodge of ancient and modern styles blended together.
Having been exposed to (if not infected by) your typical grad student pomo bullshit, I couldn’t help but think about colonialism. I worried about my Western Gaze staring at the native Hawaiians, how mostly white Euopean and Americans have appropriated and bastardized Hawaii’s cultural heritage, now exploiting their people for our own entertainment in a display not too far off from minstrelsy. Oy vey.
But then I realized how superficial and simplistic an analysis this would be. Indeed, as my advisor frequently warns me, “authenticity” is a terrible word for scholars because it usually has no meaning. Nothing we see today is “authentic” in the sense that it is virtually unchanged from the past and unaltered by foreign influence. And that’s a good thing.
At my very own wedding, which just preceded said honeymoon, I took pleasure in the fact that our ketubah, or wedding contract, contained the millenia old Aramaic text. But it also contains a modern Hebrew and English text, which reflect our progressive and egalitarian Jewish values that developed as the Jewish religion evolved over centuries. And the hora we danced, as Jewish a tradition as any I can think of, has its origins among gentiles in the Balkans.
When I go to ethnic restaurants, I often ask for the most “traditional” dish (occasionally I use the word authentic, I admit it). Because I like to experience the food that is most associated with a given group or culture. But language can be a barrier, rendering the quest for authenticity fraught with difficulty.
On the flight home, the plane showed an episode of Anthony Bourdain‘s No Reservations where he explored various iconic restaurants and shops in Manhattan. Along with stops at Katz’s and Russ and Daughters, Bourdain also popped in to Hop Kee, the restaurant in Chinatown his parents took him to as a kid. Yet as Bourdain discovered, the “traditional” wonton soup, egg roll, BBQ spare ribs, pork fried rice, sweet and pungent pork and fortune cookies, that he ordered as a kid were not “authentic” to the Cantonese regulars who frequented the place. They didn’t order from the menu, but instead asked for traditional dishes in their native tongue: crab Cantonese style, black bean snails, and pan fried flounder. Noting the vast difference, Bourdain joked that his “whole childhood was a hollow sham.” But of course, it wasn’t. It felt authentic to them, and more important, it tasted good and brought fond memories flooding back to him.
And so, we enjoyed the Luau. Especially the fire dancers.
I had no idea how authentic it was, but then again, I have no idea what that really means. Furthermore, any comparison to minstrelsy seems off base. I have no idea how well paid the performers in the luau are, whether they enjoy their work, to what extent they embrace their heritage and the changes that have happened to it and a million other details. So better not to judge and simply enjoy than to judge incorrectly.
And so overall, it was a great honeymoon. And no, this blog entry was not just an excuse to post pictures. Well, not entirely.
I always wondered whether Israel had any real North American style Jewish delis. Wonder no more. This post from blogger Phoebe alerted me to the existence of Ruben’s, a North American style deli in Tel Aviv, soon to open a second location in the city.
Phoebe is right to note the Zionist rejection of galut, i.e. Exile, as a prime cause for the lack of deli in the Holy Land:
The traditional Israeli wariness about the Diaspora probably lumps together presumed-self-hatred, 19-year-olds without hot bods, and matzo ball soup, rejecting all of this in the name of creating and sustaining the New Jews.
Phoebe is a bit off track, though, when she notes that “if this deli is inspired by NY delis, it will be somewhat like the delis in NY.” For a closer reading of the article makes mention of another important deli city:
“Ruben’s success has exceeded our expectations,” bragged Gavriel Zilber, 31, one of the restaurant’s owners. “I think we’re successful because Israelis recognize the quality of our product. But also, it reminds them of visits to New York and Montreal.”
Indeed, Zilber admits that his inspiration came not from Kats’s in New York’s Lower East Side, but Schwartz’s, Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen.
Most Israeli customers at Ruben are unaware of the Jewish roots of the food they’re eating. Zilber, a native-born Israeli, downplays the connection, although he admits that his inspiration is the legendary Schwartz’s deli in Montreal.
“I was working as a chef at a restaurant in Montreal, and every night after we closed, we could help ourselves to all the steak and caviar we could eat. Still, we’d end up going to grab a bite at Schwartz’s,” Zilber recalled. “That’s when I said we have to have something like this in Israel.”
Beyond my Montreal deli pride, I think something important is emerging here. It’s interesting that a lot of Israelis aren’t aware of deli as Jewish food, but I guess this is because deli, as we understand it, is an American invention. As Gil Shefler of The Forward notes:
Delis serving hallmark fare like oversized sandwiches and matzo balls larger than baseballs are a distinctly American creation. Eastern European Jews invented them only after their arrival in the New World, around the turn of the 20th century, and combined Old Country staples with local favorites and ingredients.
As David Sax, author of Save the Deli and the blog of the same name, writes, political as well as geographic reasons led a separate Israeli culinary tradition, and “falafel became the official food of Israel.”
This all reminded me of an interesting conversation I had with an Israeli student in my department, who told me that in Israel, the stereotype of the “Jewish mother” is called the “Polish mother.” This makes sense, as most of the mothers in Israel are Jewish, but it showed that American Jewish culture doesn’t always resonate in the same way in the Jewish State.
That’s why Zilber emphasizes the “quality” of his deli as the major selling point. He does, however, also recognize the familiarity for those American and Canadian ex-pats living in Israel. I think the latter factor may more important than he realizes. And an Ashenazi North Amerian style deli might have even more success in Jerusalem than Tel Aviv.
In the Emek Refaim area of Jerusalem, there are tons of American Jews doing study abroad. Walking around that neighbourhood, one almost hears more English than Hebrew. My rule of thumb there is that if I see a yarmulke or a long skirt, it probably means the person is American.
I suspect that these Americans would love to have a real good kosher deli to remind them of home.
Of course, the tragedy is that those Jews who abide by the Orwellian money-making scam that is glatt kashrut have likely never tasted Schwartz’s or Katz’s or any real good deli. Though maybe this is an advantage, because even if Ruben’s isn’t up to those lofty standards, the kosher-keeping customers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.