Are You What You Eat?
by Jhos Singer
Shalom Chaverim – Passover is upon us, with all of its gustatory restrictions, creativity, and nostalgia. I wrote my Master’s thesis in Jewish Studies on the particular power found in the unlikely tasting profile of Manischewitz Concord Grape wine. I continue to find it fascinating that Judaism, whose wine culture is one of the world’s oldest, could have ever found itself associated with a fermented grape product that transgresses everything wine represents. But such is the way with people, and food, and culture. We do what we must in the name of sanctification.
Our Torah is rife with epicurean and gastronomic references. We are admonished to not eat certain meats or combinations of foods; we are admonished to eat particular foods that will remind us of our history; we are instructed to share our edible bounty with those who have not. Food is survival and ritual; food is symbolic and story. Every Jewish holiday has a prevalent food component—from the dairy spread of Shavuot to the fried foods of Chanukah; the fruit platters of Tu Bishvat to the Schnapps of Purim. Even Yom Kippur makes the list by featuring an overpowering emphasis on the lack of food. But of all these holidays, in my mind, Passover reigns supreme.
It is here that the Torah gives us ancient recipes and commands us to eat matzo, and lamb with bitter herbs, roasted with fire, not boiled or braised. (Exodus 12:3-9) And with this the rabbis had a field day: adding charoset as a stand-in for the mortar used to bind bricks; karpas—sweet greens dipped in salt water as a way to taste hope and tears; and wine—lots of wine—each goblet a reminder of our liberation, deliverance, redemption, and relationship to the Divine.
So is it any wonder that Jewish culture is known for its strange, sometimes unhealthy, and slightly obsessive relationship to food? I cannot help but notice the paradox of taking matzo, the bread of affliction, the poor person’s bread, the stuff we are supposed to eat to remind us of having been slaves in Egypt, and turning it into cakes and cookies, slathering it with chocolate and toffee, soaking it in egg and sugar cinnamon. I engaged with a colleague in a conversation recently about the linguistic trend to refer to chocolate toffee matzo as “Passover Crack” or “Matzo Crack”. My friend pointed out that “crack” as a modifier has made it into the mainstream with an array of junk foods—crack chicken, crack pie, crack slaw—(basically anything becomes “crack” if you slather it in bacon, cream cheese, ranch dressing, butter, and sugar). And she pondered the political insensitivity of this word choice. Does it trivialize the communities that have been devastated by the drug epidemic of the same name?
Or, I asked, in the case of “matzo crack” does using that word point to a disturbing human tendency to remain addicted, oppressed, enslaved, and compromised? Is it in the nature of telling a traumatic story, over and over, year after year, to have its own dangerous edge? The intent of the Torah is to have every generation wrestle with, contemplate, and internalize the paradox of survival—keeping the memory of oppression alive so we can celebrate our liberation.
Our modern urban relationship to food is complex. The fact that we associate an addictive and debilitating street drug with food, only half joking, is evidence enough that we have a long way to go before we are truly free.
May the time come, speedily and soon, when we have mastered separating the past from the present, and may we move, truly free, into the future with clarity, strength, and health.