Food, Memory and Storytelling by Oakley

My people have a saying that sums up just about every Jewish celebration: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” Jewish holidays are filled to the brim with culinary symbolism, from the much-discussed seder plate of Passover to the slightly more subtle round challah of Rosh Hashanah. I cannot think of a single Jewish meal that doesn’t involve some sort of religious story or representation. Even Hanukkah, though it is not a hugely important holiday, tells its story through the use of oil in cooking. In fact, Jewish food and storytelling go hand in hand. Holidays are more than an occasion to receive presents or light candles (though those are important too), they give us a chance to tell our stories, remember our history, and keep our culture alive through the traditions of food.

Since Jewish holiday food is deeply symbolic, it seems only fair to consider how a symbolic anthropologist would analyze it. Discussing the symbolism of the foods that we eat is actually a major part of most holiday services. On Hanukkah, we eat foods cooked in oil to represent the oil in the lamps that lasted for eight days and eight nights. The Passover seder tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt using food to symbolize slavery, freedom, and other aspects of the tale. However, there is more symbolism to these meals than that which is explicitly stated. Jewish meals symbolize tradition, resolution, survival. This food has endured for thousands of years, through violence and discrimination, to reach us today. Jewish meals are representative of our history as a people.

An anthropologist using practice theory would take a different stance. We may talk about the symbolism of our food, but what are we actually doing when we eat the holiday meals? Besides the obvious “eating for survival”, Jewish meals are meant to bring people together. Literally. Cooking these meals requires quite a few hands, so people in the community have to be together in order to make the proper holiday meal. This serves the purpose of getting as many Jews as possible to join in the holiday. With everyone together, we can relive our history and tell the stories of our people. We reinforce the importance of carrying on the Jewish religion and educate the next generation. Although there is little in the Jewish religion that is not discussed at length, some of the things that are taken for granted can tell us a lot about different religious denominations. Does your Bubbe clean every crumb of bread from her house in the spring? Does your family choose pastrami over cheeseburgers? Does your favorite cookie have a name that nobody can pronounce (hint: they’re hamentaschen). Some of the foods that we eat are hard to explain, because that’s just the way we’ve always eaten. A practice theorist would look at these eating habits that we don’t really think about.

Food is a critical part of Jewish history and ceremony. We have to remember, and the symbolism of our holiday meals is one way of doing this. From the outside, eating jelly donuts on Hanukkah or parsley in salt water on Passover may just appear to be a delicious or confusing quirk of the Jewish religion. But food, which may be a fairly mundane part of everyday life in the secular world, becomes a method of storytelling and cultural renewal when brought into the world of the sacred.

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10 Responses to Food, Memory and Storytelling by Oakley

  1. Chelsea McGuire says:

    I really love your blog. Your shared memories and food remind me of what is so special about culture. I hear a lot of functionalism in your paper as well, like in your last paragraph when you talked about food being a method of “cultural renewal.”

  2. Juliana says:

    I loved this essay…it reminded me of all the wonderful holidays I have spent with my family discussing the endless adversities our people have faced. Regardless of our obstacles, we have always managed to cook up a good meal. My father always reminisces about the cod that his grandmother used to catch and keep in the bathtub until she reformed it into gefilte fish that my father never fails to describe with intense detail. While food may not be of strong importance in many aspects of American culture, I always feel very lucky that I got to be a part of warm matzoh ball soup, questionable gefilte fish, and sweet challah on Friday nights.

  3. MelissaDanielle Lauro says:

    I really enjoyed this essay! I am Jewish but I grew up in an area where, as far as we knew, there were no other Jews, so many of our holidays were celebrated with just my small family and did not have the large community that many others are accustomed to. My mother still made a point to tell my sister and I the stories of the food, but to me it did not have the same meaning when it was just told to the two of us. One year for passover we visited my mother’s family in Boston and the experience of the holiday was entirely different. The food really did bring together the community, and the togetherness and solidarity of it created a whole new meaning for me.

  4. Jessica Wentworth says:

    This is very interesting. I honestly don’t know much about Jewish culture so I really learned a lot. you took a very interesting look at this topic, especially the section on practice theory. Its so interesting to look at how different things interact and how they can bring people together. In any culture, it seems, food almost always is able to bring people together.

  5. Mariah Stoneman says:

    I really liked this essay because it is first hand evidence of the power of food. I’m not sure if this is only a thing in my family but some of our best memories have been in the kitchen. Food can bring people together, & bring overall health and happiness. I was unaware of all the unique traditions for jewish celebrations. I would like to see more history behind why you eat what you eat and what kind of stories relate.

  6. Jacqueline Joyal says:

    The symbols in food, especially food related to religious holidays or events, is typically full of symbolism. I like that you related the food to the symbolism, but I wish there was more. Wicca is another religion that holds quite a bit of symbolism in everything. Their changing of the seasons is a show of how the Goddess and the God are ever changing, from birth to death, maidenhood to motherhood.

  7. Laura Graham says:

    I loved this blog! I think the two theories you chose to explore it through fit perfectly. I’d be interested in learning more about the symbolism behind certain Jewish foods. In my family we don’t really have any foods with significant symbolism behind them. However food still does play a role in bringing everyone together around the holidays. Its interesting how that seems to happen everywhere.

  8. Chris Manning says:

    i’m taking a religion class right now, and we just finished out section on judaism, so this was especially interesting to read about. We learned more of the large historical facts rather than many of the smaller details in their traditions, so its nice learning about a few of these to out into context what i learned in other classes.

  9. Mackenzie Carson says:

    I liked this piece and found it interesting to learn more about the Jewish religion, which I don’t know much about. I especially liked how you used personal anecdote. This made the blog much more interesting, relatable and personal in my opinion.

  10. Maddie Ohaus says:

    I really loved reading this essay and learning about the Jewish religion through food which I did not know much bout before reading. It was very interesting and informing. The theories you used flowed very well with each other and you did a great job of relating your topic to them. I love the idea that food is more than just something we use to nourish our bodies but also to nourish our souls and you did a very good job at displaying that!

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