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.