The Kitchen

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June 4, 2009
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Rachel Kahn-Troster

I won’t be able to write Torah about a Jewish kitchen on an empty stomach, so I wander into my kitchen. As the garlic in the pan starts sizzling and popping (soon to be joined by chard, probably an alien vegetable to my Ashkenazi ancestors), I take a quick inventory of the room: two sets of dishes, milchig and fleishig, and enough of both to invite guests to our table; a really big fridge; some ritual items in danger of getting smashed by my toddler; meat/dairy labels on everything, the result of a marriage between someone who grew up kosher (how do I know which pot is for which? Because I just do) and someone who believes he will be struck by lightning if he uses the wrong sponge. There is also a wok; exotic spices like cumin and coriander; meat from happy, local grass-fed lambs; organic lactose-free milk; and a take-out menu for sushi. How did the Jewish kitchen turn into this?

One of my teachers taught that Jewish eating, and Jewish rules about eating, had long been a mimetic tradition, transmitted from mother to daughter in a parallel track to the Judaism of the book. I can hear the questions now from each generation of children: “Mama, why do we eat this? Mama, why are we cooking special food tonight? Mama, can I have a taste?” The books might tell the official story, the study house might be the place of masters and students, of arguments and interpretation, but the Jewish kitchen transmits the personal stories of our individual families — folk Judaism. As a rabbi and a mother, I love both worlds. I remember one year when, as a mouthy child, I told my mother I did not want our seder to “just be about the food.” She scolded me, saying that I was denying the contribution of every generation of women in our family to the meal. The generations of Jewish women (and men) who have cooked and nourished have created a culinary midrash on the cultures they lived among, giving birth to a wide variety of Jewish foods.

When imagining this Jewish kitchen, it would be easy to just picture comforting, nourishing images: chicken soup, gefilte fish, a warm gathering place. One of my favorite Yom Kippur sermons pictures God as an old woman, welcoming her errant child into her kitchen once more, everything remembered and forgiven. But the Jewish kitchen is also a place of rupture. We’re several generations past assuming it’s a kosher kitchen, and many of us could not even replicate our grandmother’s recipes if we tried. Like many American kitchens in general, the slowly simmered tastes of the Jewish kitchen are being replaced with quick, convenience tastes and ingredients. And many of us want to branch out beyond chopped liver, chicken soup, and kugel, to create new stories.

The renovated Jewish kitchen teaches us to enlarge our culinary palette; that adaptation, like tradition, is also a core Jewish value. On a Friday afternoon we might take in the aroma of chamim (a Sephardi cholent) rather than chicken soup or brisket. Many of our kitchens also include the cuisines of our non-Jewish family members or neighbors—sushi Shabbat, anyone? Or the kitchen might emulate contemporary mores and values — for example, today some see vegetarianism as the purest form of keeping kosher.

How can all this thread through a Jewish kitchen? For me, what makes a kitchen Jewish is its openness — to people, stories, and especially to new tastes, textures, and smells. The kitchen is the center of the Jewish home. It is warm and embracing and spicy. Its logical extension is the Jewish table, where dishes are passed, lives are drawn together, and new members of the family are woven into the fabric of family life. Every year at Pesach, we invite new guests to join those who left Egypt, new traditions to join with the old. There is always room for one more person at this table.

And surely you’ll have another bite to eat? There is always room for that, too.

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Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is director of education and outreach for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. Passionate about the intersection of Judaism, food, and sustainability, she writes for The Jew and the Carrot (www.jcarrot.org) and is a board member of Hazon. She lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, with her husband and daughter.

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