As we go through life, we travel to countries or meet people from dissimilar cultures, and we naturally question our new environments. By questioning these new societies, we are able to understand more of one’s personality and identity. Cultural identity is when certain traditions, customs, beliefs and values are shared through traditional cultural practises and become meaningful and important to oneself. It contributes to how we see ourselves and the groups with which we identify. Ethnic foods offer a rich set of metaphors through which individuals can express their cultures. Food is one custom that strongly connects people to their traditions, and has been not only important in Jewish culture and history, it has been central to the Ashkenazi Jews’ ideas about themselves and about others, as well as their social and communal practices. Ashkenazis or Eastern European Jews are defined as those who, from long before 1500, lived in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and European Russia. This essay explores how food is source of cultural identity for Ashkenazi Jews living in Australia, concentrating on the connection between food and festivals, ceremonies and the Bible. As well as the contrast of how food is not the most identifiable aspect in some Ashkenazi Jews lives.
Festivals and Ceremonies
Formerly, Jews came together around a core of religious and ethnic traditions, such as synagogue affiliation, lighting of Shabbat candles and giving charity to Jewish foundations. However today, Australia’s Jewish population has encountered an internal breakdown of both the concept of community and the family unit, which have united the Jewish people for so long. Ashkenazi Jews use food as a way to unify family and friends, and reconnect with traditions and culture. Ashkenazi cuisine tends to use oil, potatoes, inexpensive cuts of meat and simple seasonings. The importance of food to Ashkenazi Jews can be learnt from the celebrated festivals and rituals. Foods related to festivals are more based on traditions and symbolism passed down generation-to-generation, rather than the Bible. A very special celebration that occurs on the seventh day of the week is Shabbat. Good and homely food is a crucial part of the mitzvah, or good deed, of oneg Shabbat, meaning ‘enjoying Shabbat’. Traditionally, Ashkenazi Jews start the event with a small serving of a fish dish; gefilte fish, poached jelly fish or pickled fish, served as an appetizer before hot soup. A chicken main dish is then served accompanied by cooked vegetables and a kugel. Finally, dessert is usually fresh or stewed fruits followed by tea and small cakes. This strongly contrasts the Sephardic Jews take on Shabbat food. Sephardic Jews reflect the foods more typical of many Mediterranean countries since Sephardic Jews are descendents of settlers from the Near East. Meals include fish with avgolemono sauce, chopped eggplant, roasted lamb, stuffed vegetables, rice and, to finish the meal, a honey-soaked cake or pastry nibbled with strong and sweet Turkish coffee. The ceremonial bread, Challah, is surrounded by folklore and tradition and laden with symbolism. On festive occasions a blessing or Motzi is said over two loaves of challah, symbolising the manna given to the people of Israel during the Exodus from Israel on Fridays. Two portions of the manna were distributed, so the Israelites did not need to work and prepare food on the Shabbat.
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Similarly to Shabbat, foods consumed on Rosh Ha’Shanah are symbolic to certain aspects to the event, and are created by the Ashkenazi cultural traditions. Rosh Ha’Shanah means ‘head of the year’; it is the New Year’s festival of the Jewish calendar and features foods to celebrate the hope of a sweet year. A hearty main meal of fish, appetizers, meats and honeyed vegetable (Tzimmes) is conventional4. The iconic foods that signify and rejoice the Jewish New Year’s are apples dipped in honey and honey cake for a good and sweet year, and the round challah and the head of a fish which represents the circle of life and marks the cyclical nature of the course of a year. The representations of Rosh Ha’shanah and Shabbat foods are significant to a majority of Ashkenazi Jews in Australia, because it enables them to link to their ancient religion physically and spiritually.
However, during the most important and solemn holiday in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Torah (Jewish scriptures) commanded “You shall afflict your souls” (Leviticus 16:29) and “For a soul which is not afflicted on that day will be cut off” (Leviticus 23:29). This has been interpreted, as Jewish people need to fast from sunset to sunset to atone for the sins of the past year. It is one of the few holidays that is not dependent on food. Thus it is one aspect which food is not a source of cultural identity. It is also an event when many Ashkenazi Jews who do not observe any other Jewish custom will refrain from work, fast and/or attend synagogue services on this day. Instead of using food as a source of cultural identity, it is the sacred religious day. Although, it is customary for Ashkenazi Jews to make a feast for breaking of the fast. Normally consisting of cakes and hot drink to break the fast, then light salads and dairy foods to aid with digestion. Proving that Ashkenazi Jews return to food in order commemorate important events that are momentous in the Jewish culture.
Impact of Ashkenazi foods on the non-Jewish communities
Jewish foods don’t only give Ashkenazi Jews themselves cultural identity, but allows non-Jewish people to recognise the Jewish culture. Australia prides itself as being a multi-cultural country. In 2011, the Census revealed that 26% of Australia’s population was born overseas and an additional one fifth had at least one parent born abroad7. Throughout the 100 years since the first National Census in 1911, a large component of the Australian population have been made up of migrants. Even though only 0.5% of Australians identify themselves as Jewish, this hasn’t swayed the impact the Jewish culture has on the Australian diet. After World War II, Jews all over the world, especially in Australia identify the bagel with the Old World and with immigrant Jewish culture10. The bagel was brought to Western societies by the Eastern European Jews from the 1890s and have become one of the most iconic foods that gentiles identify with the Jewish culture. Most of the other foods mentioned so far, are mostly restricted to those of Jewish faith and hardly are consumed by the wider community. Other Ashkenazi foods readily available in the main cities of Australia, are baked goods like babka and rugelach, fried potato pancakes known as a Latke and the blintz.
Jewish Dietary Laws – Kashrut
Jewish people are supposed to follow an intricate system of procedures and taboos in relation to food, derived from a set of commandments said to have been given to Moses by god. These commandments prohibit the eating of particular animals, the most recognised pig; they are prescribed definite methods for the slaughter and preparation of animals that are not banned. The directives have been augmented by a code of practise, known as Kashrut, intended to ensure that they are never defied. However, the observance of Jewish Dietary rules have declined sharply, with many Jews observing them only partly and many others rejecting them completely. This situation has not, however, made these dietary rules irrelevant; on the contrary, it has made them one of the most important ways through which ideas about contemporary Jewish identity and membership can be expressed. Ashkenazi Jews needed to adapt some of the Dietary Laws due to the food accessibility in some areas. Several changes that have been made are the mixing of fish and milk products, more leniency with the Kashrut for meat than Sephardic Jews and refraining from eating legumes, grain, millet and rice during the Passover festival10. In Australia, Ashkenazi Jews still continue to observe these altered rules because of the strong traditional aspects connected to them, which individualises them as a certain type of Jew.
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Today, Jews from all different areas and streams, can deem the Kosher Laws to be an ancient form of food regulations that doesn’t need to be performed in today’s society, because of the new modern methods of cleaning and preparation of foods. Other reasons are some are not informed well of the laws, and/or consider it an added expenditure and inconvenience. More recently, animal rights groups and the Australian media have exclaimed their outrage of the ill-treatment of animals during the process of Koshering meat by companies who do not provide prior stunning. This has strongly influenced Jews to disassociate themselves from obeying Kashrut, and in a few circumstances reject their Jewish identity. This is because they think the Jewish culture doesn’t respect animals. However, this contradicts what the Jews and the Torah believe. Ritual slaughter, known as shechita, is a fast, deep cut across the throat with a perfectly sharp blade with no hesitations or unevenness. This method is regarded as painless by Rabbis because Jews believe that God, would only provide for a merciful and compassionate method of send off for his creatures. The Torah is the first methodical legislation, which prohibits cruelty to animals and authorises that they be treated with consideration and value. Judaism exigencies the humane treatment of animals. As well shechita has been scientifically shown to be painless. Dr. Stuart Rosen MA, MD, FRCP discussed the behavioural responses of animals to shechita and the neurophysiologic studies relevant to the assessment of pain, and concluded, “shechita is a painless and humane method of animal slaughter”13. Jews should be proud to observe Kashrut and to identify themselves as Jewish because of the humane and clean ways of preparing food.
Cultural identity should be meaningful and personal to oneself, as well as an open exploration that should be shared. In multi-cultural societies, like Australia, recognising certain cultures can be done by looking at their foods. Ashkenazi Jews are now identifiable by non-Jewish societies, because they relate the Ashkenazi community with iconic foods, such as bagels. For Ashkenazi Jews, the saying “You eat what you are” applies perfectly. They have special foods and diets for their sacred occasions, and ritual eating at festivals and ceremonies allow Ashkenazi Jews to reflect on and identify with their culture and religion through the symbolic representations of the traditional foods. However, you are what you don’t eat as well. The solemn festival of Yom Kippur , is one of the most important Jewish festivals and requires Jews to fast from sunset to sunset. Also the laws of Kashrut have strict guidelines of forbidden foods, and precise manners of food preparation that need to be obeyed. Kosher eating is a essential part of food being a source of cultural identity, even though not every Jew observes all the laws.
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