Invariably the expresion "Jewish food" conjures up some very vivid sensory associations in all of us. Nevertheless when we really think about it, most of the dishes that are routinely referred to as "Jewish" are in actuality nothing more than adaptations of the cuisine of the various countries to which our grandparents were scattered. The recipes are of course modified to conform to the Jewish dietary laws and, in most instances, to the impoverished circumstances in which most Jews lived. But on the whole, Polish Jewish food bears a much greater resemblance to the diet of Polish gentiles than to that of a fellow Jew in Morocco or Yemen.
Having said all this, I am still prepared to concede that there is at least one culinary item that can be accurately characterized as Jewish according to the most discriminating use of the term, and that is the humble dish known to Ashkenazic Jews as "Tsholent." Unlike almost every other one of the victuals that might lay claim to that title, the Jewishness of tsholent is not just an accidental result of the fact that many Jews happen to eat it, but its very definition is determined by the requirements of Jewish religious law. Tsholent was invented by our forefathers and foremothers in order to allow them the enjoyment of a steaming hot Sabbath meal without violating the Torah's prohibitions against cooking and the kindling of fire. To that end, methods were devised of cooking the food before the onset of the holy day and keeping the food heated overnight. One of the more difficult chapters of the Talmud deals with the precisely defined borderlines between maintaining the heat (which is permitted) and cooking the food (which is strictly prohibited). The immense variety of formulas which ingenious Jewish cooks have invented to achieve this objective will of course vary with the available ingredients and changing tastes. The resulting dishes will also go by a broad assortment of different names. But all of them share a single halakhic definition--and what can be more uniquely Jewish than a food that is defined by halakhah!
The very name tsholent attests to its quintessential Jewishness. Unlike most of the vocabulary of Ashkenazic Jewry, the name cannot be traced to either the German, Hebrew or Slavic components of the Yiddish vernacular. Linguists are not entirely certain, but the prevailing view is that the word hearkens back to the medieval French word for heat (related to the modern French chaleur), testifying to the earliest stages in the migrations of the Jews who would later settle in central and Eastern Europe.
As often happens, the clearest acknowledgment of tsholent's distinctive Jewishness comes not from Jewish sources, but from the observations of outsiders. I will confine myself here to two examples:
The Spanish Inquisition would periodically issue "Edicts of Faith" containing helpful signs through which to recognize those Conversos who were illicitly persisting in the observance of Jewish practices. One such edict includes among these tell-tale acts "cooking on Fridays such food as is required for the Saturday, and on the latter eating the meat thus cooked on the Friday, as is the manner of the Jews." The preparation and consumption of tsholent thereby became declarations of Judaism for which people might face the Inquisitor's fires.
Travelling back in time more than a thousand years earlier, we find the Roman satirst Juvenal furnishing us with a most surprising glimpse of Jewish daily life in antiquity. In his quest for a familiar visual image that would graphically depict Jewish poverty, Juvenal makes a curious reference to those Jews whose entire material estate consists of "a basket and a box of hay." What might sound puzzling to us was quite clear to Juvenal's ancient commentators: Even the poorest of Jews were popularly known to keep a "box of hay" in which they would insulate their tsholent on shabbat, to keep it from losing its heat, a method that is amply documented in the Mishnah and Talmud.
Thus we see that throughout our history, this humble and much-maligned steaming pot of beans and roast meat (or whatever ingredients you might happen to prefer) has been acknowledged by friend and by foe alike as a sublime expression of Jewish identity.
|This article and many others are now included in the book|
First Publication: Jewish Free Press, Jan. 20 1994.