Parasha Vayikra “Food, Glorious Food”

This evening, in honor of the start of the Book of Leviticus in our annual Torah reading, I am going to talk about food. Food, you ask? We thought the Book of Leviticus is about sacrifices and the laws of purity! But, what are sacrifices if not food? All ancient peoples worshipped their gods by providing sacrifices to them. They imagined they were feeding their hungry gods. The Jewish people also sacrificed to the G-d of Israel, but not to provide food to satisfy G-d’s hunger. Rather, the Torah tells us that G-d was pleased with the aroma of the cooking food. Rashi reminds us that this metaphor means that a sacrifice performed with the proper intention and the proper ritual would be as pleasing to G-d as a pleasant aroma would be pleasing to a human being.

What do you think is the most Jewish of foods?  Perhaps for some of you Challah is the most Jewish food. As we know it is a reminder of the manna that G-d sent to sustain the Jewish people in the wilderness. It also graces our tables on Friday nights and festivals. Each week the priests of the Temple would place loaves of bread on the table in front of the ark. Surely the challah is the most Jewish of foods. This week I learned something about the origins of Challah, and this led me to conclude that Challah is not the most Jewish food. The braided bread that we call Challah was invented by the women of the Teutonic tribes of what is now Germany. They used to offer the braids of their own hair to a German goddess. In order to preserve their own braids they began offering the goddess a braided bread instead. German Jews of the 15thcentury adopted this custom of braided bread, using it for the bread placed on the Sabbath table each week. The custom of using a braided bread for Sabbath eventually spread all over Europe. It turns out that the name of the Teutonic goddess to whom the bread was offered was “Holle”, from which the name “Challah” comes from.

Knowing this, I cannot accept that “Challah” is the most Jewish of foods.

Surely, then, the most Jewish food is chicken soup! After all for generations Jews have enjoyed chicken soup at Passover Seders, Rosh HaShannah dinners and Friday night meals.  But chicken soup was invented by the Chinese around the time when chickens were domesticated — between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago. True, the Chinese are the most Jewish of the non-Jews, which is why one finds Chinese restaurants packed with our people on Christmas day! The medieval rabbi and physician Maimonides learned from Chinese and Greek texts about the medicinal properties of chicken soup. In his book, “On the Causes of Symptoms”, Maimonides recommends chicken soup to “neutralize body constitution”. He also recommends it for the treatment of asthma and leprosy. Known by some in our day as “The Jewish Penicillin”, chicken soup is prescribed as a treatment for anything from the common cold to a broken heart. I don’t know about you but, given the Chinese connection, I am not sure I would pick chicken soup as the most Jewish of foods — although it surely lifts the spirits warms the heart.

For me personally the most Jewish of foods is……….. the eggplant! The eggplant originated in India and was brought to Spain by the Arabs. There it became a dietary staple of Sephardic Jewry, much like the potato would become the staple of Eastern European Jewry. When the Jews were expelled from Spain, the eggplant and its recipes went with them.  The Jews then spread their love of eggplant dishes throughout the Mediterranean countries where they settled.

There are three reasons I think the eggplant is the most Jewish of foods. First, it went into exile with the Jewish people when we were expelled from Spain and took root in other countries, just like us. Second, the eggplant was considered poisonous in much of Europe and was not consumed, thereby suffering the same kind of undeserved discrimination as the Jewish people. Third, did you know that the eggplant is a berry? To the blueberry and the raspberry, the strawberry and the blackberry, the eggplant must look like a very odd berry indeed. The eggplant is the outsider of the berry family, the berry that is different.

Another reason I choose the eggplant as the most Jewish of foods is that Jews composed songs to the eggplant. For example there is the Ladino song “Si Savesh la Buena Djente” in which an eggplant and a tomato battle it out for supremacy. Then there is the song “Siete Modos de Guisar la Berenjenas”—Seven Ways to Cook Eggplant. This song is actually a shortened version of a Ladino poem describing 35 ways to cook eggplants. It goes like this:

Siete modos de de guisados/se guisa la berenjena La primera que la guise  /es la vava de Elena Ya la hace bocadicos  /y la mete en una cena Esta comida la llaman  /comida de berenjena

There are seven different ways to cook eggplant. The first recipe is that of Elena’s grandmother. She cuts it into bite-sized pieces and serves it for supper and this meal is called a dish of eggplant.

Chorus: Ah, my Uncle Cerasi, how he likes to drink wine/ Wine wine wine – lots of it he feels fine

La segunda que la guise  /es la mujer del Shamas /La cavaca por arientro y la hinchi d’aromat /Esta comida la llaman /la comida la dolma

The second kind is that of the shammas’s wife. She hollows it out and fills it with herbs. This meal is called a dish of dolmá.(stuffed vegetables).

Follow this link for a version of this song. I think you will like it

Siete Modos de Guisar la Berenjenas

To that we say – be-te-a-von — Bon Apetit!  And Shabbat Shalom