For people around the world, food is arguably the most natural entry point to gathering and to learning more about one another’s cultures. It is no coincidence, then, that food could very well be the next force that unifies the Israeli people and American Jewry.
Growing up in New England, I was accustomed to traditional Ashkenazi foods like bagels and lox, stuffed cabbage, and chicken soup with matzo balls. But once I met my wife, Shira, a native Israeli, I was exposed for the first time not only to Israeli ethnic cuisine but also to the diversity within that space—from the Persian stew Ghormeh sabzi to the Yemenite pastry Jachnun.
The impact of this immersive culinary journey extends far beyond the palate. It shatters stereotypes about Israeli cuisine.
Today, as the discourse surrounding key issues in the Israel-American Jewry relationship occasionally veers in a controversial or even confrontational direction, food offers a more relatable way for members of the world’s two largest Jewish communities to connect. It helps them transcend the stereotypes that they may hold regarding one another, interact in an unfiltered and authentic manner, and discover new and surprising layers of their cultures.
That sentiment is the essence of “Jewish Foodie,” a 10-part original video series that was launched last month by the Ruderman Family Foundation. The series aims to encourage Israelis to deepen their knowledge about U.S. Jewish communities, and Jewish Americans to become better acquainted with their rich and diverse heritage and culture, all accomplished through a rich and fascinating culinary and cultural journey to Jewish and local food across America.
“Jewish Foodie” takes viewers on a tour of the broad diversity of American Jewry as a whole and its communities in particular through the innovative vehicle of food. The episodes focus on the personal stories and cultural influences associated with Jewish food in the Northeast, with its bagels and lox, knishes, delis, hot dogs, Chinese food and vegan fare; the Southeast, including BBQ, bourbon and baked goods; the Southwest, featuring tacos, Jewish-style burgers with latkes (“Jew Boy Burger”), huevos rancheros and rodeo food; and the Midwest, with pastrami sandwiches, bison burgers and Chanukah gelt-making.
While the series strives to expand Israeli viewers’ awareness of the Jewish food landscape in the United States, many American Jews also stand to learn something new. During my childhood, Jewish-style or kosher cuisine hardly seemed as diverse as I know it to be today. Bagels were only available at kosher bakeries, not in supermarkets. Boston had just one kosher restaurant (Rubin’s deli, which closed in 2019) and virtually no sushi—of the kosher or even non-kosher variety. On Passover, we essentially ate matzo and cream cheese for an entire week.
“Jewish Foodie” reveals the far more diverse mosaic that exists today, alongside the broader character of Jewish communities and their members. The show’s host, well-known Israeli actor and comedian Ori Laizerouvich, discovers hidden gems from the burekas of Hot Springs, Ark., to the huevos rancheros-style shakshuka of Austin, Texas, to the “HavdaChallah” (a mashup of the end-of-Shabbat ceremony and challah) of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to the music-and-food session that brings together Orthodox Jews and African-Americans in Memphis, Tenn.
The series represents our Foundation’s latest effort to strengthen the bond between Israel and American Jewry. It builds off the momentum generated in June with our launch of the “Third Generation” online series, which introduces candid conversations between American and Israeli grandparents with their grandkids, covering the generational gaps and points of view on Jewish life and Israel.
“Jewish Foodie” is a seamless next step in pursuit of this mission. Given how food is such a powerful connector between people, it is an ideal vehicle for forging warmer ties between Israelis and American Jews—enabling them to not only break bread but also to break down stereotypes.
Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.
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