On Rosh Hashanah I attended an intimate, lay-led Kabbalistic service at a private home in Denver. I hadn’t expected food, but the hosts graciously supplied several bagel varieties, four different cream cheeses, coffee and juice. People were milling around when I arrived so I decided to have a bite. I placed half a sesame seed bagel on a paper plate.
“There’s kugel, too,” said a bespectacled man with close-cropped grey hair. He pointed to a rectangular Pyrex container. Kugel is a sweet noodle casserole served on Shabbat and other holidays.
“I’m not much of a kugel person,” I said. Kugel can be gluey and heavy; comforting for some, constipating for others. My mother probably made it occasionally, but I don’t remember anyone clamoring for it.
“What, are you Catholic?” He shot me a look. Such knee-jerk reactions, especially in response to neutrally stated preferences or idiosyncrasies, have often kept me miles from the tribe. While “we are what we eat” is a useful nutritional reminder, the contra-positive, “We don’t eat what we are not” isn’t 100% accurate in religious-ethnic contexts.
“Jews don’t have to like every single traditional food,” I said, swallowing my irritation. Take gefilte fish, an appetizer which appears at Passover. If matzah is the bread of affliction, gefilte is shorthand for an afflicted fish, an otherwise recognizable creature distorted into flesh-colored lumps that sit like laboratory specimens in gelatin filled jars. It was probably tastier in Eastern Europe, when women bought fresh carp, cleaned, poached and ground it with spices, then stuffed the mixture back into the skin. Nowadays, it’s skinless; people dress it up with a sprig of parsley, a slice of boiled carrot, or a dollop of beet horseradish. Alas, the colorful accessories don’t improve the bland taste or disguise the rubbery texture. Still, even though I’ve met only a handful of people who enjoy it, gefilte fish shows up to appease the traditionalists and those consoled by ancestral food. But what if the ancestors are kvetching because, despite our kitchen gadgetry, we haven’t upgraded to Gefilte Fish 3.0, with crispy, spicy skin?
“True,” he backed down. Then, peering over his glasses, confided, “I don’t like lox.”
Later I learned that his wife was the kugel cook, using his family’s recipe. And his wife, to use an insider term, is a shiksa. That she baked and brought kugel is extremely generous, and she seemed like a lovely person. But I wonder if he suggested I eat it so that, by noodle proxy, I’d feel more affection for him, his spouse, and their relationship which, in traditional Jewish circles, would be considered a shanda. I doubt he would have tried to turn me into the outsider if he had been completely comfortable with his own identity.
In hindsight, I wish I had said, “Yes, I am catholic: ‘comprehensive in interests; broad-minded; liberal.’ ”