When the sun set on November 28, Jews across the world lit two candles to observe the first night of Hanukkah (the first is called a shamash, a “helper candle” that lights all the others). But for chef and owner Craig Stoll of San Francisco Italian restaurant Delfina, Hanukkah started weeks earlier, when the restaurant opened up online orders for latkes, along with fixings of Belfiore creme fraiche and Sqirl conserva. This year, the restaurant will sell 24,000 latkes as part of its take-home Hanukkah service, paying homage to the Jewish festival of lights and offering non-Jewish clientele an opportunity to take part in the holiday, with or without candles.
This isn’t Stoll’s first foray in shepherding Jewish cuisine through the kitchen of his Neapolitan pizzeria. When he moved to the Bay Area in the late 1980s to lay the foundation for what would become a defining foothold on the region’s understanding of Italian cuisine, Stoll, who is Jewish, crafted a menu that reflected a Jewish interpretation of the country’s food culture, featuring items like carciofi alla giudia (Roman-style fried Jerusalem artichokes) and bollito misto (an Italian stew) with brisket and tongue alongside a kumquat mostarda. At Delfina, diners might not know they’re eating Jewish food or even that Italian food can be simultaneously Jewish until they’re informed of a dish’s history. At a time of year when the overlap couldn’t be more explicitly illustrated, it begs the question: What makes Jewish food Jewish?
For Kristin Eriko Posner, a San Francisco-based Jewish and Japanese cook and recipe developer, Jewish food is defined by both tradition and community, anchored as much by the historical stories dishes carry as their ability to inspire new traditions. It’s an intentional interpretation of Jewish food and one that informs Nourish Co., the lifestyle brand for multicultural and interfaith households she founded in 2016.
Posner converted to Judaism six years ago after she married her Ashkenazi (an ethnic distinction referring to Jews of European, particularly Eastern European, descent) Jewish husband. Posner says converting to Judaism brought her closer to her Japanese heritage, which she had long felt connected to through food. She’s since created Jewish-Japanese staples that honor both her and her husband’s food traditions, like mochi sufganiyot and mochi latkes. This year she plans to order latkes from Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen, a staple for Bay Area Jews, and offer a toppings bar of persimmon, Fuji apple relish, sour cream, and fresh ikura. In blending flavors from her two cultures, she’s grown an appreciation for what they share. “In both Judaism and Japanese culture, I feel like there’s always way too much food on the table, and I think that comes from a history of not having enough,” Posner says. “The only Japanese anchor in my life was food, and I think that’s true for a lot of like Jews in the diaspora … it’s kind of a way to ground us.”
Both a self-identified Jew by choice and a Jew of color, Posner is careful not to label Ashkenazi Jewish food as “Jewish food” writ large, to avoid acquiescing to larger forces of Ashkenormativity within American Jewish culture. Centering Jewishness around the existences of (largely white) European Jews can erase Sephardic and Mizrahi people and traditions, Posner says, referring to Jews whose lineage is rooted in Spain, Iran, Iraq, and Ethiopia, among other countries. “It’s so easy to do that when the norm here is [established] because so many people are Ashkenazi Jewish, but that doesn’t mean that Sephardic and Mizrahi people don’t exist too and their cultures aren’t important and beautiful.”
With this, Posner hints at something more entrenched: when what it means to be Jewish is so often defined by what counts as Jewish food, it’s critical that the definition of Jewish food considers all Jews, and not just centered on those whose food traditions are most associated with one of the most well-known Jewish holidays.
Despite its relative insignificance in the Hebrew calendar, Hanukkah is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays, due in part to its marketing as the American Jewish alternative to Christmas. Like most Jewish tales, Hanukkah is the story of an almost-annihilation, when the Syrian King Antiochus sent his army into ancient Jerusalem to destroy the Jewish temple. The Maccabees, an unofficial army of under-resourced farmers and rebels who organized a defense of the temple, defeated King Antiochus’ deputies. They later illuminated the Temple Mount for eight days and nights by way of a single jar of oil — an unlikely feat considered a miracle, and the reason behind the holiday’s tradition of fried food.
Latke, the Yiddish word for pancake, is a fried mixture of shredded potato, onion, salt, pepper, egg, and some kind of additional binding agent, like flour or matzo meal. Fried until golden brown, latkes are typically served with sour cream and applesauce. They are an Ashkenazi food with history rooted in Spanish colonialism of Colombia; settlers sourced potatoes from Colombia for Europe, where they were then relegated to prison food and made a staple for people who couldn’t afford much else, including Russian Jews. Because they were cheaper to make, by the late 1800s potato latkes supplanted the Hanukkah tradition of serving ricotta cheese pancakes, which had made their way to European countries when the Spanish government exiled Jews from Sicily in the late 1400s.
For David Nayfeld, the Ashkenazi Jewish chef and owner of Divisadero Street Italian spot Che Fico, food is central to Jewish self-definition; for both secular and practicing Jews, food allows for an exploration, and potential reclamation, of one’s heritage. And like Posner, Nayfeld says in order to create Jewish food, there should be some element of history, culture, and knowledge sharing in the meal.
Che Fico is offering Hanukkah meals for pickup, with menu items ranging from brisket to latkes to butternut squash lasagna. But all year round, the restaurant’s menu also includes Roman Jewish, Sicilian Jewish, and Venetian Jewish dishes, including, including pollo arrosto and zabaione with pear and persimmon. “The inspiration behind some of the decor and also the menu at Che Fico was my parents’ journey as refugees from the former USSR to staying in Rome while they were waiting for their refugee status, and then ultimately coming to the United States,” Nayfeld says.
Prior to mass migrations to the U.S., living in somewhat culturally segregated neighborhoods, often called shtetls, allowed Jews to merge culturally Jewish food with ingredients and techniques from the countries in which they resided, which is why there seem to be so many organic crossovers between Jewish food and German, Moroccan, Iraqi or Italian food, for instance. And it’s through this adaptation and adjustments for religious norms that food becomes Jewish. “It’s about the people that adopt it and that proliferate it, and that they make their imprint onto it,” Nayfeld says. Take marsala wine, for instance. “When Jews ultimately made it to Sicily on the coast there and set up shop for hundreds of years, actually thousands of years before they were exiled … rather than taking maybe something expensive like veal or something they didn’t eat like pork cutlets and serve it with a marsala sauce, they [made] chicken cutlets or a roast chicken with marsala sauce.”
On holidays like Hanukkah, Jews can engage with tradition with regional adaptations of Jewish foods. For American Jews without access to a Jewish bakery, a doughnut can become a worthy supplement for sufganiyot. For Jews living in Hawai’i, it’s the dense and chewy malasada, and in India, Bene Jews eat gulab jamun. In this sense, food becomes Jewish through the meeting of tradition and adaptation, of ancient storytelling and acculturation; Jewish food is about the how of food, as much as the what.
Jewish food traditions don’t even necessarily need to be created by Jews in order to be accepted into the Jewish culinary canon. For decades, Stoll has sold matzo ball soup at Delfina, using the same recipe that he grew up with — one that features matzo balls with the surprising addition of half a walnut at their center. It was a family tradition Stoll brought to the Bay Area from Florida, one he didn’t know the origin of until his adulthood. The story goes that his grandmother’s housekeeper was assisting with the soup one year, and as they prepared the matzo ball mixture to cook, “they put a walnut in it and [everyone] loved it. And no one ever knows why, but that just became a thing in the family.” Years later, Stoll says, “I’m reading the recipe on the box … and it instructs you to form the batter into a ball the size of a walnut.” What was thought of as an inexplicable family tradition turned out to be a message lost in translation, but thus was born a new Jewish food.
At the same time, some Jewish foods are so acculturated that they hardly register as even having Jewish origins, like the bagel, hawked first by Polish Jews. In accordance with Jewish food symbolism, circular bread without a clear beginning or end is very Jewish. Roundness reflects the passage of time and the poetry of being without endings, suggesting that Judaism itself, and maybe Jewish food too, relies on a cycle of constant renewal and regeneration.