Bagels or Bust!

Where can you go to enjoy delicious Indian chicken tikka masala, Korean kimchi and Ethiopian kitfo all in the same place? The answer, not surprising to foodies, is most urban areas in the United States. Indians, Koreans, and Ethiopians are part of a new wave of immigrants to America, and, much like earlier Italian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants, they are bringing their recipes with them and attracting an audience of Americans eager to experience new foods. Although these newest cuisines are still considered ethnic, many foods introduced by nineteenth and early twentieth-century immigrants have become staples of the American diet. This journey from ethnic speciality item to national culinary trend mirrors the move from exclusion to assimilation made by many American immigrant groups.

As I read the novel Bread Givers and encountered the Jewish community of New York’s Lower East Side, I considered the ways that Jewish foods and knowledge of Kosher law have entered mainstream American consciousness over the course of the twentieth century. The implications of this issue range from the lighthearted — where would we be without bagels and Hebrew National hot dogs? — to the more serious: how did Jewish Americans overcome the challenges of immigration to establish popular restaurants and delis?

Kosher Food Truck. Photo by Yanks9596, 2010. Wikimedia Commons.

Forshpeis! A Taste of the Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana, an exhibit that opened in 2006 at the National Museum of American Jewish History, addressed this topic and chronicled the ways that Jewish food influenced mainstream American tastes [1]. Considered together, Bread Givers and Forshpeis (which means appetizer) provide a multifaceted picture of the relationship that Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century had with their traditional foods and dietary restrictions.

Forshpeis! celebrated Jewish assimilation into American life and the contributions that Jewish people made to American cuisine. The exhibit closed when the museum opened its new building in 2010, but it maintains an online presence and objects from the exhibit remain on view at the museum. Its narrative is one of overcoming obstacles, where hard-working Jewish Americans win themselves a steady living and community respect by operating push carts, opening restaurants, and starting food manufacturing companies [2].

The exhibit also highlighted the popular American food products that Jewish families consumed and the recipes and ingredients they introduced to America as a way to feel more at home. Forshpeis! did not focus on Jewish men and women who abandoned their Jewish culinary traditions and Kosher law in order to succeed in America. Indeed, that idea runs contrary to its positive message of Jewish assimilation, economic success, cultural enrichment and the wonders of the Carnegie Deli [3].

Bread Givers tells a different, more complex, story. Protagonist Sara Smolinsky is a young Jewish girl living with her parents on the Lower East Side in the 1910s. At the age of seventeen, she runs from her overbearing father and forges a life on her own terms. She lives alone, must work to support herself, can only afford to spend 34 cents a day on food and drools over sausages that she can’t afford [4]. Likely due both to her dire economic position and her desire to assimilate into mainstream America, Sara does not keep a kosher home [4]. Focused solely on surviving and obtaining an American education, she does not observe the Jewish holidays or other Jewish food rituals. Sara sacrifices those elements of her Jewish identity so that she can pursue her personal dreams. This presents a story very different from Forshpeis!, which promotes the idea that Jewish Americans embraced and utilized their unique Jewish traditions to thrive in America. Sara’s rejection of her heritage allows her to succeed in an American academic and professional environment.

After completing her education, Sara moves back to New York City and becomes a teacher. When she asks her aging father to move in with her, he initially refuses because her home will, “contaminate his eating.”[5] Because Sara left her family and does not follow Jewish food laws, her father does not consider her Jewish [6]. By not keeping Kosher, did Sara forsake her Jewish identity? Would others in her community agree that she is not Jewish, or is that an opinion held by her father alone? Does Sara herself even care or is she satisfied knowing that she has achieved her goals? Most importantly, is her story and the story of others like her one that should be addressed by a commemorative exhibit like Forshpeis!?

[1] “Forshpeis! A Taste of the Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana,” http://www.nmajh.org/exhibitions/forshpeis/index.html

[2] “National Museum of American Jewish History Serves up Forshpeis! A Taste of the Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana,” http://bit.ly/fiT2an.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers, (New York: Persea Books, 2003), 165.

[5] Ibid., 295.

[6] Ibid., 293.



5 thoughts on “Bagels or Bust!

  1. I’m really intrigued by this as I’ve been thinking a lot about the Americanization of foods lately. After returning from Taiwan, there are certain foods that I really want, but can’t get; Chinese restaurants that have certain dishes usually have Americanized Chinese food, not authentic fare. At what point does it become a new dish?

    1. I was also thinking about the Americanization of foods. When a food becomes Americanized in many cases it barely resembles the original food that was brought here by immigrants. However, in the minds of other Americans this food becomes a symbol for people from the food’s country of origin. I think that this process can change the way other Americans see the people who are identified with that food.

      In the case of the American Chinese food, Chinese Americans are considered to be part of a culture that is represented by this food. In reality, many Chinese Americans eat traditional food at home. This process of creating a different food for American palates only captures a piece of real Chinese food and Chinese American culture. These false snapshots of culture such as fortune cookies can then create stereotypes. In reality fortune cookies are a part of American culture, but they do not necessarily accurately represent Chinese American culture. They may even perpetuate some of the false and harmful stereotypes that have emerged over the years.

  2. Jill–I often wonder the same thing. There seems to be a difference between “real” ethnic food and “fake” ethnic food, but where is the divide? Also in response to this post, the fact that Sarah gives up aspects of her Jewish identity, in this case food, I think of the growing Hmong population in Minnesota. Innumerable Hmong youth have given up on traditional aspects of Hmong culture in order to (in their opinion) better assimilate into the general population. Once these people become more comfortable or assimilated to their surroundings, will their desire to return aspects of Hmong culture to their lives grow? If so, will the addition include genuine aspects of their traditional culture, or could some of it be lost?

  3. The book doesn’t really address why she doesn’t keep kosher after leaving the house. From my second-hand knowledge acquired in offhand conversations with old coworkers, it’s been my understanding that keeping kosher was not that big of a deal for most Jews during this time period. For her obsessively traditional father, though, it obviously was. It’s weird to think that something so primal as eating can be taken to much deeper levels. I think that the implications of not keeping kosher were probably far from her mind. Pretty sure she just didn’t want to starve.

  4. I was fortunate enough to have been an intern at the NMAJH while Forshpeis! was still on display. One of my most significant memories of the exhibit was seeing visitors connect with objects in the exhibit. One man spoke about a seltzer bottle on display, saying, “That seltzer bottle really brought back memories from my childhood—my brothers and I used to spray each other with the handle!” Such an exhibit primarily elicited positive recollections, and I don’t know if audiences would be receptive to stories like Sara’s in such a framework. Furthermore Forshpeis! was done in a limited space, and therefore was approached from a very specific angle. I think that more comprehensive look at American Jews’ relationships to food–through the good and the bad–would make an excellent exhibit done under different circumstances.

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