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?
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 . 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 .
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 .
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 . Likely due both to her dire economic position and her desire to assimilate into mainstream America, Sara does not keep a kosher home . 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.” Because Sara left her family and does not follow Jewish food laws, her father does not consider her Jewish . 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!?
 “Forshpeis! A Taste of the Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana,” http://www.nmajh.org/exhibitions/forshpeis/index.html
 “National Museum of American Jewish History Serves up Forshpeis! A Taste of the Peter H. Schweitzer Collection of Jewish Americana,” http://bit.ly/fiT2an.
 Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers, (New York: Persea Books, 2003), 165.
 Ibid., 295.
 Ibid., 293.