Why Be Jewish? Two Pop-Culture Answers

What’s appealing about being Jewish? If you’ve ever asked yourself this question—or if you know new members of the tribe, people marrying into the tribe, or people who have are Jewish-adjacent and yearn to know more—two new books are great picks for you.

The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List (Workman, $24.95), edited by Alana Newhouse, is the more “must-read” of the two, since it comes with many recipes for foods that are, at their roots, quintessentially Jewish. I will admit that the utility of these recipes has yet to be fully determined by me…but there is plenty here I would *want* to try to make, whether it’s honey cake with orange juice (who knew?) or flanken (again with the orange juice!).

I suppose I will keep this book on my cookbook shelf, but it actually belongs in the general library, since at its heart it is an in-depth essay collection about each one of these 100 foods and why they belong in The Canon of Jewish Cuisine. The essays are written by a motley crew of Jews and non-Jews alike (Newhouse is editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine), which lends the collection an element of self-aware humor that might not have come from a less inclusive crowd: where else but here are you gonna hear Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert opine on gefilte fish (conclusion: not so terrible!), or Tom Colicchio on whitefish (“the redheaded stepchild of lox”)? The essays are authored not only by professional foodies, but also by actors, writers, artists and my favorite tiny Jewish sex therapist, Dr. Ruth, who feels the effort it takes to eat a pomegranate is “definitely like good sex: it takes work for both to be good lovers.” This book is an extremely enjoyable and educational read that is particularly remarkable in its explicit respect for the entirety of the Jewish diaspora. Sure, you got your bagels, your ptcha and your gribenes, but the collection also gives equal time to subjects like sabich and the more esoteric malida porridge of India’s Bene Israel Jews and the mufleta of the Sephardic end-of-Passover Mimouna tradition. While I could take issue with insider-baseball-ish stuff (why on earth, under the entry for “pareve chocolate,” is there a recipe for flourless chocolate cake requiring 1 3/4 sticks of unsalted butter…?), overall, the collection is simply delicious.

I came to Typically Jewish (Jewish Publication Society, $22.95) by Nancy Kalikow Maxwell with a little more skepticism. I am never a fan of schticky Judaism-lite stuff, like “Mensch on a Bench” instead of “Elf on a Shelf ” humor, so I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about Maxwell’s colloquial analysis of what makes a “typical” Jew. By her own description, Maxwell is a “more deli than deity” Jew—but this is a more “about the core elements emanating from the kishkas of us cultural Jews over 50” kind of book. And as such, it will appeal to, resonate with and even educate its audience with its unexpected depth and love.

Maxwell understands her audience: “[T]he typically Jewish behavior is not to adhere to—but to argue about—Jewish beliefs. Which leads me to an ancillary worry: no matter what I say in these pages, someone—most likely lots of someones—will disagree. And because they are Jews, their objections will be expressed loudly and emphatically, because Jews, if nothing else, don’t believe in staying silent.” Maxwell has divided her book up into eight chapters: “Worrying,” “Kvelling,” “Dying,” “Noshing,” “Laughing,” “Detecting,” “Dwelling,” and “Joining.” Within these contexts, she explores what it is to be a Jew, with an eye more loving than critical on everything from Jewish humor to Jewish ritual around death.

While Maxwell’s comparative lack of knowledge of Jewish history is, in places, a pothole (Jews didn’t just choose to live together because they like each other [hardly!], but rather because the necessities of Jewish observance—everything from making a minyan to the mikvah to keeping kosher—required it), the road generally runs smooth and welcoming through Maxwell’s insights. Personally, I think there could have easily been an entire separate chapter devoted to the idea of Jewish guilt, tangentially addressed in her “Worrying” chapter and throughout the book as she voices her misgivings about having married outside the faith and the ramifications for her daughter’s sense of Jewish identity.

That said, I can’t imagine a more accessible or fun book for a Jewish book club to discuss than this one—and Maxwell, knowing the biggest audience for books is Jewish women, has helpfully provided a great and entertaining discussion guide in the back.

Jordana Horn is a contributing editor for Kveller and the co-host of the Kveller podcast, “Call Your Mother.”