Three on a Theme: Taste, Hear, See Jewish Culture

In this post, we are celebrating Jewish culture, particularly the diaspora communities here in America. You, dear reader, are invited to listen to some music, cook up a recipe, and watch a film. I invite you to join me in all or any of these activities – you might do one of these things, or you might do all of them. You might make an evening out of it, or you might sprinkle these activities throughout your week. You could spend an hour in the kitchen learning a new recipe, or five minutes on your lunch break listening to one song.

All materials are available through our catalog, or through the free streaming platforms Kanopy (movies/television) or Freegal (music.)

The Jewish Cookbook

Through cooking, we have an opportunity to connect to people of different backgrounds and different foodways. In Leah Koenig’s new cookbook, The Jewish Cookbook, we readers can learn about American Jewish foodways from a global context, expanding beyond the Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Ashkenazi Jewish foodways we might already be familiar with.

Leah Koenig features several guest chefs and their recipes, one of whom  is possibly unmatched in his influence on American contemporary cuisine: Israeli-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi. His career began in 2002 (alongside his Palestinian business partner Sami Tamimi), and in the 22 years since, Yotam has definitively changed the way we eat.

Cultural exchange between foodways and the communities that shape them is nothing new. Yotam and Sami’s collaboration is proof that cultural exchange can exist without erasure.

“I don’t think there’s enough understanding [of] how deeply rooted Israeli food, as it’s cooked at the moment and seen all over the world, is actually based on Palestinian cooking,” said Yotam Ottolenghi in an interview with Forward, “[…] many of the ingredients and basic recipes and techniques are based on Palestinian cooking, and that needs to be told as much as possible.”

In The Jewish Cookbook, the cultural exchange taking place is far-reaching, celebratory, and a joy to witness – we can see (and taste!) Jewish dishes from many countries.

“Unlike just about every other cuisine in the world, Jewish food is not distinguished by geography. It is a diasporic cuisine, which means it’s also defined by resilience, adaptability, and infinite adjustments, longing and remembering, and often homesickness [...] For those of us who hold Jewish food sacred, this perpetual hunger for home gives us much in common with others who have been forced to leave wherever they call home.”

  • Julia Turshen, from the foreword to The Jewish Cookbook

Album: The Ambassador by Gabriel Kahane

Gabriel Kahane’s 2014 album The Ambassador is a multitude of things – it’s an assemblage of multiple genres, stories, and aims.  Kahane himself is a multi-talented, multi-genre artist – he’s known as a songwriter, a musician, and a composer of orchestral symphonies. He may even be best described outside of the music genre box entirely – a friend describes him as a “documentary songwriter.”

Kahane was born in Venice Beach, near Los Angeles, but he grew up in New York.  The Ambassador was inspired by Gabriel Kahane’s desire to reconnect with his family’s L.A. roots, and he stayed there while writing the album. Because of the artist’s thoroughness and deep attention to his surroundings, The Ambassador evolved into a sort of thesis in urban planning; it evolved into a biographical retelling of L.A.’s relationship to its inhabitants. The album is a fusion of orchestral composition, folk, rock, and pop music.

“I had this growing affection for the city, and I wanted to work through it artistically,” Kahane said. “For me, L.A. had been the relative I didn’t know very well and hadn’t made the effort — the second cousin I saw every five years at the family reunion.”

True to Kahane’s multitudes, this album was briefly transposed into a stagecraft performance, put on by the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014.

I am alone on this hill;
These vistas are certain
I may be frightened by the sounds
Of history crying as it drowns
But I will pull back the curtain

  • Gabriel Kahane, “Black Garden (2673 E Dundee Pl.)”

The Settlers

If you’ve followed any aspect of the Israel-Hamas conflict (or the longer conflict that has borne trauma on Palestinians and Israelis), then you have probably heard the term “settlers” used when describing Israeli citizens. For this post, I have chosen a film which seeks to provide several definitions of this term, and multiple perspectives on what it means to be an Israeli settler.

In the documentary film The Settlers, New York-based Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan intimately captures ideas of settler life from the Israeli perspective within the West Bank, the larger of the two Palestinian territories inside Israel’s borders.  Dotan asks West Bank residents, “Are you a settler?” and the residents’ answers provide the viewers a small opening through which to view the complex, far-reaching issues and motivations surrounding the occupation of the West Bank today.

Many Jewish Americans believe that criticism of Israel or Zionism is not inherently antisemitic, and the issue of antisemitism is taken very seriously by these same Jewish Americans.

 “Antisemitism is an excruciatingly painful part of our community’s past and present. Our families have escaped wars, harassment, pogroms, and concentration camps. We have studied the long histories of persecution and violence against Jews, and we take seriously the ongoing antisemitism that jeopardizes the safety of Jews around the world.”

– “Dangerous Conflation,” an open letter from Jewish writers

In a world where antisemitism is at new heights, it can literally save lives to learn Jewish culture and history, and to dispel anti-Jewish tropes spreading in our communities.

“The settlements are the core of the problem not because of the settlers but because of successive governments, with their blindness and resignation […] The government is the only agency that can in practice change the course we are following. I met many settlers and for me they’re not the enemy. They are good people who are doing bad things.”

  • Shimon Dotan, in an interview with Haaretz

This post was inspired in part by Justice in June’s project to tackle anti-racism daily, for 10, 25, or 45 minutes per day.

“Justice in June cultivates a community rooted in truth, inspires action and is committed to awareness.” - Autumn Gupta, with Bryanna Wallace