Beyond gefilte fish and matzah, wheres the real Jewish food

With all due respect to the Manischewitz family — in particular to the late Bernard Manischewitz, the last of his family to run the company renowned for its extraordinarily sweet wine and ever-flowing boxes of matzahs — have you checked out the “Jewish food” section at your local supermarket lately?

On a recent stroll through the ethnic food aisle in San Francisco’s second-largest Safeway store, located on Marina Boulevard, here’s what I found on the “Jewish” menu:

First, there’s Manischewitz borscht. Then, there’s Manischewitz gefilte fish, egg noodles and matzah ball soup, followed by potato pancake mixes and washed down with bottles upon bottles of purple Kedem grape juice.

We Northern Californians like to say we live in a diverse society. It’s true: Our pluralistic, colorful (though not always cohesive) Bay Area culture is unmistakably present in our celebrated traditions — such as Chinese New Year parade and Carnaval, our variety of languages, our abundance of “ethnic” restaurants, etc.

However, when it comes to the Jewish food section in our supermarkets, our definition of “Jewish” is ill-equipped and limited.

As an Israeli girl who would rather dip her french fries in hummus than ketchup, I’m disappointed and puzzled.

My family eats fish on Rosh Hashanah, sfinge (Moroccan doughnuts) for Chanukah and mufleta (crepes with honey) for the Mimouna celebration that ends Passover.

I have never once tried gefilte fish. Until last year, I thought a kugel was a special exercise for women. But I am Jewish, and I love “Jewish” food.

“What I think of Jewish food is not always what I see at the supermarkets,” says Joyce Goldstein, who was the owner-chef of San Francisco’s Square One restaurant. “Often, what you find in supermarkets are Ashkenazi clichés.”

Goldstein has written several books on Jewish cooking, such as “Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen” and “Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean.”

Even within the abundance of Ashkenazi offerings, Goldstein finds fault — mainly because of the lack of fresh, quality products.

“I’d just love to find a brisket with some fat left on it,” she says.

In “The Book of Jewish Food,” written by Egyptian-born Claudia Roden, Jewish cuisine is described as “the story of an uprooted, migrating people and their vanished worlds … kept alive because of what it evokes and represents.”

“Every cuisine tells a story,” Roden writes in the introduction to her cookbook, which includes more than 800 Sephardic and Ashkenazi recipes.

To that I would add: and every story deserves to be told.

To overlook significant segments of our culinary history — even on supermarket shelves — misrepresents the diverse Jewish palette to the greater public, which, in turn, misrepresents the diversity of Jews.

“Jewish food comes from everywhere that Jews come from,” says Meekk Shelef, an Israeli chef who is half Ashkenazi and half Sephardic and part-owner of Stoa in Palo Alto. “It is a combination of ingredients from Israel, Europe, North Africa, etc., with an Arab influence.”

I could blame the food companies, the buyers and the Safeway stores. But, as Goldstein says, “They just don’t know any better. Safeway executives are not sitting at their desks wondering, ‘What do Sephardic Jews have for dinner?'”

I know that it is an idealistic hope, for the diversity of a complex people to be expressed through a couple of shelves in the ethnic food section of a Safeway store. But, it’s still a hope.

Just once (barring my pre-Passover mad rush for macaroons) I’d like to push my shopping cart through the ethnic food aisle in search of Jewish food, and not for my more frequent purchases of coconut milk or Mexican hot chocolate.

I admit that I, too, enjoy the occasional matzah ball soup. I appreciate and respect the Manischewitz family’s 115 years of dedication to Jewish cuisine.

However, I must ask, is there not a time and a place for Manischewitz? Is there nothing else out there?

Michal Lev-Ram, born in Israel, is a journalism major at SFSU who can be reached at [email protected].