A couple of months ago we were seated around a friend’s Shabbat dinner table when my 4-year-old pointed to platter of kugel and asked, “What is that?” I grinned, and laughed at the other guests’ amusement that my Jewish child did not know what kugel was.
To me, it was actually a point of pride.
Around ten years ago when I converted to Judaism, I made a promise to myself not to cook “Jewish” food. You see, along with my decision to convert came the decision to keep kosher. For an Italian-American like myself, this already meant the loss of so many of the foods that I not only loved, but also that I felt linked me to my family’s heritage.
I mourned for Genoa salami, my mother’s meatballs sprinkled with cheese, sausage and peppers from a street fair—and eclairs after a festive meal. I imagined my future family and was scared that their Jewish identity would always eclipse their Italian one.
In the beginning, I cried…a lot. My husband and I had many difficult conversations about our decision to keep a kosher home, but ultimately knew it was the right path for us. He was as committed as I was to keeping my family’s flavors alive, and so together we dove into the adventure of cooking and serving Italian food in our kosher kitchen. And what an adventure it was!
We read endlessly about the origins of dishes and sometimes tried a dozen recipes in my tiny kitchen on our tiny budget before settling on the right one. I talked with my mom and Aunt about their food memories, and at times felt some resentment that my own childhood dinner table had not been dominated by “authentic” Italian food.
As a newlywed I mastered Italian wedding soup, pasta fagioli, gnocchi, all sorts of pasta sauces, stuffed shells, eggplant parmigiana, sausage and peppers, giardiniera, amaretti cookies, biscotti, and on and on. It took years for me to build up my repertoire, but by the time our first son was born, our Shabbat dinner table looked like Little Italy and we felt we accomplished what we had set out to do.
But now that same son does not know what kugel is.
The pride I initially felt turned to concern. Sure, I had kept alive my heritage through food, but was I killing part of my husband’s? Would my children one day feel resentment towards me that they did not grow up with traditional Hungarian or Russian food on the table? Because I do the majority of the cooking, does that mean I get to dictate what food history gets passed on to my children? These questions prompted more conversation and more reflection.
So, the other day I made pierogi: the dough, the filling, the rolling thin, the folding, the crimping, the boiling, the frying. As I made them, I told my kids what I knew about my husband’s Grandma Lila, and her family who came from Hungary. I texted with my husband’s aunt throughout the day about her food memories, and she shared with me that both of her grandmothers made pierogi for her.
Honestly? Mine did not come out so well, but I have been down this road before. And so now I am embarking on a new food adventure: one that will connect my children to the other side of their family, and me to a more compassionate, assured side of myself. There can be room for everyone at our table.
There is, however, an ironic twist to this tale. The other night, night we had dinner with my sister-in-law, who named her daughter after Grandma Lila, the Jewish matriarch. Eager to collect food memories, I asked her what she remembered of Lila’s cooking, and what she would consider her signature dish.
Her answer? Spaghetti and meatballs.