Customs house STORIES FROM 'THE CHRONICLE'

Eat First. Then You'll Learn.


By Lawrence Biemiller

New York -- What Shari Jacobson recommended, standing in the middle of a knot of Susquehanna University students outside Katz's Delicatessen on Houston Street, was a pastrami, corned beef, and chopped liver on rye. For many of her listeners, it was hard to take such a suggestion seriously -- all that, in one sandwich? -- but on the other hand she is half of the team teaching Susquehanna's course in "The History and Culture of Jewish Cuisine." So you have to assume she knows whereof she speaks.

The students filed through Katz's door and gathered in front of the long counter to peer up at signboards listing dozens of sandwiches. Here on the Lower East Side, chopped liver and sliced tongue are standard lunchtime fare, but in Selinsgrove, Pa., where the more than two dozen students had boarded a tour bus at 6:30 a.m. to begin their field trip, sandwiches tend to be of the pressed-turkey or BLT persuasions -- which is to say that, like many things in Selinsgrove, they tend toward the Protestant. What to order, what to order?

The countermen helped, passing over slices of this and that to taste -- brisket, liverwurst, some pickled tomato. Students who looked around the big, well-worn dining room for clues saw New Yorkers leaning forward to bite into huge sandwiches and plump hot dogs that dripped condiments onto plates and napkins and laps. One by one the students put in their orders.

This was their second field trip for the course, which Ms. Jacobson, an assistant professor of anthropology, is teaching with Laurence Roth, an assistant professor of ethnic studies and Jewish literature. In February, the class traveled to Empire Kosher Poultry, in Mifflintown, Pa., to learn how chickens are slaughtered according to the prescriptions of kashrut, or Jewish dietary law (the bird must be killed with a clean cut of the blade, and so forth). When the class wasn't traveling, it was eating -- every Tuesday a different group of students prepared dishes from The Book of Jewish Food, by Claudia Roden (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), which mixes historical essays and family stories with hundreds of recipes from both Ashkenazic and Sephardic cooks. Week by week and country by country, the students covered Jewish history and food from the Old Testament to the new millennium, and from Jerusalem to the Long Island suburbs.

Ms. Jacobson and Mr. Roth say the course is not about eating, even though several of the students' dishes were particularly memorable -- for instance, the baklava and the stuffed grape leaves that one group made for a presentation on Sephardic traditions. Cooking is just one way of exploring the role of food in the creation of Jewish identity, the professors say; while food is an element of many religions, the complexity of the dietary laws links food and identity to an extraordinary degree for Jews. "The History and Culture of Jewish Cuisine" also functions as a general introduction to Judaism and Jewish culture, which makes it a useful first course for Susquehanna's three-year-old Jewish-studies minor. The university, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, hired Mr. Roth to create the Jewish-studies program in hopes of bringing additional diversity to its campus.

But no course or program can really prepare you for Katz's sliced tongue on rye, burdened as it is with more than two inches of meat and handed to you by a smiling counterman. Mr. Roth had slices to spare for wary students who came by the table where he and Ms. Jacobson sat among Dr. Brown's cream sodas and plates of pickles. "I fell asleep last night dreaming of what I'd order here," Mr. Roth said. Ms. Jacobson -- who was eating a pastrami and corned beef on rye, without chopped liver but with a side of cole slaw -- reported that one student had ordered a turkey sandwich, but that others had been more adventurous. Still, many finished only half of what the countermen put on their plates, Katz's being the day's third eating establishment, with three more to come.

It had proved to be a perfect day for a field trip. Somewhere in Rutherford, N.J., the bus crested a hill and the Manhattan skyline appeared in perfect silhouette in the morning haze. Later, as the bus inched through traffic on Grand Street, students looked down on Chinese groceries and dumpling shops, the first of many reminders that the Lower East Side is today home to only a fraction of the number of Jews who crowded its tenements 100 years ago.

The first stop was Kossar's, where students lined up for bialys -- round, flat-bottomed rolls with onion-filled depressions in the middle. Out on the sidewalk, Mr. Roth asked questions as the students chewed: "What makes this taste seem authentic? Did you see the large oven? What did you think of the physical plant?" Ms. Jacobson emerged last, with a bag of warm bialys to take back to Pennsylvania.

She led the group south on Essex Street, with Mr. Roth bringing up the rear of a parade that attracted curious glances from old Chinese women. He explained that the first big wave of Jewish immigration to the United States, in the 1840s, brought German Jews. In the 1880s, Jews from Eastern Europe followed, many from poorer backgrounds and many less interested than their German predecessors in adopting an American way of life. The ascendance of the Jewish Lower East Side lasted until the 1920s and '30s, when families began moving to Brooklyn and Queens. For Jews, he said, "the Lower East Side is now as much an imaginary place as a real place" -- a "Jewish Disneyland," he called it. Ms. Jacobson added: "It's new and improved to be old and authentic."

The procession stopped at Gertel's Bakery, on Hester Street, for another quick breakfast, this one sweeter than the last -- babka, coffeecake, rugelach. A few more blocks brought the students to the Eldridge Street Synagogue, a magnificent 1887 structure that was the first synagogue erected in New York by Eastern European Jews. A tour of the building gave the students' appetites time to recover.

A point that interests Mr. Roth, he said on the way to Katz's, is that the Jewish history of the Lower East Side is now being reinvented by those eager to emphasize traditional religious practices. "In the heyday of the Lower East Side, a fairly small number of people were actually religious," he said, noting that many immigrants were more interested in socialism and labor unions than in Judaism's ancient customs.

Another issue the two professors have confronted in teaching the course, Ms. Jacobson said, is "how easy it is to slip into thinking of Orthodox practice as the authentic, the normative." Their students -- only three of whom are Jewish -- need to understand that many Jews don't keep kosher, and "that there are other ways of being Jewish" besides those of Orthodox congregations.

And because the course's focus is the wider connection between food and identity, the students look at all kinds of cookbooks. Mrs. Esther Levy's 1871 Jewish Cookery Book, for example, is dedicated to the proposition that "you can spread an American table without violating the laws of kashrut," Mr. Roth said. The 1963 Chinese-Kosher Cookbook is another matter altogether, blending recipes for "Tea Eggs Oy Vaze Meer" and "Tuna Luck Shen Gro Sing Guhs" with a shtick that he described as Jewish drag, "both self-deprecating and self-validating."

From Katz's the students straggled west. They went first to Russ and Daughters, which sells smoked fish and other gourmet items -- Ms. Jacobson passed around halvah, a sweetened sesame paste with pistachios -- and then to the Yonah Schimmel Knishery ("Original Since 1910"), where they compared potato knishes with their sweet-potato counterparts. A ride uptown on the No. 6 train brought them to the Jewish Museum for another nonfood interlude.

Then, naturally, it was time for dinner. Ms. Jacobson led the way across Central Park to a restaurant called China Shalom II, where the students sampled a contemporary kosher cuisine -- fried rice with beef, fried rice with chicken, curried chicken with rice noodles, and Peking duck. Mr. Roth took care to point out the kosher supervisor, a man in the distinctive garb of the Lubavitcher sect who was reading a Hebrew text in the back of the dining room.

A little before 8, the tour bus pulled up in front of the restaurant, and the weary students climbed aboard. As they headed for the George Washington Bridge, Ms. Jacobson noted that "a lot of Jews who grew up in unobservant households now want to become observant." Mr. Roth added that many Jewish consumers are also becoming more particular about what they eat and buy, making kosher supervision "an amazingly lucrative business -- things that now require the utmost supervision didn't used to, like milk and bread."

"Expectations are going up and up and up," he sighed. "Imagine all this complexity being mapped onto Jewish food." The students, meanwhile, discussed their forthcoming final papers, in which they are to relate what they have learned to their own families' traditions and foods -- homemade ravioli for a Christmas feast, maple taffy, spaghetti sauce with moose meat. And they talked about how much fun they had when it was their turn to cook for the class. "Looking back on it, it was one of my favorite nights at college," said Kate Labriola, a freshman.

Sliced tongue or no, the course has made its mark. "Every time I eat, I think about the class," added Ben Theriault, also a freshman. "When I go to the store to buy something now, I look to see if there's a kosher symbol on the box."

Copyright © 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published May 17, 2002.