My Family Recipe

I'm Not Religious, but I Connect With Judaism Through Food

Finding new meaning behind my family's recipes.

April 16, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.

If my great grandmother Pearl looked around my kitchen, she would say I wasn’t Jewish. And she’d be right, in a way. I don’t keep kosher, eating pork and shellfish when I feel so compelled, no qualms about mixing dairy and meat. I’ll use schmaltz out of respect for depth of flavor, not religious mandate. Still, nothing makes me feel more connected to Judaism than cooking Jewish food.

I fry bundles of potato and onion bound with matzo meal in pools of oil, watching the latkes tan gold, then dark brown. I knead challah dough, braid it, and brush it with honey. I fold sweet coconut into clouds of whipped egg whites, dunk the lacey-edged macaroons in dark chocolate. And when I make these dishes that have been made over and over by Jews for centuries, I sense that I’m a part of something bigger.

I didn’t always feel it. My parents, neither of whom connected much with their respective religions, didn’t enforce church or synagogue on the family. Still, we lit the menorah and decorated Christmas trees, dyed eggs, and ate matzo. My sister and I listened to our friends complain about Bible camp and Torah portions, while our familiarity with scripture was limited to a robust obsession with the soundtrack to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

My maternal grandfather (an Italian Catholic) and grandmother (a Dutch Methodist) shaped my mom’s struggle with finding peace in religion. “When my parents got married in my mother’s church, my father’s family didn’t recognize the marriage,” she tells me. Her father wanted to raise his children Catholic as a remedy, but never followed through. So my mom grew up going to Methodist services with her mother and siblings, but never felt connected to what she was taught. “I sometimes had a hard time believing in religion. I didn’t know what it did for me, but I found other ways to be grounded,” she explains.

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“Happy Passover. ”
— Charles

“After I was bar mitzvahed, I’d had enough,” my dad tells me, citing the combination of an unfriendly Rabbi and resentment of Hebrew school obligations as the start of his transition away from organized religion. “And if I felt that way, how could I force religion on my kids?” Still, he says, “I never give up feeling and identifying as Jewish.”

In The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, clinical psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel describes repeated links between Judaism and food. “With the destruction of the ancient Holy Temple, each family’s table serves to replace the original holy altar,” Mogel explains, citing Judaism as a “table-centered religion.”

She notes that while demographers have found that fewer than half of American Jews belong to a synagogue, over 90 percent attend a yearly Passover Seder, the ritual meal that marks the liberation of Israelites from Egyptian slavery. Calling the phenomenon “kitchen Judaism,” Mogel posits further that Judaism in fact welcomes exploration of spirituality and family through food—that this type of daily interaction could in fact be a more effective tool for some young people than going to houses of worship.

As I got more invested in cooking professionally, one of my first jobs was developing recipes for a Jewish food website. Using the dishes my family members made for holidays as a jumping off point, I found that Jewish food went far beyond my great aunt’s tomato and onion soup mix brisket. My editor at the site, Shannon, told me that the sky was the limit when it came to types of dishes I could cover. So I researched bazargan, a Syrian tabbouleh salad sweetened with pomegranate molasses, and found it’s made in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish cuisine; I studded bread with dried fenugreek (the fragrant herb is a symbolic, though often underrepresented, Rosh Hashanah food); I mixed olive oil into crunchy mandelbrot cookies.

Then, Shannon let me go off the rails—I developed recipes for fresh pasta dyed pink with Manischewitz wine for Valentine’s Day, and hamantaschen-shaped Jello shots for Purim (a holiday that is apparently all about booze, something my relatives never shared with me). Permission from another Jewish person to move beyond the stuffier dishes of my childhood and embrace flavors that appealed to me, in fact, brought me closer to the spiritual meaning behind the food.

Permission from another Jewish person to move beyond the stuffier dishes of my childhood and embrace flavors that appealed to me, in fact, brought me closer to the spiritual meaning behind the food.

There’s an ongoing argument between cooks about whether recipes should be accompanied by stories. Some feel strongly that recipes should exist independently of narrative—just give the instructions and leave it alone. But I think when that context is removed, so too goes a recipe’s ethos. Will skipping the explanation make a recipe fail? No. But without understanding why matzo or gefilte fish are significant to Jewish culture, one might turn up their nose seeing them on an ingredients list.

Take traditional Seder plate components, which are purposefully too bitter and too sweet, as they represent the roses and thorns of the enslaved Jews’ time in Egypt. I certainly wouldn’t eat parsley dipped in salt water (known as karpas) or a very hard-boiled egg (beitzah) outside of Passover, but the backdrop of the holiday—and knowing that millions of other Jews are eating the very same things this week—makes them taste exactly right.

Got a family recipe you'd like to share? Email [email protected] for a chance to be featured.

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Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. These days, you can keep your eye out for her monthly budget recipe column, Nickel & Dine. Rebecca tests all recipes with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.


Nancy April 23, 2019
You're both right.
But the editors were wrong.
Rebecca rightfully points out that her recipe includes ways to make this brisket dish suitable for Passover - leave out rolls, get ones that are Kosher-for-Passover, serve over rice (if your ethnic group or rabbi permits kitniyot).
Charles, Maryea and Terry who wrote in suggesting she learn the kosher laws or that it's not appropriate to post this article just before Passover are also right.
It just doesn't look like a Passover-suitable article or recipe.
Nor would anyone who observes that holiday with its ban on grains and fermented produce have any interest in reading or studying that recipe.
Rather, the burden of inappropriate timing and selection rests on the editors, who could have posted this article any of the other eleven months of the year.
And they could have posted, instead, something more obviously suitable and/or interesting a few days before Passover started.
Charles April 23, 2019
Thank you for the article. I hope that our rich culinary heritage inspires you to dig deeper into other aspects of living Jewishly, including kashering & keeping kosher. In any case, good article. Chag kasher v'same'ach ! Happy Passover.
Rebecca F. April 23, 2019
Thanks so much, Charles! I really appreciate that you read the piece and am looking forward to exploring more elements of Judaism. Happy Passover to you!
Maryea M. April 21, 2019
Umm... if she's eating those buns during the 'Feast of Unleavened Bread' than she's doing it wrong... I know she said she's not religious, but come on!!
Rebecca F. April 22, 2019
Hi Maryea, I recommend you actually read my full recipe for the sandwiches, where you’d find that I do address the myriad ways you can make this recipe kosher for Passover. I also link to a website where you can purchase buns that are kosher for Passover. Have a great day :)
Maryea M. April 23, 2019
With all the yeast & leaven (in the buns from the link), I don't know how they could advertise them appropriate for Passover!! (and I'm not even Jewish)... I DO think the sandwich filling would taste even better on a piece of matzo than a roll though.
Rebecca F. April 23, 2019
During Passover, yeasts that feed on wheat, barley, oat, spelt, and rye (known as chametz) are avoided. However, when yeast feeds on other ingredients, like grapes, (which become wine, one of the most important elements of the Passover seder) or molasses made from sugarcane or beets and don't come in contact with grains, it's permissible. Leavening agents like baking powder and baking soda are not prohibited as they do not contain grains, and further can be purchased in packages certified Kosher for Passover.

The buns I linked to are made with potato starch. Since they're sold by a Kosher organization I feel confident that they know what they're doing when it comes to advertising products as Kosher for Passover.

Still, if you were truly concerned about a product not being K for P, you don't have to eat it! And yes, the sandwiches would be great on matzo, I invite you to try it!
Maryea M. April 23, 2019
AHhh... good to know. Thanks for the clarification!
Terry April 21, 2019
Wow! What chutzpah. Promoting brisket "sandwiches" and Ima's bread during Passover. Not a single Pesach recipe. Not cool - at all.
Whitney April 21, 2019
Seriously, how could she possibly know what would have been used as a promotional tool on her post. If you look for trouble, you’ll find it. Happy Passover!
Rebecca F. April 21, 2019
Hi Terry! I don’t control which recipes auto-populate as other Food52 links within the story. As for the brisket sandwiches, I recommend you actually read my recipe, where you’d find that I do address the myriad ways you can make this recipe kosher for Passover. I also link to a website where you can purchase buns that are kosher for Passover. Have a great day :)
jhay April 16, 2019
When you include foods that the diaspora gave to the world, there's almost no limitation for what is Jewish food: British fish and chips, the Bene Israel and Baghdadi communities of India, Sicilian eggplant dishes and Roman fried carciofi alla giudia and Venetian sarde en soar ... the influences are endless and constantly surprising.