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Gefilte Fish: Reflections on a Cultural Concoction

by Susan Reimer-Torn
When I extend my hand and say my name, followed by my husband’s, the lovely older woman focuses in intent concentration, trying to place us. Finally, she is satisfied with her recall. “Ah, yes,” says she, “Susan, Edmond, gefilte fish.” Now it’s my turn to do some hard thinking.
My friend Deborah’s mom is referring to one of many wunder tales about the sweet and beautiful child whom Deborah adopted from a Moscow orphanage earlier this year. A few months ago, as we sat around my seder table, my own grown sons wrinkled their noses at the once-yearly portion of gefilte fish with which we began the holiday dinner. But little Lena devoured her piece and held out her plate for more.
We were bemused by the anomaly of a two-year-old relishing a “yidishe maykhl” whose appeal usually eludes the under-60 set. But the sight of a little Russian girl taking hearty delight in an in-group culinary concoction invented by our Jewish forebears (out of necessity, presumably, to make the meager supply of fish go further), had us howling.
If taste buds offer significant clues to our ethnic origins, they also offer important insights into cross-cultural influences, both inside our kitchens and outside in the larger world.
Boundaries and Blurs

Not long ago, I heard the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Chancellor Arnie Eisen speak on a signature topic of his— the tricky balance Jews need to negotiate between focusing inward on their own people and focusing outward on the larger world. The expansive Jewish mission of tikkun olam, or healing the world, is counter-balanced by the “special care we take to guard our distinctiveness,” he said. The importance of preserving our differences as a small minority living in non-Jewish cultures creates a tension with our desire to shape, and be shaped by, the larger world.
When I reflect on Dr. Eisen’s words — on his call for reaching across boundaries while being careful not to blur them — I am reminded of the extreme caution against assimilation with which I was raised. My modern Orthodox parents were not isolationist. Like most Jews, they were proud of the many significant Jewish contributions to world culture. They were, however, less at ease with the many ways in which the non-Jewish culture might challenge a more narrow loyalty to a cherished tradition.
A World of Our Own

For Lena to be a Jew in the eyes of the Orthodox world (and therefore according to Israeli law), it’s not enough for her Jewish mom to legally adopt her. Lena has to be ritually converted in the prescribed rabbinic way. There seems to be no satisfactory way to avoid it: Deb asks me to come along for moral support.
I discover, along with Deb, that on a side street just across from Fairway Market, down a few steps, behind an unmarked door is housed the Upper West Side’s community mikveh or ritual bath. The door code gains us entry to an emporium whose marble tiles and plush towels, impeccable hygiene and shiny hardware, are worthy of an upscale spa. I have long shunned these ritual baths as complicit in the institutionalized stigmatization of women (who, according to rabbinic law, must immerse themselves in these waters monthly in order to be cleansed of menstrual impurity. Once duly dunked, they may resume procreative marital relations with their husbands). I also retain a particularly unsavory memory of my own one and only visit to such an establishment on the eve of my first marriage, at the insistence of my mother, so many years ago.
I know things have changed since then and that the officiating rabbis are evolved guys, but still I am unhappy about Deb having to parade around in a bathing suit holding her naked daughter by the hand while three fully clothed-men look down on mother and daughter in the little pool of water. They peer over to ascertain that our adored little Lena has been sufficiently submerged to resurface (born again?) and join the Jewish people as a certified member.
I have no doubt that everyone in attendance cares about the many ways in which we as Jews carry our lofty mission into the non-Jewish world. But that doesn’t mean we are going to get casual about the barriers to entry into the world of our own.
From an Early Age

I listen deeply while Deborah talks over the implications of raising her adopted daughter as a Jew. Lena’s new identity as a member of a Jewish family is now a given. But when it comes down to choosing a pre-school, Deb has to sort through the conflicted feelings that have prompted her to flee the private, upscale Jewish establishments housed on the Upper West Side.
Even though the directors are welcoming (assuring Deb that not everyone is wealthy and that some of the parents are even artsy), none of the pre-schoolers look quite like Lena with her high checkbones and slanted coal eyes. What would it be like, Deb wonders, to socialize with kids whose parents make enough money to afford the dizzying tuition? And even though no one would ever use the word “indoctrination,” there is an unspoken agenda having to do with nurturing a strong Jewish identity from an early age. Lena herself seems so much happier at the ethnically diverse, municipal pre-school where single moms are the norm, all sorts of languages are spoken, and no one confuses being a corporate landscape designer with artsy bohemia.
Piety and a Dash of Pepper
After the baby-naming, I enjoy a celebratory luncheon with family and friends in an Italian eatery near Columbus avenue, where I am seated next to Jonathan Brent, director of YIVO. Jonathan has his own take on this issue of Jewish insularity versus openness to cross-influences. He likes to emphasize Jewish eagerness to break out of parochial limitations. For example, he tells me that the celebrated Yiddish writer, Sholem Aleichem, did not want to be labeled, or even lauded, as a Yiddish writer. Rather, he wanted to be a literary figure whose native tongue happened to be Yiddish. He tells me too of a very pious rabbi whose scholarly fame was embellished by his prowess as a kezatzkee dancer at religious Jewish weddings — a dance that crossed over from the purest Russian peasantry.
My lunch companion explains that the permeability between the particular and the universal works both ways. There was one time when visiting Moscow as a scholar of Russian history, a Soviet official invited him to an exceptionally authentic and tasty Russian restaurant. Jonathan looked on in amazement as his host excitedly ordered the house specialty — gefilte fish, Russian-style, complete with horseradish and a provocative dash of red pepper.
 
Susan Reimer-Torn holds a Master’s degree in dance history from Columbia University and has written widely on dance, culture, lifestyle, and women’s issues for French and American publications. While living in Paris she had a regular cultural column in International Herald Tribune. She also published Kids Extra!, a quarterly serving the expatriate community. Susan has lived in New York for the past eleven years and works as a writer and a life coach. She also writes a blog, From the Twisted Fringe.