The power of Jewish grandparents
I want to talk about an important subject with many religious, spiritual, and mystical implications: food.
That is because just yesterday on Twitter, I bumped into another version of an old antisemitic slur. “Jews do not need a State because they are wealthy. Like, see what do they eat”.
Someone pointed out that gefilte fish is carp, the kind of fish that in Eastern Europe even the peasants rejected; that fishballs are leftovers and kugel is literally just potato. All in all, not precisely costly food. But then the anti-Zionist in residence quacked, “oh, but I meant Sephardi food. Sephardi Jews are wealthy, aren’t they?”
Really? Well, here’s your Italian Shabbat meal.
Anchovies pie — that is because Jews were allowed to go to the market only in the afternoon when the largest fishes were already purchased. The remnants were the small catch, such as anchovies indeed.
The same for vegetables, carciofi alla giudia artichokes fried in deep oil. In the Mediterranean climate, artichokes grow up quickly and are very cheap. Posh people, such as nobles and bishops, did not fancy them on their table. And the same considerations apply, of course, to the dessert, Zucca barukka, baked pumpkin.
Antisemites of various declinations find this simple truth very difficult to stomach (pun intended). The essential ingredients of the Jewish kitchen are remarkably humble: leftovers, literally. They become the treasures we all love because of our Jewish culinary wisdom. Such a historical truth is directly served on your table two or three times a day if you’re wise enough to follow the rules of kashrut.
Antisemites (and their younger siblings, the antiZionists) cannot really get the strength of Judaism. Being on the margin, being oppressed (and forced to eat literally leftovers), and at the same time being able to resist such a condition, to overturn marginalisation and turn leftovers into delicacies.
Antisemites fantasise about a secret Jewish power. But Jewish resilience is definitively not a secret. It is actually in your face; you can see it in all its splendour as soon as you sit down for a meal!
But what is the source of such a cultural strength?
We ought to think to a part of this week’s Torah portion, which often goes unnoticed to answer such a question. This Torah portion, Vayechi, is known and quoted for its second part when Jacob gathered his sons and asked them to listen to what would befall them in time. You found there the list of all the sons of Jacob, which later became the Israelite tribes and inherited some psychological or moral trait from their founders.
But before that, in the part that we have read today, there is an equally fascinating passage, The meeting between Jacob and the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Menashe.
Jacob is on his deathbed (just like his father Isaac was). He is almost blind (just like his father, Isaac). He wants to bless the children according to a specific order. Yosef tries to change the order. Rivka did the same when the blessing was aimed at Esau but was diverted to Yakov). But this time, it does not work. Ephraim and Menasse receive the blessing that their Grandfather wanted to give them following the order he had in mind.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a historical moment. The Torah presents to us something never seen before in no other narrative, or mythology, of no other civilisation.
The bonding between grandparents and grandchildren.
Think about this. Neither in Greek, Roman, nor Egyptian mythology, in no one of the Mediterranean civilisations, the Jews came in touch with… in none there are Grandparents. We’re the only civilisation that counts grandparents among its heroes.
We can make all the jokes we want here — my favourite: grandparents and grandchildren get along because they have a common enemy. But we also should be aware of this archetypal scene. Jacob that blesses his grandchildren and overcomes the resistance of his most beloved son’s resistance is unique in the history of human civilisation.
We can read in this scene a tikkun, a correction of a mistake committed in the past. Of which Jacob himself has benefitted before. It is certainly possible to read this foundational passage as the first episode of reparative justice.
But I think there is at play here something more profound. Judaism began with the promise that the Almighty made to Abraham “I will make your descendants numerous as the stars in the sky, and they will inherit the land”.
But Abraham did not meet his descendants, his grandchildren. There is no direct communication between Abraham and his grandsons, The same for Isaac: the promise is repeated to him, but he’s not blessed with the chance to meet his grandchildren That occurs only to Jacob. And it happens here, in this week’s Torah portion, in the passage that we have read.
Dear antisemites (or as you fancy call yourself nowadays, anti-zionists): do you want to know the secret of Jewish power (as you say) or (as I say) Jewish endurance through the generations? Look no further; it’s the Jewish grandparents. It’s that strong connection through the ages, mi dor le dor.
We Jews not only cherish and celebrate such a strong bond. We sanctify it. We make of it the cornerstone of our civilisation.
Now back to the tasty topic I started. Our -Ashkenazi and Sephardi- expertise in turning leftovers into delicacies.
Kashrut, the rules that govern our relationship with food, is not only a set of recipes passed from one generation to another, often from grandmother to granddaughter. It’s also a central element of our community.
When we eat kosher, we connect with the Jewish community. We connect with the community for which the relation between grandparents and grandchildren is fundamental ever since no one could even conceive that such a relationship existed.
Kosher food is central to Jewish life. Our enemies are pretty obsessed about it. They attack our right to follow kashrut, with idiotic (and worrying) campaigns against shehitah and through crass and ignorant stereotypes such as “oh, but Sephardic Jews are all so wealthy -and oppressors”.
Without kashrut, there is no Judaism. But, at the same time, without Jewish grandparents, there are no Jewish people, neither a Jewish community.
Other faiths see God in miracles and wonders. We Jews perceive God in the loving relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. We honour God not with sacrifices but with the tastiest food ever.
It’s great to be Jewish.