Over the last decade, author-translator Michael Wex has become the public voice of Yiddish culture — especially for the non-Yiddish-speaking public. A native of Canada’s Alberta province and a longtime native of Toronto, he has written a series of best-selling nonfiction books (in addition to a few novels; he also does songwriting and lecturing) that explain the Jewish language and Jewish way of life in a knowing, usually humorous tone. The nonfiction list includes three books: “Born to Kvetch,” “Just Say Nu” and “How to Be a Mentsh (and Not a Shmuck)”
Wex’s newest book, due out April 12, is about food. “Rhapsody in Schmaltz” (St. Martin’s Press) looks at Jewish culture through a gastronomic lens, covering such subjects as kosher laws and halachic practices, Jewish history and the way Jews are represented in television and film. Wex recently discussed these topics with The Jewish Week. This is an edited transcript.
Q.: If you look under “Jewish food” on Amazon, 6,134 books come up. Why do we need 6,135?
A.: What happens if you look under “Christian food” — do you get anything at all? [Editor’s note: A search on amazon.com for “Christian food” turns up 6,859 results.] Jewish food is like Jewish everything else — whomever happens to be speaking is by their own definition the world’s greatest expert.
There seems to be a renaissance of interest in Jewish food, witness the popular “Deli Man” documentary, Ted Merwin’s “Pastrami on Rye” and David Sax’s “Save the Deli.” Why this hunger for learning about Jewish food?
The recent interest in Jewish food reflects 1) the fear that this kind of food is going to be lost; 2) the Jewish version of the artisanal comfort food trend; 3) a way of asserting, on the part of the people who are in the most part not religious: “Yes, I am a Jew and I am proud to be a Jew.”
We know what Jewish food is. What’s “Yiddish food”? You eat it from right to left?
I use “Yiddish food” as a stand-in [for] Ashkenazic food – not everyone knows what Ashkenazic food is. This is the food that people who speak Yiddish eat. Yiddish food is a division of Jewish food.
Lethbridge, your hometown, is 2,054 miles from Toronto, from a decent corned beef. The folks in Lethbridge know more from Boychuks — Zach, a recent player on the Hurricanes junior hockey team — than from boychiks. In southern Alberta, where did you learn to be a maven on Jewish food?
I didn’t learn it in Lethbridge, where the kosher food was shipped down. My mother’s family lived in Toronto — we used to visit them once a year; there was all this [Jewish] stuff, bagels and the like. Subsequently, I moved to Calgary, where there was a large Jewish community, a kosher butcher. I came to Toronto when I was in high school.
In a biblical context, you write that the first action God gave to the on-the-move Children of Israel was instructions “to make dinner,” the first seder — He provided the menu, ingredients, side dishes, dining time, etc. So God is just a Divine maître d’?
Yes and no. He’s giving them something to do, a task from which they will derive a tangible benefit. It’s not terribly complicated and it’s all greatly symbolic. One of the signs of freedom is that they’re not eating like Egyptians anymore.
Is it a coincidence that the most popular, most attended, most observed Jewish activity centers around a meal? So the secret to Jewish continuity is horseradish and dried crackers?
It’s no coincidence that [the seder] is the meal that made us Jews. That’s the meal for which God was the maître d’. That’s why we are what we are.
What’s your favorite Jewish dish? Do you do your own cooking, or are you a deli man?
A bit of both. My favorite: kugels. All kind of kugels..s