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by Jenna Weissman Joselit on April 20th, 2014

Lionized and lampooned, widely consumed and just as widely eschewed, gefilte fish looms large on the American Jewish landscape. Many years ago, the making of gefilte fish was the stuff of a rather humorous episode of The Goldbergs, introducing television audiences across the country to what was then a decidedly unfamiliar, even risible concoction of fish, eggs and matzoh meal. Its name alone seemed funny.

Gefilte fish and horseradish

Gefilte fish and horseradish/Flickr: Karen

The other day, meanwhile, the New York Times featured a story about gefilte fish on its front page — yes, on page one! — noting how a dwindling supply of whitefish, an essential ingredient, made it difficult for a goodly number of American Jews to serve the fishy dish at this year’s Seder. No laughing matter, that.

The article touched a nerve, inspiring fans and foes alike to weigh in. So numerous and varied were readers’ responses that the Times actually published a handful of them a few days later. “Scarcity of gefilte fish! This is the best news since the Red Sea parted,” cleverly opined one member of the public. Another grudgingly allowed that “Passover without gefilte fish is like Christmas without fruitcake.” Several more positively disposed readers couched their seasonal affinity for gefilte fish in terms of nostalgia, evoking warm memories of grandma.

What is it about gefilte fish that occasions such strong feelings, one way or another? Surely, it’s not only a matter of taste. After all, you don’t find too many people whinging publicly about schav or chopped liver. If you happen to find these two other staples of the East European Jewish diet objectionable, as many do, you simply don’t eat ‘em. No hue and cry, no public debate, accompanies that decision. But gefilte fish is another matter entirely.

I wish I knew why. Perhaps it has to do with the way in which earlier generations fulsomely celebrated this maychel. Way back in the 1940s, The Jewish Home Beautiful had this to say:

If there is any one particular food that might lay claim to being the Jewish national dish, gefilte fish is that food. This may be due to the fact that since it is associated with the Shabbat, it appears on our menus more frequently than do most of the other distinctly Jewish dishes. But the greatest factors making for its popularity are its intrinsically delectable qualities.

Could it be that taking a dim view of gefilte fish is all tangled up with identity politics, with an embrace of the universal at the expense of the particular? And conversely, that championing, or, at the very least, tolerating gefilte fish is an expression of Jewish pride?

Surely these are questions well worth pondering. In the meantime, as Pesach 5774 draws to a close, you can be certain of one thing: whitefish might come and go, but gefilte fish endures, generation after generation.

From → food

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