Throughout history, entire communities of Jews became "lost" through forced conversions or gradual assimilation. However, in many cases their descendants passed down (more or less secretly) special rules, rituals, names or, most deliciously, recipes, that distinguished them from the surrounding populations.
In recent years, many of these legendary lost tribes and hidden Jews have been seeking a full return to the Jewish fold. From India to Spain, from Portugal to Brazil, from China to Africa, from Southern Italy to Poland: countless people are embracing an observant Jewish life – whether they have yet undergone a formal “return” or conversion, or not.
Of course, in this process, they must often rethink what they eat. The result is an embrace of traditional foodways, or the creation of new ones.
"Before adopting other Jewish religious practices, such as observing Shabbat or family laws, people usually start refraining from eating pork, and from mixing dairy and meat. By eating differently, they are affirming their identity as Jews,” said Rabbi Pierpaolo Punturello, a Modern Orthodox rabbi who is helping the B’nei Anousim, or children of forced converts, of southern Italy organize their communities with the support of Shavei Israel and the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI).
In some situations, ancient Jewish recipes are actually being passed down (as in Portugal or Spain, where the “hidden Jews” married one another and lived for centuries in separate villages, preserving many traditions).
Other communities do not necessarily have longstanding Jewish origins, but decided to embrace Jewish beliefs and practices as the result of a collective spiritual search. Their Shabbat and holiday dishes are a creative adaptation of the local recipes to the laws of kashrut.
The importance of dairy and vegetables in the gastronomy of these communities is one constant, wherever they are, and no matter how old or new they are.
Sjimon Den Hollander, a YU rabbinical student who spent time with the Abayudaya community in Uganda, says that in order to keep kosher they simply became vegetarian for many years (except for some tilapia and eggs on Shabbat), until finally two local men were able to study the laws of shechita (kosher slaughter) in Israel, and chicken started appearing on the holiday table. Not that there’s much of it – the Abayudaya are subsistence farmers who make do most of the time with little more than cassava, green bananas, yams and millet bread.
"Many of these communities subsist on a dairy diet, because they are too small to have a shochet or even to organize kosher meat deliveries from the larger communities,” explains Rabbi Punturello.
Grazia Tintiriello, who with her husband Prof. Francesco Lotoro were the first in the community of Trani, in southern Italy, to convert to Judaism, agrees.
Tintiriello and Lotoro inspired others to convert as well; together the community reconsacrated the Trani synagogue to Judaism in 2005 after centuries as a Catholic church.
The Trani Jewish Calendar includes her holiday recipes, and her tempting Rosh Hashannah menu is strictly dairy, including vegetable lasagna and wild chicory frittata.
These old/new communities remind us of just how diverse Jewish cuisine can be, and their long-awaited returns offer just one more reason to celebrate the upcoming Jewish holidays with outstanding food!
Alessandra Rovati is an Italian food writer and lecturer based in New York. In addition to her published articles and recipes in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Joy of Kosher, and several international publications, Alessandra writes Italian-Jewish culinary history on her web site, DinnerinVenice.com. Alessandra has been a featured guest on a variety of television and radio programs and has spoken at universities and cultural institutes. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest for more classic Jewish Italian cuisine recipes.
Grazia's Mediterranean Lasagna: