‘Shiksa,” a derogatory term referring to a non-Jewish woman, is a word Tori Avey wants to reclaim.
She’s known to her fans by that word, considered by most a slur, even though, she told The Jewish Week, as a 2010 convert to Judaism, she is “technically not a shiksa anymore. … I have no shame that I was born a shiksa; I am exploring Judaism through the eyes of somebody newly reborn and thrilled to be part of the Tribe. I am happy that I was born a shiksa, because it made me who I am today. Judaism is now my spiritual path, but I will never forget where I came from.”
Avey, who writes the blogs TheShiksa.com and TheHistoryKitchen.com, is fascinated by the story behind the food — she asks why we eat what we eat, looks at the way canonical foods have evolved and asks how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today.
Food also brought her to Judaism, and intensifies her relationship to her faith.
“My [husband] was born in Israel; several years ago, he took me to visit his homeland for the first time,” Avey said in our interview.” I was exposed to the incredible Israeli food culture, and I quickly fell in love with Jewish cuisine. I came back from that trip with a mission — to recreate the amazing flavors I’d tasted in our home kitchen. As I immersed myself in traditional Jewish cooking, learning to make dishes that are centuries old, I finally felt at home …”
In 2010, in addition to Avey’s conversion, she and her husband were in the process of planning his daughter (Avey’s step daughter)’s bat mitzvah. The teenager was uninterested in having the same type of extravagant party as her Los Angeles peers — she wanted to do something different.
So Avey, who had been learning about Israel during her conversion studies, suggested that they might do the bat mitzvah on top of Masada, in Israel, overlooking the Dead Sea. Her stepdaughter loved the idea.
“It was so profound,” said Avey. “So high up — like being on a plane. It was amazing to see her there, becoming a woman on this majestic mountain with so much history.”
After the ceremony, the family partook in another ancient Jewish ceremony — braiding challah. Avey was accustomed to the process, having taken on regular challah baking in her family’s home, but her step-daughter had not. And so together, on top of Masada, surrounded by their friends and family, they braided challah, let it rise in the sweltering Israeli heat, and then baked it in a small, portable oven.
“You could literally smell the history — just the scent of fresh bread baking was enough to transport you back in time,” said Avey.
This thoughtful approach informs much of the Jewish food tradition in Avey’s home — as she both observes ancient traditions and creates her own. A few years ago, just after her conversion, Avey and her family welcomed friends into their home for Rosh HaShanah. As it happened, the friends were vegetarian.
“I thought about making two separate menus for the holiday, one vegetarian and one not,” she said. “But after talking it over with my husband, we decided that we liked the idea of a fully vegetarian holiday menu. We don’t eat a lot of meat ourselves, though we usually indulge in brisket on Passover and Rosh HaShanah.” Still, the couple decided that from now on, at least one holiday per year would be entirely vegetarian — to accommodate their vegetarian guests, as well as their own preferences.
Avey made vegetable moussaka, apple honey challah, a number of Middle Eastern mezze (small plates), Persian dill and lima bean rice, Rosh HaShanah sangria and honey apple cake.
“I was a bit worried that some of our family members would miss the brisket, but I needn’t have been. The meal turned out to be one of our very favorites, and a new tradition was born. We now celebrate at least one holiday each year vegetarian style, and we love it!”
This visceral relationship with the history of food drives Avey’s work today. She writes for PBS Food, exploring where our food comes from, and, in addition to The Shiksa, writes another blog called The History Kitchen, exploring the history of food from around the world.
“Every kitchen has a heritage; every recipe has a writer,” writes Avey on TheShiksa.com. “Knowing the story behind the food — the ancient history, or the family history, or even the history of one particular ingredient — can infuse a dish with meaning. And then a meal becomes more than just food, or something that fills you up physically. Food takes on a deeper significance, and ultimately becomes more nourishing.”
See more from Tori on TheHistoryKitchen.com and TheShiksa.com.