"I Chose Judaism, but Christmas Cookies Chose Me" : Food and a Hybrid Sense of the Sacred in Interfaith Families

Saturday, January 8, 2011
Ballroom C (Hynes Convention Center)
Samira K. Mehta , Emory University
“The daughter of an interfaith marriage, I chose Judaism but Christmas cookies chose me” began a New York Times Dining article on December 19, 2007. The author’s Christian grandmother would bake cookies from sunrise to late night and so, “even though I fashion my gingerbread into driedels and menorahs, as I bake from her recipes, I feel close to her arms.”

Religiously and ethnically blended families have become increasingly common over the past fifty years.  This increase raises questions about how it is that the individuals raised in such families blend the traditions of their divergent heritages.   My work addresses the role food plays in these negotiations in the context of the Christian Jewish blended family, the most commonly depicted form of mixed heritage in American popular culture.  Food, in the form of family meals, preserved recipes, and family tradition serve as a primary cultural marker of ethnic investment that is sometimes, but not always tied to religious practice.   This poster draws from memoir literature, interviews, and popular representations of food in interfaith families to suggest that food and food rituals provide a venue for interfaith families to build shared sacred meaning.

The reflections of those raised in interfaith families depict food as the stuff of nostalgia in ways that opens up sacred space in their lives. It is in this role that the Jewish granddaughter bakes her grandmother’s Christmas cookies.  Distinctive foodways become a way of merging divergent religious and ethnic heritage, such that I find memoirs commenting that “a hot knish [is] the taste of Christmas.” In examining the link between food and family history, my work draws on that of Elizabeth Pleck, who argues that for women in particular, particular dishes and methods of food preparation are ways in which families transmit their heritage and a sense of communal identity. Blending Elizabeth Pleck’s work on food and family ritual with practice theory, I explore ways in which interfaith families use food as a conduit for memory and identity and ask how food traditions provide a venue for drawing sacrality out of divergent heritages. 

Examining food and eating allows me to blend the categories of religious and ethnic identity, distinctions that are often not clear-cut in the interfaith home.  Because food is often read as “ethnic” rather than “religious,” food can provide an avenue for creating hybrid identities with deep religious resonance at the same time that individuals may either formally affiliate with one tradition or consider themselves secular.

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