SUMMER READING (or “It’s all about food.”)

Posted on July 1, 2011 by

A blog post by Executive Director Avi Decter.

Having gotten up to Vermont on vacation, I stopped at the Middlebury public library to grab some summer reading and found waiting for me a brand new copy of Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole (Nextbook/Schocken, New York). Having once worked with scholars at the Jewish Theological Seminary on a modest Geniza project, I grabbed this excellent book and spent the weekend reading it.

One of the many fascinating excursions the authors took was a brief discussion of the ways in which the Geniza documents shed new light on the history of Palestinian Judaism in late antiquity and the medieval period.  It turns out that Palestinian Jewish life—like the Palestinian Talmud—had been given relatively short shrift by comparison with their Babylonian counterparts. Yet Palestinian Jews developed their own variants on both the law (Talmud) and the liturgy.

For instance, the Palestinians produced several variants on the Passover Haggada, most of them considerably shorter than our current version. All kinds of differences pop up in these variants: some where the Four Questions are two or three or five—and some in which the father asks the questions rather than the children. And then, in one particular instance, the Philadelphia Haggada (in the collections of the University of Pennsylvania), the single short blessing over karpas (usually a sprig of celery or parsley), multiplied and became four blessings.

It became clear, as the authors argue, “that the flimsy green thing on today’s seder plate is what one distinguished scholar of classical religious thought has described as the “lonely, desiccated survivor” of a lavish and life-enhancing Greco-Roman spread of hors d’oeuvres, or the Levantine mezze of late antiquity and the High Middle Ages.” Palestinian seder-goers, in other words, gave thanks for a lavish spread of fruits and other delicacies. Or, as Penn professor David Stern remarks: “It’s all about food!”

Of course, we at the Museum are all wrapped up in preparing for our big exhibition on Chosen Food and are especially keen to learn about the history and traditions of Jewish foodways. But it is reassuring to note that leading scholars in a variety of Jewish Studies disciplines are also taking food history so seriously! With newly whetted appetite, I look forward with relish to our fall exhibition.

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