A family dinner is more than a meal—it’s an experience in Jewish identity.
If you know me, you know my love (some would say obsession) with food. I believe that when you want to explore a culture, the best and easiest place to start is with food. Food is a language and a way of understanding. Lean the word for “coffee” and your entire morning in a new country just got easier. For dinner, check out the street food and you’re bound to meet a new friend and a new taste sensation. Understand a community’s cuisine and customs and you go a long way toward understanding the people.
This is spot-on advice for Jewish culture. Mealtimes are hallowed and the table is the altar. That’s why I was so interested in seeing the special exhibit called Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture and American Jewish Identity currently at the Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Midtown, Atlanta.
I was raised in the Midwest and was an adult before I ever met a Jewish person. But at my very first Passover Seder I was told that every Jewish holiday celebrates the same thing: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat! That’s a practice I can relate to.
This special exhibit is mostly static signage, but if you take the time to read, you can learn quite a lot. The message seems to be that Jewish food evokes a shared history and common values for its people. The meals observe tradition, celebrate community and show affection, nourishing the family and the community in every way. This is perhaps most obvious at one of the special Jewish holiday meals, complete with brisket and latkes, but even an ordinary family dinner can be a place to learn how to “be Jewish.” There is information on the Jewish deli, kosher pickles, charoset, gefilte fish, latkes, dried limes (important in Persian cooking) and the tradition of eating Chinese food at Christmas. There’s information on keeping Kosher (known as Kashrut) and in the center of the exhibit is a Jewish kitchen. And they rate the “Jewish-ness” of food (Most Jewish? brisket!)
The one video in the exhibit is a fast paced look at food used in celebration, particularly weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. While I enjoyed the montage, the music was grating on my nerves before I reached the end of the exhibit. As a whole I found this to be informative and interesting, though it only covered the surface of this unique cuisine. I would have preferred something more interactive and at least a few subjects handled in depth.
The Selig Center houses not only the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, but is home of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, and the Lillian & A.J. Weinberg Center for Holocaust Education. I suppose the fact of so much “Jewish-ness” concentrated in one area is the reason for the high security in a public exhibit. The parking area is locked and you have to speak to a security guard to enter. Then cameras monitor your progress to the front door, which is also locked. I found it off-putting and uninviting and almost left before paying the $12 entrance fee. I hope that this amount of security it overkill, but clearly they judge it necessary.
My favorite part of this museum is in the permanent collection showing Jewish life in Atlanta from 1845 to the present. Of special interest to me is the video about the murder of Leo Frank. It’s impossible to talk about the Jewish experience in the south without discussing this case, which caused half the Jews in Georgia to flee the state. Frank was convicted in 1913 of the death of Mary Phagan, a young worker at the National Pencil Factory, where Frank was an engineer and superintendent. The trial and evidence was flawed and the jury prejudiced against him since he was both a Jew and a northerner. The prosecution portrayed him as a rich Yankee Jew lording it over vulnerable working women. Governor John M. Slaton eventually commuted the sentence to life imprisonment as he was leaving office, since it was effectively political suicide. A few weeks later, a group of armed men took Frank from the Milledgeville Penitentiary, carried him to the Marietta area and lynched him. No one was ever charged with Frank’s murder, though the ringleaders were prominent men of the community. Several photographs were taken of the lynching, which were sold as postcards, along with pieces of the rope and Frank’s nightshirt.
It is now widely believed by historians that Jim Conley, the factory’s janitor and the main witness for the prosecution, is the real murderer of Mary Phagan. In 1986, the state of Georgia pardoned Leo Frank. It is a sad chapter in Georgia’s history. This video is not the one at the museum, but it is very informative and includes several photos taken at the time.
Coming up next at the Breman, Project Mah Jongg.
Below are photos from the permanent Holocaust Gallery.