Rhap­sody in Schmaltz: Yid­dish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eat­ing It

  • Review
By – June 20, 2016

Research­ing and writ­ing this book has been one of the most unpleas­ant expe­ri­ences of my life,” Michale Wex writes of his lat­est work, Rhap­sody in Schmaltz: Yid­dish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eat­ing It, a whiplash-induc­ing overview of Jew­ish culi­nary cul­ture that estab­lish­es how its sub­ject exem­pli­fies a world lan­guage, pep­pered with strains and sources from across the world.

In the first few chap­ters, stud­ded with ref­er­ences to rab­bis who wrote about food and eat­ing, the use of ital­ics is stag­ger­ing: sources from the Tal­mud, Mish­nah, Plutarch, tele­vi­sion shows, and bor­rowed vocab­u­lary from Czech, Pol­ish, Yid­dish, and Ger­man make for inter­est­ing, some­times tir­ing, read­ing. If a tele­vi­sion shtick, sto­ries from the Book of Gen­e­sis, and dietary laws can be pre­sent­ed in one sen­tence, Michael Wex writes it: The brisket that Howard Wolowitz’s moth­er is always yelling about on The Big Bang The­o­ry can trace its lin­eage back to Jacob’s fight with the angel.”

Once he labels the cen­tral Euro­pean cui­sine as Yid­dish, Wex goes on to treyf, cholent and its vari­a­tions, Sab­bath meals in gen­er­al, hol­i­day and week­day foods, and final­ly, what makes all of this cook­ing and food dis­tinct­ly Jew­ish. He reviews of the bak­ing of mat­zoh, enu­mer­a­tion of oth­er kosher ani­mals not found at local meat coun­ters, with some urban dic­tio­nary asides tak­en from con­tem­po­rary drug addicts’ ver­biage. That Wex is Cana­di­an can be not­ed occa­sion­al­ly by the absence of more Amer­i­can place ref­er­ences. Michael Wex has writ­ten a curi­ous­ly inter­est­ing book, best digest­ed slowly.

Relat­ed Content:

Arlene B. Soifer earned degrees in Eng­lish, and has had many years of expe­ri­ence as a free­lance writer, edi­tor, and pub­lic rela­tions professional.

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