Something I struggled with at the beginning of my Jewish journey was maintaining my Irish identity in a sea of Eastern European Jewishness. I like a lot of the so-called “traditional” Jewish foods like gefilte fish and blintzes, but I also recognize that making them an integral part of our Shabbosim is unnecessary appropriation. Why didn’t my Shabbos reflect more of my Irish heritage?
A shift happened about a year into my marriage. It was late on a Shabbos afternoon and my husband and I were bemoaning the tummy troubles brought upon us by a second serving of cholent.
“We should never eat cholent again”, I said to him.
“I don’t even really like it”, he replied.
“What? What do you mean? You eat it every week”.
“It’s not horrible, but I don’t NEED to eat cholent”.
We didn’t need to eat cholent? Yes, we did. What I thought my husband was really trying to say was that he didn’t like my cholent. Ouch. Cholent is a tradition that makes Shabbos feel Shabbosdig for countless families around the world. It was developed over centuries as a workaround the cooking prohibition in order for us to eat hot food on Shabbos day. We had to have cholent on Shabbos, or we would be viewed as heretics (see Sefer Ha-Maor in Tractate Shabbat PerekKirah). I knew that each family made things a little differently. I figured that I just hadn’t found my recipe yet.
A little Google research turned up that there are hundreds of regional varieties of cholent, some with eggs, some with rice, some with chicken, some with beans, some with beef. Of course, there are also thousands of modern interpretations, vegan, gluten free, low-carb and more. I loved each of these interpretations and we tried a bunch of different recipes. In the end it was decided that I was actually a terrible cholent cook. I tried to take the news on the chin, but for months, I envied my friends delicious cholent. One friend in particular makes the most delicious soupy style cholent that is a beautiful brown-red hue and just the right amount of everything. My husband dutifully picked up our cholent from the deli each week and each week I felt a little more defeated.
Worse than the shame of being bad at the one dish that you “can’t mess up” was the nagging feeling that without cholent, I wasn’t really making Shabbos and somehow I was a little less Jewish. Thankfully, there are no Jewish police coming to check my menu.
In a stroke of genius (or maybe Irish luck), I devised a new plan. It was the Shabbos right before Lá Fhéile Pádraig (the day of the festival of Patrick). As Jews this is really just another day on the calendar as the religious purpose is to celebrate the arrival of Christianity to Ireland. Culturally however, this holiday was important to me growing up because we would take part in cèilidh (social gatherings with music and dancing) and the wearing of the green. One year my mother and I were in a parade as part of a kazoo band and EVERY year my Mom would dye my breakfast green. Ever since the 19th century, Patrick’s day has been more of a cultural celebration of Irishness in America.
As I was saying, it was the Shabbos before Patrick’s Day. I decided to covertly try out an Irish menu. I didn’t tell my husband what I was doing. I made the pan fried fish and potatoes and Irish Beef Stew. It was a hit. There were no leftovers. In that moment I realized that Jewish food is whatever food a Jew is eating. I could make any food that I wanted. It seems so obvious, but sometimes you do things a certain way for so long that you forget that it’s not halacha.
I haven’t tried to make cholent since.
As I was planning our Chanukah menu and looking for diary recipes to cook up, I decided to make some farls.
Farls means “four parts” and it’s basically bread dough cut into quarters and fried in oil. Perfect for Chanukah.It’s one of those dishes that you “can’t mess up”, but just in case there is another Irish Jew out there looking to celebrate their Irish-Jewishness, here’s a simple recipe.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
Preheat heavy skillet on medium heat.
Sift together flour and salt in a bowl and then sift in baking soda. Make a well in the center, and pour in the buttermilk.
Work quickly to mix into dough and knead very lightly. Shape the dough into a flat circle (like a thick pancake), about 1/2 inch thick and cut into quarters with a floured knife.
Sprinkle a little flour over the base of the hot pan and cook the farls for 6 to 8 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Serve with jelly, or a full Irish style breakfast (minus the meat of course).
In addition to writing for JN, Tzipi also works as a birth and post partum doula. She currently lives in New Jersey with her husband and daughter. This is the third sentence in this paragraph.
Header image courtesy of MaNishtana.