Jewish Food Is More Than Matzoh: An Explainer

Oct 7, 2019

As some may know, Cincinnati is the birthplace of Reform Judaism. In 1853, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise came here and enacted changes that drastically altered Jewish life, such as choral singing and seating men and women together in pews. His temple – now his namesake – still stands Downtown on Plum Street. In 1888, Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz started Manischewitz in Cincinnati, the famous kosher brand whose square matzoh (an unleavened bread) was revolutionary because it was made by machine (and thus no longer round). Manischewitz was based here until the 1930s, when it moved to New Jersey. 

So with such a rich Jewish history, why is it that in nearly every local grocery store, for every Jewish holiday, all you can find on shelves is an end cap of matzoh and Kedem kosher grape juice? In advance of Yom Kippur, we thought we'd find out...

For some in the local Jewish community, seeing matzoh promoted for a holiday – like the one being celebrated this week – can be frustrating, and seems to point toward an assumption that every Jewish holiday has the same foods; every Jewish group eats the same food; and Jews are a homogenous group with universal traditions.

"There is an assumption that all Jews are Ashkenazi [originating from Germany and Eastern Europe]," says Katie Vogel, a leader of Havayah, an intentional Jewish community based out of the Cincinnati neighborhood of Northside. "It erases Jews who are Sephardic [originating from the Mediterranean], but also Jews who may be from Africa, Asia, or who have converted."

Food is a huge part of Jewish identity. It is both regional and holiday-specific. Traditional Jewish foods in the U.S. tend to be Ashkenazi – bagels, matzo, and kugel all come out of Eastern Europe, but other Jewish groups have their own traditional foods. Sephardic Jews are known for falafel, kibbeh and tabbouleh. Mizrahi Jews use za’atar as a seasoning and enjoy shaksouka, baked eggs in a tomato sauce. 

Just as a Greek Orthodox Christian may traditionally eat lamb on Easter, and a Midwestern Catholic may eat ham, regional differences influence which foods Jews eat on the holidays. As you’d never see lamb promoted at a grocery store for Christmas, seeing matzoh – which is used at Passover in the spring – for, say, Hannukah, can be confusing and insulting. 

Michael Freeman, a Jewish resident of Blue Ash, who celebrates the holidays but does not keep kosher on a daily basis, finds it amusing that items like matzoh and matzoh ball soup are featured at grocery stores for every Jewish holiday. "Matzoh placement on an end cap for the Jewish holidays—for Hanukkah—makes absolutely no sense, but Kroger does it every year," he says. "In this day and age, when there's information [everywhere], you would think there would be someone on staff that would say 'this doesn't make sense for this holiday' and yet that doesn't happen, even in 2019." 

WVXU reached out to Kroger for comment and is awaiting a response. 

The good news is there is a lot of commercial packaged food that is already kosher and integrated into the "standard" aisles of the grocery store, according to Vogel, who keeps kosher at home and eats vegan outside the home. The Vaad Hoier, the Orthodox body that certifies food as kosher locally, supervises three grocery stores that offer fresh and frozen meats, bakery and dairy products: the Kroger on Hunt Road in Blue Ash, Remke in Hyde Park Plaza and Trader Joe's in Kenwood. They also have certified Graeter's Ice Cream as kosher. Still, "There is not a lot of meat or cheese, locally, that is Kosher," Vogel says. The majority of Jewish communities, both neighborhoods and synagogues, are based in the suburbs and the stores nearby are merchandised to reflect their customers. 

So, what does the urban Jew do?

Enter Vogel's Havayah, which is celebrating its third year of services, mostly out of her home in Northside, which she shares with her husband, Nathan Kemphues. "Cincinnati has a rich Jewish heritage, but most of that story is told and lived in our suburbs. We were founded on the principle that Jewish, urban life is a critical component of what a healthy Jewish community at large should look like."

Shabbos table set for guests at Havayah.
Credit Courtesy of Havayah

Havayah meets twice monthly for Shabbos dinner, with as few as three and as many as 50 people attending. One week is a potluck—only vegetarian, nut-free foods allowed—and the other is cooked by Vogel and other members of the community. It, too, is vegetarian and nut-free. "Kosher food doesn't have to be packaged and processed. It is meant to follow the seasons," she says. So in summer, you may see an Israeli couscous salad with fresh parsley and tomatoes, or a frittata with eggs from Vogel's chickens with fresh spinach. In winter, potatoes and squash grace the table. For every Shabbos, community members make challah (a traditional egg bread) which is broken communally with kosher wine. 

It's casual: some people cover their head with kippah, a traditional head covering or a scarf. Some are in jeans. Most are in between. Attendees range from more observant to new to Judaism, from Boomers to babies. "Our door is open. Our prayer is accessible because it's in Hebrew, English and is transliterated. We're here not to replace synagogue life, but to examine and enact what an intentional community can and should be."

This year, Havayah will celebrate the High Holy Days, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, as a community at their headquarters in Northside, where they will break the Yom Kippur fast not with matzoh, but with the traditional challah, apples and honey. For more information and tickets, visit Havayah's website

For more information about Havayah and its services and community, go to their Facebook page