The Jew And The Carrot

A Letter to My Jewish Baby

By Leah Koenig

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Kurt Hoffman

Sometime in early August, if all goes as expected, I will become a mom. Naturally, I am filled with excitement. But I also have my fears and doubts — particularly about becoming a stereotypical Jewish mother. As a food writer, the Jewish mom’s obsessive desire to push food onto loved ones cuts closest to the proverbial bone. Does my impending motherhood predestine me to start uttering phrases like: “Let me take your coat. Have some noodles!”?

Fortunately, the dynamics of parenthood and Jewish identity in America have changed significantly since, Philip Roth and Woody Allen vaulted the mythically overbearing Jewish mother into public consciousness. And while I hope to be a part of that change, I cannot deny that I have wants for my baby, particularly when it comes to food — in the kitchen, at the table and beyond. So, while I’m still eating for two, I wanted to set out a few of those hopes, intentions and promises.

May you have a positive relationship with food.

Child, you don’t know this yet, but I suspect you will learn that modern Jews have a complicated, relationship with food. The “Eat, eat, you’re wasting away!” mentality of your great-bubbe’s generation persists. But, when I was little, another approach to food arose: The Jewish mother who fixated on weight, who pushed her children to reach an ideal of thinness, who shamed, judged and controlled through food.

As an adolescent and preteen I was tall and full-bodied, with a doughy belly, rounded thighs, and a guilty relationship with food to match. Today, I am still troubled with body image issues. Even more regrettably, I am not free of judgment of others. But despite these challenges, I will do my best to encourage a positive approach to eating in our home — one that values health and moderation, but also celebrates food as something to relish and delight in, not to fear.

I hope we cook together.

I want you to feel unequivocally at home in our kitchen. I admit I have a tendency to take over the stove, which stems from an anxiety about having meals turn out “right.” But I’m learning, slowly, that cooking is about much more than crafting a good meal.

Growing up, my brother, father, and I thanklessly gobbled the nourishing dinners — not to mention the countless breakfasts, lunches, and afternoon snacks — my mom prepared. As someone who did not begin my own relationship with the kitchen until college, I took her efforts for granted. It is only now that I realize what a gift she was giving us. By introducing our kitchen as a space of collaboration early on, my hope is that you will come to understand that cooking for someone is, at its core, about showing love.

I also want you to intrinsically understand that cooking with someone, offers opportunities to connect. The kitchen, with its riot of colorful produce and the music of sizzling pans, is the perfect backdrop for sharing stories (and the occasional dance party). And its messy, flour-dusted counters open up a quiet space for us to bare our own messes and grief. After all, if you can trust someone else to create something with you while wielding knives and fire, it stands to reason that you can trust them with your heart, too. I hope that, whether we are chopping onions or kneading challah dough, you learn to trust me in that space. I promise to do the same.

May food be as much about principle as about pleasure.

Some of my most vivid childhood memories include visiting the farmers market with my mom. The circle of bluegrass musicians that greeted shoppers by the entrance was certainly part of the appeal. So were the doughnuts for sale, with their downy blanket of powdered sugar. But I have no doubt that these early experiences meeting farmers, and the reinforcement that food comes from somewhere other than the supermarket, informed my food politics as an adult.

You, are destined to grow up in a less certain-feeling world than I did — one marred by global warming, droughts, food shortages and increasing food disparities. It is not fair, I know, and I am sorry. So I will do my best to teach you that the existence of nourishing food, for others and for us, is both precarious and precious — that it is worth blessing and fighting for. I hope we can be allies on both fronts.

May you have the love of babka in your bones.

Perhaps above all, I hope that food becomes a defining part of your Jewish identity. I want the jammy depths of a spiraled rugelach and the briny snap of a pickle to bring up unexplainable feelings of love and connection for you. I want you to crave the sputtering crackle of your Grandma Carol’s just-fried latkes as much as I do, and know the difference between a delicatessen and an appetizing shop. If I braise brisket for Rosh Hashanah dinner while you sleep, I want its perfume to permeate your dreams.

If you are a picky eater, as I was when I was little, I will try to be patient but persistent. And believe me, little one, I will be enlisting the help of your grandparents on these fronts — because these tastes and stories were theirs before they were mine. And hopefully now they will be yours, too.

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