Just as family gathers for a meal, Jews and non-Jews alike converged on Sunday at UNC-Chapel Hill for the Jewish Food in the Global South Symposium, together exploring the complexity of Jewish food—what it is, where it's from, and, perhaps most hotly debated, to whom it now belongs.
The first event of its kind, hosted by the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies and generously sponsored by UNC alumni Jimmy and Susan Pittleman, the symposium attracted a packed house and offered hardly a moment for quiet reflection; attendees broke away from the often lively discussions only to eat. (Among the goodies: mounds of chopped liver, pastrami and pimento cheese biscuits from Neal's Deli, and a Jerusalem-Palestinian-inspired spread from Mediterranean Deli.)
"[The Pittlemans] wanted a program related to Jewish-American food," said Marcie Cohen Ferris, an American studies professor who cochaired the event. "I saw it as an opportunity to turn the lens onto global food, but in this special place [the South]. I want people to see Jewish food with its deep-layered vibrancy in American cuisine."
The series of panels began with "The Jewish Kitchen: History and Politics" and ended with "The New American Deli: Global Southern-Style." In between were many others, laced with Jewish humor and Yiddish sayings. The two-dozen-plus panelists and audience of 245 were in agreement that they'd never heard the word "gefilte fish" uttered so many times in a single day.
The symposium brought together leaders in the Jewish culinary niche from around the country and here in the Triangle. The spiciest exchanges came during discussions about which Jewish dishes and techniques are actually Jewish and how best to honor their long, complex traditions.
Sam Suchoff, owner of Chapel Hill's The Pig, admitted that, as a bar-mitzvahed former vegan turned pork connoisseur, his is "a story of contradictions." Panelists and audience members hotly contested notions about the authenticity of Jewish food, debating whether the "hipsterization" of Jewish food did justice to the rich culture and cuisine. "It's all fusion if you go back far enough," explained Ari Weinzweig, author, historian, self-proclaimed anarchist, and co-founding partner of Zingerman's Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And, as if to settle the debate, Laura Silver, author of Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, announced, "Sometimes what you dip a knish in helps navigate all that."
The palpable kinship suggested a consensus: Jewish food is as much about place and survivorship as it is about flavors and nostalgia. It is the food of immigrants, of roaming, of politics, and of conflict. It is a food of constant change that also holds people together.
Finally, an audience member asked what we'd all been thinking: Why had there been such a strong police presence in an otherwise empty building, on a quiet Sunday on UNC's campus? Cohen Ferris confirmed that she had requested more security for the crowd's safety. In an interview conducted two days prior to the symposium in the wake of the bomb threat to Durham's Lerner School, she explained, "These kinds of attacks on religious groups happen when a society is in a particularly anxious time. We're in that moment. But, those who hope to stir [us] up actually embolden "the other" and make us more proud to be us."
Kim Severson, a New York Times journalist and keynote moderator, asked panelists, "Can we cook to counter the incredible rise of anti-Semitism in this country?" Alon Shaya, an award-winning New Orleans-based Israeli chef (Shaya, Domenica), answered, "I've never had a bad conversation about food. Food is love."
In closing, Cohen Ferris, managed to turn the sobering topic of extra security into something positive: "Look, we are no longer gathering in ghettos; we now gather in symposiums."
This article appeared in print with the headline “Dawn of the Deli."