2017 Cole Essay Contest Winning Essay

First Bite, First Conversation by Ariel Brodey

Any mention of Judaism and my mouth immediately floods with saliva. I involuntarily conjure thoughts of cinnamon spiced kugel, crispy chicken croquettes, and fragrant matzah-ball soup. Growing up in a traditionally Jewish but relaxed family, the particulars of my faith for most of my life have been inextricably linked to our family’s weekly candlelit Shabbat dinners and memories from our first trip to Israel.

In 8th grade, my complacency was shattered when a Muslim girl at my school abruptly blocked me on all social media. Suddenly, I was aware of the gap between my understanding of my background and its status in the world. As shock gave way to unease and anger, I tried to avoid the issue. As a happy middle-schooler, I was unable to reconcile the glowing memories of my bat- mitzvah with the pain of a lost friend. Only this year did I dare to address the rift. Having read a narrative rich with descriptions of Persian cuisine, I peppered my classmate with questions about her family’s dinners. Our middle- school preconceptions faded, we were able to bond over descriptions of aromatic kitchens. When she told me stories of her families massive dinners and the delicacies of the Persian New Year, I was reminded of our families raucous Passover Seder. When she lamented the woes of fasting for Ramadan, I was reminded of the stomach pains I felt this year as I did my first official Yom Kippur fast. When she mentioned khoresht-fesenjan, a dish studded with walnuts and pomegranate, I was reminded of the pomegranate we eat every Rosh Hashanah.

Of late, I’ve realized that Judaism is as bittersweet as the pomegranate I love so much. My family’s traditions are as delicious as the red ruby kernels, notwithstanding the bitter skeleton that encases them. However, as every good chef knows, all sweet must be balanced by a little bitter. Luckily, I know now that my Judaism didn’t necessitate the permanent loss of a friend. In fact, it often times forms the basis for the friendships which I cherish the most.

This year, I embarked on a new challenge- attempt a recipe each night from my favorite cookbook, Jerusalem, by Yottam Ottolenghi and Sammi Tamimi. The two men grew up in different parts Jerusalem, Ottolenghi in the Jewish part and Tamimi in the Muslim Eastern part of the city. What they shared is a deep love for the food and land. With every dish that I prepared – from shakshuka to pistachio jeweled rice – I too could share in a bit of that feeling. It wasn’t simply Jewish food nor was it simply Muslim food. The recipes of Jerusalem come from Romania, Iran, Turkey, Poland, Morocco, France, Armenia, and hundreds of other places – just like the people do. I am not naïve enough to say that a luxurious and creamy hummus can solve the world’s problems (although I still would urge you to try the recipe). However, what I can attest to is its power to begin a conversation.

There are very few Jews at the small high school I attend. This hasn’t deterred me; the Jewish cultural club meetings I lead are always packed. Maybe people are drawn by the delicious challah bread offered, or lured by the phenomenon of dipping apples into honey, but they always stay to learn about the next upcoming holiday. I know now that regardless of religion or belief, most friendships form with merely a smile and a snack. Judaism has provided me with a means of connection, to those in my immediate community and to those outside of it. I’ve been able to reap the benefits of this truth, and I plan to continue this with Jews and non-Jews alike in my future.

In college, I am confident that Judaism will serve as my automatic bond to certain people. I will seek out the comfortable smell of matzoh ball soup at my college’s Hillel, because for me and so many of my Jewish peers, Shabbos dinner has always been joyful and loving part of our lives. However, I don’t want this to deter me from forging more difficult friendships in college. I want to be proud of being Jewish, but not so proud that I’m unwilling to be challenged about my identity. I know that on many campuses, the discussion about Israel has become highly contentious. My automatic response is to shut down, just like I was foolish enough to do in middle school. I want to reject that initial reaction, because I recognize that there are many difficult questions inherent to identifying as Jewish. I can’t answer them all right away- but I am capable of respectful conversation. What’s more, some of my friendships won’t even necessitate political conversations.

Sometimes, simply celebrating a difference can lead to finding commonality, and by embracing and sharing your religion, others are more apt to do the same. I am intrigued by new smells and spices, so for me food is the easiest and most natural way to connect with others. Maybe I will learn how to make tahdig from one friend. Perhaps I will try my hand at King Cake and Christmas cookies with another. If I’m lucky, I will encounter someone who knows something about Buddhist temple food (something I am insanely curious about currently). Hopefully, that is where I will begin my conversation. Whatever the case may be –I am sure the conversation will also be a delicious one.

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