Last week when I went to the Israeli consulate to get a visa for my upcoming trip to Israel, the security guard, after taking in my kipa and tzitzit, asked me “Atah yehudi?” Are you Jewish? On my replying “bevadai,” of course, he persisted in asking “Atah yehudi mimakor?” “Were you born Jewish?”
With my Indian passport and a name most uncommon among Jews, he clearly had me pegged for a convert. And that aroused his interest. Most Jews are like that Israeli guard; they know that Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, and hence a convert is an object of curiosity to them, something unusual. The very word in Hebrew for a convert is ger — an alien, indicating an outsider. Nevertheless, I would argue that converts and the experience of being a ger are crucial to the essence of the Jewish people.
I am all for boundaries in the kitchen. Whether they’re halakhic (not serving rabbit) or culinary (traditional Italian cuisine frowns upon serving fish with cheese), limitations tend to inspire creativity. Still, without the speed, the tools, or the technical skill of a professional cook, it’s a tall order to complete the dishes by Shabbat’s arrival and to warm them in such a way that is halakhically permissible and non-detrimental to the food. The meal inevitably suffers.
It’s nearly impossible to serve anything that is both warm and green, for example. Reheated vegetables almost invariably lose their color. This means I can’t make the chive sauce I like to serve with cod, or sautéed spinach. This means my pea soup is inevitably brown.
Restrictions like these can make traditional Shabbat observance seem like deprivation. Shabbat is not conceptualized as an ascetic practice; rather, the obligatory nature of Shabbat and its attending constraints are supposed to usher in a higher luxury. Eating has always been central to that sense of luxury. Rabbinic literature is full of imaginative descriptions of Shabbat meals. In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer tells us that a man should always set a full table on Friday night, even if he only needs an olive’s worth of food. Likewise, many traditional Shabbat songs feature culinary themes. “It is an honored day,” writes Ibn Ezra in his poem “Ki Eshmera Shabbat,” “a day of enjoyment, of bread and good wine, of meat and fish!”
I still eat better on Shabbat than I do any other day of the week, since I actually bother to cook, but preparing food ahead of time frustrates me too. I’m not a fan of meats served cold, and other tactics do dry things out.