Ted Merwin serves up a slice of nostalgia food
Ethereal and voluptuous, sinful and sacred, cheesecake, is the ultimate Jewish dish. The Greek gods feasted on nectar and ambrosia; the Jewish God, it is safe to say, prefers cheesecake. Why else do we eat cheesecake to relive our mind-bending, world-altering encounter with God at Mount Sinai?
In the Torah, God feeds the Israelites with manna, and they feed Him with roast beef, in the form of animal sacrifice. But what does He eat for dessert? We learn from Marcus Cato’s De Re Rustica that the ancient Romans left a cheese loaf called libum as an offering to their household gods. Would the Jewish God accept anything less?
It is a little-known fact that, along with democracy and theatre, the Ancient Greeks also invented cheesecake. It became associated with both religious ritual and pleasure when athletes in the inaugural Olympic Games of 776 BCE ate it to enhance their performance.
According to Evelyn Rose, Jews first ate cheesecake during the Greek occupation of Palestine. Indeed, the oily potato latkes that we consume with abandon at Chanukah derive from salty fried cakes made from cheese; in the Book of Judith, the seductive title character feeds them to the evil Assyrian general, Holofernes. These cheesecakes make him so thirsty that he overindulges on wine, becoming so drunk that Judith is able to slice off his head with his own sword. Again, the cheesecake symbolises sex, but also strength — the cheeky heroine takes on a decidedly masculine role in slaying the oppressor.
Throughout the Middle Ages, cheesecakes of all kinds were popular throughout Europe. Monks cooked cheesecake with Roquefort. Italians prepared it with ricotta and mascarpone for a light filling. And a mid-sixteenth century English cookbook has a recipe for a ‘tarte of Chese’, which calls for the cheese to be immersed in milk for three hours, broken up with a mortar, strained with egg yolks, seasoned with sugar and butter, and baked. The modern cheesecake was made possible by New York dairyman William Lawrence in 1872. He took cream cheese, introduced by English Quakers a century earlier in the Delaware Valley near Philadelphia, renamed it ‘Philadelphia’ and started selling it across America. In no time, it was a best seller.
Jews who immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe maintained a special fondness for cheesecake. With distance and years, cheesecake, like Proust’s madeleines, became the repository of memory. In Mary Antin’s lyrical memoir The Promised Land, published in 1912, her nostalgia for Russia is crystallised in her memory of cheesecake from her hometown of Plotzk. Just thinking about it brought back ‘the flavour of daisies and clover picked on the Vall; the sweetness of Dvina water; the richness of newly turned earth which I moulded with bare feet and hands; the ripeness of red cherries bought by the dipperful in the market place; the fragrance of all my childhood summers’.This intense nostalgia gave cheesecake a special meaning for Jewish immigrants, who strove to balance their desire to become American with their need to retain their Jewish roots.
As Jews became more accepted into American society, they found ways of expressing their Jewish identity that did not depend exclusively on religious observance. Many second generation Jews moved to the outer boroughs of New York City, especially Brooklyn and the Bronx, where they continued to live, work and socialise almost entirely with other Jews. Most felt little need to go to synagogue or perform religious rituals but still felt deeply attached to their culture and ethnicity. This new secular Jewish identity revolved to a great extent around the foods that they shared.
The incorporation of cheesecake into the wider community, and the way in which its very essence fused with the notion of American richness and excess, is an illustration of Jewish arrivisme not to be underestimated. Luscious, full-fat cheesecake bespoke American bounty; eating it enabled Jewish immigrants and their children to affirm that they had achieved the American Dream. In blending concepts from the shtetl and the New World, cheesecake successfully straddled and synthesised different cultures and, like Jewishness itself, combined different flavours in one dish.
Jewish foods also penetrated the mainstream of American society. The huge number of Jews in New York — more than a quarter of the city’s population in the years between the two World Wars — ensured that their foods became part of the wider culture and beloved of non-Jews as well. Cheesecake became an iconic New York Jewish delicacy and the ‘New York Cheesecake’ was especially associated with non-kosher theatre district delicatessens like Reuben’s and Lindy’s. Non-Jews ate cheesecake as avidly as Jews, vicariously taking part in the New York-Jewish experience. As The New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne once wrote, cheesecake is the ‘one dessert in America that is as typically New York as the subway, corned beef and pastrami, or the waiters at Lindy’s’.
As Jews have become more assimilated, and as foods like cheesecake and bagels have begun to slip their Jewish moorings, the context of eating Jewish food has assumed more importance than the food itself. Eating cheesecake may still make Jews ‘feel Jewish’, if it takes place in a Jewish restaurant or on a Jewish holiday, but it no longer serves as an all-purpose symbol of Jewishness for Jews and non-Jews alike. The cheesecake has melted in the mouth of progress, with, as is fitting, no discernible aftertaste.
Jewish mysticism offers some intriguing insights into what might make cheesecake inherently Jewish. The Kabbalah understands God in terms of overflow — the holy vessels were shattered by a superabundance of divine energy. With its staggering fat content, cheesecake represents the culinary equivalent of this divine outpouring. Mystics associate dairy products with God’s quality of chesed, or loving-kindness. In the Song of Songs, the Torah is compared to milk: ‘Like honey and milk [the Torah)]lies under your tongue.’ The love engendered by dairy products is so overpowering that it even dominates a subsequent meat meal. In Genesis, Abraham magnanimously served the angels cottage cheese and milk, but then followed it up with meat. In The Kabbalah of Cheesecake, Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson notes that ‘it was in the merit of the dairy-followed-by-deli feast that the Torah was given to the Jewish people. Hence, each year on Shavuot we reenact that Abrahamic feast: we eat dairy, followed by deli, demonstrating that earth prevailed over heaven; that it is in our labour to sanctify the soil in our life where we touch the truth of existence’. It is our eating cheesecake that, every Shavuot, makes us worthy to receive the Torah anew.
On the first night of Shavout at a tikkun leyl, we stay up all night studying Torah and eating cheesecake. By the dawn’s early light, we are so exhausted that we cannot tell the difference between the two; for all we know, we might be eating Torah and reading cheesecake.
Ted Merwin is theatre critic and food columnist for the New York Jewish Week. His articles have also appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, and many other publications. He teaches Judaic Studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.