By Heather Abraham
I have always been fascinated with gefilte fish, though I haven’t yet worked up the nerve to try the strange looking fish balls. I don’t make a point of looking for them, but periodically they appear in special displays at the grocery store. I can’t pass them by without first spending time holding the jar up to the light, trying to discern exactly what they are and what the gelatinous liquid is that holds them suspended. I’ve read the ingredients and yet I can’t help but think there is some secret element that magically holds me in suspension between fascination and fear.
How could I not be fascinated with these mysterious blobs? They blend together some of my greatest passions: history, religion, and food. Gefilte fish came to the United States with the Ashkenazi Jews and have graced many American Shabbat tables. I was familiar with their religious history but still, they held me in thrall.
My gefilte fish curiosity recently drew the attention of another. As I stood transfixed by the light gleaming off the contents in a jar of gefilte fish, a frail elderly man approached me. “You’re not Jewish.” He stated but a question mark hung in the air.
“No, I am not Jewish.” I conceded.
“Then you should not buy them.” He said matter of fact.
“Why?” I inquired.
“Because you are not Jewish.” He explained in a kind but firm voice.
“I don’t understand.”
“They are part of Jewish history, created out of religious necessity. They are of no use to you.” He explained as he nodded toward the gefilte fish pyramid. I followed his gaze and automatically returned the jar I was holding. He looked pleased. I had a hundred more questions for him but it was apparent he didn’t want to further engage. Silently, he turned and shuffled away, disappearing behind a mountain of watermelons.
I spent the rest of my shopping trip musing on the encounter. The gefilte fish had sparked an encounter between two strangers that centered on Identity. He was Jewish, I was not. Gefilte fish had no place in my world. I was strangely relieved, beholden to the kind old man who had released me from the gefilte fish spell.