As we celebrate Shavuot, Nathan Abrams explores the curious relationship between Jews and cheese.
The issue of Stilton cheese, which held up any potential UK trade deal with Japan, got me thinking about the relationship between Jews and cheese. But as it’s Shavuot, it’s a good time to be thinking about it again.
Despite the modern Israeli’s love of all things to do with cottage cheese, one does not automatically associate Jews the stuff. Has Israel made a famous cheese that ranks with Camembert, Gorgonzola, Roquefort or Wensleydale? (The latter makes me think more of Wallace and Gromit.) The relationship between Jews and cheese, though, is historical and ambivalent.
It begins with the Bible when, in Genesis 18:8, Abraham prepares a meal for his three angelic visitors. (Although I did find a terrible pun online to the Tower of Babybel.) Given that the Promised Land was describd as a ‘Land Flowing with Milk and Honey’, one might expect to find more cheese related moments. In reality, though, they are far and few between in the Tanach; for example, 1 Samuel, when the future King David’s father, Jesse, sends his sons ten cheeses to sustain them in their fight against the Philistine Goliath. Job 10:10 contains the line ‘You poured me out like milk, Congealed me like cheese’ — a line one might expect to find more often in pop lyrics.
Such cheese was most likely produced from goat’s or sheep’s milk and preserved either by salting or by immersing it in olive oil. Cheese is still made this way in the Middle East today.
During the Hellenistic period, community leaders forbid Jews to buy cheese from their Greek neighbours. This might have been, in part, as a result of nationalism (an early form of Hebrew Brexit?) or worries that the cheese was curdled by rennet from a non-kosher animal. Such worries dog Jewish consumption of cheese to this day, as does the precise time one must wait between consuming meat and cheese.
Probably the most famous story about Jews and cheese goes back to the sixth century B.C.E. A beautiful widow named Judith was said to have lived in the town of Bethulia in Israel when it was besieged by a foreign army. Judith met with its general, Holofernes. She fed him salty cheese causing him to drink more and more wine to slake his thirst. When he passed out, drunk, she took his sword and decapitated him.
Cheese, though, has proved problematic for Jews, as the above point about rennet indicates. Even more so when one considers the prohibition of mixing meat and dairy ruling out the ubiquitous cheeseburger, or steak with garlic butter, among many other delicious dishes. (Although a 2018 Ha’aretz headline suggested that maybe Jews could eat cheeseburgers after all.)
Yet, culturally, cheese has begun to be associated with Jews in the United States in more recent times. So indelibly linked have bagels, a schmear of cream cheese and a slither of smoked salmon become, that it would be unthinkable to omit the cheese.
In the 1930s, Arnold Rueben, a German-Jewish restaurateur, he who invented the famous sandwich that took his name, substituted milk curd for cream cheese to make cheesecake. It soon caught on and become popular on Shavuot, the festival for dairy foods. By the way, the most expensive cheesecake in the world costs $5,000. I doubt that it’s kosher, though.
Of the many reasons for the popularity of Chinese food in the United States, it has been argued, is that it is considered to be ‘safe treyf’. This could refer to the fact that the non-kosher meat in Chinese food is often cut up so small that it doesn’t count but also that Chinese food tends not to contain dairy (read cheese), making its consumption not so offensive to Jews.
Strangely, given this history, however, there aren’t many Jewish cheese moments on television. But two stand out. In Seinfeld, after George had finished mourning the death of his former fiancée Susan, he recounts how he ‘was stripped to the waist, eating a block of cheese the size of a car battery’.
In Schitt’s Creek, when the Rose family attempts to make enchiladas, the recipe requires that they ‘fold in the cheese’ which leaves them completely flummoxed.
There is only one significant Jewish cheese film moment I can think of. When, in Spielberg’s Munich, Avner is given a parting gift by Papa, it consists of blood sausage and a Loire cheese called Selles sur Cher. Papa recommends covering it in ash to preserve it (possibly an oblique reference to Jewish history culminating in the Holocaust).
That I can think of no other key Jewish film and cheese moments testifies to the ambivalent relationship between Jews and cheese.
The real reason for behind our ambivalence is, as has been pointed out to me, wind and bloatedness. It is well recognised that Ashkenazi Jews have high rates (50-80%!) of lactose intolerance.
But try telling that to Jewish actress Alison Brie.