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October 11, 2009

If you didn’t grow up in Florida, you may not know that there really used to be such a thing as a Jewfish.  Some people thought the name was offensive, and successfully petitioned to change it back in 2001.

Perceptions of anti-Semitism are such a funny thing.  The Jewish people are all Jews, but the word Jew, in its singular form, makes some people uncomfortable.  Even if it’s referring to a fish.  And in the case of this fish, the Jew was never emphasized.  In fact the name was slurred together almost as it were one syllable.  If that is hard to imagine, try saying it this way: jufe-ISH.

At the beginning of Deli Days I mentioned creamed herring.  I have been subsequently mentioning it throughout the past week.  But this Shabbos I was remembering one of my favorite parts about being Jewish in Berkeley.

Food is important to my people.  And we learned long ago, “People will come if there is food.”  Generally after a Shabbat service, a temple will have a kiddush.  At the minimum there should be challah and wine.  But there are usually some kinds of sweets.  At Beth El in Berkeley there was usually some kind of herring.  And more times than not it was creamed herring.

The Scandinavians have a cornucopia of herrings.  We really only have two.  And when it comes down to it, we really only have one.  Pickled herring.  I always thought creamed herring was its own special thing.  That is, until I went shopping with my Nana S. in Long Island.  There I learned the truth.

Creamed herring is simply pickled herring slathered in a sour cream based sauce.

When Nana asked for the creamed herring, they put pickled herring in a dish.  At first I thought they might not have heard her correctly.  But then the clerk took a giant container of cream sauce and slathered it onto the fish.  Obviously it was fantastic and better than what one buys from the jars.  Nana knows what’s good.

The creamed version of the herring really is superior.  The cream provides a nice richness to balance the tart vinegar of the fish, and a silky textural counterpoint to the crunch of the onions.

Did I not mention the onions?  My former cantor used to declare the onions were the best part.  And he would stand over the bowl of herring, and try to pick out as many of the onions for himself as possible.  Luckily for him he was a fantastic cantor, and if he wanted all the onions, he could have them.  There was one prayer he sang that I swear gave me chills every time.

My favorite thing to do at kiddush was to make little canapés.  I would take a few small pieces of challah, place a piece of creamed herring on each, and top with one of the pickled creamed onions, if the cantor hadn’t eaten them all.  These little snacks were a perfect marriage of taste and texture.  And the promise of more kept me coming back week after week for services.  Even though Mrs. Fussy wouldn’t kiss me for the rest of the day.

And honestly, I couldn’t blame her.
The onions really linger.

This weekend I went to services at a new temple in Albany.  Well, it’s an old temple, but new to me.  And after the service ended, there was no kiddush.  I was so disappointed.  Maybe I missed it because I am new, or maybe because it was Simchat Torah things were different. Perhaps since there was a dinner that preceded the evening’s service, the Kiddush was preempted.

Surely I will attend services there again.  It is almost inconceivable to me that a Jewish organization can have a function without the presence of food.  It doesn’t have to include herring.  But it helps.

I have been told there will be kosher snacks following the free lecture this Thursday on Jewish Deli in America.  Should they have creamed herring, and should you see someone hovering over the bowl picking out the onions for themselves – please come up and say hi.

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