It started with my first bite of challah. Soft, squidgy, salt-sprinkled challah, an egg-enriched braided loaf that originated in 15th-century Germany; glossy mahogany on top and purest white within, fluffy as brioche but with a more satisfyingly chewy heft. It's a bread that demands a second slice, maybe a third.
But that's never a problem, because there are always two challah loaves on the Friday night table, representing the two portions of manna doled out to the Israelites by God each Shabbat during the Exodus from Egypt.
Not that I knew that then. This first bite of frankly celestial bread came on a night of many firsts. My first dinner at my new boyfriend’s parents' house. My first Shabbat dinner. And my first taste of Judaism.
My path to Judaism was signposted by food, challah, matzo, chicken soup and kiddush wine
This summer I became Jewish, converting after a year of history, Hebrew lessons, synagogue attendance and festival celebrating – and eating. More than anything else, my path to Judaism has been one signposted by food, crumbs of challah and matzo tempting me forward, drops of chicken soup and kiddush wine mapping my way.
Judaism as I've come to know it is about eating, because it is about togetherness, about re-enacting shared traditions and creating shared memories around a table. The code of Jewish law is called Shulchan Aruch – literally, the set table. That's how important the idea of the dining table is: ritually set from memory, to create memory. And in my experience, the best memories are formed by eating, drinking, laughing, squabbling, shouting loudly, with others and with way too much food.
Jewish food, I've found, is about groaning generosity because of the historical shadow of want. It is about eating quickly, out of a not-so-distant memory of time running out. It is about always overeating despite best intentions, because instinct says, there may not be more. And because your soon-to-be mother-in-law has piled your plate high with her delicious roast chicken and golden potatoes, and she's made three puddings which you have to try, and have some more challah, and you cannot refuse any of this overwhelming love.
Food also acts as mnemonic for the new convert. The rhythm of Jewish life ticks to the regular festivals. There's the weekly celebration of Shabbat, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, and the myriad annual festivals celebrating biblical events and significant moments in Jewish history: Passover, Hanukkah, Purim, Shavuot, and dozens more. Every one of these festivals is a siren call for food – heaps of it, shared between family and strangers on one big messy table. Each Jewish dish is a story. There's history and miracles in each and every bite. And so I have been eating my way in, catching up vociferously, furiously chewing and swallowing and absorbing 4,000 years of Jewish history.
Purim equals hamantaschen, moreish little three-cornered pastries filled with poppy seeds or chocolate which, depending on who has baked them, either resemble the hats of Babylonian exiles or the pockets of Haman, the villain of the Purim story. Hanukkah, the festival of light, means latkes (fried potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jammy doughnuts), oily foods to represent the story of a day's supply of oil miraculously burning for eight days.
At the Seder meal, 30 of us cram round to slurp chicken soup, snapping and sharing endless piles of matzo
No food means Yom Kippur: the 25-hour fast that forms part of the Day of Atonement, broken with a colossal quantity of food at my fiancé's mother's house: roast chicken and gefilte fish balls piled high, red cabbage and potato salad and smoked salmon. It's a pile rivalled only by the Rosh Hashanah buffet put on by his aunt, over-catered to the power of ten, with the addition of apple slices dipped in honey to ensure a sweet new year, and a steaming lokschen pudding the size of a small car. Then there is Passover, which commemorates that exodus from Egypt, and is defined by what you can't eat. The Israelites didn’t have time to leaven their bread before they left, so for eight days in April this year I didn’t eat leavened bread, nor wheat, rye, barley, spelt, oats or rice. Essentially it is the Atkins diet, although any potential weight loss is levied by the one gloriously banal flour-based substance allowed.
Passover is also about matzo: an unleavened Jacob’s-like cracker made from flour and water that is, on the surface, as much dry cardboard as that sounds. But spread thickly with salted butter, or topped with peanut butter, or even – as one Twitter thread this year proclaimed – smeared with salted caramel and chocolate to make 'millionaire's matzo', and a magical alchemy occurs. It is a meagre morsel but one elevated by the meaning in each mouthful. A box of matzo crackers has become a regular feature of our house, and every time I lift it off the supermarket shelf, I feel a hit of Jewishness and I smile.
At the Seder meal, which kicks off the festival, 30 of us crammed round the table to sing and slurp chicken soup, snapping and sharing endless piles of matzo, dripping wine on the table to represent the 12 plagues – and I felt so, so utterly at home.
Over and over again throughout my conversion, I’ve heard the same phrase repeated: "They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat." That is a motto I'm very happy to live by.
I should point out that my map is both non-kosher – there are certain steps I would not take on my path to Judaism; giving up bacon and prawns to satisfy arbitrary dietary laws is one of them – and Ashkenazi; that is, Eastern European Jewish.
In her Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden explains that "the Ashkenazi world is a cold world. It is a world of chicken fat, onion and garlic, cabbage, carrots and potatoes, freshwater fish, especially carp, and salt herring." My main landmarks in this apparently cold world are my future mother in-law’s infinite variations on roast chicken on Shabbat dinner, and her chicken soup.
Obviously every Jewish boy’s mum makes the best, hence Dan’s mum Diana’s is the best in the world. Pure, clear, savoury; as the Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote in the 12th century, "Chicken soup can be used as a cure for whatever might ail you." In every hot mouthful lies a sense of community, and a thick, schmaltzy layer of love.
And then there are gefilte fish balls – for which I am glad to be a British Jew, for here we fry rather than poach them, thankfully influenced by the Portuguese in the 18th century. Jay Rayner, in his 2018 review of Holborn Dining Room, talks about the difference between the two: "There is the boiled kind, served cold with its own fishy jelly, an abomination I always regarded as the closest food could come to cruel and unusual punishment. And then there is the fried, which is a different matter altogether. It should be crisp and golden outside and light and fluffy inside. Cooking them made the house smell of indulgence."
Over the last year, I have indulged indeed, and can assert with a very particular kind of North London confidence that Platters in Golders Green make the best.
I got engaged in Tel Aviv last year over bowls of chickpeas and red peppers doused in olive oil
But my path is also peppered with Sephardi cooking, the cooking of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Jews: as Roden puts it, a "warm [world] of peppers and aubergine, courgettes and tomatoes, rice and cracked wheat, saltwater fish and olive oil." While Diana's chicken soup will always run through my veins, this world is also intrinsic to my Judaism. I got engaged in Tel Aviv last year over bowls of chickpeas and red peppers doused in olive oil, after a day of stuffing ourselves with hummus and tahini, sparklingly fresh fish drenched in olive oil, huge salads of explosively ripe vegetables. With every mouthful I want to know more, understand more and consume more of this complicated, difficult but brilliant culture.
My map of Jewish food is not complete – I don't think it ever will be. Jewish food is complex. It's the food of a diaspora; a cuisine of adapting, or converting, if you will. It is peripatetic, wandering out with the Israelites into the desert and continuing its journey throughout the Middle East to the USA and Britain, France and Germany, Ethiopia and Gibraltar, Mexico and India, picking up bits and pieces from each country, community and era it makes home. Every generation converts, consumes, continues.
But even while it adapts, it ties us to history more strongly. Each spoonful of soup provides a link to the past, thereby reinforcing the future: as our ancestors ate matzo balls, so we eat matzo balls and our grandchildren will eat matzo balls. There is a gastronomic thread that stretches through time, changing flavour and shape but never breaking while there is still challah on the Shabbat table, even if that challah might be gluten-free or egg-less, raisin-stuff ed or chocolate chip.
Roden, this time in 1969's Book of Middle Eastern Food, describes Friday-night dinners as "opportunities to rejoice in our food and to summon the ghosts of the past".
But it is also about looking forward. It's about what was, what will be and what is right now: sitting around a table, eating far too much, far too quickly, together.