There was leftover spinach kugel in the fridge. If it had been in the freezer, I probably wouldn’t have gone through the effort of defrosting it. I really just wanted something to eat straight out of the aluminum pan, something I could devour almost half of before realizing I was eating it cold, or that some kinds of hunger cannot be remedied with any amount of egg noodles. I felt too full and slightly dizzy, and I wanted to be cleansed. I wanted to be heard, and I wanted to know what to say.
My winding courses with food, my body, and my self-image have always been Jewish journeys, chaos best articulated in terms of something wordless, like the rising and falling notes of a niggun. As I’ve struggled to see and be seen, to express the things for which I had no words, I’ve looked for G-d in the refrigerator. My evolving relationships with food, my body, my femininity, and my vulnerabilities, all present themselves to me in Jewish terms. Which is to say, Jewish is the language I use to negotiate the most visceral things, the matters that transcend the limits of my own understanding, but lurk and linger in the static background noise.
My childhood memories taste like corn kugel to me: warm, mushy, sweet, comfy. Chicken coated in crushed potato chips. Halfway-to-stale sugar cookies with cherries in the middle, handed generously into my tiny eager palms while I waited impatiently for my mom to pick up challah for Shabbat. My toddler tummy bulges out of bathing suits in pictures where I make irritable faces. I must have needed a snack.
What’s “Jewish” about the way I relate to food is hard to pinpoint. It’s not about bagels or my Bubbie’s insistence on calling matzah balls by their Yiddish name, “k’naidlach“; it’s the way that eating can somehow be an act of prayer, or of rebellion, of loneliness, or of gratitude for the senses. And as I learn to take up space, to assure my growth is ever-rooted in self-compassion, and to quiet all the madness inside and out, I strive for food to be a vehicle for clarity and closeness.
I think sometimes about the way we’ve come to moralize food and eating, describing our “transgressions” with the shame we could have avoided if only we had opted for the “guilt-free” chips. I think about the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) I have spent pounding my chest and muttering that alphabetical list of sins (“Ashamnu, bagadnu…we are guilty, we have betrayed…”), while chastising myself for the times I over-ate, or ate mindlessly, or restricted my eating, or ate without saying blessings, or got too obsessive about food that it was what I deemed tantamount to “idolatry”.
If kugel could speak, it might tell me to listen closer, to sit down and “eat like a mensch”, to nourish myself with abundant love and a slab of grated, oily potatoes, without judgment. It could whisper reminders to me to serve G-d with my full self and nothing but myself, free of the barriers I impose, self-sabotaging. It would guide me, in loving tones, to serve G-d from deep in my kishkes, from a place as visceral as the body’s connection to food. It might even teach me how to find G-d between the lokshen (noodles). If kugel could speak, it might recite Shema.
Author’s Note: I would be remiss if I did not plug Women Food and God by Geneen Roth. An absolute bible for anyone who’s into soul-searching, or who eats food.