Our Reboot Intern at USC Hillel, Madeline Ottilie, writes on her experience with Reboot and how Jewish cuisine gave her a pathway to connect with her Jewish identity.
I never quite understood what it meant to be Jewish. The language seemed convoluted by confusing dialects. The holidays filled with traditions that seemed to slip through the cracks of my busy schedule. Shabbat every Friday was replaced by sports practice, dinners with friends, and even indifference. It seemed foreign to me that my ancestors kept kosher, or went to temple each week. “What an inconvenience!” I thought naively. “How could they find the time?”
I didn’t fully understand how sacred these traditions were to our people, and how many times in history they had been nearly taken away. But as a young teen who lived at the beach, cared too much about my cell phone, and attended a rigorous college preparatory school, these traditions were the last thing on my mind.
But there was one area of Jewish culture that I always felt absolutely connected to, no matter my age: the cuisine. From my early years, I had grown familiar to the salty smell of matzo ball soup boiling on the stove, prepared each evening I was sick or craving a traditional treat. The comforting taste of warm rugelach with cinnamon on top and the way the latkes in the oven provided a whiff of festivity through the whole house. The second we smelled them, we’d run right downstairs because if we understood nothing else about the holidays, we knew we liked the latkes. I remember the deli we frequented when I was a child and continued to frequent as we grew up and changed routines and uniforms. “Can we go to D.Z. Akins on the way home?” was a question that never changed. It had all the ingredients of the perfect Jewish deli: pickles on the table ready for our hungry hands before menus were even passed out and an entire wall of cookies to fill a pink deli box from on our way out the door.
Like my family, many of the Jewish children I went to school with also fell under the category of “closet Jews”: nonreligious and relatively ignorant in connecting with what we considered to be antiquated practices of our ancestors. Food never seemed to fall into that category, but it was certainly something we all understood. Shared understandings that chocolate matzo was the best type of matzo and corned beef on rye was best with dijon mustard.
It wasn’t until later that I realized Jewish cuisine was not as well understood outside the Jewish community as the food of other ethnicities seemed to be. I brought my boyfriend a bag of rugelach once from a great vintage bakery on Fairfax and he didn’t touch it for a week, afraid I had said “arugula cookies,” fearing they were filled with pieces of lettuce. It struck me that while our bagels and sandwiches might be understood by some, the Jewish menu was a unique culture of its own, uniquely shared by most everyone who shared the faith. I dove deeper into my culture with an internship through USC Hillel and Reboot and it became my job to bridge the gaps for those, like myself, who couldn’t seem to find a connection between their life and their Jewish identity. For me, that connection to my religion and others who shared it was through food. I believed others could feel the same way and created my first program: a trip to a renowned Jewish deli stand in L.A.’s Grand Central Market: Wexler’s Deli.
We were greeted by the familiar smells of corned beef, fresh bagels and lox. Even though I did not know each of the students attending my initiative, I instantly felt linked through the communal recognition. Suddenly, I was surrounded by harsh critics of what satisfied the standard of a “good Jewish bagel,” and what the proper way to prepare it was. I met people for the first time that day, but with everything we had in common from these conversations, it seemed like I had known them for years.
Just like Reboot’s Beyond Bubbie program, my peers and I began to use our lunch as a platform for sharing our own stories from our childhood, including our grandmothers’ best recipes. Looking around the busy downtown Los Angeles market and the faces surrounding me at the counter, I knew that Judaism would always play a part of my modern life, the smell of a Jewish deli the constant tie connecting my family and Jewish peers. Even though the deli stand throbbed with a hip, modern aesthetic, the food was exactly the same. So was the line trailing out the door, which never changed.
Madeline Ottilie spent the last year as a Reboot intern at USC Hillel, where she planned events that utilized Reboot projects to engage her fellow students.
This program is made possible through the generous support of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' Jewish Campus Life Grant.