Lox and The Meaning of Jewish Identity, or Off On The Road To Morroco
Do you know what the oldest word is?
I mean the oldest word in any language known to humankind.
You might guess “Mama,” or “Dada,” or “Baba,” but you’d be wrong.
The answer is a word that would not have been in my first thousand guesses. I ask you again: What is the oldest word in any language known to us that has continued to be used with the same pronunciation and meaning for 8000 years straight? Are you ready?
I quote Dr. Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University: “The pronunciation in the Proto-Indo-European was ‘lox,’ and that’s exactly how it is pronounced in modern English. Then, it meant salmon, and now it specifically means ‘smoked salmon.’ Professor Guy states: “The sounds that change across time are unpredictable, and differ from language to language. In several thousand years, most words change beyond recognition. It’s really cool that the word lox hasn’t changed its pronunciation at all in 8,000 years and still refers to a particular fish.”
When I was studying the languages of the ancient world so that I could understand the Hebrew of the Bible, I learned that all of the Semitic languages have a common ancestor, what we call Proto-Semitic. In the same way, linguists have been able to reconstruct the original ancestor language of all of the European and Indic languages, what linguists call Proto-Indo-European. Indo-European languages are found across Europe and Asia, including such different species as English and Tocharian B, an extinct language once spoken in what is now China. In Tocharian B, the word for “salmon” is laks, similar to German lachs.
The fact that these distantly related Indo-European languages had the same pronunciation of a single word meant that the word existed in the Proto-Indo-European language. If they had a word for salmon, they must have lived in a place where there was salmon. Salmon is a fish that lives in the ocean, reproduces in fresh water and swims up rivers to lay eggs and mate. There are only a few places on the planet where that happens. In reconstructed Indo-European, there were words for bear, honey, oak tree, and snow, but no words for palm tree, elephant, lion, or zebra. Based on evidence like that, linguists reconstructed where their original homeland was, a narrow band between Eastern Europe and the Black Sea where animals, trees, and insects matched those ancient Indo-European words. We know that these people were the first people to domesticate large herds of wild horses. Then they invented wheeled vehicles and attached these to horses. Then they spread all over Europe and Asia 6-8000 years ago.
So the story of the word “lox” points to a common ancestry for many of the people of the world. At a time when there is so much hatred and division between peoples, the word lox is a reminder that we all go back to common ancestors.
Ok, so you’re asking, if lox is a common inheritance of humankind, how did it become a symbol of Jewishness? That’s exactly the right question. There is hardly a more quintessential Jewish food than a lox bagel. Lox is an iconic food associated with Jewish New York and Jewish delicatessens.
Eastern European Jews developed the practice of brining salmon to preserve it. They brought this preservation technique to America. Soon it became connected to the bagel, which may have originated in Western China and came through Italy as it moved west. It became a mainstay food on New York City’s Lower East Side.
How did cream cheese get involved? I’m so glad you asked. There were advertisements for Philadelphia Cream Cheese showing it spread on bagels; Cream Cheese itself was an English invention.
At first, the term “Bagels and Lox Jews” was a negative term within the community for those of us who were considered overly assimilated. If you ate bagels and lox, you weren’t really so Jewish, because that sandwich illustrated how you were a kind of combination of Jewishness and other things. But over time, this symbol of assimilation became a famous symbol of Jewishness.[i]
Just like a bagel and lox, Jewish people have survived for thousands of years because we have brought in the best from the outside. We passed down brining salmon, the protein in the sandwich, with the bread from China and Italy and the cream cheese from England and Philadelphia. Judaism preserves the lox in brine, preserves the essence of Judaism, making it the center of our lives, keeping it fresh, and then combines it with the best that we can find around us, like Chinese bread or English cheese.
Now let’s think about our lives. Have we kept the lox fresh? Or is our Jewishness just nostalgia for a salty fish we ate at Bubbi’s apartment on Sunday mornings? At a service like this, we are filled with nostalgia, with memories of walking with our parents to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And coming here today is a lovely reminder of something from the past that may not really be an important part of our present. One lox sandwich a year is nice, but it doesn’t really preserve our Jewishness in a significant way that affects our lives.
So I’m taking the idea of eating lox and bagel and cream cheese as a metaphor for our Jewishness, but we should understand that it is not a real symbol of Jewishness.
There is no word for Lox in the Bible.
Abraham, the first Hebrew, didn’t eat Lox.
Moses, Moses, who killed an Egyptian, ran away so that he couldn’t be put in jail, because he would have been stuck there, because he never ate the lox.
David, David didn’t sling bagels at Goliath.
Lox is not an ancient Jewish food and is only a very recent symbol of Jewishness. Jewishness is not just lox and bagels. It’s not just food. It’s not just nostalgia.
What, then, is Jewish identity? That’s my real question today. I want to ask each of you what your Jewishness is.
So let me try another possibility: Jewishness is genes.
I want to tell you about a recent book called “Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love” by a well-known writer named Dani Shapiro. Dani’s paternal grandfather was a philanthropist and Orthodox leader. Dani’s father and mother had an uneasy marriage. Dani, their only child, always felt that she was more her father’s daughter than her mother’s, and she was proud of her Jewish lineage through him. Some of her clearest childhood memories involved her father — she would go with him to synagogue, where he seemed most at home, and prayer was a kind of secret language they shared.
Then, tragically, her father was killed in a car crash when she was 23; her mother was badly injured but survived.
Dani sent her DNA to a website for analysis and learned something that shocked her; at first she didn’t think it was possible: Her beloved father was not her biological father, which meant that his line wasn’t her bloodline. After only 36 hours of detective work on the Internet, she learned that her biological father wasn’t Jewish.
Shapiro, who is blonde and pale-skinned, had been told repeatedly, throughout her life, that she didn’t look Jewish. In fact, as a little girl she was selected as the Kodak poster child for Christmas. She was once pulled aside by a friend of her parents, who, incidentally, was the grandmother of Jared Kushner, who told her, “We could have used you in the ghetto, little Blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.” That comment and others stayed with her. But none of that seemed to matter.
Then Shapiro finds out that her biological father was a man who had been a donor who had never even met her mother. She goes on a search to understand her birth. She goes to her father’s rabbi, who tries to make her see that her parents only wanted to bring her into the world, and that they did not mean to hurt her by keeping her origins a secret.
Her aunt, her late father’s sister, reassures her and insists that her father had loved her and raised her and that he was her real father.
While she always identified her Judaism with her father, and her father was not her biological father, she discovers that it simply doesn’t matter. Indeed, she says that she now feels “more Jewish.” The journey of exploring her identity has made her feel closer to him and her Jewishness.
Dani Shapiro concludes her book by talking about the word Heneini, which literally means, “Here I am.” In the Bible, Heneini is spoken by Abraham and Moses when they say, “Here I am, G-d. Even though I’m not always sure exactly who or what I am, here I am with my whole being.” The Cantor just sang the Henini, meaning, “Here I am G-d; help me to express what we’re all feeling.” Shapiro goes on a journey that ends with her being more certain of her Jewishness than ever, so much so that she could say Heneini, “Here I am. I know who I am. I’m Jewish.”
It’s quite a story.
But this is her story.
What’s our story? Shapiro’s story raises the question: “Are you just your genes? If you identify your Jewishness with your father and he was not your biological father, does that make any difference?”
My own story is not typical. My father was a rabbi and I was born and raised to be a rabbi. My Jewishness is not just my career; it’s the framework and the rhythm of my life.
But what’s your Jewish story?
Is your Jewishness the bagel and lox you eat?
Is your Jewishness in your genes?
What is Jewishness?
Are we a nation? Yes; but if so, we also belong to the nation of Americans.
Are we a culture? Yes, but Jewish culture changes from country to country. We had several Shabbat dinners last year celebrating the Jewish cultures of Israel, Italy and Yemen. Those were very different cultures. They don’t eat bagels and lox in Yemen, even on Sunday mornings.
And this is why I am hoping to go to Morocco in May, and I hope some of you will come with me. Most of us are Ashkenazic; our families came from Eastern Europe. Morocco has a long Sephardic history; Sepharad originally meant Spain, and Spanish culture influenced Jewishness in that part of the world including North Africa. Moroccan Jewish people don’t eat bagels and lox and they don’t look like most of us. Morocco is a place that has been good to Jewish people, unlike a lot of other Muslim countries.
It is a safe place for Jewish tourists who are welcomed as honored guests.
And so if you can, join us for an exploratory meeting on Tuesday night, October 15th at 7:00 PM when we will hear from Larry Ritter, the head of the Israel Tour Connection. And take a look at the flyer. You always said you would travel; here’s a chance to travel with some nice people and a really fun rabbi.
I’d like to quickly respond to two questions I’ve been asked about the trip:
No, you don’t need to be able to play the maracas.
You’re scared of riding a camel? Don’t worry: we’ll get you over the hump.
Besides having a really cool adventure, this is a chance to think about what this whole Jewishness thing means.
Moroccan Jewishness is not like Connecticut Jewishness.
I want to expand my Jewishness. I want to gain a new perspective on what it means to be Jewish.
In the same way, I want you to expand your Jewishness in the coming year.
I want you to activate your Jewishness.
Eating lox and bagels may seem Jewish but it’s really just eating a sandwich.
Genes are built into your body.
Heritage is something passed down to you.
You just receive genes and heritage. I want you to activate those genes, activate that heritage.
Like you did today.
You got up this morning and you got dressed, very nicely I might add, and you didn’t do what you usually do on a Tuesday, you didn’t go to work or the gym or out for coffee. This was activating your Jewishness.
You’re here today partly to identify as a Jewish person.
You have come here to be with other Jewish people.
You have asserted your identity.
But on how many other days in the whole year do you assert your Jewish identity?
In what ways do you ever assert this identity?
What does this whole Jewishness thing mean to you?
Is Jewishness a religion? Yes, but many people are not religious at all and they are very Jewish.
Are we a people?
Are we an ethnicity, a culture?
Here’s the wonderful answer: All of the above. Jewishness gives you the freedom to be Jewish any way you want.
Still, if your Jewishness is your heritage, what are you doing to pass on that inheritance, either through family or by supporting Jewish institutions like a synagogue?
In what way are you saying, Heneini, I’m here, I’m here to help?
I love lox. I could go for some lox right this minute.
But I know that lox doesn’t make me Jewish.
Lox is the oldest word and it goes back to some Proto-Europeans 8000 years ago.
My Jewishness is in my blood and my heart and my soul; it’s in my pride and it’s in my joy.
It’s Rosh Hashanah. Think about how, in the coming year, you can expand your Jewishness, in whatever way you want.. Think about what Jewishness means to you. And act on it.