By Benjamin Altshuler
With preparations for Passover underway at this time of year, my thoughts turn to the elements that underpin community. During our AVODAH house meetings these last few weeks, one topic has been of primary focus. This subject is found at the centerpiece of Passover Seders, as well as other Jewish holidays, and the festivals of every faith and community. I am referring to food, of course.
In any group of people, culture is conveyed through food traditions: flavors, dining practices, ingredients, and diet. The items on our tables often serve far greater a service than to provide nourishment; they connect us with memory as individuals, as families, and as communities. One needs only hold up a piece of matzo to simultaneously purview their own dry munching, family Seders of years gone by, and the collective memory of Exodus. There are many such visible icons of Judaic culture: the candlesticks and Kiddush cup, the braided Havdalah candle, the spinning dreidl, the decorated sukkah, or the triangle hamentaschen. Our tradition, like many others, is rife with these symbolic table dwellers that one need only see to be transported through memory.
Human perception casts a powerful influence. Before I started AVODAH, I studied cognitive science and learned of the psychological mechanisms that underlie human perception. The colors, shapes, and visual patterns of food all correlate with specific neural mechanisms for contentment and appetite. But one need not study the brain to know that attractive food makes for a more enticing dining experience. When we are preparing dinner at the AVODAH bayit, even on a limited budget, we try to prepare colorful meals to maximize our enjoyment.
In my work with the blind and visually impaired residents of Friedman Place, a supportive living community in Chicago for adults with vision loss, I am met with an impasse in my concept of food, culture, and aesthetics. For the Friedman community, the presentation of a meal is less of a concern than a meal’s intrinsic qualities. More specifically, the appearance is important for a different reason – when I set a plate of healthy snacks in front of a blind resident, I describe the arrangement of contents so they may better eat independently. While eating, my residents reveal their mature discerning palates; they are able to notice component ingredients with impressive precision. Even in the absence of visual cues, the residents of Friedman build community around food through collective mealtimes and formation of dining committees. Visual impairments do not stop my clients from cooking or having long discussions about the finer points of Chicago pizza establishments. The appearance of food is of little concern, but cuisine still offers a focal point for our community.
My interactions with my residents continually lead me to challenge my own preconceptions of privilege and ability. In this case, I believe I must rethink my hypothesis: food is a mainstay of any group that shares a collective identity as determined through any of the senses, be it taste, smell, appearance, texture, or even the company one keeps. A Seder plate is not simply a visible symbol of the Pesach story, but a beacon around which community gathers annually to redefine perspective, literal and figurative. In rethinking my theory, I recognize that the symbols of Judaism tantalize all the senses: the sizzle of latkes, the smell of Havdalah spices, the feel of a tallis wrapped around you, and the sweetness and flavors of every holiday. The Passover story highlights a broad range of these flavors (horseradish anyone?), and so I urge you to use your Seder to consider your own experience and question how this may differ from others in your community.
Benjamin Altshuler is from North Barrington, IL, attended Carleton College and is the Activity Associate at Friedman Place.