Baltimore County

Cultural identity the main course at the Jewish Museum of Maryland

The best consumer advice for those attending the current exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Maryland is: Plan on going out to eat immediately after the show.

"Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture and American Jewish Identity" is brimming with delicious information about brisket, challah, bagels, matzoh balls, potato latkes, gefilte fish and other foods guaranteed to spark an appetite.


Through text panels, photographs and actual kitchen objects, the exhibit is a multi-course exploration of how Jewish identity is established at the dinner table as much as in a synagogue service.

Reinforcing that close association is one panel, for example, bearing comedian Alan King's famous quip: "A summary of every Jewish holiday: They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat!"


Although there obviously are serious cultural identity issues underpinning this exhibit, the presentation is mostly as light-hearted as it is mouth-watering.

It turns out that Alan King isn't the only stand-up comedian at this, er, roast. Jackie Mason weighs in with this zinger: "A seder without sweet Manischewitz would be like horseradish without tears, a cantor without a voice, a shul (synagogue) without a complaint, a yenta (gossip) without a big mouth, Passover without Jews."

It all starts in the kitchen, of course, and so there are installations that amount to putting the family pots and pans on display.

Among the exhibited objects reflecting culinary practices inherited from various countries of origin are a gefilte fish pot, a samovar, a nutmeg grater, a 16-page recipe book for salt herring, and a knife for cutting challah that has this inscription engraved on its shiny metal handle: "This blessing of God will enrich you to eat your bread in joy."

An estimated 20 percent of American Jews keep kosher, so the exhibit goes into detail concerning the rule about keeping meat and dairy separate. There are different sets of utensils and dishes for meat and dairy; and cleanliness truly is next to Godliness when it comes to having a spotless kitchen.

These are regulations that pertain wherever one goes, and so the exhibit also features kosher restaurant menus, a photograph of a book-shaped bar mitzvah cake being admired in a crowded reception hall, and a photo of a kosher food stand at Camden Yards.

Yet another cultural tradition is the practice of going to a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day. This practice is often accompanied by going to see a movie, because, well, that's the long-established custom.

As for the hunger that may be building as you wander through this exhibit, it's worth noting that it's just a short walk from the museum to several Jewish delicatessens on Lombard Street.


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this area was the heart of Jewish life in Baltimore. It's nice to know that you can still get a corned beef sandwich there.

"Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture, and American Jewish Identity" remains through Sept. 30, 2012 at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, at 15 Lloyd Street in Baltimore. Call 410-732-6400 or go to