Vanderbilt Magazine

Rabbi Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, MA’86, PhD’91, finds meaning in the myths and rituals of America’s signature meals

Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus (Photo by Keith Nordstrom/Wheaton College)

Though Rabbi Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus’ family did not keep a kosher house, his curiosity about rituals associated with food likely began with the weekly Friday night Shabbat dinners at his paternal grandparents’ home, two blocks from his own in Cincinnati. “It was such a positive experience,” he remembers. “I had two brothers, and my grandmother always made a special challah for each of us. It was classic Ashkenazi Jewish food.”

He came to study in Vanderbilt’s graduate department of religion in 1983 and remembers Nashville as the place where he elevated his cooking skills to create diversely Jewish, non-Ashkenazi dishes, teaching himself from Claudia Roden’s classic Middle Eastern cookbook.

It wasn’t until he moved to Philadelphia in 1986 for the rabbinic program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College that he committed to keeping a kosher house with his new roommate. (Eventually they fully committed to one another and married.)

Brumberg-Kraus says he found it meaningful to always be aware of making the food decisions inherent to keeping kosher and finding ways to make traditional dishes kosher. “Just before we married, we had my parents over for dinner. My dad said, ‘I never knew kosher food could taste so good.’”

While in his final year at RRC, Brumberg-Kraus completed his dissertation, “Conventions of Literary Symposia in Luke’s Gospel, with Special Attention to the Last Supper,” and he earned his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt in 1991. “I was always fascinated by what exactly the relationship is between the stories people tell about food and the actual experience of eating,” Brumberg-Kraus recalls. “How do we attribute meaning to particular rituals and their foods?”

For more than 20 years he has taught The Rituals of Dinner at Wheaton College, where he is professor of religion and has written extensively on food rituals and Jewish food. His book Gastronomic Judaism as Culinary Midrash was published in 2018 (Rowman & Littlefield). He defines midrash as “a way of interpreting traditional stories and practices in new ways.”

Currently, he is studying the Thanksgiving meal as a culinary midrash with the intent to publish a book on the myths and meal rituals of the holiday. As a religious studies scholar, he says he believes myths to be true, but clarifies that they are stories humans make up to describe things as they think they are—true in a poetic experiential sense, if not exactly historically factual.

“Ultimately the goal of the Thanksgiving book,” he says, “is to tell the story with the food rituals that enable us to build community but are grounded in the reality of the trauma and triumphs of the histories of those who celebrate the holiday.”

He says the basics of the meal remain rooted in traditional Native American foods, such as squash, pumpkin, wild rice, corn, cranberry and turkey, though the original protein centerpiece was likely venison. He typically cooks a Three Sisters dish (corn, squash and beans).

As for building community at the Thanksgiving table in these contentious times, he has advice. “I am a strong advocate of potlucks. It is an egalitarian model that provokes conversation about food traditions. Potlucks are my Occupy Thanksgiving strategy.”