Jewish food is difficult to define. Over time, Jews have eaten many different types of foods, often no different from those of their gentile neighbors. Nonetheless, the foods Jews have eaten bear the stamp of the unique socio-economic and migratory patterns of the Jewish community, while also reflecting the Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) and other religious requirements; for instance, the prohibition against creating fire on the Sabbath inspired slow-cooked Sabbath stews in both Sephardic and Ashkenazic cuisine.
In contrast to Sephardic Jewry, most Ashkenazic Jews–those from Europe and Russia–were very poor, and their food reflects this. Ashkenazic food also reflects the migration of a community first based in Germany that ultimately spread eastward to Russia and Poland. What Americans usually refer to as “Jewish food”–bagels, knishes, borscht–are the foods of Ashkenazic Jewry, and indeed, in many cases were foods eaten by the non-Jews of Eastern Europe as well.
The “Jewish style” food of America is an enriched version of Ashkenazic cuisine. However, Jews existed in the U.S. long before the major wave of Eastern European immigration in the beginning of the 20th century. Though early Jewish life was located primarily in the major cities on the East Coast, Jews traveled and lived throughout the United States, and their foods were influenced by local custom and availability.
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