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Gefilte Fish: Why, Oy Why?

Jewish stories are brimming with miracles. When Pharaoh refuses to free the Jews, frogs fill up his bed, the Nile turns to blood, and the skies rain hail and fire. Later, a small unarmored boy uses a slingshot to slay a giant. Sometime after that, in the Holy Temple, a day’s worth of oil lights a menorah for eight. But for this shiksa, the biggest Jewish miracle of all is the acquired taste for gefilte fish.

I first encountered this flaccid culinary specimen in September 2007, when celebrating Rosh Hashanah at my new boyfriend’s parents’ house. It was my first time meeting them, and my first Rosh Hashanah, and I was trying my damnedest to blend in at the long table full of friendly Jews. I dipped apple slices into honey and (slowly) sipped Manischewitz. When somebody suggested the Gentile visitor put on a yarmulke, I complied and posed for a toothy photo.

So far, so good. Then my boyfriend’s mother, Marlene, came around behind me with a platter of brown-gray gelatinous lumps.

“Gefilte fish?” she asked.

“Um, what is it?” I said in the most polite voice I could muster.

“It’s fish mixed with bread,” said Howie, my boyfriend’s brother, eagerly forking one from the platter.

“OK, sure,” I said. I looked down at this supposed fish on my plate and took a tiny, tepid bite. I did not like it, which I guess was obvious from my face. Everybody laughed. “Well, you tried it!” Marlene said.

For the uninitiated: Gefilte fish is ground fish mixed with other ingredients, typically matzo meal, onions, vegetables, eggs, and seasonings. Small patties of this batter are poached in fish stock, chilled, and served cold and slimy.

Some gefilte recipes are sweet, others savory. The split appeared a couple of hundred years ago from something known as the “gefilte fish line” in Poland. Jews living west of the line ate sweet gefilte, whereas those east of the line ate a peppery version. (According to one Jewish historian, the fish line overlaps with a linguistic border between two types of Yiddish.)

Some Jewish families relish their homemade gefilte. “These recipes are sacred, held close and carefully passed from generation to generation,” says Aimee Levitt, a writer at The Chicago Reader. “My own family’s comes from my maternal great-grandmother, who only relinquished it mere months before she died. Every Passover, someone marvels at what a close call we had.”

Levitt’s Passover tradition is in jeopardy this year, she writes, because of a whitefish shortage in the Chicago area. Some Jews are resorting to tilapia or, gasp, to the many varieties of jarred gefilte found on grocery store shelves (the source of my first and only bite):



But seriously. Why?

Fish in general has been a Sabbath tradition for a long time. The first Jews thought fish encouraged fertility. “They believed the intoxicating odor on the Sabbath table would encourage couples to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ — which in Jewish tradition is encouraged on Friday night,” writes Tamara Mann of My Jewish Learning.

There’s also symbolism in the word itself. The Sabbath happens on the seventh day, and so many foods traditionally eaten on the Sabbath correspond to the number 7, explains Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin:

The Hebrew word for wine is yayin, spelled יין, yudyudnun. If one adds up the gematria of יין, it equals 70.

After Kiddush, everyone then washes and returns to the table to say the blessing on and eat challah bread. The gematria of חלה, challah, is 43, and 4 and 3=7.

After they eat the challah, of course they have gefilte fish. The word “fish,” דג (dag), is spelled dalet=4 and gimmel=3, equaling 7.

Alright, this is all starting to add up. I’m down with eating fish on the Sabbath. But why gefilte? Why butcher it so?

“The gastronomic considerations of this delicacy may seem the most obvious,” writes Rabbi Zushe Blech, of Monsey, New York. I beg to differ. Luckily the rabbi also provides a more credible reason*:

Shabbos is a day of rest where many types of labor are prohibited. One of the activities in which one may not be engaged on Shabbos relates to the separation of chaff from grain, which is known in Hebrew as Borer. This restriction extends to many types of separation, and the rules governing which types are permitted and which are not can be quite complicated. Eating fish is a common situation where Borer becomes a problem, since fish is often served whole and bones are not removed before serving. In order to avoid this concern, a custom developed, whereby the fish was filleted, ground, and stuffed back into the skin and then cooked.

That’s where the name comes from, by the way: Gefilte is derived from געפֿילטע פֿיש, the Yiddish word for “stuffed fish.” But wait, gefilte fish isn’t stuffed! What happened? I can’t find an explanation online, other than laziness: It was just easier to poach the stuffing rather than jam it back into the skin. I can’t help but think how much more appetizing the fish would be had the skin stayed in the picture.

I’m headed back to Marlene’s house tomorrow evening for Passover. She’s my mother-in-law now, so I don’t have to worry about fitting in. When she comes around with the gefilte platter, I’ll just say, “No, thank you,” and take two helpings of charoset.

*This is the most popular explanation for why Jews eats gefilte, but some scholars are skeptical of it. Haym Soloveitchik, a Jewish historian at Yeshiva University, wrote in 1994:

“Popular lore has it that gefilte fish was introduced into the Sabbath menu to avoid the very problem of borer. [But] gefilte fish is an East European dish, and Jews had been eating fish on Sabbath for some fifteen centuries before this culinary creation. Even in Eastern Europe, I know of no instance of someone being labeled a mehallel Shabbas and run out of town for eating non-gefilte fish.”

Which, I must say, makes me feel a bit better about my aversion to the stuff.

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In run-up to Easter, fasting Ethiopians force hyenas to kill donkeys

It’s Easter. For some of people, this means they can take up all the vices they gave up for Lent, and binge on chocolate till they feel sick. For the hyenas of northern Ethiopia, it means it’s time to stop hunting donkeys.

Spotted hyenas are unfussy eaters and incredible opportunists. They can feast on rotting meat, anthrax-infected corpses, garbage and dung. They digest their food so completely that their droppings tend to consist of hair, hooves, and white powder made from broken-down bones. Unsurprisingly, they do rather well near urban environments, where humans provide them with a bonanza of scraps, leftovers, and livestock. The hyenas of northern Ethiopia get almost all of their food by scavenging on such sources.

Local humans tolerate the hyenas, which are affectionately known as “municipal workers”. The animals clean the waste from butchers, households, and even the local veterinary college. They’re seen and heard almost every night, and they almost never attack humans. Instead, they have come to depend on the Ethiopians for their food.

But that changes in the run-up to Easter. For 55 days, the local Orthodox Christians go through a period of fasting. Meat goes off the menu, and few animals are slaughtered. This lack of demand creates supply problems for the hyenas. Gidey Yirga from Mekelle University in Ethiopia has found that they sate their hunger by hunting instead.


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Fake CVs reveal discrimination against Muslims in French job market

MosqueMeet Khadija Diouf. She is 24 years old, she’s single, she lives in France and she has spent the last three years working in secretarial and accounting jobs. Her surname tells us that she’s descended from Senegalese immigrants, and her first name strongly suggests that she’s Muslim. Hundreds of employers across France will have seen Khadija’s name and none of them would have known the most important thing about her: she doesn’t exist.

Khadija is one of three fake women invented by Claire Adida from the University of California, San Diego. They are all part of a clever experiment that reveals how the French job market is rife with discrimination against Muslims. Adida found that in at least two sectors, a Muslim candidate is around 2.5 times less likely to get a job interview than a Christian one, with all else being equal. These results were backed up by a large survey, which showed that among second-generation Senegalese immigrants, Muslim households earn far less than Christian equivalents.


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Creating God in one’s own image

For many religious people, the popular question “What would Jesus do?” is essentially the same as “What would I do?” That’s the message from an intriguing and controversial new study by Nicholas Epley from the University of Chicago. Through a combination of surveys, psychological manipulation and brain-scanning, he has found that when religious Americans try to infer the will of God, they mainly draw on their own personal beliefs.

Psychological studies have found that people are always a tad egocentric when considering other people’s mindsets. They use their own beliefs as a starting point, which colours their final conclusions. Epley found that the same process happens, and then some, when people try and divine the mind of God.  Their opinions on God’s attitudes on important social issues closely mirror their own beliefs. If their own attitudes change, so do their perceptions of what God thinks. They even use the same parts of their brain when considering God’s will and their own opinions.

Religion provides a moral compass for many people around the world, colouring their views on everything from martyrdom to abortion to homosexuality.  But Epley’s research calls the worth of this counsel into question, for it suggests that inferring the will of God sets the moral compass to whatever direction we ourselves are facing. He says, “Intuiting God’s beliefs on important issues may not produce an independent guide, but may instead serve as an echo chamber to validate and justify one’s own beliefs.”

Epley asked different groups of volunteers to rate their own beliefs about important issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, affirmative action, the death penalty, the Iraq War, and the legalisation of marijuana. The volunteers also had to speculate about God’s take on these issues, as well as the stances of an “average American”, Bill Gates (a celebrity with relatively unknown beliefs) and George Bush (a celebrity whose positions are well-known).


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Attendance at religious services, but not religious devotion, predicts support for suicide attacks

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchWhen it comes to discussing suicide bombers, the controversial topic of religion is never far behind. Scholars and pundits have proposed several theories to explain why people would sacrifice their lives to take those of others, and conjectures about religious views seem easy to defend. After all, anthropologist Scott Atran estimated that since 2000, 70% of suicide attacks have been carried out by religious groups, and Islamic ones in particular.

Explosion.jpgBut for all the speculation, very few people have examined the supposed link between religion and suicide attacks with an objective scientific eye. Enter Jeremy Ginges from the New School for Social Research in New York. He has used four related studies to show that there is indeed a link between religion and support for suicide attacks, but it’s a complicated one.

Ginges studied a wide variety of religious people from various cultures and faiths – from Palestinian Muslims to Israeli Jews, and from British Protestants to Indian Hindus. Across the board, Ginges found that a person’s stance on martyrdom had little to do with their religious devotion or to any particular religious belief. Instead, it was the collective side of religion that affected their stance – those who frequently took part in religious rituals and services, were most likely to support martyrdom.

Various commentators have suggested that religious devotion makes it easier for people to buy into the ethos of suicide attacks because some religious beliefs denigrate those of other faiths, promise rewards in the afterlife or glorify the notion of martyrdom. According to Ginges, the advocates of this idea, Richard Dawkins among them, tend to bias their attention towards the more violent aspects of religious traditions or texts, in a fairly simplistic way.

An alternative idea says that the social side of religion is the more powerful influence. During religious rituals such as church or mosque services, large groups of people move or speak as one, invoking a powerful sense of shared identity. By strengthening bonds within a group, these rituals can augment a person’s loyalty to that community, often to the exclusion of those outside it. Suicide attacks, which sacrifice a person’s life for the sake of the collective cause, could be viewed as the extreme dark side of this cliquey behaviour.

Ginges, together with Ian Hansen and Ara Norenzayan, carried out four studies to distinguish between these two theories and they’ve consistently found support for the latter, across a variety of religions.


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Lacking control drives false conclusions, conspiracy theories and superstitions

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research“Control – you must learn control!” These wise words were uttered by no less a sage than Yoda, and while he was talking about telekinetically hoisting spacecraft, having control has another important benefit. It protects a person from spotting false patterns that aren’t there, from believing in conspiracies and from developing superstitions.

Control and security are vital parts of our psychological well-being and it goes without saying that losing them can feel depressing or scary. As such, people have strategies for trying to regain a sense control even if it’s a tenuous one. Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky from the University of Texas have found that one such strategy is to identify coherent and meaningful relationships between things we observe.

These patterns can help us to make sense of past events and predict future ones, affording us a degree of control over our fates, albeit an indirect one. We can’t change the weather, for example, but if we can tell when it’s going to rain, we can be prepared. At the more extreme end, conspiracy theories can help the bewildered to make sense of otherwise unconnected events. And explaining random events by invoking superstitions or higher beings can help to bring reality’s many possibilities within one’s understanding, if not under one’s heel.

Whitson and Galinsky demonstrated the link between desiring control and seeing patterns through a set of experiments that used a variety of psychological tricks to induce feelings of insecurity among groups of volunteers. With these tricks, they managed to induce a number of different illusions – increasing the risk of seeing false images, making links between unrelated events, creating conspiracy theories and even accepting superstitious rituals. Superficially, all of these behaviours seem quite different but they all involve seeing patterns where none exist. They have a common theme and now, this study suggests that they have a common motive too.