Monday, May 14, 2012

Secret origin of kreplach

The people of the Slavic lands are big into pierogi, a dumpling made of dough, shaped into a semi-circle and filled with meat, potato or cheese. Listen to Wikipedia:
Some cookbooks from the 17th century describe how even during that era the Pierogi were considered a staple of the Polish diet, and each holiday had its own special kind of Pierogi created. There were different shapes and fillings for holidays such as Christmas and Easter, and important events like weddings, had their own special type of Pierogies "kirniki" – filled with chicken meat. There were also Pierogies made especially for mourning/wakes, and even some for caroling season in January.
The very name of the dish is derived from "pir" the Proto-Slavic word for festivity, and the dish is associated with Saint Hyacinth a 13th century Polish friar. To this day, pierogi are a signature item of  Polish cusine. They are also well-loved in the Ukraine, where they are called varenyky and considered an indispensable part of the Christmas eve feast.

Though its roots are in Germany, Ashkenazi Judaism continued its development in the Slavic lands. Somewhere along the way, our own style of pierogi developed and we called it kreplach.

The origin of kreplach really is as simple as that. We ate therm because everyone in that time place ate them. It has no more mystical significance then the Ukranian varenyky or the Russian pelmeni or any of the other Slavic dumplings that developed in around the same place at around the same time. However, nothing is more human then inventing significance for ordinary things - and then forgetting what you've done.

We've already seen how a pagan hair-cutting ceremony was transformed into an essential Jewish rite of passage after someone clever associated it with Deut. 20:19 ("Man is like the tree of a field...") and with orlah, the restriction on taking fruit from a tree before its third year.

The same sort thing happened with kreplach.  At some point someone clever came up with reasons for associating kreplach with Yom Kipppur, but those reasons were invented after we were already eating kreplach on erev Yom Kppur. At the beginning, the reasons were probably accompanied with a knowing wink. Or, perhaps the reasons were invented after the milieu changed and Jews were no longer surrounded by people who all celebrated their solemn days with dumplings.

What seems perfectly obvious, though, is that we eat kreplach because once upon a time some of our ancestors lived in a place where eating dumplings and celebrating a most solemn holiday was culturally inseparable, and not because a wise man proposed a new food to symbolically represent judgement wrapped in mercy.

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