il portale dell'ebraismo italiano

How evictions inspired a Jewish Italian dessert

By Michaela Hoenig*

As Jews around the world were preparing to celebrate the High Holidays, I scoured the internet to discover some Italian traditions for Rosh Hashana, and consider how they compare to the American Ashkenazi traditions that I practice. For our dinner, my family makes sure to include a fish with the head attached; symbolic of the head of the year. Our challah is round and filled with raisins for a sweet year. We eat apples and honey, a common practice for American Jews, and go to synagogue, or shul, to celebrate with the community. Chef Giuliana Ascoli Vitali-Norsa notes that the standard Rosh Hashanah meal includes pasta in broth, meat or fish as an entree, and a honey cake for dessert.
It’s important to understand where these traditions come from. My Eastern European family came from extreme poverty, and often had little money for food. Like many Ashkenazi dishes, our food comes from creativity and uses all available resources. My great-grandmother used to enjoy eating the head of the fish on the table, eyes included. Today, we tend to cook the fish whole, but the head usually ends up intact at the end of the meal. Fish is a traditional part of the many Italian Rosh Hashanah meals as well, though most of the fish recipes I came across are spicy and cooked either in some sort of tomato sauce, or served with vegetables, such as triglie alla livornese (red mullet Livorno-style), also known as triglie alla mosaica: Moses-style red mullet.
Our holidays are full of symbolism, but that also varies from region to region. The round challah in the Ashkenazi tradition symbolizes eternity, and the continuation of the years. The emphasis on sweet foods and celebration encourages a sweet and happy new year. My Rosh Hashanah dinner was never complete without my grandmother’s honey cake for a sweet new year. Many Italian Jews typically follow dinner with a honey based dessert as well; either a honey cake or, in the case of the Jews of the Tuscan town of Pitigliano, sfratti, a doughy sweet shaped like a stick and stuffed with honey and nuts.
The origin of sfratti, like many Jewish foods, comes from a history of oppression. Based on the Italian word for eviction, sfratto, the name references the forceful manner in which Jews were evicted from their homes. Edda Servi Machlin’s cookbook The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews provides the etymology of the word, as well as a recipe.
The traditional club that landlords and governments used to bang on the doors of Jewish houses in order to force out the Jews serves as the inspiration for this dessert made with walnuts, sweet spices, honey and white wine. This symbolic dessert, much like hamentashen or charoset, puts a sweet twist on the horrors of the Jewish past, helping us remember our history through our food and subsequently, our culture.

*This piece is part of a series of articles written by students of Muhlenberg College (Pennsylvania, USA) enrolled in a course on the history and culture of Jewish Italy, taught by Dr. Daniel Leisawitz, Assistant Professor of Italian and Director of the Muhlenberg College Italian Studies Program.