Michael Sternfield has been a Reform rabbi for 40 years, most recently serving at Chicago Sinai Congregation from 1995 until 2013. He served for 20 years as spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, and briefly as the leader of the Durban, South Africa Progressive Jewish Congregation during South Africa’s historic transition to multi-racial democracy. Throughout his career, he has enjoyed learning about and experimenting with foods and cooking styles from around the world. He came to his interest in cooking naturally.
Rabbi Sternfield’s father was a restauranteer in Illinois. So his interest in cooking developed from childhood. Cooking and food innovation have been a counterbalance to his rabbinical calling. As he likes to say: “I spend most of my day working primarily with my head; it has been welcome respite to create things with my hands.” His first venture outside the realm of traditional Jewish and American food was Chinese cooking, which remains his personal favorite. He expanded his knowledge by taking courses at La Varenne in Paris. Living close to the Mexican border for so many years, he learned about the unique ingredients of Mexican cuisine. In Durban, he developed an appreciation of Indian curries and masalas as well as traditional Afrikaner foods. In Chicago, a city known for its ethnic diversity and neighborhoods, the possibilities are endless.
Commitment to Jewish “Fusion”
Throughout his career, Rabbi Sternfield has been committed to helping and encouraging interfaith couples. The overwhelming majority of rabbis will not officiate at weddings unless both are Jewish. Sternfield believes passionately that this is unwise and counterproductive. Such marriages are commonplace today and this is one rabbi who believes that encouragement and understanding comprise the best and most positive approach. Where most rabbis view intermarriage as a threat to Jewish survival or a problem, Sternfield views such marriages as an opportunity to expand the horizons of Judaism and to allow the Jewish community to become broader and more diverse. He believes that, whether most are not yet willing to admit it, there is a greater Judaism in the making.
Working with some many interfaith, intercultural and interracial couples, Rabbi Sternfield has enriched his knowledge of a wide variety of cooking styles and ingredients literally from around the world. Long an advocate of supporting and encouraging couples of varying backgrounds to share their diversity while also discovering commonality, food has provided the natural way to blend the best of both worlds. He will often ask prospective brides and grooms to tell him about their mother’s favorite recipes. Such conversations invariably lead to discussing the possibilities for fusing the two together. This is how the idea of Jewish fusion came to be. Actually, this idea is not new or unique. In recent years, many fusion cuisines have come into being, some more successful than others. Virtually all traditional Jewish cooking is a form of fusion. Almost every traditional Jewish dish began with Jewish cooks living in a larger culture, using local ingredients in their own way and adapting local techniques. Rabbi Sternfield firmly believes that Jewish fusion is a concept whose time has come.