On the Page, in Our Mouths

As a rabbi, I am biased toward texts over other forms of religious expression, such as meditation, mystical experiences or visual arts. As a rabbi trained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I am biased toward a particular type of text: those produced by the ancient and medieval sages on law and lore. Unfortunately, this focus can be limiting, cutting off a whole range of Jewish thought and expression.

At my Rabbinical Assembly convention a couple of weeks ago, I was exposed to a whole genre of Jewish literature that I usually ignore: cookbooks. I enjoy Jewish food, and I am a passable cook, but I must admit that I never gave much thought to cookbooks as important documents on Jewish life and culture.

That attitude changed when I attended a session led by Norma Baumel Joseph, author of an article entitled “Cookbooks are Our Texts: Reading An Immigrant Community Through their Cookbooks”. She showed how these books are a wealth of information about how Jews live and relate to their traditions.

For example, have you ever wondered the origin of challah, that ubiquitous Sabbath bread? The word challah in Hebrew denotes a kind of cake and is also used to refer to the offering of dough given to the priest in Temple times. Our understanding of challah as a type of braided egg bread is a 15th century non-Jewish German invention. German Jews became so enamored with the bread that they adopted it for Shabbat and the practice spread all over the Jewish world so that today, even non-Jewish German bakers think of it as a Jewish loaf.

Joseph studied the way in which immigrants use cookbooks to pass on their traditions. When you think about it, a book with recipes is only necessary when there has been a cultural rupture. In the past, mothers would pass their cooking techniques and recipes on to their daughters, but immigrants often don’t have the benefit of receiving these lived traditions.

A small Iraqi Jewish community came to Montreal, where Joseph teaches, after 1950. These were refugees forced to flee without much preparation, and “did not know how to cook. They had almost no experience in the kitchens of their mothers. But one thing is clear the majority of these immigrants wanted to keep eating the familiar foods of home.” Eventually, they produced cookbooks to preserve and pass on their cuisine.

Cultural disruption need not be limited to dispersion and exile. Technological change and assimilation can also be major factors. In our session we discussed gefilte fish, which is a much maligned but also beloved Eastern European Jewish food. While many might like to eat it, who wants to grind the fish by hand anymore? Instead, the current generation would like to reinvent the humble dish with interesting new flavors and local ingredients.

Cookbooks are our texts because they allow us access to traditions that used to be passed down by hand. Like any great religious experience, they help us to connect with the past even as we make it relevant to the present. At Adath we experienced this first hand at our MOSAIC cooking demonstration a few weeks ago when we ate a delicious tahini-infused custard garnished with salt and black sesame seeds. The old meets the new on the page and in our mouths.

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