Food Chat: The Evolution of Jewish Cooking

By Hannah Lee

As part of the national celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month, the National Museum of American Jewish History hosted “The Evolution of Jewish Cooking in America,” a conversation with Steven Cook, Joan Nathan, Michael Solomonov, and Molly Yeh and moderated by Devra Ferst, senior editor of the website The Tasting Table.  It was held on Tuesday night and it was at capacity with 230 people, with others tuning in via Facebook.

Earlier this month, Solomonov  won the James Beard award for Best Chef in the country.  (Other Philadelphians lauded this year were Greg Vernick and Stephen Starr.)  Last year, Solomonov and Steven Cook won for their first cookbook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking.  The two men now have a range of establishments that includes: Zahav, Federal Donuts, Abe Fisher, Dizengoff, Goldie, and the Rooster Soup Company.  The latter donates all of its profits to the Broad Street Ministry’s Hospitality Collaborative, which provides meals and services to vulnerable Philadelphians.

Nathan’s eleventh ,  King Solomon’s Table, was published this spring to acclaim, with historical context and personal narratives of food in the Jewish diaspora.  Yeh’s first book, Molly on the Range, was one of the New York Times’ top fall cookbook releases of 2016.  Her food blog, my name is yeh, which showcases recipes inspired by Yeh’s Chinese and Jewish heritage, was Saveur’s 2015 Blog of the Year and Yahoo’s 2014 Food Blog of the Year.  Yeh is a Julliard-trained percussionist who lives on a farm on the North Dakota-Minnesota border with her fifth-generation farmer husband (also a Julliard graduate) and their flock of 20 chickens, all named Macaroni.

What was Jewish food during their childhood?  Cook cited brisket with Lipton soup mix.  Nathan recalled roast chicken with garlic salt and canned gefilte fish.  Solomonov enjoyed tahini with bread (not butter) and cashew chicken, which he claimed is a Jewish food.  Yeh noted the holiday distinguished by matza balls or challah; her favorite holidays were those featuring both foods.

How is Jewish food defined?  Cook reminisced of shopping in wine stores, with labels for Spain, Italy, and Kosher.  “Where is Kosher,” he quipped.  Nathan cited: the dietary laws; the insatiable search for new foods; and the history of Jews being kicked out of so many countries and having to adapt to new local foods.  She recalled a woman in El Salvador who served yuccalatkes.  Solomonov, who loves pastrami on rye, defined Jewish foods that retain, transform, and transmit Jewish heritage.  He recently learned that the iconic fish and chips were introduced to England by Portuguese Jews.  Then, he and Nathan tussled over the origin of bagels. Yeh said arguing over food makes it Jewish.

What is Israeli food?  Cook said people conflate Israeli food with Middle Eastern food.  Solomonov, who recalled the terrible first year running Zahav, learned to adapt to local ingredients, because an Israeli chopped salad cannot be made well with American produce in the middle of winter.  Nathan cited the Ottolenghi effect (of Israeli-British chef Yotam Ottolenghi) and the Zahav effect (now in its ninth year).  She noted that Israeli cooks started travelling abroad in the 80’s and 90’s.

What Jewish food are they most excited to delve into?  Solomonov offered Georgian food (from the former Soviet republic of Georgia), but it would first have to filter through Israel.  Cook said Israeli food is now considered sexy.  Yeh recalled that her mother did not offer coloring books, but blank pieces of paper.  Little Molly learned there was no boundaries between Chinese and Jewish foods and she grew to love to experiment and blend flavors.  Nathan noted that our immigrant ancestors all embraced processed foods (many products were targeted to Jews, with Yiddish labels and advertising.)  She thinks we’re better cooks nowadays, with better ingredients.  “We can play with our food,” said Nathan.

Are there Jewish foods or food myths that should die?  The bad reputation of Jewish cooking is being dispelled, said Nathan.  Cinnamon-raisin bagel, said Cook.  Blueberry bagels, said Ferst.  Rainbow bagels, said Yeh.

What is the next food they plan to cook?  Yeh is on bagel practice and has ordered salmon to make lox.  Solomonov said a peanut butter and matzah sandwich.  Nathan plans to make a lemon cake with curd for a friend.  Cook plans to bake a pie.  He’s been on a pie jag, having made strawberry-rhubarb and lemon chess pies.

What would be their last meal?  Cooks had pastrami on rye at the Famous 4th Street Deli and exclaimed over it as his last meal.  “Which [freaked out] his son, quipped Solomonov, who prefers dim sum and a firing squad.  Nathan would chose fettucine with white truffles, while Yeh would settle for mac ‘n cheese and hot dogs.

Cook answered a query from the audience about why not a kosher restaurant?  (They were involved with Citron and Rose for a year.)  He said restaurants earn 40-50% of their week’s revenues from Saturdays.  I later asked why supermarkets can sell kosher prepared foods items on Saturday, but not restaurants.  He said it depended on the community, i.e., the level of observance.

The evening was lots of fun, and the panelists seemed to enjoy the conversation with each other.  I later showed Nathan the tattered copies of the first two cookbooks she’s written, back in 1978.  Solomonov remembered me from previous encounters and Yeh has dyed her hair since the photo shoot for her book; it’s now ombré, with blond ends.

Another NMAJH event coming up is “From Yiddish Folk to Jazz: An Arts Salon,” on Tuesday, June 27th.  It will feature music from 1917, a current exhibit, from Yiddish folk and American jazz to art songs and chamber music.  Curated by Andrea Clearfield, it will include six ensembles, including Group Motion Dance Company, Hot Club of Philadelphia, and klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals.

The Antidote to Idol Worship

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks returned to the Kohelet Yeshiva Beit Midrash for a Shabbat Shel Ruach services this weekend.  On Shabbat morning, he gave a drasha on “The Idols in Our Lives: Contemporary Echoes of the Golden Calf.”  His opening joke to warm up the overflow audience was an anecdote from when he was appointed a knight of the British realm: Given the Jews’ stiff-necked nature and disinclination to bow, Buckingham Palace prepared a special lecturn (like the shtender used for Torah readings) that Sacks could rest his hand and incline about 15 degrees.  Upon observing this unusual behavior, the Queen turned to her husband, Prince Philip, and asked, “Why is this knight different from all others?”

Modern society is one where people know the price of everything but the value of nothing, quoted Rabbi Sacks.  This focus on material acquisition leads to a perpetual state of dissatisfaction, by focusing on what we lack– the latest model car, smartphone, or other fashionable item.  This instability leads to a state of anger, which fuels the popular unrest across the world. 

Two days before the colossal economic crash of 2008, the prominent Sothesby auction house raised $198 million for the artist Damien Hirst, breaking the record for a one-artist auction.  The most expensive piece: The Black Sheep with the Golden Horn.  Rabbi Sacks called this the Golden Calf that heralded the economic woes.

What is the Torah’s antidote to the Golden Calf?  The text immediately before and after the mention of the icon of idol worship explicitly states the divine gift of Shabbat, the sacred time that removes us from the secular state of being.  Shabbat offers three important features that counters our immersion in contemporary values; Family, Community, and Disengagement.

Rabbi Sacks participated in a BBC program on the modern family, in which he invited the noted child development expert, Penelope Leach, to visit a Jewish nursery school.  On a Friday morning, the children were engaged in their weekly Shabbat party, in which five-year-olds portrayed the roles of Imma, Abba, the children, and Bubbe and Zeide.  When Dr. Leach queried a young boy playing Abba for the day: what was the best and worst aspect of Shabbat.   The boy cited, not watching television was the worst, but the best being that it was the only time, his father didn’t rush off to work.  Dr. Leach turned to Rabbi Sacks and pointed that out as the reason that the boy’s parents’ marriage was sustained. 

Community is the place where your name is known and your absence is noted, quoted Rabbi Sacks.  Wherever he visits, after his presentation, he is always asked the same question: “I know who you are, Rabbi, but do you know me?” The person would invariably have a personal connection, however tenuous.  “Two Jews meet as strangers and find out that they’re mishpocha,” quipped the Rabbi.

Disengagement on Shabbat is when we leave behind the deadlines and worries of the secular world for a sacred time in which we spend in appreciating what we already have.  We learn to appreciate God, Family, and Community.  A woman from the Bay area in California, the heart of Silicon Valley, reported to Rabbi Sacks that modern technology has been the downfall of good relationships.  She related that their solution was a technology-free day, which we Jews know as Shabbat.  The value of Shabbat has even charmed the Archbishop (of York? Not Canterbury) who spent the full 25 hours of a traditional Shabbat with Rabbi Sacks and his wife Elaine in London, who said that the devaluation of the Christian Sabbath has led to the dissolution of the family in Great Britain.

Rabbi Sacks was invited to the President’s National Prayer Breakfast where he met up with a friend and he asked what was the mood in the country?  The friend (a Jew who was not identified) replied, It’s like being the man on the deck of the Titanic [on its way to being hit by the fatal iceberg].  The man is holding a glass of whisky and bemoaning, “I only asked for some ice.”

Rabbi Sacks has authored over 30 books, the most recent being Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, published in February.



Jews From Islamic Lands Speak on Muslim Immigration

By Hannah Lee, Philadelphia Jewish Voice, March 3, 2017

Iranian Jewish refugee from Kurdistan, leaving with Torah (Tehran, Iran, 1950) by Moshe Shapiro in The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life (Creative Commons License)

The president’s travel ban for people from seven Muslim countries (now temporarily suspended by federal judges) has provoked outcries from the liberal community in the United States. Rallies and other acts of dissent have sprung up in most major cities. I last wrote about the response to the travel ban in the general Jewish community. I now seek to learn more from Jews who have lived in Muslim countries.

“In just 50 years, almost a million Jews, whose communities stretch back up to 3,000 years, have been ‘ethnically cleansed’ from ten Arab countries. These refugees outnumber the Palestinian refugees … , but their narrative has all but been ignored. Unlike Palestinian refugees, they fled not war, but systematic persecution,” according to Point of No Return, a blog on Jewish refugees from the Middle East.

Rabbi Albert Gabbai of Mikveh Israel is one of these Jewish refugees, and he has an amazing story that many American Jews do not know: Rabbi Gabbai was originally from Egypt. With the outbreak of the Six-Day War, Egypt rounded up all the Jewish men and put them into prison camps. (I recall learning in an earlier conversation with him that his mother brought food to the prison daily because he and his brothers did not get kosher prison rations.) Three years later, he was driven to the airport. He was given a French laissez-passer (travel document), and he arrived in Paris, with just the shirt on his back. I could have spent much more time learning about his personal story, but our conversation diverged into his views on Muslim immigration in America.

I also had the opportunity to interview two Jews from Iran. One was Ephraim Dardashti, who left Iran before the Revolution of 1979. The other, DD, who prefers to remain anonymous, left Iran after the Revolution.

Below are my questions, with responses from Rabbi Gabbai and the two Iranian-born Jews.

How was life in your native land?

DD: In Iran, by 1979, most of the Jewish community had moved out of the Jewish ghetto. I’m the third child in my family and the first one that was born outside the ghetto. Jews had started to excel both academically and financially. There was still a great deal of anti-Semitism and overt discrimination all around. The hostility took a sharp turn for the worse starting in 1978.

ED: During the reign of the Shah, the Jews were overall well-off at the time. They had economic and educational opportunities that were unprecedented. The ruling regime wanted to move the country to the modern age and leave the Middle Ages behind as quickly as possible. The Jews took advantage of this opportunity, and as result, were far over-represented in the professions and in the economic life of the country.

The socio-religious prejudices were below the surface, but they never disappeared despite the assimilation of the Jews into the society at large. Shiite Iran and pre-Islamic Zoroastrian Iran had a long checkered history when it came to the treatment of the Jews. Prior to the 20th century, there were frequent violent outbursts against the Jews and forced conversions. The Jewish community was battered. Missionaries and the religion of Bahaism made strong inroads among the Jews in the 19th century.

What is it like now? Is there still a Jewish community?

DD: There is still a Jewish community in my hometown of Shiraz, although it has shrunk quite a bit. The Jewish school is controlled by the government, with a Muslim administration, and the school is required to operate on Shabbat. The Jewish education books are issued by the government and taught in Farsi. The contents have a Muslim slant. Jews are excluded from positions of authority and certain professions.

ED: At the time of the Islamic Revolution, the population of Iran was 35 million; the Jews numbered around 125,000. Today, the population of the country is around 80 million, and the Jewish population numbers around 20,000. I think that the numbers speak for themselves.

HL: According to Professor Joel Beinin of Stanford University in The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, at most, less than ten Jews remain in Egypt today.

What is your view on the United States welcoming Muslim refugees?

AG: As Jews, we welcome people who are persecuted. As Jews, we have to protect ourselves. As Jews, we have to follow the law of the land: dina d’malkhuta dina (Aramaic: דִּינָא דְּמַלְכוּתָא דִּינָא‎‎).

The guiding principle should be that whoever comes here is not here to harm us. As a Jew who was persecuted for his faith and ethnicity, I sympathize much with people who were persecuted, despite being innocent of any crimes.

We are always guided by our Jewish principles. The laws of Maimonides for tzedakah (charity) direct us to focus first on our inner circle – the family – before we address the needs of the community. We cannot solve the problems of the whole world.

Millions want to come here for a better life. We’re not being honest with ourselves if we don’t admit that.

Syrians have fled to Turkey and Jordan. They’re not being killed there. The United States can send them money, medicine and blankets. It does not make sense to bring them here.

We should not discriminate between Christians and Muslims, black and other, when we’re talking about saving people whose lives are in danger.

What are your thoughts on the impact of Muslim refugees on American society?

AG: Germany allowed entry to close to one million Muslims. Most are not from Syria, but are from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Africa. About 80-90% of these people are able-bodied young people, who are not escaping from war, but choosing a better life. They do not care for assimilation.

They live in enclaves, in suburbs such as outside Paris. They cannot afford to live elsewhere. This complicates the problem of assimilation and fosters radicalization. These are police “no go” zones. Muslim community peer pressure enforces a rigid form of piety.

DD: I think Islam, at least the way it is taught in almost all Muslim countries, is the problem, not the Muslims. I’m more concerned about the Muslim schools and mosques, mostly funded by Saudi Arabia, that indoctrinate the followers with Islamic supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-Western ideology. I have an employee who is a Muslim from India who was confiding to me that he could not find a mosque that followed the moderate version that he was used to in India.

I do think that American citizenship requires acceptance of American law. I was catching a flight back from Detroit a few months ago, and I was stuck behind a Muslim lady who was trying to board with a full niqab (a full-body covering, with only the eyes visible). I think requiring that level of acceptance in America is unreasonable.

ED: The problem facing Europe and the U.S. has fundamentally to do with the nature of Islam. Islam had a golden period in the Middle Ages: the sciences, mathematics and medicine coming out of the vast Islamic lands were far superior to anything comparable in Medieval Europe. But, Islamic societies have hit the wall.

A glorious past, but nothing to show these days despite its oil wealth in parts of the Islamic world. The Islamic world resembles a person who has a glorious lineage, but he or she today has nothing to show for it. The Islamic lands have tried all the “isms” out there — socialism, nationalism, communism and capitalism — yet they are behind in every facet.

Does the resettlement of Muslims differ between the United States and Europe?

AG: In the U. S., there is more opportunity to be part of the “melting pot” because of the American approach to life and liberty and to our greater tolerance for diversity. (Note: In the Arab Middle East, there is no tolerance for diversity.)

DD: I’m a bit conflicted. On the one hand, being an Orthodox Jew, I understand the desire to maintain one’s cultural identity. On the other hand, we Jews, or other similar groups such as the Amish, do not try to impose our way of life on others or resort to violence if our religious sensitivities are offended. I think the U.S. has been somewhat more successful than Europe in absorbing Muslims.

Having experienced the indoctrination that goes on in Muslim countries — having attended a public school — I think there is a clash of civilizations. That said, many Muslims who are trying to migrate to the U.S. and Europe are also escaping the repressive culture. We somehow need to be open to the moderate Muslims and those escaping repression, while fighting the Islamic supremacist ideology, including the institutions and people that promote it here.

ED: These societies are imploding as demonstrated by the Arab Spring. Folks are fleeing them and moving to the heartlands of nations that colonized them in the past, or others, like the U.S. and Canada, that have sheltered them.

In Europe overall, immigrants from Islamic lands are reminded on a daily basis — by self-comparison — how backward they are. Those coming from male-dominated cultures are baffled by the sexual morality of their adopted countries, freedom of thought and generational gaps.

In Europe, as well as in their home countries, the elixir for all the miseries and jealousy has been a return to a misunderstood and over-glorified past. If only Shariah and Koranic rule were in place, then they would be back as great or greater than their glorious ancestors. Islam has to confront itself and modernize. The Jews have done that successfully over the ages.

The frustrated, damaged “refugee” clinging to the unreformed Islam of his ancestors is a time bomb, as demonstrated in Paris, Brussels, Tunisia and elsewhere. Iranians represent the largest non-American ethnic group in the ranks of professors in American colleges and universities. These are the children of the “westernized” and secularized Iranians dating back to the advances under the Pahlavi regime.

This is not about immigration or refugee resettlement, but rather about time-traveling — folks moving from the Middle Ages to the 21st century and their ability to adapt. Eastern Jews made the leap when they moved to Israel. Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees adapted. The Muslim communities sending their kids to madrassas in Minnesota, California, Michigan, New York and Tennessee haven’t, and they are ticking time bombs. The problem is Islam being stuck in the mud of the Middle Ages and dragging into the earth those clinging to that version of it.

Political correctness and the mediocre state of “liberal” education and the fact that we see everything from the prism of the 60’s racial-equality battles have robbed us of the ability to think and analyze. The problem is not immigration or refugee resettlement, but rather a poisoned and dying Islam that, unless it reforms itself, will take down its own adherents and those they come in contact with.

AG: Here, when you ask for directions in accented English, people go out of their way to help, even if by giving erroneous directions.

Book Chat: How Fast Can You Run

By Hannah Lee

Starting this weekend, Philadelphia’s Independence Mall will feature an exhibit about refugees, sponsored by Doctors Without Borders.  There are currently 65 million people dislocated from their home place worldwide.  I moderated a discussion with one such refugee, the protagonist of How Fast Can You Run, last night at Main Point Books.  (The author will be speaking at other venues across Philadelphia.) 

How Fast Can You Run is a fictionalized account of Michael Majok Kuch’s 600-km (372-mile) flight, by foot, from his home in the current nation of South Sudan.  Separated from his mother at age five, and after languishing for 10 years in five refugee camps, Kuch won admission to the United States and earned degrees in a local high school, college, and graduate school.  Upon earning his master’s, he chose to return and help build a new nation.  He is now an advisor in Research and Policy in the Office of the President.

Kuch met the author, Harriet Levin Millan, when she interviewed 10 Sudanese refugees for an oral history project at Drexel, where she directs the program in writing and publishing.  Kuch had been seeking a format to tell his story.  A poet at heart— and with a MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers Workshop— Millan and Kuch decided on a fictionalized account, because of the difficulty of seeking permission from many people dispersed across the world.  Also, a novel allows Millan to enter the mind of Kuch and portray the perspective from his eyes.  Poetry would not have allowed her the scope to tell the life journey with so many harrowing incidents, including running away from wild animals and running away from Al-Shabaab, a jihadist terrorist group in East Africa.  

What was Kuch’s biggest life lesson?  Optimism.  After all the trauma and dangers of his childhood, he managed to survive.  Those survival skills give him lots of hope for a better world.  Kuch reunited with his mother in Australia 22 years after their harrowing separation.