Jewish food is the topic of Magnes docent show

"Chicken Soup and Other Miracles: Jewish Food and Culinary Traditions" is the work of docents Shirley Braeman, Judy Goodman, Florence Kadis, Rose Levine, Alice Prager and Pearl Rabinowitz. They incorporate biblical, historic, folkloric and ethnic aspects of food traditions, and explore the close connection of certain foods with holiday celebrations and lifecycle events.

"Carrots," for example, "mean good fortune, because when you cut carrots they look like coins," said Levine, a coordinator for the program. "During Simchat Torah the tradition was to have sliced carrots in a sweet dish because it talks about the sweetness of the Torah."

The term "tsimmes," from a dish that includes carrots, prunes, meat and other ingredients, "has come to mean a whole rigmarole," said Levine, because it takes a long time to cut all the ingredients.

The show examines kosher and religious laws and follows the balaboosta, the Jewish housewife, step by step as she deals with those laws in preparing Sabbath and holiday meals.

Of course, the medicinal value of chicken soup does not go unnoticed. One slide depicts a spoof letter printed in a prestigious medical journal, touting the soup's benefits.

The program also explores Israeli cuisine, tracing its evolution from the cooking styles of diverse ethnic groups who immigrated to Israel. It discusses how companies such as Pillsbury and Crisco, which printed a cookbook in Yiddish, taught Jewish immigrants how to recreate their favorite recipes with American products.

During the 1920s and '30s when immigrants were arriving in America, the food industry "wanted to wean them away from their cooking styles like using shmaltz and use Crisco instead," said Levine.

A historical note begins with the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, after Jews fled the Inquisition and settled in Mexico. Their Mexican and Indian servants apparently adopted some Jewish cooking customs, such as starting a dish on Friday and letting it stew until Saturday, thus avoiding lighting a fire on the Sabbath. Even though today no significant number of Jews lives in the Yucatan, the custom of this Sabbath dish survives.

As for the price of matzah at the turn of the century, an advertisement from San Francisco's Emanu-El, forerunner of the Jewish Bulletin, lists it as 8 cents a pound.

In planning new programs, the docents discuss what might be a good topic, said Levine, and "it seemed to us, everyone likes to eat."

The Docent Outreach Program, in existence for 14 years, offers more than 20 slide show programs to predominately Jewish organizations "like Hadassah and synagogues, and we also have gone to chavurot all over the Bay Area and beyond," she said.

In the program "Against the Evil Eye: Magic and Folk Beliefs," Levine said, "We talk about Jewish lore and mythology, illustrated by art and amulets from the Magnes collection."

In "The Hebrew Bible in Art," docents show slides of art works inspired by Bible stories. They also offer several programs about the early gold rush history of California Jews.

After the 40-minute slide show and lecture, audience members have a chance to discuss the topic or ask questions.

For information on booking any Docent Outreach program, call the Magnes at (510) 549-6950.