Off the Shelf | Cookbooks serve up history of vanishing Jewish cultures

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My Jerusalem-born grandfather maintained a small repertoire of foods from his childhood — such as a lemony battered cauliflower dish — that he liked to cook. And my grandmother would spend hours preparing homemade gefilte fish and apple strudel for family gatherings. But my grandparents have been gone quite a while, and nobody in my generation makes their foods.

It is perhaps this sense of loss that leads my heart to be stirred easily by cookbooks. Transcending their conventional role as technical guides for food preparation, many new Jewish cookbooks link us to customs and practices that are at risk of being banished from memory.

A case in point is Stella Cohen’s “Stella’s Sephardic Table: Jewish Family Recipes from the Mediterranean Island of Rhodes.” The Jews of Rhodes, who refer to themselves as Rhodeslis, go back well over 2,000 years, with a population that included both Romaniote Jews with ancient roots in the Aegean and Sephardic Jews whose ancestors had been expelled from Spain. The community flourished under Ottoman rule and developed a distinctive culture. This world would end in 1944, with only 150 Rhodeslis surviving the Nazi genocide.

A decade in the making, Cohen’s large-scale book is a lavish tribute to her family’s cuisine and culture. Cohen supplements the recipes with descriptions of Rhodesli traditions, including wedding rituals, home remedies and Ladino adages.

In many of the book’s images, traditional foods are photographed artfully against the backdrop of the Juderia — the island’s historic Jewish quarter. It is impossible not to feel an underlying sense of tragedy in seeing the food return to Rhodes without a community to welcome it.

The book’s added twist is that Cohen resides in Harare, Zimbabwe, where her parents settled in the late 1930s to join other Rhodeslis, as conditions for Jews in Rhodes deteriorated under Italian rule. She adds several African-influenced dishes to the book, demonstrating how diaspora cooking evolves. And with Zimbabwe’s Jews dwindling from 7,000 in 1961 to about 150 today, Cohen gives voice to yet another vanishing community.

Due to a different set of factors, there is no longer a Jewish community in the town of Essaouira (also known as Mogador) on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. But Jews once composed nearly half of the historic seaport town’s population, and generally lived in harmony with Berbers, Arabs, Europeans and others.

Born in Essaouira in 1898, Sarah Elmaleh immigrated to New York in 1939. Over the course of decades, she introduced hundreds to her hometown’s distinctive Jewish cooking, with its multicultural influences. However, she wrote nothing down until her granddaughter Lisa convinced her to share the recipes in her head. And that is how “Grandma Elmaleh’s Moroccan Cookbook” came to be, with the book rescuing the cuisine of an extinct community from oblivion. I’ll admit I haven’t yet cooked anything from it, but the legendary Paula Wolfert, America’s exacting expert on Moroccan cuisine, calls the recipes “superb,” and I’ll take her word for it.


There is also a grandmother at the heart of Noah and Rae Bernamoff’s “The Mile End Cookbook.” Noah Bernamoff’s relationship to food rested on two foundations: the Jewish deli food of his native Montreal (home of smoked meat, the Wilensky’s Special sandwich, and the distinctive bagel baked in a wood-fired oven), and his grandmother’s home cooking. Having left Montreal for New York to attend law school, Noah found an enormous culinary gap in his life.

This longing for the foods of his childhood led him to abandon law school and, with his wife, Rae, open the phenomenally popular Mile End Deli in Brooklyn in 2010. The restaurant has something of a parallel in San Francisco’s Wise Sons Deli, as both establishments offer Ashkenazi fare with a contemporary, locavore and occasionally traif twist, bringing old-school Jewish comfort food to the attention of the young and the hip.

Their new cookbook reflects the Bernamoffs’ conviction that deli foods ought to be reclaimed by home chefs. So, for those of you who want to try your hand at curing your own brisket or salmon, this is your book. But there are also many more approachable preparations, including an excellent mandelbrot recipe straight from Noah’s grandmother.

The book becomes especially poignant when it reveals that Noah’s grandmother died shortly before the opening of the restaurant, adding a sense of spiritual purpose to the couple’s endeavor to keep Jewish cooking alive.

Another endangered Jewish American tradition is the once venerable “appetizing store,” specializing in prepared fish, baked goods and sweets. The sole surviving institution in New York’s Lower East Side is Russ & Daughters, now in its 99th year and fourth generation of family ownership. In his book “Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built,” Mark Russ Federman shares the shop’s colorful history and inner workings. Federman (who, like Bernamoff, traded a career in law for lox) is the grandson of the company’s founder, and ran the business for three decades. He will appear at the JCC of San Francisco in conversation with Joyce Goldstein on Sunday, March 10 over a brunch featuring fish from Russ & Daughters.

“Stella’s Sephardic Table: Jewish Family Recipes from the Mediterranean Island of Rhodes”
by Stella Cohen (304 pages, Hoberman Collection, $50)

“Grandma Elmaleh’s Moroccan Cookbook” by Lisa Elmaleh Craig (184 pages, Hesperus Press, $27.95)

“The Mile End Cookbook: Redefining Jewish Comfort Food from Hash to Hamantaschen” by Noah and Rae Bernamoff (224 pages, Clarkson Potter, $27.50)

“Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built” by Mark Russ Federman (224 pages, Schocken, $25.95)


Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.