Holidays help revive food memories, family stories

I won’t ever get rid of my Jewish cookbooks. I love them all — from the trendy “Jerusalem: A Cookbook” to the old and out of print “The Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook.”

I seek out old ones, especially the worn and lonely looking cookbooks at the bottom of the $5 closeout bin at used bookstores.

I don’t need another latke or challah recipe. But I do need my Jewish cookbooks. What lays between the pages is something far more important than a new way to make brisket or another idea for a hamantaschen filling. What lays between the pages is a whole lot of history.

When I was young I loved visiting my grandparents. My grandmother used to cook all the dishes of her childhood for me and my brothers and sisters. I’d eat her chopped liver by the spoonful and gobble up the herring with Tam Tam crackers. She’d make roasted chicken, lentil soup, chicken soup and roasted sweet potatoes. The warm toasted rye bread she slathered with butter and sprinkled with salt was just about the best thing I ever ate. We always had some kind of poppy seed cake or mandel bread for dessert.

My kids are far more sophisticated about food than I was at their age. They know the difference between a Honey Crisp apple and a Golden Delicious apple. They love kale salad. They like their ice cream with a drizzle of olive oil and sea salt. They want to know if the salmon they’re eating is wild or farmed. They love pho.

But one of my favorite things to do is sit in my modern kitchen with my husband and kids eating the food of my grandmother’s childhood — the dishes she cooked for me and my siblings that I now cook for my kids.

During Hanukkah, I make my grandmother’s chicken soup and brisket and we fry up latkes and make applesauce. We come together and celebrate just as our grandparents and their parents did. Tradition is a beautiful thing.

When we light the Hanukkah candles, we eat and celebrate, and we also tell our kids stories about their grandparents. Our kids know what life was like for my grandfather in his small town in Ukraine — how the entire village would shut down for Shabbat and everyone would put on their best holiday outfits and walk to synagogue. My grandfather’s mother always cooked a special meal. Wine was made from raisins. Because they were not allowed to cook on the Sabbath, his mother did all the cooking on Friday and left a small fire on the stove. When they came back from synagogue the next day, the cholent was warm and waiting.

Levine family favorite: soup and latkes at Hanukkah photo/courtesy julie levine

My grandfather had learned to speak Russian and Polish from a Russian priest who had hired my great-great-grandfather as his tailor. My grandfather was a good student and could speak these languages with no trace of a Yiddish accent.

In the spring of 1917, a day after the beginning of Passover, my grandfather’s mother died from typhoid fever. Later that summer, during the pogroms, soldiers came to my grandfather’s village and, without warning, went house-to-house torturing and murdering any Jews they found. My great-great-grandfather was shot and killed. When the soldiers found my grandfather, they couldn’t tell he was Jewish because he spoke to them in his perfect Russian, and he was able to escape. He eventually made his way to the United States by way of Poland, Romania, Germany and Paris and then through an arduous boat trip to New York.

When I was younger and we’d visit my grandparents, my grandmother used to hug us so tightly we could barely breathe and she’d pinch our checks, which hurt a little. After we ate and cleaned up, she’d finally take a seat at the table. I remember her pressing out with her hands the paper napkins we had used and putting them back in the napkin holder for next time.

My grandmother had a difficult childhood. Like my grandfather, she was from a small town in Ukraine. Her mother died when she was a toddler and her father passed away when she was 7. She then lived with various relatives, many of whom mistreated her. My grandmother eventually made her way to New York from Poland through a dangerous boat voyage. She ate nothing but potatoes and herring during the long trip — that was all the food they had.

We tell our kids stories about our grandparents to help them understand their history — that their place in the world stretches wide — wider than just school, their friends, soccer and San Francisco. It stretches way back to those small towns in Ukraine and back even further still.

And what about those old Jewish cookbooks I collect? What stories lay within their pages? I wonder as I read a recipe for Aunt Esther’s rugelach and Grandma Helen’s gefilte fish: Do Esther and Helen have family who today sit around the table telling their stories? In some small way, I feel that by keeping these cookbooks close to me I am keeping the stories alive, too. We are, after all, linked together in one shared history. And isn’t the thread that links these journeys together made up of cholent, matzah brie, herring and strudel?

Julie Levine
is the founder of the Jewish lifestyle blog Florence & Isabelle ( She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children.

Julie Levine

Julie Levine is a writer who lives in San Francisco.