Tag : Sephardi Jews

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April 13, 2020 by

Making Jewish Life in 15th Century Spain Come Alive for Kids

Loma—short for Paloma—is a Jewish girl living in 15th century Spain and the clear hero of this middle-grade historical novel, (A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, HarperCollins, $17.99).  Clever with words and even more clever with numbers, Loma captures the attention of Belo, her stern and commanding grandfather.  To her surprise, he decides that she will accompany him on his travels and she discovers she has an important role to play in determining the future of her people. Newberry award-winning author Gail Carson Levine talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about bringing significant episodes in Jewish history to life again. 

Yona Zeldis McDonough: What sparked your interest in this period in Jewish history and what kind of research did you do?

Gail Carson Levine: My father is the culprit! Soon after his death, because I missed him so much, I wrote my first and only other historical novel (so far), Dave at Night, which is loosely based on his childhood in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York City. A Ceiling Made of Eggshells comes indirectly from that orphanage experience, too, because it separated him from his Sephardic roots.

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June 21, 2018 by

When Food Betrayed the Jews

Today, when we eat a sopapilla in a Mexican restaurant, enjoy a slice of sponge cake or an almond cookie, or share Spanish tapas with friends, we don’t recognize that these and other dishes can be traced back through centuries to Spain’s medieval Jews and the recipes that Spanish Jewish women carried when they fled religious persecution, scattering over much of the known world.

Like generations and generations of women before and since, we know very few of their names. Still, we prepare and eat food we can trace to the dishes these women in medieval Spain made either daily or for Shabbat and for holiday celebrations. Via mothers and daughters, mistresses and maids, the foods of the original Sephardim have endured for hundreds of years, and have influenced cuisines around the world.

This knowledge has special meaning to me. I am descended from these Jewish women of Spain, and I think of them often, especially when I’m cooking. Now it’s time our culinary precursors get the recognition their foods warrant—even if the cooks themselves must remain unavoidably anonymous.

For me, when I first got interested in knowing more about Sephardic food, it wasn’t at all a women’s story. For me, the knowledge came through my father, and the foods he brought to our family from his parents.

Growing up in Denver in the 1950s and ’60s, the only Sephardic food I knew was what my father cooked at home. (See Lilith, spring 2017, for my early cooking experiences.) There were no Sephardic cookbooks around, and my mother’s food was strictly Ashkenazic. But from my Poppi, whose parents emigrated from places in the Ottoman Empire that are now part of Turkey and Macedonia, I learned to cook lentils, fassoulya, yaprakas (also known as dolmas, stuffed grape leaves), and his favorite sponge cake. I learned to love cooking not just with the garlic my father grew, but also with onions, leeks and eggplants.

I don’t remember even seeing a leek or eggplant in my friends’ homes back then, much less seeing any other father who cooked. Food at home was the realm of women. Yet, outside of our homes, all the real chefs I knew were male—from Chef Boyardee with his picture on those labels to every restaurant chef my dad befriended in pursuit of his not-so-secret desire to own a restaurant someday. The important cooking, the cooking that mattered beyond survival, seemed to be done by men.

When I moved to New York in the late 1980s, I started to explore my Sephardic heritage and to learn more about the history, culture and the wonderful variety of Sephardic cuisines. I read books and took classes in Ladino. I became active in Sephardic organizations and met women who cooked all kinds of Sephardic foods, women from Turkey, Greece, Italy, Syria, Morocco, Mexico, Yemen, Israel, Argentina and more.

I found cookbooks with written recipes for Sephardic dishes, compiled, I was surprised to see, starting in the 1970s by sisterhoods of synagogues in Atlanta (The Sephardic Cooks, Congregation Or VeShalom, 1971), Los Angeles (Cooking the Sephardic Way, Temple Tifereth Israel, 1971) and elsewhere. I sometimes attended Manhattan’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, where I heard my father’s Ladino being spoken and met Gilda Angel, whose 1986 Sephardic Holiday Cooking: Recipes and Traditions has become a classic.

Through the foods of these contemporary American women, I started to find my way to the Jewish women and food of medieval Spain. It was obvious in the synagogue cookbooks that there were recipes for similar foods submitted by women from many different countries: huevos haminados, the long-cooked hard boiled eggs, and quajado (sfongato) a baked dish usually with leeks, eggplants, Swiss chard and/or spinach bound together with eggs. There were rings of shortbread-like cookies called biscochos by Jews of Turkey, Greece and Mexico, and crispy fried bimuelos or loukomades drizzled with honey syrup, or with rose or orange water. Even with different names and some variations, the dishes were clearly connected by ingredients, process and even by the occasions on which they were served, if the recipe authors provided the foods’ social history.

The more I found out, the more it seemed to me that no Jews were ever more marked by the food they grew, cooked, served and ate than the Jews of Spain. This was food closely related to a history that twisted and turned from persecution to prosperity and back again many times, according to who ruled Spain—in simplest terms, whether rulers were Christians or Muslims.

Jews first settled in the Iberian Peninsula around 250 B.C.E., where they lived under the control of the Visigoths and the Holy Roman Empire. The early Catholic Church ostracized Jews from the larger Spanish community through decrees that included refusing communion to any cleric or layperson who ate with a Jew. Worse yet, in 613 C.E., nearly 900 years before the well-known expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal, the Church ordered Jews to convert to Christianity or face expulsion. Some managed to survive as Jews, but many did leave or became Spain’s first “secret Jews.”

The conquest of nearly all of Iberia in 711 by the Islamic Arab and Moorish army from northern Africa ushered in what we fondly remember as the “Golden Age of Spain,” for most of four centuries a time of Jewish renaissance. Spain became the center of Jewish life and religion, with more Jews––probably around half a million at the peak––living in Iberia than in any other place in the world. Synagogues and schools were built. Kosher butchers and other Jewish stores lined the streets in Toledo and other cities.

During these centuries, when Jews enjoyed freedom of movement and socialization, Jewish and Muslim women often visited in each other’s homes, sharing food and recipes. Jews incorporated and adapted ingredients and spices brought to Iberia from northern Africa with the Moors. They began cooking with seasonings like saffron, caraway and capers as well as with rose and orange waters. Rice and artichokes found their way onto Jewish tables.

Homes had gardens where women grew the leeks, eggplant and chard favored by Jews, along with lettuce, lavender, purslane, edible flowers, radishes, parsley, cilantro, fennel, garlic, citron leaves, mint, thyme and the bitter herb called rue. Vinegar made from leftover wine was combined with olive oil for dressings. Often verduras, cooked green vegetables, were sprinkled with the wine vinegar. Honey, almonds and pine nuts were favorite ingredients along with spices like cinnamon, cloves, cumin, ginger and nutmeg.

The chickpeas, garlic and onions that are so important in Sephardic dishes were considered lower-class foods and were not found in many Christian or Muslim recipes. Yet chickpeas, grown in Iberia since the days of the Romans, were an important source of protein, especially when there were problems getting kosher meat.

What differentiated Jewish cuisine from that of their neighbors in medieval Spain was much the same for Jews throughout history: how meat was prepared so that it was kosher; how unkosher foods were avoided, including fish without scales and the pork so beloved by Christian Spaniards; the separation of meat and milk; and special foods for the observance of the Sabbath and festivals.

These special food traditions included snacking on cold appetizers and small dishes called “mezé” during Jewish family gatherings for Shabbat and holidays. Some common Sephardic hors d’oeuvres were cheese dumplings, yogurt soup, fried pumpkin, simple salads with fresh ingredients from home gardens, olives, pickled and preserved fish such as anchovies in vinegar. Many of these are still popular today. This Sephardic tradition influenced the famous Spanish custom of tapas, dining on small appetizers, that became particularly popular on Sunday afternoons after Mass when Spaniards gathered in homes and bars. With the Inquisition, hosts would sometimes test to see if any of their guests were secret Jews by serving slices of cold ham, still a popular tapa today.

I was surprised to discover, on my intellectual and sentimental journey to recover as much as I could of the cuisine of my distant ancestors, that there are no cookbooks from Spain’s medieval Jewish community. However, cookbooks from the Christian and Islamic communities of the time reveal as much through occasional references to “Jewish” methods of preparation as they do by what’s left out, including recipes with those leeks, onions and garlic considered low-class and Jewish food.

Life for Sephardim started to become very difficult in the 11th century with the advance of the Christian Reconquista, literally the reconquering of Iberia. There were anti-Jewish riots and mass killings of Jews, mostly in the 14th and 15th centuries, in Toledo, Granada and many other cities. In some places, Jews were forced to live as separate political and social entities in Juderias, Jewish ghettos.

In the end, most of what we know about the food of Spain’s medieval Jews comes from the tragedy of the Inquisition, both the decrees of the Edict of Expulsion—1492 in Spain, 1496 in Portugal—and from vivid testimony against accused individuals over the ensuing years.

There are detailed decrees related to food and customs around food as a way of revealing if someone was Jewish, even if the person had converted and was living as a secret Jew. These telltale decrees about what to suspect in your neighbor or employer included keeping the Sabbath by slow-cooking food on Fridays to be eaten on Saturday; cleaning meat of fat, nerves and sinew or soaking it in water to remove the blood; avoiding pork, rabbit, cuttlefish, eel or other scaleless fish popular among the Christians; and even eating hard-boiled eggs and olives after the death of a parent.

Inquisitors were especially attuned to the preparation of Shabbat and holiday foods and also ordinary foods that were eaten or displayed in some ritual observance or as part of keeping kosher. One of the most common dishes used to identify Jewish observance was adafina, still a popular dish in Spain and North Africa. Similar to hamim and cholent, adafina is a traditional Sabbath stew of meat, chickpeas or fava beans, onions, garlic, cumin and other spices, often with eggs hard-cooked in their shells in the stew. The ingredients weren’t as important as the method of slow cooking in banked coals, starting before sundown on Friday and eaten for lunch on Saturday. In one case, in 1570, Inquisitors recorded a maid testifying that she witnessed her mistress cooking “mutton with oil and onions, which she understands is the Jewish dish adafina.”

The more I learned the more I realized that the testimony of the Inquisition often turned woman against woman; it was hard for a Jewish woman to hide food preparation from a maid. In another well-known testimony of a maid, a simple salad of lettuce and radish was used against Juana Nuñez at her trial in the early 1500s, because she would serve it to her women friends who came to visit nearly every Saturday afternoon. Not only was Doña Nuñez serving only uncooked food, but all the women were relaxing and not working to take care of households at that time, as was customary when observing the Sabbath.

In the spring, a woman making any kind of flat bread with small holes poked in it was damning evidence of Passover preparations. More fatal evidence, mentioned often in Inquisition testimony, was quajado, a vegetable-egg casserole, often prepared with Spanish white cheese for a dairy meal. Other names for the dish are sfongato (sponge) and asquajado, meaning “coagulated” in Ladino. The long history of these vegetable casseroles that started in Spain became an element of Sephardic cuisines throughout the Ottoman Empire where quajado continued to be made. A version with spinach, onions and matza, called anchusa, became part of Passover menus.

I’ve often thought that had things stayed favorable and comfortable for the Sephardim, we likely would not have so much knowledge of their food, and certainly its influence on other cuisines would be diminished. But with the Inquisition, about half of Spain’s Jews chose to leave rather than convert or become secret Jews. The largest number of Sephardic refugees, an estimated 120,000, were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire, primarily in what is now Turkey, Greece, Italy and the Balkans. They also scattered to Syria and throughout the Middle East, North Africa and the New World of Mexico, South America and eventually, in 1654, New Amsterdam, today’s New York.

In addition to those savory dishes with leeks, chard and eggplant, the Sephardim also created sweets. Marzipan, almond macaroons and almond cakes all come from Sephardim. Sponge cake, first baked in Moorish Spain around 1000 C.E., became identified as a Jewish dish that eventually became popular throughout Europe. Called “pan de España,” “bread of Spain,” it is a pareve dessert, adaptable for Passover when matzah meal and potato starch stand in for flour, with excellent results.

A deep-fried treat meant to invoke the miracle of the oil at Hanukkah, bumuelos (buñuelos, bimuelos, burmuelos) were a favorite of Spanish Jews that became popular throughout the Ottoman Empire and Morocco. Sephardim carried them to the New World where they show up throughout Central and South America, in Mexican food morphing into sopapillas. They are sometimes called Sephardic or Turkish beignet, but instead of getting a beignet’s dusting of confectioners’ sugar, the Sephardic treats are drizzled with a cooked honey syrup that may be flavored with rose or orange water.

When the Jews left their Spanish homeland, they couldn’t take much with them, but they could and did take their heritage, their faith, their Ladino or Judeo-Spanish language, and their foods. It is the women who carried the culture and the cuisine. Their recipes became part of the foods eaten and shared in their new homelands. Today they’re a living inheritance of the Jews of Spain. When I make their foods, I gratefully remember the women of medieval Spain and so many others in the generations since.

As guest chef for three seders in the Obama White House, Susan Barocas introduced and prepared several Sephardic dishes. She is a writer, caterer, speaker and teacher of cooking to all ages.

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June 22, 2017 by

Reason, Desire, and a Deep Dive into Jewish History

One frustrating aspect of modern American culture—and its greatest divergence from Jewish culture—is its obsession with novelty, to the point of dismissing anything older than yesterday as worthless. The Weight of Ink (Haughton Mifflin Harcourt, $28), as its title suggests, is a counterweight to the world of Twitter: a story of words on paper and their uncanny endurance. This novel, by the immensely talented Rachel Kadish, is also a beautifully written meditation on reason and desire, a deep dive into Jewish history, and a riveting story whose weight stays with you.

Like A.S. Byatt’s Possession, The Weight of Ink’s plot hinges on a fantastic trove of manuscripts and the ego battles between scholars fighting over it. Helen Watt, a senior scholar recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s, learns of a stash of 17th century Portuguese and Hebrew letters in an old London home. The documents trace to London’s Sephardic Jews, a community traumatized by the Inquisition. Helen’s tremors force her to hire Aaron Levy, an insecure graduate student who resents Helen’s imperiousness, which he attributes to her non-Jewish appropriation of Jewish history. In fact Helen is scarred by a romance in 1950s Israel; Aaron likewise pines for a girl who abandoned him to make aliyah. Tensions between them initially turn The Weight of Ink into a novel of academic manners. But that’s not what Kadish is after.

When Aaron and Helen discover that the documents were produced by a rabbi’s female scribe, the book brings us into the life of Ester, a Portuguese Jewish orphan in 17th century London who becomes the ward and then the scribe of a rabbi blinded decades earlier by the Inquisition’s torturers. A talented scholar, Ester at 21 quickly realizes that as the rabbi ails, she will either have to marry or become a housemaid— in either case cut off from scholarship. But when a chaperoning job takes her to the Globe Theater, she is inspired to take on a new identity, disguising herself on paper as a man and writing to the great minds of her era— who then actually respond.

 This launches the book into its real subject, which is less the content of 17th century thought (brace yourself for a primer on Spinoza’s pantheism) than the divide between the life of the mind and life as it’s actually lived. This may seem like an abstract topic, but it isn’t. For women, whose lives even today are often limited by mundane obligations, the gap between idealized beliefs and lived realities can be enormous. And for Jews, this gap is likewise more than theoretical. The Torah presumes we live in an imperfect world. Moreover, Jews in every era, including our own, have often been called upon to denounce their ancient allegiances, forcing many to compromise their beliefs or to choose between acceptance and integrity. As the book’s rabbi says, “The distances between things are vast”—referring to the physical space he blindly navigates, the social space between people, and the spiritual space left by God’s apparent absence.

 If this sounds dense for a novel, it’s not. In The Weight of Ink, questions about God and reason find expression in Ester’s writings, but more often, Kadish dramatizes them through Ester’s experiences as a woman and a Jew, driven by a desire in both mind and body that her world forbids her. The choice between safety and integrity animates Ester’s every move—and she makes a lot of moves, intellectually and otherwise. As her interactions with non-Jews take on unexpected importance, she’s also forced to face the legacy of the Inquisition, which her community survived only by publicly denouncing themselves, leaving their children uncomfortable in their own bodies. For a book mostly set in a plague-ridden 17th century, it all feels weirdly familiar, a disturbing reminder of how much of our ancestors’ humiliations still live within us.

The book is not flawless. Kadish has the unenviable job of introducing an unfamiliar history; she mostly handles this with a light touch, but a few scenes read like Wikipedia entries. Likewise, connections involving major figures like Spinoza and Shakespeare can feel contrived on the page, as do several soapy plot twists that strain credibility.

These weaknesses would hardly be noticeable except that they are inconsistent with the rest of the book, which is rendered with the confidence of a master artist. Kadish writes with an incredible eye for the subtleties of emotion, and with countless gems of insight connected to the novel’s deeper themes. Here is Ester, for instance, contemplating her future: “[A]s she lay in the dark, a thought might rise murky out of the fatigue, and—she couldn’t help herself— she’d hold it tender as a newborn lest it slip from her hands, caressing it, trying to shield it against oblivion.” Here is Helen, contemplating hers: “She had seen early in life that there was none in this world to audit one’s soul… And if there was no auditor, one must audit one’s own soul, tenaciously and without mercy.”

Lines like these, thick with meaning and beauty, appear on every page. The intertwining of meaning and beauty in this novel at times feels too perfect, the balance between past and present storylines too idealized. Yet it’s a testament to Kadish’s talent that the novel’s ending, which ought to feel too neat, is immensely satisfying, a renewal of faith for characters and readers alike. Words on paper or screens only rarely last, but stories like Ester’s endure.

Dara Horn is a scholar of Yiddish and Hebrew literature and the author of five novels: In the Image, The World to Come, All Other Nights, A Guide for the Perplexed, and the forthcoming Eternal Life (January 2018).

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