‘Food and Faith’ packed into new book on Jewish eating

‘Food and Faith’ packed into new book on Jewish eating

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Let’s Eat: Jewish Food and Faith,” by Rabbi Ron Isaacs of Bridgewater and Lori Stein of Manhattan, is a mashup — a 270-page survey of the foods we cook for holidays, how they landed on our tables, and what those platters might contain if we lived in a different time or part of the world.

The volume, published by Rowman & Littlefield and released Nov. 17, also takes on the religious, traditional, and historical underpinnings of the holidays. The concept
was Stein’s. 

“Judaism and food are strongly connected in history, in values,” she told NJJN in a phone interview. “If you learn Jewish food, you learn a lot about

The original plan was to write a cookbook; over time, the work became a vehicle for more information.

Stein, president and director of Layla Productions, a book packaging, production, and consulting firm, has contributed to the publication of more than 200 works and is the coauthor of “Recipes from America’s Small Farms.”

Organized around the holidays, each section of “Let’s Eat” opens with a rabbinic perspective provided by Isaacs — Stein called him “the spiritual director of the book” — who said he was thrilled to contribute to the project.

Isaacs is rabbi emeritus of Temple Sholom in Bridgewater and interim religious leader at Congregation Beth Judah in Wildwood. A prolific author — he’s written more than 100 books on Jewish themes — acknowledged he doesn’t spend much time in the kitchen. 

“I never thought I’d be the author of a cookbook,” he said.

When Stein came to his home for a meeting, Isaacs said his wife whipped up some homemade soup. “And Lori asked for the recipe,” a request, Isaacs said, that “put a smile on my face.” 

“Let’s Eat” is a labor of love, both its co-creators agreed, and buried in the glut of information are some interesting nuggets. Still, the book would have benefited from some heavy editing. Readers may not be interested in how cooking with fire made chewing less energy-intensive, and allowed cavemen to focus on honing other skills. Nor would they turn to “Let’s Eat” for a timeline of Jewish history, from 1900 BCE to the present. And although the origin of cholent is compelling, it’s unfortunate that the list of variations does not include actual recipes that would enable readers to try it for themselves. On that point, some of the recipes in the book are not in modern recipe format, but are laid out in paragraphs, which makes them difficult to follow.

The book would be tighter as well if the historical and religious information were better tethered to the cuisine. Isaacs’ introductions to each section, for example, do not always even mention food. Of course, if they did, then we might be looking at a book that already exists: “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” by Gil Marks.

The most interesting insight Stein has to offer does not actually appear in “Let’s Eat.” As Stein explained in her phone interview, some of the book’s entries are more lists of ingredients than recipes because “most cooks do not follow a recipe when making kugel or chicken soup.” She calls these “pour and spill” recipes. 

“You pour in some flour, you spill in some oil. You can’t give someone a recipe” with exact quantities in these cases,” she said. In fact, for Stein, listing ingredients by weight is one of her pet peeves. 

“That works if it’s a science lab,” she said. “If you’re in a home kitchen, I prefer to have the ingredients and I can adjust the flavors.” 

So really, what she is offering in these instances is an invitation to experiment in the kitchen. Yes, please. 

Stein also discussed the nostalgia factor. 

“No one wants gefilte fish because it’s the best food they’ve ever tasted. People want it because they had it in their grandmother’s house,” she said. “The Mishna says food brings us back to God. But really, it brings us back to our childhood. It’s about connectedness.” 

Reading the chapter on Chanukah sent this writer scrambling for more information about ricotta pancakes. Because, according to “Let’s Eat,” potato latkes didn’t hit the holiday scene until well into the 19th century, after crop failures led Europe to embrace the humble spud. From the Middle Ages until then, it was “ricotta pancakes that were served” on Chanukah tables. 

The recipe in the book for ricotta latkes — while calling for too much salt — was simple, but sent me searching out other sources and different versions.

That is exactly what the authors wanted, Stein said. 

“Our hope was that it will start people looking at a subject to go into it more deeply.”

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