Compendia of instructions for the preparation of Jewish food or addressed to the Jewish reader constitute the single largest body of literature written by and for Jewish women. These cookbooks initially arose during the first half of the nineteenth century in response to the social aspirations of those who wished to add culinary refinement to the kosher kitchen. Among the earliest extant examples are several small Yiddish manuscripts from Bohemia, Moravia, or neighboring areas; they were in all likelihood intended to teach young brides to cook or to supervise a servant in the kitchen.
Jewish women continued to learn to cook from one another and to write manuscript cookbooks, even after printed ones specifically addressed to them made their appearance during the early 1800s. Most Jewish cookbooks in the nineteenth century were written in German, the most popular being Rebekka Wolf’s Kochbuch für israelitische Frauen: Enthaltend die verschiedensten Koch- und Backarten, mit einer vollständigen Speisekarte so wie einer genauen Anweisung zur Einrichtung und Führung einer religiös-jüdischen Haushaltung, which appeared in Berlin in 1856: it went through 14 editions, stayed in print for almost 80 years, and was the basis for the first extant cookbook published in Yiddish—Oyzer Bloshteyn’s Kokhbuch far yudishe froyen, which appeared in Vilna in 1896 and New York in 1898. Wolf’s cookbook was also translated into Polish, as Kuchnia Koszerna (1904), and other languages.
As was common, Bloshteyn (known also as Auser Blaustein, 1840–1898) lifted recipes from other authors, above all Wolf, and even imitated her decorative covers. Bloshteyn promised young women and cooks 668 economical and tasty recipes for preparing a wide variety of dishes, including Jewish specialties, “collected from various famous cookbooks in various languages,” but adapted to the Jewish kitchen and suitable for everyday cooking as well as for catering weddings. Bloshteyn, a writer of romantic novels and a translator who also published dictionaries and grammars of Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew, offered several scenarios in which his cookbook would save the day: the elegant young woman who was too busy studying, sewing, and knitting to learn how to cook or how to instruct her servant properly; the inexperienced servant, who needed guidance; and the experienced housewife searching for new and unusual delicacies. While educated readers could of course read cookbooks in other languages, he explained, those books did not address the specific needs of the Jewish reader, though in fact many did, including the one from which he himself purloined.
By the last decades of the nineteenth century, East European Jewish cookbooks were appearing in Russian, Hungarian, and other languages. Most of the authors were women. Marie Kauders was a widow with more than 40 years experience when she published her award-winning Erstes israelitisches Kochbuch für böhmische Küche in 1886. She also published a cookbook for her Jewish cooking school in Prague, which trained cooks for Jewish restaurants and wedding catering. Kauders insisted that cooking was an art on a par with sculpture.
Such volumes reflected not only Jewish social aspirations, but also new domestic challenges: there were newfangled stoves and novel products such as solid vegetable fats. As these items were kosher and pareve, they could replace animal fats and offer greater flexibility to the kosher cook, but women needed instruction in how to use them. Sparsames koscheres Kochen, which appeared in the 1930s, promoted Ceres cooking fat, a hydrogenated coconut oil, and Omega margarine, products of the Schicht company of Schreckenstein (now Strekov, Czech Republic). Addressed to the economical kosher cook, the pamphlet included both a hekhsher (a certificate of approval from an agent providing kosher authorization) and the estimated cost of each meal.
By the late 1920s, as some Jews immigrated to Paris from Eastern Europe, French authors began to romanticize traditional East European Jewish cuisine. Edouard de Pomiane (Pozerski), born in Paris of non-Jewish Polish émigré parents, frequented Rue des Rosiers, the heart of the Jewish immigrant enclave, and became fascinated with “the cuisine of the oldest race in the world.” A gastroenterologist, prolific cookbook writer, and host of the first radio cooking program, Pomiane set off to Poland in the late 1920s in search of Jews who “retained a special language, their own style of dress, ancient customs, and ritual cuisine.” The result, Cuisine juive, ghettos modernes (1929), is part travelogue and memoir, part cookbook.
That same year, Suzanne Roukhomovsky celebrated “la cuisine maternelle” in Gastronomie juive: Cuisine et patisserie de Russie, d’Alsace, de Roumanie et d’Orient. Roukhomovsky explained that “[t]he reader does not have to search here for quasi-pharmaceutical complications of a cuisine that is too modern, nor the royal luxury of truffles, foie gras and champagne that one freely adds to all sauces, at least in the books.” Instead, expect “a simple cuisine, home cooking.”
A year later, in 1930, a pirated Yiddish translation of Roukhomovsky’s cookbook appeared in Warsaw in 1,000 copies as Di yidishe kukh in ale lender: Poyln, Rusland, Rumenyen, Daytshland, Elsas, Maroko, Tunis, Amerike, a.a.v. Dos beste un praktishe bukh far yidishe virtins, but with a few unsentimental changes. While Roukhomovsky introduced her book with a long pastoral on traditional Jewish life, B. Safran, the “author” of the pirated edition, started his by admonishing Polonized Jewish women: how dare they turn the health of their families over to servants rather than pursue the culinary arts themselves? Christian women, he pointed out, are more attentive to the care of their families. In “A Word to Our Jewish Wives,” Safran reports a conversation he ostensibly overheard between two young ladies:
“You have absolutely no idea, Sabina,” explained one to the other with a certain pride, “how much I hate the kitchen, how much I can’t stand it, so much so that I never set foot in it. Kill me if I know how to cook a little cereal or a pot of potatoes.”
“And you think I’m better,” answered the kolezhanke [girlfriend] coquettishly. “A month ago, my Leon had terrible stomach problems. The doctor ordered him on a diet and he had to have kleyekes [dumplings] prepared for him. Just his luck, the servant also fell ill, and I, let it never be said, had to be the cook myself. Nu, nu, don’t ask what kind of kleyekes I cooked. . . .”
Safran goes on to explain, “Outside of Poland, a girl gets a diploma in public school and takes examinations in culinary arts. So it should be among us.” He offered his cookbook as a step in that direction, notwithstanding its focus on down-home cooking and inclusion of North African Jewish cuisines.
In contrast with the bourgeois cuisine featured in most Jewish cookbooks of this period, N. J. Kvitner’s 30-page pamphlet, Vos zol men esn?: Vegetarishes kokhbukh (Drohobycz, 1907), stressed the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, including its value in preventing children from maturing sexually too early. He used scare tactics to convert carnivores to his point of view: “The more scrofular and tubercular the meat, the tastier and juicier it is,” he warned, adding that coffee and smoking were also to be avoided. The most ambitious of the Jewish vegetarian cookbooks, Vegetarish-dietisher kokhbukh, by Fania Lewando (Vilna, 1938), contains 400 recipes. Addressing balebostes (housewives), Lewando, an unabashed vegetarian propagandist, includes an excerpt from Dr. B. Dembski’s article on the healthy benefits of vegetarianism, reprinted from the popular Yiddish magazine Folksgezunt, and a chapter on vegetarianism as a Jewish movement. Urging her readers to use aluminum utensils and centrifuge butter for frying and to throw nothing away, she provides recipes for tsimes (stewed vegetables), blintzes (stuffed crepes), kugel (baked noodle or potato pudding), tsholnt (a kosher, in this case vegetarian, cassoulet), latkes (potato pancakes), kotletn (cutlets), challah (festive braided egg bread), and Passover dishes, as well as for vitamin drinks, mock meat dishes, wine, and ice cream.
During the 1920s and 1930s, WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) espoused a modern approach to the kitchen. Encouraging emigration, WIZO cookbooks showed readers how to cook with ingredients they would find in Palestine—for example, eggplant—and appealed to East European Jews in various languages: the last WIZO cookbook to appear in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust was written in Hungarian and published in Romania in 1938.
Women in concentration camps who responded to starvation by remembering recipes for their favorite dishes created several manuscript cookbooks, most if not all of them in German, during the Holocaust. After the Holocaust, Jewish cookbooks were published sporadically in Eastern Europe, increasing in number during the 1990s. Marked by what Alice Nakhimovsky calls “the atmosphere of silence that surrounded Jewish ethnicity,” post-Soviet Jewish cookbooks attempt to recover a cuisine that is as distant as the way of life with which it was once associated. Jewish cookbooks published in Poland, Hungary, former Czechoslovakia, and other parts of Eastern Europe, many of which are addressed to the Jewish tourist and non-Jewish cook, range from pamphlets to lavish coffee-table books with full-color illustrations of professionally styled traditional dishes organized by Jewish holiday.
Alice Nakhimovsky, “You Are What They Ate: Russian Jews Reclaim Their Foodways,” Shofar 25.1 (2006): 63–77.