Did you know that Amazon includes a bestseller list of kosher cookbooks or that sites like Epicurus and My Jewish Learning include rankings of favorite Jewish cookbooks?
Food plays a central role in Judaism, linked both by cultural and religious influences. Because of this, many synagogues, Hadassah chapters and women’s clubs collected recipes and sold cookbooks to members as fundraisers. And while these collections most certainly contained recipes for “Bubbe’s Matzo Ball Soup” or “Mom’s Favorite Brisket,” some were geographically unique or varied by one secret family ingredient.
Given the variations and historical import, Eric Lidji, the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives at the Heinz History Center, is initiating a project of collecting cookbooks. The idea is part of a larger initiative; each year, the Rauh will pick a theme and then ask the community for contributions.
“The idea would be to choose things that are broad enough that people from all different segments of the community would have reasonable access to them,” Lidji explained. “For the first year, I thought cookbooks would be a good place to start.”
Cookbooks are not represented in the current archive, and they’re accessible as historical objects.
“It’s not something that’s particular to people who are more religious or less religious, people who are recent transplants or have a lot of generations here,” Lidji said.
Jewish cookbooks have been printed in the region since at least the 1920s, Lidji said, but they reached the apex of their popularity in the 1950s through 1970s.
“It does seem like it was part of a culture of 20th-century Jewish communities where you often had women’s groups within congregations who were looking to have some community building or fundraising initiative that felt like it was interesting, authentic and would produce something that people wanted.
“You had all of these food traditions that had emerged from Europe and had come into the United States and were starting to either change or evolve or became indicative of a time that seemed to be passing away.”
Each cookbook the archive receives reveals a different aspect of Pittsburgh Jewish history. Lidji pointed out that cookbooks from the South Hills were often a continuation of traditions started in Squirrel Hill for a family that moved away from the city.
A North Hills cookbook, however, tells a different story. The archive received a cookbook from the North Hills Community Center before it changed its name to Temple Ohav Shalom.
“One of the things that’s really cool about it is that the North Hills was made up of people who had moved to Pittsburgh. You see that in the cookbook’s introduction where they say that the members of the community were from all over the place and the cookbook was a way for them to get to know each other and share their family traditions,” Lidji said. “There’s very traditional Jewish cooking but there’s also some Sicilian recipes, some Southern recipes. That’s very different than what you might see in a Hadassah cookbook.”
Lidji will expand the reach of the project by sharing a recipe from one of the cookbooks in each of the Rauh’s bimonthly newsletter.
“These documents give you some sense of the life that was lived; it’s a way to preserve the measure of our lived life,” Lidji said of the project. “It gives people the opportunity to return to the roots of their own community, the roots of their own identity and experience.”
The Rauh will collect cookbooks throughout 2020. Anyone can donate — they simply have to reach out to the archive, which will confirm they don’t already have a copy.
For Lidji, it’s the human dimension that gives historical collections meaning.
“When you see a Hadassah cookbook that had the pages coated in case you spilled on them or you see someone took the time to explain a certain aspect of kosher law, or another collection with little quotes from the Torah, you get a much greater appreciation for what life must have been like in these times.” pjc
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.