Image courtesy of South African Cookbook Project
Image courtesy of South African Cookbook Project
Magazine

Cookbooks and Religion (pt.2): Women in the “baal teshuva” movement

Through Jewish Community Cookbooks the traditional, but largely non-observant, South African Jewish community revived holiday traditions and dishes

Reprinted with permission from the South African Cookbook Project

Read Cookbooks and Religion Part 1

The advent of the baal teshuva (religious revival) movement in the 1970s and 80s changed many South African Jews’ attitudes to religious practice. This story has mostly been told through the lens of the male rabbis who established and led various religious institutions. Community cookbooks demonstrate the crucial role that ordinary lay women had in the development of the movement. 

In historian Gideon Shimoni’s telling, the move to greater religious observance came initially from the religious-Zionist rabbis already established in the South African Jewish community, led by the Yeshiva College high school and its head, American-born Rabbi Avraham Tanzer, and later by the Yeshiva Gedola (post-secondary yeshiva), led by Rabbi Azriel Goldfein. The larger baal teshuva movement, which eventually attracted even completely unaffiliated Jews, emanated from the small ultra-orthodox Adath Jeshurun congregation in Johannesburg. Adath Jeshurun formed a kollel, a group devoted to full-time Talmudic studies, with the mission to bring young Jews “back” to religious observance. In 1972, the Chabad Hasidic movement, which had established a global outreach organisation based in New York, sent its first emissaries, Rabbi Mendel and Rebbetzin Mushi Lipskar, and in 1986, the prominent Jerusalem outreach group Ohr Somayach established itself in Johannesburg. These various organisations attracted thousands of South African Jews to the baal teshuva movement.

The publication of Chag Sameach From Yeshiva College in 1984 marked a turning point in the history of South African Jewish community cookbooks. In both structure and style, the book demonstrated the inroads that the baal teshuva movement had already made in South African Jewish life. Most of the cookbooks published prior to this point had focused primarily on teaching Jewish women how to cook cosmopolitan, international cuisine, and walled off their “traditional” food into a special, standalone section. 

Chag-Sameach-from-Yeshiva-College-1984

The editors of Chag Sameach, by contrast, structured their book entirely around recipes for Shabbat and the festivals. “Over the past few years there has been an increased awareness of religion,” Joyce Levin noted in her foreword to the book. “With this new awareness have come the questions of what to do and cook on the various chagim [holidays]. In answer to this, we decided at the Yeshiva College to put together a selection of popular traditional foods as well as more unusual ones”.

Each festival had its own self-contained section that featured all of the recipes needed for that particular day, recipes both “traditionally” Jewish and those drawn from the secular repertoire. In the Simchat Torah section, for example, readers could find both the typical stuffed cabbage that east European Jews ate on the festival, and recipes like “Stuffed Artichokes with Avocado” that modified the tradition to suit what had become a spring holiday in the southern hemisphere. This structure implied a new, all-encompassing approach to religious practice. The editors took recipes that their predecessors had created for secular dinner parties, and harnessed them for the celebration of religious holidays. Through food, the editors introduced their readers to holidays like Lag BaOmer, Tisha B’Av and Shavuot that many who had grown up “non-observant Orthodox” had not celebrated. 

In Chag Sameachthese South African Jewish women created a new religious literature for themselves. Every section of the cookbook included “an introduction to each chag which we hope will answer many questions people may have about the various dinim [laws]”. These guidelines offered practical halakhic advice, but also provided a general Torah education for these newly-religious women drawn from classic sources.

Levin acknowledged that the final authority in Orthodox Judaism belonged to male rabbis, thanking Yeshiva College’s head, Rabbi Tanzer, “who very kindly verified our information”. But the book remained a product of the editors’ own study of Jewish texts. “All of us who have worked on this book have learned something new”, Levin wrote, “and we hope that you too will benefit from our research”. Levin’s statement highlighted the role of the community cookbook as a crucial tool of religious education and socialization for women in the baal teshuva movement. Chag Sameach offered a new female chain of tradition in written form, one that bridged the gap between the oral inheritance passed from mother to daughter, and the textual authority of the male rabbinic elite. 

By the end of the twentieth century, the majority of South African Jews were still in the “traditional” camp. But the baal teshuva movement had an outsized impact on South African Jewish religious practice. South African Jewish community cookbooks in general, including those produced by “non-observant” women, began to push a more stringent approach to kashrut. This change was particularly noticeable in the cookbooks’ treatment of the laws of Passover. As mentioned in part 1, community cookbooks published from the 1950s to the 1970s discussed the meaning of the seder with little reference to any of the strict laws of the festival. The Kitchen Glove cookbook (1975),  for example, told readers merely to avoid leaven and legumes during Passover, advising them that “all other foods may be used in the same manner, as at any other time of the year”. The Union Jubilee (1982), by contrast, detailed with great specificity how one should make one’s home kosher for Passover, including instructions on the thorough cleaning required, which utensils may be koshered, when, and the correct procedure for each type of utensil. 

In a special Passover message for Herzlia High Schools’ Pesach: Passover Recipe and Guide Book (1990), then-Chief Rabbi of South Africa Cyril K. Harris noted that the book would not merely provide Jewish women with Passover recipe ideas, but would “help to fulfill the main purpose of the Festival, that in going back we gain strength to continue our traditions in the future”. This statement suggests that the Chief Rabbi and his colleagues recognised the key role that these books played in South African Jewish religious practice over the second half of the twentieth century. Thanks to the enormous and consistent popularity of these cookbooks, and their ubiquity in South African Jewish households, they arguably shaped ordinary South African Jews’ religious practices far more than other, more typical rabbinic texts. 

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