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

Cookbooks and Religion (pt.1): ‘Traditional’ Jews and their cookbooks

South African Jewish women wielded significant influence over food and religion by providing a platform to local rabbi's on their terms

Reprinted with permission from the South African Cookbook Project

Until recently, the majority of South African Jews would have classified themselves as “traditional”––they attended Orthodox synagogues, but they didn’t keep fully kosher, they drove to shul on Shabbat, and in general, they didn’t observe many of the mitzvot (commandments) governing personal, private behaviour.  Scholars have argued that Jews in South Africa practiced a “diluted” or “non-observant” form of Orthodoxy. 

Reading South African Jewish community cookbooks helps us to tweak this framing. In their cookbooks, ordinary, traditional,  “non-observant” women took on an active role in shaping South African Jewish religious practice. Throughout their publication history, South African Jewish community cookbooks featured religious guidelines written by local rabbinic figures. Cookbook editors gave these rabbis a platform to reach a new audience, but it was a platform on which the audience set the terms of engagement. The way that rabbis constructed these guidelines reveals that women in their homes determined the style of religious observance far more than any rabbinic authority figure. Through the cookbooks, South African Jewish women created their own form of religious literature. 

The pragmatic, “accommodationist” postwar Orthodox rabbinate in South Africa knew that it would have little success trying to convince most South African Jews to take on stricter personal observance. Instead, rabbis and their wives focused on promoting the spiritual beauty of Judaism. Successive issues of the Goodwill Recipe Book featured an article by Rabbi Dr. Harry Abt entitled “Jewish Festival Fare”, which described the “historic, religious and mythical background of our Jewish Food”, and provided explanations for the symbolic meaning of eating certain dishes on certain holidays. In her article on the Passover seder in Cookery Digest (1951), Rose Smith, wife of Worcester rabbi Mark Smith, offered “a word to the housewife on the symbolism of the evening”, describing the meaning of the various items on the seder plate. Other cookbooks devoted to Passover similarly focused on the symbolism of the seder, leaving out any mention of the many halakhic stringencies of the festival.

In a separate article in the Goodwill entitled “Ten Commandments for the Kosher Kitchen,” Abt did attempt to impose some simplified rules for keeping a kosher home. However, reading between the lines of these guidelines reveals some of the ways in which Jewish women in postwar South Africa observed a form of kashrut defined more by mimetic inheritance than by rabbinic authority. Abt warned readers to “purchase meat and all meat products from a butcher whose store is under the supervision of the Beth Din (Ecclesiastical Court)”, and “not to think that meat from an animal which has not been ritually slaughtered can be made kosher by soaking and salting it”. He also instructed them to cook meat and milk in separate sets of pots and eat them on separate plates, and to buy separate sets of dishes for Passover.

The absence of non-kosher recipes in these cookbooks suggests that most South African Jews would not have mixed milk and meat in the same recipe, or eaten pork and shellfish. But the guidelines reflect the reality that some cooked and ate their meat, milk and Passover meals on the same set of dishes, and that many purchased their meat from non-kosher butcheries that did not slaughter their animals according to the laws of shekhita. Promotions for kosher butcheries and kosher food products sat side-by-side with advertisements for non-kosher butcheries, restaurants and wine, in the same cookbook. In other words, postwar South African Jewish women observed the rules of kashrut that mattered to them, and ignored those that did not. They formulated an implicit but commonly accepted set of standards for themselves, one which fell outside of rabbinic authority. 

The rabbis themselves believed that women were in the driver’s seat when it came to the religious future of South African Jewry. Women’s role in the transmission of religious practice to their children had taken on heightened importance during the migration period, because many immigrant men in South Africa had to work on Shabbat and some of the festivals. In the postwar period, rabbinic figures from both the larger Orthodox and the smaller Progressive congregations writing in the cookbooks placed the task of maintaining the family’s religiosity firmly in the hands of the woman of the house. As Rev. Nathaniel Jacobs, minister of the Pretoria Progressive congregation, wrote in Second Helpings (195?):

There is a lovely Rabbinic saying: “A man’s wife is his home”, and verily the true “eshet chayil” [woman of valour] will maintain and preserve the essentially Jewish atmosphere of the home and make it an abode of sweetness and light; a centre of Jewish traditional observance and spiritual value for her husband and children.

Eats-a-Pleasure-Jewish-section
Passing on traditions. Eat’s A Pleasure, 1980s

In an article that appeared only in the first edition of the Goodwill, Abt playfully acknowledged the gap between South African Jews’ cultural traditionalism and their religious laxity, suggesting that “Whole shoals of gehakte herring, hecatombs of gefilte fish, whole pyramids of teiglach, pletzlech and beigel, and gallons of borsht will not lend a Jewish character to a Jewish home, as long as the laws of Kashruth are disregarded”. He argued that “The carrying out of the laws of Kashruth falls naturally and almost exclusively in the woman’s sphere”. But, Abt continued:

“She must be ready to explain her reasons for carrying them out, because on her satisfactory answers to the questions put by her children depends their future adherence to these traditions. Gone is the age when children were content with the reply: “I do this because my mother did it before me, and her mother before her, and we must carry on our customs without question”

Abt both acknowledged the religious authority of women in the home, and argued that unselfconscious passing of tradition from mother to daughter would no longer suffice in the modern world. He called on women to maintain the authority of the home while recognizing the necessity of that authority becoming self-conscious and explicit. Women publishing religious guidelines and explanations in community cookbooks answered that call.

Read Cookbooks and Religion Part 2

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