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

A Seat at the table: Women in Jewish organizations

An article from the South African Cookbook Project, providing a glimpse into the origins of the South African Community Cookbook

Reprinted with permission from the South African Cookbook Project

In the postwar period, white South Africans expected women to get married, leave the work world behind, and become devoted housewives and mothers. White women typically got married before they turned 25, and had children soon after. Jewish women followed the same pattern. Most white South Africans believed that marriage and family enabled women to actualize their innate ability to nurture and care for children.

Advertisements that appeared in South African Jewish community cookbooks told women that maintaining their children’s health was their primary responsibility. In particular, they tasked women with developing the physical strength and vitality of the next generation of men. “When a man’s young (about ten years old!) he needs all the strength and stamina he can get,” one ad in the Arcadia Recipe and Household Guide (1970) told mothers. “And he’ll get all he needs from Black Cat Peanut Butter”. Ads about physical strength and vitality almost never featured [females].

Advertisement for Black Cat Peanut Butter Arcadia Recipe and Household Guide, 1970

Ads also told women to structure their days around their children’s and husband’s schedules. A Coke advertisement in the 1969 edition of the Goodwill featured an image of young woman preparing a meal, and suggested to readers that “Things go better with [a] big, big Coke (like concocting something different for dinner tonight, fixing a hurried lunch for yourself and a friend, relaxing while the dinner’s cooking, waiting for the familiar step at the front door)”. Women, the ad implied, would have little time during the day for anything else.

Coke Advertisement Goodwill, 1969

Many South African Jewish women attempted to transcend the boundaries of domesticity by involving themselves in communal work. Jewish women in South Africa had a long history of taking on prominent and public roles in welfare organisations. The “domestic feminists” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women of elite Anglo-Jewish background, had to prove to a skeptical male establishment that they had not abandoned home and family. Instead, they argued that welfare work was the logical extension of their innate nurturing capabilities.

Male leaders limited women’s roles in the burgeoning South African Zionist movement, fearing that they would neglect their domestic responsibilities if allowed to enter the public sphere. In her 1950 history of South African Zionism, Marcia Gitlin outlined the position of women in the movement:

Seldom did they feature as chairmen, but it was they who served as the secretaries without whom no chairman can survive. Rarely did they make speeches, but they arranged the meetings at which speeches were delivered by men. And whilst it was unusual to see a woman on a public platform, it was a common enough sight to see one making her way from house to house with a J.N.F. [Jewish National Fund charity] box in her hand.

Marcia Gitlin, The Vision Amazing, 258

“All this,” Gitlin noted, “was ‘women’s work.’ But let women encroach but one step on what was considered a masculine province, and eyebrows were raised and questions asked”.

Despite the male leadership’s attitude to their participation in communal work, South African Jewish women established powerful women’s organisations, most notably the Union of Jewish Women and the Women’s Zionist League. Women’s Zionist organisations in particular enabled east European Jewish immigrant women to take leading roles for the first time.

In the postwar period, the immigrants’ children began to fill the ranks of these organizations. They also inherited the challenges that their predecessors had faced in stepping into public roles. The Food Frolics cookbook, published by the Paarl Women’s Zionist Society in 1952, included a section devoted to recipes contributed by the “chairladies” of various local women’s Zionist organizations. The section’s preface featured a sarcastic commentary on gender roles in the South African Zionist movement:

It is easier to be a cook than to be a chairlady. For one, many chairladies take up less space in the kitchen than they do in the chair, and secondly they are often more able to control the temperature of the stove than the temperature of their audience.

Food Frolics, 1952

Rank-and-file women members of Jewish communal organisations did spend much of their time doing food preparation, an activity which women leaders came to resent. Female communal leaders reacted negatively to the perception that food preparation should naturally fall to women. On one occasion, the Bnoth Zion (“Daughters of Zion”) organisation received a letter from male Zionist leaders, asking them to provide tea for a reception for a visit of the Chief Rabbi. The Chair of Bnoth Zion, Feodora Clouts, reacted furiously to the request:

I said to the ladies of the committee, “I think we must now demonstrate our ability to stand up for ourselves,” and we wrote that we had no part in arranging the reception and we had no intention of providing tea! After these little demonstrations of our will . . . the men got the message and they decided to have a representative of the Bnoth Zion at their meetings and in this way we came into the management of Zionist affairs.

Quoted in Gwynne Schrire, “Women and Welfare: Early Twentieth Century Cape Town,” 87–88

For Jewish women to fully actualise their potential in communal work, these leaders argued, they had to move away from the menial labour of door-to-door fundraising and preparing tea parties, which Clouts later called “the minutiae of organisation accepted by them as implicit in their role of housekeeper to the community.” Instead, women needed to “assume the status of full partner,” and become fully educated in the ideals that their organization espoused.

In theory, cookbook production fit into the same category of “women’s work” as the tea parties that Clouts had derided. Like tea parties, bake sales, and catering, producing community cookbooks involved a lot of hard work designed to raise money. The structure of the cookbook itself reinforced unequal hierarchies based on gender. While women did the labour of contributing and compiling recipes, male leaders typically wrote the forewords that defined the wider missions of the organizations for which cookbook sales raised funds.

The author’s grandmother, Gwen Beinart (top, second from left) and great-grandmother, Erna Beinart (bottom left) at a WIZO meeting, Durban, South Africa.

Nevertheless, creating cookbooks offered women significantly more agency than these other food-related fundraising activities. Although they served primarily as domestic guides designed to assist women in fulfilling their duties in the home, Jewish community cookbooks testify to the high level of professionalism that their creators brought to communal service.

Writing and distributing a community cookbook involved complex negotiation. Women worked together to form committees, solicit and test recipes, engage illustrators, sell advertising space, liaise with printers, set prices, promote the book and sell copies, and budget expenses and revenues. South African Jewish women initiated cookbook projects independently of male communal leadership, and invested many months in bringing these projects to fruition. They negotiated contracts and discounts with companies seeking to market their products to a large audience of cookbook readers. Some women became recognized experts in cookbook production, and edited volumes for more than one organisation. 

Unlike the largely invisible and unacknowledged work of bake sales and tea parties, editing and contributing to cookbooks gave women the chance to see their names in print, and to achieve public recognition for their domestic accomplishments. Through the professional work of community cookbook production, South African Jewish women in the midcentury continued the tradition of their Victorian “domestic feminist” forebears, claiming this work as an extension of their domestic duties. Cookbooks enabled them to build a bridge for themselves from the private to the public sphere.

*שמנו לב שחסרים כמה פרטים קטנים להשלמת הפרופיל שלך ב־FOODISH, אפשר להוסיף אותם בקלות בעמוד המשתמש שלך.