Food & Faith: Omaha Jewish Women’s Voluntarism – Dances, Fairs, Bazaars & Charitable Cookbooks, 1882 – 1928, First of a Series

Food and Faith: Omaha Jewish Women’s Voluntarism
– Dances, Fairs, Bazaars & Charitable Cookbooks, 1882-1928

Part 1 of 6

by Oliver B. Pollak

“I will favor your land with rain at the proper season—rain in autumn and rain in spring—and you will have an ample harvest of grain and wine and oil. I will assure abundance in the fields for your cattle. You will eat to contentment.”

–Deuteronomy 11:14-21

 

Introduction  to the Jewish Charitable Cookbook Genre

These essays on philanthropy, cookbooks and food began around 2000 when I briefly surveyed Nebraska’s twenty-five Jewish cookbooks.(1) Since that time my appetite for food history, foodways, food memory, cook books and cookbooks, recipes and menus has intensified and matured.(2)

These stories are about immigration to America, Jewish women’s volunteer efforts and food.

The reason why there are so many cookbooks, food columns and burgeoning academic studies is that eating is a pleasant, interesting and vital adventure.

What we bring from the market, butcher shops, fish mongers, cheese, poultry, dairy, bakeries, candy shop, liquor stores, Mom and Pop grocery stores and supermarkets, superstores like Walmart, Target, Costco and Amazon to the kitchen and table, is our food heritage.(3)

How it is prepared with wood, coal, gas and electric stove, microwave, convection and toaster oven, grill, BBQ, and preserved by the icebox, refrigerator and freezer, have family, communal, technological and economic origins.

Cookbooks are one side of the recipe and menu triangle.

Omaha Jewish Woman’s Early Cook Book

The recipes come from our parents, grandparents, perhaps great grandparents and friends in America, Austria, England, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, and elsewhere in the Diaspora.

Some are clearly identified with Jewish cuisine and some are religious prescriptions as matzo, the bread of affliction, the food of faith.

For most of human experience food preparation was based on memory, oral transmission, and trial and error. Then came manuscripts, introduction of print culture, and most recently the internet revolutionized the diversity and sharing of meal planning.

Between 1901 and 1928 Omaha Jewish women published three cookbooks.

The 1901 and 1915 books came from Temple Israel and Hadassah produced a book in 1928.

They appeared well before the golden age of Jewish charitable cookbooks, 1960-1980. They have a common if divergent history.

Commercial cook books are published because authors, editors, publishers and bookstores believe there is a need to be met, money to be made. The charitable cookbook, a collaboration of volunteers, is different.

Motivations of pride, social consciousness and fundraising drove American Jewish women to publish charitable cookbooks. There is a certain excitement and personal satisfaction to having a recipe published.

Volunteers solicited merchants to purchase advertisements. The committee sought recipes, maybe tested them, edited, proofread, prepared publishable copy, took it to the printer, and sold the book.

Omaha’s Voluntarism Early Cookbook with advertisements

Press run, advertising, book sale revenues and disbursements records have not survived. It must have been successful otherwise the experience would not have been repeated thousands of times over.(4)

“Cook Book” in the title of the 1901, 1915, and 1928 recipe collections may look a little grammatically odd to early 21st century readers, being identified with two words “cook” and “book.” Conventions changed and these words were gradually contracted into one word, cookbook. If a “cook book” appears today it is usually a reprint of an older work.

The late Roberta Saltzman of the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library surveyed the NYPL collection and found they had 1,490 volumes with “cook book” in the title, and 4,909 with “cookbook.” She concluded that “cookbook” became more popular after 1970. I will take her word for it.(5)

The cookbook organizers were prominent in their community as well as in the wider Omaha community. Temple and synagogue membership often contained multiple generation memberships. Houses of worship frequently counted their flock by “families,” and family relationships were embedded in the cookbooks.

Temple Israel

The first two cookbooks emanated from Temple Israel. In October 1898, Belle (Rothschild) Polack, a Temple member and wife of a prominent clothier, sat down to dinner with Hannah G. Solomon, founder of Council of Jewish Women, and Susan B. Anthony, president of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, at Omaha’s Metropolitan Club.(6) The Jewish club, with origins in the 1870s, opened in its own quarters at 2203 Harney Street, a block east of Temple Israel in 1891.(7) Belle’s daughter, Dollie (Polack) Elgutter, served as the 1915 Book Committee Chairman. The 1915 Recipe Committee Chairman, Rebecca (Spiesberger) Treller, had contributed a recipe to the 1901 cookbook.

Jewish Women’s Organizations

Jewish women’s organizations, like Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women, also had multi-generation memberships. In the case of Omaha Hadassah leader Ethel Levenson, who had regional influence, her daughter Jean Duitch, and the daughters of Jean and Jack Duitch, constitute three generations of membership. Moreover, Ethel’s recipe for English Plum Pudding in the 1928 cookbook derives from her mother Jennie Levenson who came from Russia and spoke Russian, German, French, and English.(8)

Council Bluffs Hadassah, formed in 1930, produced a cookbook in 1954. A few miles and the Missouri River did not isolate the two communities. There were families with kinsmen on both sides of the river. The cookbooks gave organized Jewish women the opportunity to tastily list their accomplishments, achievements, goals and mission.

These Midwestern Jewish women met on the Sabbath at temple and synagogue, and during the week at committee meetings teas, luncheons, social events, some of which were reported in society pages of Omaha’s newspapers. They read the weekly Jewish Bulletin from March 1916 to April 1921, followed by the Jewish Press from 1921 to the present. As women active in improving the community they may also have attended the Associated Jewish Charities committee meetings, the predecessor of the Omaha Jewish Federation.

The Earliest Cookbooks

American Jewish congregational cookbooks, during the early phase of development at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, tended to be Reform, assimilationist, and not kosher.

The earliest known Jewish charity cookbook appeared in 1888 from Denver’s Congregation Emanuel.(9) The National Council of Jewish Women in San Francisco produced its first cookbook in 1909.

The first ever Hadassah (The Women’s Zionist Organization of America), cookbook appeared in Omaha in 1928.

B’nai B’rith entered the cookbook field in 1947, and ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation through Training), in the 1950s.

Sisterhoods, Auxiliaries and Women’s Leagues in America were attracted to communal projects.(10) They eagerly shared their recipes, broadcast their organization’s message, and raised money for worthy projects.

The 1970s were the golden age of Jewish charitable cookbooks when for example, 39 percent of the Hadassah cookbooks appeared, and 56 percent of ORT.

From the Old Country to the New

American Jewish cookbooks reveal the transition from old country immigrant cooking practices to the development of an American Jewish cuisine, changing tastes, the nature and spirit of voluntarism, and the vectors of culinary outreach.

Some recipes evoke nostalgia, some appear familiar, some alien, and many are still cherished in name if not in deed.

The back story to the charitable cookbook Golden Age reflects a subtle visceral and cultural reaction to change in the American households.

High schools and colleges taught home economics and nutrition. It reflects a breakdown in the process of mothers and intergenerational kitchen contact time, passing cooking skills to daughters in the family kitchen.

Canned, jarred and frozen foods provided ready to cook or warm up food.

Manischewitz started production in 1888, Streit’s in 1913, and Empire Kosher in 1938.

We take the availability of store bought mayonnaise and sour cream for granted. Although mayonnaise appeared in France in the early 1800s, it was not commercially sold in jars until 1907. Hellman’s iconic jars date from about 1912. Prior to commercial development, these tasty ingredients were prepared in the kitchen, truly homemade. Without iceboxes or refrigerators they had a short shelf life.

The microwave (widely popular by 1970s), commercially prepared meals, eating out, take out, home delivery, labor and time saving innovations, the two income working family, gravitated toward convenience and reducing time spent in home cooking.

This process occurred over decades, the effect was cumulative. This may also help explain why older cookbooks tend to leave a lot to the reader to intuit from experience. More recent cookbooks provide more detailed instructions.

Temple members were making the transition from German to English. The 1901 cookbook included three recipes in German.

Eastern European Jews were shifting from spoken and written Yiddish to spoken Yiddish and reading English. Yiddish was a dividing line between Temple and Synagogue congregations, between Reform and Orthodoxy, pioneers and refugees. By 1945 when the Yiddish language Forward published a cookbook, it was in English because “many of our children …are unfamiliar with Yiddish print.(11)

The 1898 Fair Souvenir and three Nebraska Jewish cookbooks note the transition in energy sources, transport, marketing, labor saving devices, health and nutrition concerns, but not quite the emergence of women with clearly individual and separate identities from their spouses. For example, in the 1971, History of Omaha’s Temple Israel, the photographs of Sisterhood women are identified by the first names of their husbands. This convention ended during the 1970s.

Surviving Copies

Temple and Hadassah homemakers got copies of the books, they gave them as gifts to their daughters, family and friends, perhaps as Confirmation, Bat Mitzvah, wedding shower, and wedding gifts. Judging by the condition of surviving copies, they were used. Some ended up in estate sales, brick and mortar bookstores, online used book dealers, eBay and ‘print on demand.’

The three cookbooks were hard bound. They differed from later 20th century conventional comb, wire spiral, and stapled bindings.

The surviving copies suggest their history. Some contained the owner’s signature or gift inscriptions. Their use may be noted like the Passover Haggadah, with food and wine stains, written pencil and ink comments in the margin. Heavy use caused pages to come loose from the binding. Owners inserted newspaper recipe clippings, taped, glued, pinned and paper clipped, their leaching acid leaving a yellow shadow on the cookbook page. Three by five recipe cards served as bookmarks.(12)

These cookbooks emphasized entertaining — sweets, candy, puddings, cakes, pies, tortes, cookies, ice cream, sherbet, and confectionary comprised thirty to fifty-five per cent of the recipes.

Chicken soup, a Jewish cookery icon, is only in one of the cookbooks. Perhaps to have included a chicken soup recipe would have insulted the intelligence of the readers, like instructing how to boil water or make toast, or the women could not decide whose recipe to honor.

Quirks

Charitable cookbooks have certain amateurish nonprofessional quirks. They frequently lack place of publication, name of publisher, date of publication, and the source of the recipe. When a date is used, such as in the “1916” Temple cookbook, it may be misleading, it was actually available for purchase in December 1915. Publication date approximations can usually be determined by external and internal evidence.

Jewish Cookbooks are organic and human. They combine multiple generations of mothers, grandmothers, siblings, cousins, aunts, neighborhoods and friends. Even when a cookbook is virtually silent on contributor’s names, as is Temple’s 1915 cookbook, it still radiates family, faith, region, and changes in food tastes and consumption.

Sources

To make a cook book the women’s organization called on recipes from members and friends. Recipes may have been in the family for a couple of generations. They may draw from contemporary cuisine, newspaper, magazines, cookbooks, instructions on the side of the box, or experience and intuition.

Not everyone is gifted with cooking skills. The superior homemaker in Yiddish is a balabusta.

A recipe contributor warranted that her instructions would yield a good and satisfying meal. The work that goes into setting a menu, getting the provisions, cleaning, mixing, baking, stewing, sautéing, toasting, roasting, boiling, broiling, frying, is an art of risk, preparation experience, hard work, and gratification.

Hence the expression, “A woman of valour” and thankful blessing accompanying the meal.

Largely Ignored by Libraries

When these cookbooks were published, libraries did not recognize their current or historical value, they were ephemera, not worthy to receive Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress acquisition treatment. They were largely ignored.

They are dwindling from kitchen bookshelves, sometimes finding a lucky new home. Roberta Saltzman at the New York Public Library took giant strides to recapture this heritage.(13)

Old Jewish cookbooks are necrological sources. Names attached to recipes also appear on memorial plaques in Temples and synagogues and on cemetery gravestones. Business advertisers disappear as the market, technology and neighborhood changes.  Owners age out and there is no succession plan to keep the business going. The 1898 Souvenir and cookbooks advertised carriage springs and a saddlery. The 1915 cookbook advertised electric cars and battery charging.

Home cooking based on a cookbook, newspaper clipping, 3×5 recipe card, cardboard food package labels, memory, experience and imitating a restaurant dish changed over the years, and from season to season. The goal is to satisfy, but the ingredients, preparation, and audience are in continual flux buffeted by expanding knowledge about health, correlations between cholesterol, heart disease, high blood pressure, sodium, diabetes, and obesity.

Various historical and contemporary food movements, including Kashrut, vegetarianism, sustainable organic agriculture, concerns for supersized sugary drinks, trans-fats, and local sourcing, GMO, set new norms for eating habits.

The joys of Yiddish, German, Russian, Hebrew, and English result in multiple spellings and recipe variations for the same food. I have preserved original spellings, thus the appearance of, creplach, kreplach, Mandelbrait, mandel broit, mandel bread, matza, matzos, petcha, pitcha, p’tcha, also known as feesel, tsimas, tsimmes and tzimmes remain.

Gefilte Fish

Gefilte Fish stands with challah, bagels, lox, and matzah ball soup as iconic Jewish food.(14) Gefilte fish varies in spelling, gefilte, gefillte, gefulte, gefüllte, and filled fish, and in preparation and presentation, depending on the time and part of the world to which it harkens back. Filled fish or Gefilte fish are interchangeable terms, but they are not technically fish balls. Leo Rosten noted that gefilte or gefulte fish emanated from the German “stuffed fish.”(15)

True gefilte fish means slicing the fish open, cooking its contents with matzo and vegetables, and stuffing it back into the skin, a style that has been eclipsed by less messy and laborious fish processed and available at the store, or less labor intensive home preparation that look like balls or small loaves.

The recipes include lung, sweetbreads, brain, tongue, heart, kidneys, neck, calves foot, and other Kashrut permitted animal parts. It is an ecological and economic reminder that our ancestors used the entire animal except that which was prohibited, and, how much commercial processing of animal products has changed our eating habits.(16)

The proliferation of Jewish cookbooks stems from contradictory desires to assimilate into and preserve Kashrut in American society.(17)Geographic culinary heritage, food consciousness, the local community, traditional favorites, and changing tastes, feed new offerings. Iconic dishes are associated with the Jewish holiday cycle, especially Shabbat and Passover, and a lot of other dishes for the remaining 300 plus days of the year. Preparing food, domestic cooking, in the Jewish home was a women’s preserve, and the compiling of collaborative cookbooks was a gendered expression and celebration reflecting unremitting hours of labor.


Author’s Note

These essays are dedicated in loving memory to Mary Arbitman Fellman (1917-2008), for her indefatigable energy in behalf of Jewish causes, and my mother, Ruth Bachmann Pollak (1921-2016), She rebuilt her life in England and America, and cared for family, friends and the environment.


Endnotes [Click Here]


About the Author

Oliver B. Pollak earned his doctorate in history at UCLA and his law degree at Creighton University. He was emeritus professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha where he taught for 38 years

Pollack published his first article in Western States Jewish History in 1984.


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