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Jewish-American Immigrants: In the Kitchen and Beyond

Jewish-American Immigrants: In the Kitchen and Beyond

Well worn cover of cookbook: Crisco Recipes for the Jewish Housewife

I have always been the cook in our family and during the last two years, I’ve started to branch out into baking. After I found myself covered in flour and raw dough one too many times, I told my wife that my fondest dream was one day to own a KitchenAid stand mixer.

At about the same time, a congregant gave me a cookbook she had rescued from her mother’s papers. Flipping through its tattered, yellowing pages, printed in both English and Yiddish, I’d noticed that the key ingredient in each recipe was Crisco. A little online sleuthing revealed that in 1933, the Crisco Company had compiled and printed Crisco Recipes for the Jewish Housewife (Krisko Resepies far der Idisher Baleboste) to show Jewish cooks how to adapt their kosher recipes to include Crisco products.

So it was that I found myself in my kitchen recently, putting my new stand mixer – a gift from my wife for my 45th birthday – through its paces with a baking soda biscuit recipe I’d discovered in the Crisco cookbook. As the machine’s whir filled me with a joy I cannot adequately describe, I got to thinking about how quintessentially American it is for companies to show people how to adapt their family’s cultural heritage to the American milieu. Even the venerable Maxwell House Haggadah began as a vehicle to remind Jews that coffee beans – unlike other types of beans – are kosher for Passover.

The more I thought about it, however, I realized these booklets were more than gimmicks for marketing to Jewish consumers. When our parents and grandparents first came to this country, having known only scarcity and want, the wealth and plenty of this land surely were staggering to them.

Once upon a time, in the old country, families could afford chicken only once a week – for Shabbat. Once upon a time, families had to settle for only the toughest cuts of meat. Cook brisket long enough, however, or simmer cholent for 24 hours, and even the most depressing cuts became savory.

In America, on the other hand, our immigrant ancestors could eat hamburger and steak often, and chicken nearly every day. Indeed, America was unlike anyplace they had ever lived. In their new country, our forebears adapted recipes, time-worn cooking styles, and even their taste buds to a new cuisine.

In truth, the kitchen was only the beginning.

Even if this country’s streets weren’t paved with gold – as countless immigrants suggested in letters to relatives back home – America provided untold freedoms and opportunities. Initially there were some restrictions, but with time, Jews were free to live wherever they chose. Initially some schools and businesses enforced quotas, but over time, Jews could attend whatever school suited them, or opt for whatever career caught their fancy. Boys once satisfied spending all day studying in yeshivot (schools for studying Jewish texts) – after all, what choice did they have? – felt differently when baseball, stickball, roller skating, and other outdoor options were readily available. And girls? America was a place where girls could grow into women with lives and careers of their own.

The lives of Jewish immigrants and the rhythms that had developed over more than a thousand years of our European sojourn were rapidly upended and replaced by a very different reality. In all facets of their lives, as in the kitchen, they had to adapt, finding ways to make customs and traditions from the old country fit into a very different American world.

The ability to change and adapt always has been an important part of Reform Judaism’s legacy. From its earliest inception, the Reformers were committed to creating a Jewish way of life that could be both modern and traditional at once. To do that meant casting aside some rituals, preserving others, and reinvigorating, reinterpreting, and reimagining everything else.

In the churn of America, an incredible mixing bowl, our people has become something altogether new, and yet remains, at heart, who we have always been. Thanks to America’s freedoms and opportunities we have integrated our timeless Jewish traditions, customs, and rituals into our thoroughly modern lives – even as we continue our ancient search for communion with the Divine.

Back in my kitchen, things didn’t work out quite so well. Unfortunately, my family nixed the baking soda biscuits from Crisco Recipes for the Jewish Housewife. My stuffed challah, on the other hand, that was a winner!

Rabbi Anthony Fratello is a 1994 graduate of Pomona College and was ordained at the Cincinnati Campus of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 1999. Since 2000, he has been the rabbi of Temple Shaarei Shalom, a 560-family congregation in Boynton Beach, FL. He has served as a board and executive board member of numerous community agencies and is a highly sought and well-regarded speaker, teacher, and lecturer.

Rabbi Anthony Fratello
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