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Review of Tastes of Jewish Tradition, by Jody Hirsh, Idy Goodman, Aggie Goldenholz and Susan Roth (Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center of Milwaukee, 2002)
I have to admit: I didn't approach this book with a very open mind.
I knew it contained recipes and crafts centered on Jewish holidays, and I'd seen many books like it before. The recipes were usually too complicated to hold the interest of my young kids (ages 5 and 2), and my picky son would never eat the finished products, anyway. The crafts in most of these books were also too difficult for very young children, and, frankly, way above my skill set. (The mere mention of papier maché makes me shudder.)
The book is set up with crystal-clear structure. The first 11 chapters are each devoted to one Jewish holiday, and the final three chapters provide, respectively, recipes, craft templates and prayers and blessings referred to in the holiday chapters. Each holiday chapter similarly follows a logical, informative formula: there are pages introducing the holiday, the basics of "Traditions and Text," "Fascinating Food Facts," a traditional menu with suggested prayers, a "Kids in the Kitchen Recipe" or two, a story to read to the kids, and a raft of holiday-appropriate crafts. In other words, there's something here for everyone, and it's all easy to find.
What most impressed me about the contents of this book were the large proportion of suggestions that were appropriate for very young children. The first recipe in the opening "Shabbat" chapter was for "Challah Surprise," a preparation which involved simply inserting some chocolate candy into the traditional egg bread halfway through braiding the dough. With assistance, even my 2-year-old would be able to accomplish this task, and my 5-year-old, who only consumes three dozen food items at best, would even eat the result. I found this preschooler-friendliness to permeate the entire book (and no, it didn't all involve sugar); I would only fault the authors for not advertising this rare quality loudly enough on their front cover or in their marketing materials. (Lest parents of school-age children be concerned that the book is void of suggestions to capture their interest, there are quite a few crafts and recipes suitable for older children as well, and some of the crafts for younger children offer variations for kids who are able to accomplish more complex tasks.)
Tastes of Jewish Tradition is also a remarkably parent-friendly book, offering easy, tangible and comprehensible ways to bring Judaism to children and vice-versa. The explanations of the holidays, recipes and crafts are sufficient to permit even non-Jewish parents or Jewish parents like myself, who grew up with almost no Jewish education, to guide their children toward understanding and appreciation for some of the basic values and practices of modern Judaism. In addition, I was struck by the authors' careful inclusion in several places of multicultural and/or local Jewish traditions. These ranged from classic discussions of the differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic ethnic Jewish foods and Passover customs to the more eclectic practice of the Kadoorie family in Hong Kong, who invite their whole community to an enormous "break-the-fast" dinner at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Another point worth noting was that the authors seemed truly to understand some of the challenges of parenting Jewish kids in modern-day America. For example, one of my pet peeves as the parent of Jewish children is attempting to minimize the frustratingly persistent materialism that surrounds Hanukkah--a task made much more difficult in my interfaith family by the fact that we celebrate the excesses of Christmas, too. The authors directly address this problem with a page of eight practical suggestions in "Hanukkah Beyond Presents." I intend to try some of their ideas this coming December.
Finally, Tastes of Jewish Tradition concludes with craft templates, blessings and over 100 recipes ranging from traditional Jewish dishes such as gefilte fish, hummus, various challahs, chicken soup with matzah balls, brisket and kugels, to more unusual fare, like "Chef Jeffrey Nathan's Famous Nori Wrapped Salmon with Salad." Most of the recipes look as easy to follow as the suggestions in other parts of the book, and I can guarantee that I will be testing some of these with my kids in the coming year. The list of blessings has already proved useful to me, as I have been looking for a good transliteration of the blessings said over the children on Shabbat. Sure enough, I found one in this book.
I recommend Tastes of Jewish Tradition to any parent of Jewish children who is looking for new ways to imbue those children with the joys of Jewish tradition. I think it is safe to say that this book will hold a special place on my bookshelf throughout my children's too-brief childhoods.