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You Don't Have To Be Jewish To Teach Kids to Cook

December 10, 2008

Reprinted with permission from the Washington Jewish Week, where it originally appeared as "The way to Judaism is through the stomach--Cookbook provides recipes, and more, for holidays."

What are our traditional models of bravery? An infantryman who falls on a hand grenade to save his fellow soldiers, a journalist who risks his life to expose corruption, a passer-by who jumps into a lake to save a drowning child.

Add Jill Bloomfield to that list. The former Washington-area resident has written a book, Jewish Holidays Cookbook: Festive meals for celebrating the year (DK Publishing, 2008), designed to acquaint Jewish kids--and their families--with the major Jewish holidays and the foods associated with them.

DK Kids Cookbook CoverEach holiday--Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Chanukah, Tu Bishvat, Purim, Pesach, Yom Ha'atzmaut, Lag B'Omer and Shavuot--comes with an explanation and recipes for dishes associated with it.

Writing the book may not seem worthy of a medal until you realize that Bloomfield is not Jewish.

"Was I terrified? Absolutely," the author says of her decision to write the book. "Did I ask a lot of questions? Yes, I did."

Nonetheless, Bloomfield had several things going for her. Her husband, Brian, is Jewish and so the months of intense study that she did for the book was a way "to learn about my husband's traditions."

Her background is in literature, and she thought she "could tell stories about food and culture," which is the essence of her book, says the author.

Bloomfield, who lived in College Park, and Gaithersburg, Md. for 10 years before moving to St. Paul, Minn., earlier this year, certainly had the technical expertise of teaching children how to cook -- she had been doing just that through her company Picky Eaters.

What she lacked was "a wealth of food memories, which gives credibility to a cookbook."

To make up for that deficiency, she brought in Rabbi Janet Ozur Bass, who teaches in the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md.

Bloomfield says she knew that Ozur Bass was the right person. "I knew that Janet loved to cook and was an amazing middle school teacher," she says.

Ozur Bass says that "food and the dinner table" are extremely important as a way of transmitting Jewish tradition. She sees the table as having became -- along with the synagogue -- the replacement for the Temple. "So Judaism has created many rituals that surround formal Jewish meals," she says.

She wrote the foreword to the book and the page dealing with kashrut. (The book is written for the "broader Jewish community," most of whom do not keep kosher, and for non-Jews who might want to learn about Jewish food and customs, says Ozur Bass, a member of the Conservative Congregation Har Shalom. Therefore, some recipes offer non-kosher options, for example, a chicken noodle soup lists as an ingredient butter or margarine. But each recipe comes with instructions for making the recipe and/or meal kosher.)

In addition, the Potomac resident "looked at each holiday and asked, 'What are the recipes this holiday couldn't be without?'"

A short quotation from the rabbi also accompanies many recipes. "Many people serve bagels with cream cheese and lox at a break fast," she writes on the note with a smoked salmon fritta recipe for Yom Kippur break fast. "This recipe is a clever way to combine all those tastes together."

But Bloomfield wrote the text and developed the book's recipes. "The seeds" for the recipes in the book come from her experience as an English teacher at JDS. While she was there, the school started a program that allowed students who didn't want to take part in early morning traditional prayers to participate in alternative programs. She volunteered to work with those students.

She needed topics for discussion or "hands-on activities." She chose Jewish food.

"I knew how to cook, but not the Jewish take on food," Bloomfield recalls. "I did a lot of research and ended up loving it. My first group were seniors, and they taught me as much as I taught them."

Although the publishers advertise the book as appropriate for kids 7 years and up, Bloomfield says it is for all ages. "I think of it as a family cookbook," she says. "Because the recipes are not intimidating, it's fine for people who want to learn about the Jewish holidays and the food that goes with them."

Even adults might find it useful, she says, suggesting it for grandparents who are not Jewish, but have Jewish grandchildren or for a non-Jewish newlywed married to a Jew.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "15th of [the month of] Shevat," both a date and the name of a holiday celebrated on that date. A holiday that falls in January or February, it's the New Year for trees. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A Summer holiday commemorating the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is also known as the Feast of Weeks, as it comes seven weeks after Passover begins. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "Passover," the spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew term for a unit of dry measure, it was used to measure barley and is sometimes translated as "sheaf" (as in, "sheaf of barley"). Omer now refers to the period of 49 days from Passover to Shavuot. Today, instead of bringing an omer of barley to sacrifice, the days are counted ("counting the Omer"). It's also a period of semi-mourning, when traditional Jews will refrain from partying, dancing, listening to live music, or cutting their hair.

Aaron Leibel is arts editor at Washington Jewish Week.

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