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

By Aaron Leibel

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.

About Aaron Leibel

Aaron Leibel is arts editor at Washington Jewish Week.