Research for Cookbook Leads Italian Author to Jewish Roots

By Ruth Gruber

June 2003


This article is reprinted with permission of the JTA.

MILAN, Italy, June 11 (JTA)–There’s an old saying: You are what you eat.

For Joan Rundo, the expression has particular meaning.

Born in Scotland, Rundo, 47, only began discovering her Jewish roots when, almost by accident, she started writing Jewish cookbooks–for Italians–five years ago.

“Researching Jewish culinary traditions got me into researching my own Jewish family history, a history I knew little if anything about,” she told JTA. “The more I researched my family, the more I got into the food–and vice versa.”

Rundo, who is married to an Italian and has lived in Milan since 1980, has written two Jewish cookbooks for the Italian market and a food column for Milan’s Jewish monthly.

Her first book was on international Jewish cuisine. The latest, on Italian Jewish cookery, came out earlier this year and has been among the top 10 best-sellers at Milan’s main Jewish-interest bookstore.

Called La Cucina Ebraica in Italia, (Jewish Cuisine in Italy), it includes more than 200 recipes as well as anecdotes, historical references and information on kashrut.

“What I like best is to find references to food in literature and popular culture and to include these contexts along with the recipes themselves,” Rundo said. “It’s astonishing to realize that artichokes and fennel were once considered Jewish foods.”

Rundo began writing about Jewish cuisine when her publisher commissioned a Jewish cookbook after she had written cookbooks on Arabic and other ethnic cuisine.

The research into Jewish culinary traditions changed her life and her sense of identity.

Rundo grew up knowing almost nothing about her father’s family history. Born in 1901, he was a Polish Jew who settled in Scotland before World War II. Her mother, who is not Jewish, was his second wife.

Rundo’s father’s first wife was Jewish, but the son from this marriage went to live in the United States years ago and Rundo’s family has had little contact with him.

“My father’s original last name was Rundsztajn, but he changed it to Rundo when he was naturalized, long before I was born,” she said.

“I didn’t know his real name until after he died,” Rundo said. “I grew up with scarcely any knowledge about his Jewish roots. I always knew there was another component, but I didn’t know much about what it was.”

In 1999, after the publication of her first Jewish cookbook, she began researching her family history through the JewishGen web site.

In part, her curiosity was sparked by an email from one of her father’s American grandchildren, who was going to Poland on business and was looking for information on the family.

Fittingly enough, she said, “I discovered that my great-great-grandfather, Moisiek Rundsztajn, was a tavern-keeper in Czestochowa, Poland.”

Then, she said, “I found a cousin in Israel and went to visit her. It turns out that her passions, like mine, are languages and cooking–so the genes don’t lie.”

Discovering and recovering her Jewish roots has had a powerful impact, Rundo said.

She considers herself a “citizen of the world,” but is much more conscious of a Jewish component to her identity.

“The Jewish connection really did something, especially going to Israel,” she said.

“When I came back, two of my friends said that I looked completely different–that there was something in my eyes that was different,” she said. “I feel this really strongly.”

Rundo told JTA that one of her favorite Italian Jewish recipes is an ancient Venetian vegetable dish, Gambetti de Spinassi (Spinach Stems), that works well as an appetizer.

4.5 lbs fresh spinach
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Cut the leaves from the stems of fresh spinach (use the leaves separately in salad, or boiled or steamed).
Wash the stems well and place them in a saucepan with the oil and enough water to cover them.
Bring to a boil and cook on a high flame until all the liquid evaporates.
Add the vinegar and stir until the stems turn red. Add salt and pepper and remove from the flame.
Allow to cool before serving.


About Ruth Gruber

Ruth Gruber is a journalist and the author of Haven.