What My Sephardi and Ashkenazi Grandmothers Taught Me About Cooking and Feminism

I am temporarily living in my Grandma Gertrude (pictured above)’s house. So my kitchen is actually, my grandma’s kitchen.

She didn’t really like to cook. She did bake though: rich sticky brownies topped with marshmallows, enormous chocolate chip cookies with nuts and raisins, good neighbor cakes. She was a big feminist, my grandma, and we would sit around the table in that kitchen and she would tell me to study, to do what I want, to not let my gender stop me from achieving things in life.

I wonder if she felt stuck in her kitchen?

In the western world, where my grandma was born and lived and died, the kitchen once symbolized (and often still symbolizes) the disempowerment of women. In the 1970s feminists saw the kitchen as a place in the private sphere that deals with such ‘mundane’ things as sustenance and nourishment. They challenged women to leave so that they could gain power outside the home.

Today in the United States, where Grandma Gertrude lived, the feminist agenda has moved beyond the kitchen. But in the eastern world, where my other grandmother, ‘Grandma Zilpah’ was from, the kitchen is still a place where many women find themselves, a place that challenges them to ask questions about their roles, their power and their relationship with their families and communities. What is this kitchen all about?

To answer this question, I refer to one of my favorite ‘Eastern’ books, the Babylonian Talmud. In Tractate Ketubot we meet Mar Ukba and his wife. Mar Ukba has a daily ritual of throwing 4 coins in the doorway of a poor man who lives in his community. He always gives to this man anonymously. One day right after Mar Ukba and his wife had given their daily tzedakah, the poor man opens the door and begins to pursue the two, eager to see who so generously gives him money each day. Mar Ukba, determined to give tzedakah anonymously runs home with his wife and together they hide inside of their oven, so as not to be discovered by the poor man. Inside the oven, Mar Ukba’s feet burn. His wife’s feet, miraculously, do not.