Photo credit Tamar Zaken. May not be used without permission.

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

Sephardi and Ashkenazi Cooking Traditions

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.

Mar Ukba asks his wife: Why do your feet not burn? She explains that she gives tzedakah in a different way, she invites the poor into her home, she talks to them. She is not anonymous. For this reason, her feet do not burn.

I find Mar Ukba’s wife so inspiring. Her certainty in her actions is something I don’t think I have ever seen in myself or in any woman in my life. The strength of her kitchen, her private sphere, that protects, that listens and that has true empathy for the poor is something we can all learn from.

Rabbi Eliyahu HaCohen of Izmir, Turkey (1659-1729) in his interpretation of the liturgical poem Eshet Chayil, ‘Woman of Valor’ explains what it means to give to the poor in this way:

“’ She stretches out her hand to the poor; she reaches forth her hands to the needy…’ The commentators, may their memory be for a blessing explained that in one hand she would give to those poor who didn’t need so much and to the deeply impoverished she would give with her other hand. She was an expert in the giving of Tzedakah.”

Do we see our grandmas, our moms, other women in our lives as professional tzedkah givers? Miztvah doers? Do we remember to value their strength, the importance of their work and their compassion that can bring miracles and save lives, just as Mar Ukba’s wife did?

My Grandma Zilpah, my Dad’s mom who was born in Kurdistan and moved to Israel in 1950, like Grandma Gertrude was a very special woman. She passed away when I was ten and sadly, I did not get the chance to spend much time hanging out in her kitchen. I do remember the fruits of that kitchen though: bowls of delicious Kubbeh soup on Friday afternoons, the almonds, and candies that she would pass out from the deep pockets of her dress. Everyone in the neighborhood was welcome at her house, the door was always open.

Today, as I cook in my kitchen for my family, I think about how to reconcile the western feminism of my Grandma Gertrude with the eastern perspective on women that permeated Grandma Zilpah’s life. I see both my grandmas in Mar Ukba’s wife and like so many Jewish women before me, I want to become a professional giver of Tzedakah. I want to have the courage to invite people in, to listen and to have empathy for those in need and understanding of those who are different than me. I want to feel strengthened and content in my kitchen. I am ready to cook.

Photo: Author with Grandma Gertrude (left) and Grandma Zilpah (right).

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