My dad died several years before I married the love of my life, Daryl. At our wedding my father-in-law, David, stepped into that fatherly void with grace and gravitas. He eloquently honored my dad in his remarks, causing many eyes to well up, and offered advice to us on embracing life together. I’ll never forget that. But I especially think of David on the Shabbat when we read Parshat Yitro, which I’ve come to consider Jewish Father-in-Law’s Day.
The Torah portion—which we read this Shabbat—covers one of the most significant moments in Jewish history: the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. But it is named for Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro), a Midianite priest who reunites with his son-in-law in the shadow of the storied mountain. He advises Moses on matters of governance, guidance that helps both Moses and the Children of Israel.
I love this passage for a couple of reasons. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks called the naming of this parsha one of several “remarkable expressions of spiritual generosity to those outside the covenant.” The faith’s openness and emphasis on our universal humanity made me, as a Jew by choice, feel welcome at once, and I consider it one of the most inspiring aspects of Judaism to this day.
More personally, I’m drawn to the warm relationship between Moses and his father-in-law, whose guiding role at this momentous time lends essential support and advice. It reminds me how lucky I am to have my own Yitro named David.
Like Yitro, David sees the big picture and values knowledge and guiding people. Perhaps that’s part of the reason as a scrappy young immigrant, this Holocaust survivor worked during the day and attended law school at night to become a lawyer. He built a thriving family law practice, and he treated his clients with kindness and respect. He strove to help them, not to make money, but because it was the right thing to do.
He also knew the right thing to do in helping me on my journey to Judaism. Even though I attended classes, read books, and studied, upon converting I still had much to learn—and I was the first to admit it. David sensed what would both celebrate and help further my understanding, and he and his wife, Gloria, sent Daryl and me to Israel, where David had taken one of his first and most memorable trips as a young man.
Our trip was eye-opening. To stand at ancient sites with stories that trace back thousands of years, to consider how many people cherish the land, to see technological progress that turned desert into fruitful farmland and the economy into an innovative powerhouse—all on a little sliver of real estate in the Middle East—rendered me speechless. The complexities of life and the long shadow of the Holocaust remained ever constant, but so did the vibrancy, humor, and spirit of Jewish ingenuity and survival. Most dearly, I felt grounded, even more so after being lovingly welcomed by our Israeli family and friends.
David would give me another gentle nudge forward at my first Seder after I converted. He assigned me an unconventional reading for Passover from the Book of Ruth in which Ruth chooses to go with Naomi and become the first convert to Judaism. I was, to use one of my new favorite Yiddish words at the time, verklempt. To be placed in the same ballpark felt overwhelming. But the inclusion his choice of passage signaled both to me and to everyone present moved me deeply. He inspired me to find my own role and path, whatever that might be.
That path eventually led to writing a Jewish Italian cookbook to celebrate the intersection of my inherited Sicilian heritage and my adopted Jewish one, and to explore what makes foods meaningful. David became one of my biggest cheerleaders. He encouraged me, shared ideas, advised on intricacies of history and kosher observance, and reminisced about foods from his childhood in Poland before the family went into hiding from the Nazis.
Despite all the support, I struggled to get the book over the finish line. I tinkered, retested recipes, and rewrote passages over and over again. Then, unknowingly, David nudged me again. He had never had a bar mitzvah because of WWII and decided to finally fix that, preparing for a ceremony that would take on extra meaning as a celebration of life and remarkable survival.
To help commemorate this milestone, I resolved to finish my cookbook. At the joyful family dinner the evening after David’s bar mitzvah, I surprised him with the first printed copy, which includes the beloved latke recipe of his father, Jacob. It was my gift to David, but also another of his gifts to me.
Of all the treasured recipes in the book, the one that for me best fits as a tribute to David and our relationship is not the latkes, though they are special, but bialys. The small, round, disklike breads with indented centers hail from Bialystok, Poland, due north of where David was born, and I had included the recipe to help explore and honor the Ashkenazi heritage of my husband’s family. Bialys happen to also be interesting, complex, and irresistible, yet also relatively easy to make at home.
Bialys resonate for other reasons as well. They are cousins to the bagel, another Eastern European bread that, especially with cream cheese and lox, became a beloved treat of David’s and so many other Jewish families in America. Bialys are also sometimes confused with another Eastern European flatbread, the pletzl.
The pletzl takes many forms, but is often shaped as a plank and topped with onions, reminiscent of Italian focaccia. Given my delight at such thematic overlaps, I was especially thrilled to find in Edda Servi Machlin’s The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews a Jewish-Italian recipe for “Focaccia colla Cipolla.” That flat onion bread could easily pass for a pletzl or a bialy, making bialys a delicious culinary connection of David’s heritage and mine.
Bialys also harbor beautiful symbolism. They sport a slightly crisp exterior that gives way to a tender interior. Minced onion takes the starring flavor role, and it’s an ingredient underpinning Jewish cuisine across time and tradition. Every bite can be considered a link to centuries of Jewish cooking and the stories that go with it—an ideal characteristic for honoring a person with a voracious appetite for Jewish history.
The prized filling also features olive oil, a fundamental ingredient in ancient Israel’s diet and economy, and also the main oil used in Jewish Italian and Sephardic cooking. Olive oil is also sometimes considered a symbol of holiness, and fittingly here, wisdom. Poppy seeds symbolize growth; and salt, an essential element to human life, brings balance.
I consider bialys well-suited to take the bagel’s place as a Shabbat or weekend breakfast or lunch centerpiece, especially one celebrating fathers-in-law. And although I adore them plain or as Jewish Italian bialy pizzas, I’m happy to settle a pressing question. Yes, you can put cream cheese and lox on top of those bialys. I promise, they will be everything wonderful. And, I hope, a loving tribute to David and all our Jewish fathers-in-law, and how they make our lives and our world better.
Marcia Friedman is the author of Meatballs and Matzah Balls: Recipes and Reflections from a Jewish and Italian Life and The Essential Jewish Cookbook: 100 Easy Recipes for the Modern Jewish Kitchen.