From ‘The Jewish Holiday Table,’ by Naama Shefi and Devra Ferst

Courtesy Artisan

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Expanding the World of Jewish Food

Naama Shefi, founder of the Jewish Food Society and co-author of a new cookbook, takes readers on culinary journeys across the globe

Jamie Betesh Carter
March 29, 2024
From 'The Jewish Holiday Table,' by Naama Shefi and Devra Ferst

Courtesy Artisan

Naama Shefi, the founder and executive director of the Jewish Food Society, has spent nearly seven years building an online, and in-person, community around Jewish food. The website for JFS—a nonprofit that works to preserve, celebrate, and revitalize Jewish culinary heritage from around the world—includes hundreds of tested family recipes along with the stories behind them. So when the opportunity to publish a book came up, she jumped at it.

The Jewish Holiday Table: A World of Recipes, Traditions & Stories to Celebrate All Year Long, by Shefi and Devra Ferst, features 135 recipes and stories from Jewish families. The new cookbook is organized by season, featuring the major Jewish holidays (as well as Shabbat) that fall in each one. Every holiday includes multiple stories and recipes, shared by friends of JFS, such as Mitchell Davis, Nir Mesika, Ron Arazi, and Ruth Stulman. Most unique to this book is its celebration of diversity. A “family journey” appears at the bottom of each story—explaining the journey from where each family originated to where they are now. (Shefi’s “family journey” originates on Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha, before moving on to Tel Aviv and New York City.) Reading the book will take you on an expedition to Morocco, Iraq, Bulgaria, Turkey, Ukraine, Mexico, Yemen, France, Israel, the U.S., and elsewhere.

I had the chance to sit down and speak with Shefi about the motivation behind creating the book, where she gets her inspiration, and how she hopes people find joy in the new cookbook.

You have this beautiful site, Jewish Food Society, that lives online, bringing so many recipes to people’s inboxes and computers. What was the motivation and the process behind creating a book?

Honestly, it came to us in the early days of the pandemic. Lia Ronnen from Artisan Books reached out and said, “I love what I see on social media—how people are cooking again, and are excited about connecting with their mothers and grandmothers online. There is something there about home cooking, and let’s talk about a book.” That’s where she and I started to dream this up. It was clear for me from the very beginning, that sure, it’s a cookbook, but it’s also a history book. It’s a book that really brings stories about resilience and joy. It was a very natural process. There is nothing like print … We all live in a very digital world, so this book just adds another dimension. Nothing could ever replace books.

There are so many cookbooks that are related to Jewish cooking, and there are so many different types of Jewish cooking. How do you feel this is unique and different? What can people get from this that they really can’t get from some other books?

The concept of the book is really a celebration of Jewish holiday traditions from all around the world from places as far apart as Ethiopia and Paris and Buenos Aires to here in Brooklyn. So it was very important for us to showcase the diversity of the Jewish experience. Also, the book follows the Jewish agricultural calendar, so it’s extremely seasonal, which I think is unique. And for each holiday, we showcase four to five family tables and their menu alongside very personal essays with their history and journey. A friend of mine, Mitchell Davis, once said that food without the story is just calories. I love to eat, but there are some really moving and important lessons in our book that, thinking about them, bring me to tears.

What was the process of choosing the recipes like? What’s the balance between recipes from the archives and new recipes?

It was a hard and long process. And I still feel that even though the book is around 400 pages, that we still couldn’t possibly cover the breadth of Jewish food. Some communities are not even represented in this book. But the process was to showcase the most delicious recipes with the most powerful stories. Of course, we wanted to celebrate the iconic, and more notable Jewish foods, but it was even more important for us to expose and shine a light on the lesser known traditions and stories. Celebrating diversity was definitely a main goal. Around half of the recipes are from our Jewish Food Society archives, and around half are new.

So the idea for the book came up years ago, but now that we’re in a post-Oct. 7 world, how has your thinking changed, and how have your hopes for the book changed?

It means that the book has an even more urgent role. It means that the stories about our heritage and how Jewish people used to live and love and mourn and endure is way more important to tell because the commonality of most of these stories is truly about resilience.

I feel it’s extremely timely. At the beginning I was like, “Oh, no, this is really shitty timing…” But honestly, now I feel even more energized and proud to share these stories.

Naama Shefi
Naama Shefi

Dan Perez

This book explores the question of “What is Jewish food?” It shows that Jewish food is a very global cuisine with so many layers of flavors and influences. It was important for us to include the origins of the families and the recipes they contribute. There is no one family with one single origin, so it really serves as evidence about our people. It shows how so many families were forced to flee one place and make a life in another place. And sometimes there were a few generations that were successful in the new environment, and then again, challenging circumstances forced them to keep going on their journey. That also affected the cuisine in a very substantial way. There are so many examples in the book like this, of journeys from a family in Baghdad, who immigrated in the 18th century to India, and from there to London. So their cuisine has so many layers of flavors.

During our research, I noticed this recurring theme where for so long, in many Jewish communities around the world, the holiday cooking was a communal act. The holidays were not just a place where you celebrated with your family, but it’s a true bond with your community. And the harder the times, the stronger the bonds, and there is safety in numbers. This is something that for the first time in my life, I understand. It comes up a lot in the book, for example in the Shavuot story, with a Kurdish tradition. It’s an incredible story, and you realize there are just so many layers in this understanding of safety nets. It’s something that I didn’t even process before the book went to print and now it’s alive.

Tell me a little more about your journey. What was it like growing up on a kibbutz in Israel?

I grew up on a small kibbutz in the center of the country, right near Petah Tikva. It was a pretty idyllic place to grow up, like we were walking barefoot, and playing outside for hours and hours. We were picking fruits from the trees. We ate all of our meals in the communal dining room. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were together with 500 community members at the same time. The community part was lovely, but the menu was less so. It was a disaster. The menu was just very repetitive. Very bland. Nothing to write home about.

That’s what made me really curious about what’s going on outside. On the kibbutz we shared everything. In order to get access to a car you needed a good reason, like going to a doctor or a wedding, or a funeral, God forbid. But I was literally crying for my parents to take me to eat Yemenite soup and hummus and different things. And luckily they supported this habit and many times were successful in securing a car. That was my first interest in food.

Tell me why you have built this career around preserving our food history as a Jewish people.

I think food is an excellent window into any culture, and especially into Jewish culture. That’s really the simple answer. But for me, from an early age, it really was a way to explore the world outside of the kibbutz I grew up in, and then later it really became a medium for identity exploration.

Life on the kibbutz was almost like a bubble, you know, a good bubble, but it was definitely a bubble. I always wanted to know what’s out there. And the food culture in Israel, it’s just so diverse and incredible.

And then when I was 14, I went to high school in Tel Aviv, and I was just fascinated by everything around me. And then in the IDF, I was in a special filmmaking unit. And then studied literature. I was always very interested in storytelling. It was only when I moved to New York (in 2005) that I kind of changed my storytelling medium from film to food. It was also a way for me to create a platform to engage with Jewish life. Because despite growing up in one of the most secular places, I felt very Jewish. You celebrate Shavuot on a kibbutz. It’s an extremely beautiful holiday with a lot of purpose and meaning. And then I found myself here and I was like, “OK, I’m not going to temple.” I just didn’t find a way to practice my Jewish identity and culture in a dynamic, stylistic, and cool way. So that was the intent behind the Jewish Food Society.

I’m thinking this is where my yearning to organize and create community comes from. My kibbutz life made me really understand the power of community. Because we are nothing without community.

It sounds like with your job, you’re surrounded by food all the time. What does feeding your family look like for you these days?

I have a very busy lifestyle as a mom, but food is very important. I always make room to either plan and create a gathering and cook, or to go out on a food adventure. We live around Chinatown, so going to Wu’s or one of the places that I love in the neighborhood, it’s like a celebration and just a fun thing to do.

What do you cook for Friday? How does it work for you, being so busy, in terms of actually doing something special for Shabbat dinner?

For Shabbat, my only rule is to have a Shabbat dinner from scratch. That’s the only day that we don’t go out to eat. We have a very tight group of friends and we often celebrate together. We have Shabbat dinner together either in my place or in their place. Tonight we’re going to our friend’s place, that’s why I’m so calm …

This is why in our book, my Shabbat table is a Shabbat picnic because honestly, many times that’s what I can do. It could be just challah, schnitzel, salad, and roasted potatoes. And I’m a big fan of one pot situations, so I love hosting with hamin or an overnight Shabbat casserole. That’s something I do often that’s so easy to put together.

I always wait for other people to invite me first. It’s so much fun, it’s this kind of event that you really take the time to sit and eat and drink wine.

For me, as a busy mom as well, I love finding recipes on Instagram. Why do you hope someone turns to this book and reads the story and makes the recipe from the book, which is obviously a bigger task versus a quick, easy recipe on Instagram?

I don’t think it’s either-or. I just feel that expanding our table and including new flavors and new stories is the goal. You know, I’m not telling you, “OK, go to [cookbook contributor] Sasha Schor’s table and cook the entire menu.” But you know, her short rib recipe is actually very easy. And with the book, you can mix and match. You can do one thing that is so special, and one that is easy. It’s really flexible. The idea is really to expand our tables and our idea of what Jewish food is.

The Recipe

B’ebe be Tamer (Date-filled Cookies)

B’ebe be Tamer (Date-filled Cookies)

Jamie Betesh Carter is a researcher, writer, and mother living in Brooklyn.