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Sophisticated Palate

The cookbooks that reinvented kosher food

Tova Mirvis
September 15, 2009

Rosh Hashanah may be a time to reflect, but it is also a time to eat. The holiday is synonymous with traditional Jewish food, so much so that the ice cream store in my neighborhood in Newton, Massachusetts, rolls out special flavors each September: Noodle Kugel and Blackberry Manishewitz Sorbet. But except for the brave few who actually sample these offerings, mainstays of Jewish food like kugel and Manishewitz wines and matzo-ball mixes have widely been replaced by more gourmet offerings, reinventing the notion of the traditional Jewish table.

In the Modern Orthodox world, this change was solidified most prominently by the publication, in 2000, of The Kosher Palette. The cookbook, edited by Susie Fishbein and Sandra Blank on behalf of the Kushner Hebrew Academy in New Jersey, followed in the footsteps of countless spiral-bound and hand-illustrated volumes put out as fundraisers by sisterhoods, ladies’ auxiliaries, and Hadassah groups. But with its professional photographs and gourmet fare, The Kosher Palette functioned as a high-fashion hostess who moved to the neighborhood and changed all the rules.

Like the less professional, less gourmet communal cookbooks, The Kosher Palette was produced by a volunteer army whose names are listed in the book—the originators of the recipes, the testers, the tasters, the publicists, the proofreaders. The Kushner Hebrew Academy later put out a lesser-known sequel edited by Sandra Blank on which Fishbein’s name doesn’t appear, but it’s Fishbein’s many follow-ups which she published under the title Kosher By Design that quickly became the cookbooks of record in the Modern Orthodox community.

The books’ success can be attributed to many factors—most obviously, that they are good. The recipes are a mix of easy and impossible, with down-to-earth instructions and tantalizing photographs that stir inside even the non-gourmet a rumble of culinary ambition. The Kosher Palette also capitalized on a burgeoning national interest in foodie culture. In the first Kosher Palette, there is a section labeled “traditional” with recipes for latkes and hamenstahsen, even “fancy Kasha varnishkes,” but Fishbein’s hallmark dishes either transform traditional food, such as her Mexican Gefilte Fish or Tri-Colored Matzo Balls (which she made on an a pre-Passover appearance on the Today show), or else dispense with any notion of what traditional kosher cooking is or ought to be. More than simply adding a gourmet twist to traditional dishes, Fishbein offered permission to partake in the larger culinary world, to change the menu, to buy ramekins, to use curry. She expanded the parameters of the normative Shabbat meal, from chicken soup to Porcini Celery Soup; from gefilte fish to Fresh Tuna Kabobs with Ginger-Soy Marinade; from glazed chicken to Chicken Osso Buco with Orange Lemon Gremolata.

Of course you don’t technically need permission for these changes to the traditional table. But beyond the required hechsher on ingredients, there exists as well a social hashgacha determining what can be made for Shabbat or holiday meals. But the Kosher by Design series didn’t upset these social norms, because embedded in the cookbooks was simultaneously a reassurance of belonging. Fishbein was able to bestow permission to be inventive because the cookbooks began as an Orthodox day school project and because she is a homemaker within the community. The reassurance of belonging came also from the fact that while some of her ingredients might be unfamiliar, the larger ethos behind the move toward the gourmet was not. In a world where women turn out the equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner on a weekly basis, anything which values intense domestic productivity fits in comfortably.

Eventually, the books’ popularity became all the permission one needed, the equivalent of a large social network, replacing the need to call a friend and ask what she was making, replacing as well the need to worry whether your Shabbat table was as good as someone else’s. In a Kosher Palette/Kosher by Design world, you already know what everyone else is making. By following these recipes, you could both branch out and stay inside, be experimental and yet remain within the confines of communal social norms. The Susie Fishbeinization of the Shabbat table allowed you to be different while also being the same.

For Modern Orthodox communities whose anxieties orbit around the relationship between tradition and innovation, the ability to be both at once is no small matter. Matzo balls flavored with saffron and tumeric might be the perfect metaphor for this straddled, bifurcated world. This is especially true for the women who play complicated, often paradoxical roles. While in religious terms, the Shabbat table is supposed to represent the destroyed Temple (the table becomes the altar, the two loafs of challah the temple bread) it also stands for some aspect of female social standing. This was most evident in the third cookbook, Kosher By Designs Entertains, which was published by Art Scroll in 2005, and features suggestions for elaborate table decorations and menus for life-cycle events. Like the pictures in fashion magazines, these gorgeously set tables created a fantastical version of the social scenes of Modern Orthodox life. If the actual Shulchan Aruch (literally, the “prepared table,”) functions as a practical, orderly compilation of Jewish law, Fishbein’s Shulchan Aruch served as an equally orderly codification of contemporary Orthodox social law and domestic aspiration.

In religious terms, these longings can be generously understood as a manifestation of hiddur mitzvah, enhancing a commandment through aesthetics. The beautiful table is in service of a higher religious principle. In less religious, and less generous, terms, the concept is called Martha Stewart. Those tables are in service of impressing upon your neighbor a culinary domestic prowess. But besides hiddur mitzvah and Martha Stewart, another concept is also at play: the urge to partake in artistic pleasure, to create something of beauty.

This desire for beauty, alas, is hard to hold onto. In the case of these cookbooks, the ubiquity has the potential to diminish what was once the innovation; the ensuing sense of obligation upstages what was once the pleasure. No sooner than permission is bestowed than obligation steps in. Now you can buy ramekins, but must you? You no longer have to serve gefilte fish, but can you? This is true not just during the holidays but for those who cook Shabbat meals each week. With obligation looming so large, the potential for pleasure recedes.

This too is one of the great tensions of the Orthodox world: when there is so much obligation, where is there creativity? When so much is mandated, where is the energizing excitement of free choice? According to a Talmudic saying, “One who is obligated and performs is greater than one who is not obligated and performs.” While a debate ensues about the legal ramifications of this statement (and while it is eventually used to exclude women, who are not always obligated, from many realms of ritual performance), I hear in it the recognition of the atrophying power of obligation, the potential for malaise and fatigue in a world where so much is so often obligatory. I wonder if there existed, at least initially, a hunger for Fishbein because so much in Orthodox life is mandated, because so much that is culinary is declared off-limits, because all too often, expressions of creativity are greeted with suspicion. However briefly, did these cookbooks represent a permissible way to create something new?

This struggle between tradition and innovation exists not just in the kitchen but in the other arenas of our lives too. With the advent of the new year, it’s easy to believe in the power of the new. But just as new years resolutions fall away and the new year quickly becomes old, what initially feel like innovation can soon become routine obligation too. I can easily imagine a day, after we’ve eaten our fill of the unusual and the gourmet, when Noodle Kugel ice cream might seem like the most novel choice of all.

Tova Mirvis is the author of The Ladies Auxiliary and The Outside World.

Tova Mirvis is the author, most recently, of The Book of Separation, a memoir.

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