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Remembering a Jewish Food Giant

Gil Marks, scholar and author of Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, dies at 62

Joan Nathan
December 05, 2014
(Gil Marks/Twitter)

(Gil Marks/Twitter)

Jewish food scholar and writer Gil Marks died today at the age of 62 in a hospice in Jerusalem after a three-year battle with lung cancer. Whenever anyone dies it is a loss, but when someone dies relatively young, with his amazing level of knowledge, passion about scholarship, and willingness to share it, it is doubly sad.

An ordained rabbi, Gil made such a mark on all of us in the food world, cataloging his beloved Jewish food in the landmark 2010 book Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, a work that will live on for many years. He also wrote four other cookbooks, including The World of Jewish Cooking: More than 500 Traditional Recipes from Alsace to Yemen in 1996, and Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World in 2004.

“He seemed never to be wrong and he was a brilliant and passionate scholar,” Cara De Silva, author of In Memory’s Kitchen, said today.

“He was a wonderful caring, sharing man who always had new, exciting, and interesting information to share,” said Sheilah Kaufmann, another cookbook author and Gil’s longtime friend. “He was a walking encyclopedia. I will miss him very much, as he was one of a kind. The world will be a smaller place without him.”

Although we had been in touch for many years, beginning when he started publishing his wonderful Kosher Gourmet Magazine in 1986, I only met Gil a few years ago. Throughout his illness he emailed me (I know he was active on Facebook as well, but I am not!), and I loved getting his quirky emails. I always pictured him in a tiny kitchen cooking, surrounded by books.

Just a year ago I spent several days with him at Hazon’s Food Conference where we were both speakers. He talked about his illness and about going back to Israel. He seemed very matter of fact about his worsening condition. That weekend he gave a demonstration of Ethiopian Jewish food. I just listened, mesmerized by his depth of knowledge and delighted by his charming quality.

“This should only be my biggest problem,” he wrote me two years ago just before Passover, when he knew he had cancer. “Made great meringues last night and left them in the oven overnight to dry. Forgot and turned on the oven to start the day’s cooking. Not a pretty sight. Hopefully, it’s uphill from here. Everything else in the menu seems to have come out okay.”

Or this one: “I am finishing the manuscript for American Cakes, and my agent recently started looking for a publisher. It’s a tough market in publishing these days, but I think I’ll find someone who shares my passion for the topic and my way of exploring history and culture. But I’ve found from experience that there is a karma (beshert) to these things, and it is better to be associated with a publisher who actually believes in the project than the quick and easy. Though, to be true, I wouldn’t mind something a little quicker and easier.”

Having read Gil’s entry for Hummingbird cake and others in his American Cakes book, a publisher who believes in his work, as we all do, will find him. And he will be universally missed.

Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.