The Torah of Food
For Tu B’Shevat, a cooking class creates a perfect opportunity to teach children about Jewish values
The middle of winter, when so many trees are bare, might seem like an odd time to celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for Trees, which begins this year on Jan. 25. But this holiday marks the season when fruit trees’ sap starts to rise in Israel and elsewhere. So, as we strive to teach children about nature and the cycle of life, it’s only fitting that Tu B’Shevat comes at a time when those bare trees seem poised to spring back to life.
It is customary to eat almost 15 different kinds of fruits and nuts for Tu B’Shevat. In fact, food is a central part of the holiday’s observance. As you’d expect, there are specific recipes that seem particularly appropriate for Tu B’Shevat, utilizing its particular foods as a way to celebrate the natural world.
I recently visited Nancy Wolfson-Moche, who teaches 8- to 10-year-olds and seniors in the Jewish Journey Project, a weekly curriculum funded by Dorot that transmits Jewish traditions through an intergenerational lens. When I entered the Culinary Arts Kitchen at New York City’s West Side JCC, the elders and the children, all from secular schools, were hard at work cleaning and chopping oyster, portobello, shiitake, and button mushrooms that they would mix with nuts to make, in my honor, one of my recipes for vegetarian chopped liver. The students were divided into teams based on the different types of mushrooms, and they all worked together to cut and measure.
When I first conceived of this recipe, it used only one kind of mushroom; now they use four, letting the children smell and later taste the different varieties. “We try to update old recipes,” noted Wolfson-Moche. Instead of putting the nuts directly in the food processor, they toasted, then ground them, all the while learning about the different types of nuts and the mushrooms. “We try to teach the Torah through the Torah of Food,” she said. “I teach some of the recurring themes and concepts in the Torah through the act of preparing and eating food.” The chopped liver, she said, would be a good way to illustrate the Torah concept of “finding the extraordinary in the ordinary” by showing how “humble foods … become extraordinary when combined with other ingredients.”
Using food and cooking as her handle to teach the Torah, Wolfson-Moche talks about four kinds of fruit—a kabbalistic concept often used in the Tu B’Shevat Seder. The first type has an inedible outer shell or peel and an edible soft inside, like an orange; the second a soft, edible outside and inside, like a grape; the third an edible outside and inedible inside, like a plum; and the fourth an inedible skin and pith but edible seeds, like a pomegranate. “This is our scientific and spiritual approach to examine and taste,” she said, going on to describe a tasting the class does involving an orange cut into sections. “The children smell the fruit, look at the food, and using all five senses, we touch it to our nose and smell it, then they taste it talking about the texture and the flavor. We also work on how each thing we eat applies to our lives.”
The students learn about Jewish values through food. “I also work with stories and Jewish folktales,” she said. “One of the stories we look at is also associated with Tu B’Shevat: Honi and the Carob Tree—about the value of planting trees for future generations.”
Part of the curriculum’s goal is to get people to work together across generations. Rose Roberts, 91, one of three seniors in the class, said she enjoyed working with the children: “I have been amazed seeing them so interested in being involved in the cooking,” she said. “I’ve connected with my co-partner, Cornelia,” who is 10 years old.
As the children and seniors chopped and cut, stories came out from the elders about visiting and living in Israel during tzena, the austerity period after Independence when chopped “liver” was made out of nuts, string beans, peas, or eggplant. “Food is a textbook for history,” said Judith Turner, director of volunteer services for Dorot.
The students weaved Jewish lessons through cooking. “Every time we ate a Jewish dish,” said Roberts, “the teacher would ask what makes it Jewish.” At another session of the class, for instance, Wolfson-Moche had the children and the adults make a pomegranate dip with avocados. “This is a great dish to make with children because it is always delicious, children tend to love it—and it is a refreshing, nourishing, substantial snack with only four ingredients,” she said. The pomegranate has always been a symbol of plenty and fruition and supposedly has 613 seeds, equal to the number of commandments that Jews should observe in the code of Jewish law. (It doesn’t—I’ve counted.) This dish, much more colorful than the usual guacamole, didn’t include garlic, which often offends young palates.
At the end of the class I attended, the seniors and the children tasted the different kinds of vegetarian chopped liver. Wolfson-Moche explained to the children that you get protein from the mushrooms and the nuts just as you would from liver. Then she asked the students why this would be a Jewish dish. One 8-year-old made as good an assessment as any: “I consider vegetarian chopped liver a Jewish food because it tastes good.”
Wolfson-Moche ended with a lesson that’s valuable for Tu B’Shevat, or any day: “The way I can contribute to healing the planet,” she said, “is to get kids to cook their own food and to nourish themselves.”
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When my newborn daughter became gravely ill, I found strength in the first Torah portion I ever chanted