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Kitchen Conversions

Intermarried couples must learn new holiday recipes and traditions

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Barbecued smoked brisket, as prepared by Joan Nathan. (Gabriela Herman)

I was leading a tour of Jewish culinary sites in Philadelphia at a conference about 20 years ago when Julia Child showed up. “Why are you here?” I asked. Always direct, she told me that she was interested in what I was doing, and one of her relatives had married a Jew, and it was a very good marriage, so she wanted to learn more about Jewish food.

Learning about food traditions is a major challenge in every mixed marriage, but perhaps more so when one partner is Jewish and the other must learn from scratch how to navigate both kashrut and the culinary customs that characterize the cycle of holidays that kicks off anew next week, with Rosh Hashanah.

“When you grow up outside the tradition you don’t know the holidays,” said Colleen Fain, 63, a community volunteer in Coral Gables, Florida, who converted to Judaism when she got married more than 40 years ago. “You have to learn the rituals, and it’s hard to pass that down when you are not familiar or comfortable with them. The convert has to work really hard to understand the customs so they unify the family.”

For Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks, 54, who converted when she married writer Tony Horwitz, Judaism was a natural progression. “I didn’t know any Jews growing up,” Brooks said over a glass of wine on the porch of her Victorian home on Martha’s Vineyard, far from Australia, where she was born and raised. “For some reason my father was a lefty Zionist Socialist who got caught up with the Zionist movement, even though we were not Jewish. It rubbed off on me.” As a teenager, Brooks started wearing a star of David because “of my rabid history reading, especially about the Shoah to express identification with the Jewish people.” Conversion seemed “like the natural thing to do,” she said. It was a move “much more about history than faith, I wasn’t going to be the end of the line of a faith that survived so many years.”

Brooks knew Jewish deli food in New York and Ashkenazic cooking from Tony’s family, but she likes the Middle Eastern cuisine of Israel best. “When I lived in Cairo as a writer, I kept visiting Israel and loved the Levantine-inspired food,” she said. For breaking the fast after Yom Kippur, she goes Sephardic, sometimes serving Poopa Dweck’s Syrian brisket with fruit from her cookbook Aromas of Aleppo and other times harira, a rich Moroccan lamb-based vegetable soup often used to break the fast during Ramadan, which she first tasted when she was in Morocco in the late 1980s. “It was the only thing that got me up in the morning,” she said. “You feel like you have been fed with that.”

Brooks speaks passionately about cooking. When she doesn’t get challah from her son’s class at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, where the students make it, she bakes it herself. “I like to get my hands in the dough, and I get some of my best novelistic ideas when making challah,” she said. “I chew over the issues from my morning’s writing and sometimes gnarly plot points resolve themselves. Turning the compost works well too.”

Tom Ashe similarly follows the Jewish rituals of his spouse, Joanne. The son of a police officer from Queens, Ashe converted when he married Joanne 33 years ago. The couple cooks together (during the holidays he plays the role of assistant; the rest of the time he’s in charge) and rarely host fewer than 10 family members on weekends in their home in Placitas, New Mexico. “Since I am a convert, each holiday brings back memories of when I was in my mid-20s and chose Judaism,” said Ashe, 58, a real estate developer. “They are definitely my holidays too, and I look forward to the foods, the smells, and the traditions. The Jewish palate is more eclectic than what I grew up with as a young Protestant boy in Queens. Jews have the whole world, from Middle Eastern to Asian foods.”

Although the Ashes still pull out Joanne’s mother’s recipes for the holidays, they occasionally tweak dishes, as in a delicious smoked brisket holiday recipe more reminiscent of the far West than Eastern Europe.

Veronica Goode knew nothing about Jewish customs growing up in Venezuela and had to learn everything—from Shabbat candle-lighting rules to what ingredients to include in a holiday meal. “Cooking Jewish is a real shock,” said Goode, 36, a social work student in Washington, D.C. “When I got married, I didn’t know how to cook anything Jewish, even brisket, so I called my step mother-in-law.” Veronica now makes her recipes with lots of onions, tomato paste, and long cooking. Her one complaint: “I haven’t learned to make matzoh balls yet.”

Goode underlined a lament I have heard from many converts I meet at book signings and other events. Judaism is intimidating, and they need a gentle soul to mentor them through the traditions.

“The best thing to do is to ask friends and relatives for recipes and don’t be afraid to try them,” said Fain. When she first wanted to make kugel, for example, she asked her sister-in-law, Sally Ann Epstein, who had a family recipe from a cousin for help. Fain was not afraid to ask, Epstein was flattered, and now making that kugel—a dairy version more appropriate for a break-fast—is a family tradition. “If I had married someone else, I wouldn’t know how to make kugel or brisket,” she said.

Imagine life without that!

Adapted from Geraldine Brooks

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large onions, diced (about 4 cups)
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2-inch knob of ginger, peeled and grated
3 celery stalks, diced
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut in rounds
2 zucchini, diced
8 cups good lamb, beef, or vegetable stock
12-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 19-ounce can chick peas,
1 cup barley
1 cup chopped fresh mint
2 cups chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon cardamom or to taste
1 teaspoon cumin or to taste
Pinch of saffron
Salt to taste
¼ teaspoon white pepper or to taste
1 teaspoon hot red pepper or to taste
1/2 teaspoon black pepper or to taste
½ cup vermicelli noodles, broken up

1. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot and sauté the onions, garlic, ginger, celery, carrots, and zucchini for a few minutes.

2. Add the broth and the tomatoes and bring to a boil. Then continue to simmer for another 20 minutes.

3. Add the chick peas and the barley, half the mint and half the cilantro, the cardamom, cumin, saffron, salt, and the three kinds of pepper. Continue to simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes, adding 1 to 2 cups water or as needed.

4. Add the vermicelli and continue simmering about 5 minutes or until the pasta is cooked. Stir in the remaining mint and cilantro. Adjust the seasonings to taste and serve.

Yield: 10 to 12 Servings

Adapted from Tom and Joanne Ashe

5- to 6-pound Grade-A choice brisket
6 sliced garlic cloves
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 sliced onions
¼ cup liquid smoke
1 bottle Heinz Chili Sauce
1 16-ounce can tomatoes
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup of wine or enough to nearly cover the brisket

1. Wash and dry the brisket and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Pierce holes in the brisket and insert the garlic cloves. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Heat the oil and sear on both sides.

3. Put the onions on the bottom of a heavy casserole, just large enough to hold the brisket. Put the brisket on top and then add the liquid smoke, chili sauce, tomatoes, and tomato sauce and pour over the brisket. Cover with the red wine.

4. Cover with tin foil or a top and bake in the oven for 4 hours.

5. Chill overnight, remove fat that has accumulated, slice, reheat and serve.

Yield: about 10 servings


Fain family noodle kugel, as prepared by Joan Nathan.
Gabriela Herman

Adapted from Colleen Fain, Sally Ann Epstein, and Bobbi Mayer Joslin

8 ounces broad, flat, egg noodles
½ cup sugar
12 ounces whole milk cottage cheese
1/2 cup milk or a little more
1/2 cup salted butter, melted, but not hot
1/2 cup golden raisins
2 large eggs, slightly beaten 1 cup sour cream
½ teaspoon cinnamon or to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 350-degrees and grease an 8-cup casserole.

2. Cook the noodles in a large pot of salted water and drain, then rinse to cool down a little.

3. Mix the sugar, cottage cheese, milk, melted butter, raisins, eggs, and sour cream in a large bowl. Stir in the noodles, transfer to casserole dish and liberally sprinkle the cinnamon on top.

4. Bake for 40 minutes until browned on top. If you use a flat casserole you will need slightly less time for cooking.

Yield: about 8 servings

Joan Nathan’s forthcoming book, Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France, is due out this fall.

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The term “intermarried” in the title is misleading. If one converts to Judaism he/she is considered fully Jewish, and his/her marriage is a Jewish marriage. It is even forbidden to refer to someone as a convert, since that implies that he/she is something other than fully Jewish. So the varied and interesting people referred to in this article are Jews who started their lives in another religious culture. And the food sounds wonderful!

My mouth is watering.

I have never understood the fascination with Kugel, but that Harira sounds great. I am printing that off for a weekend cooking session.

One of the first things my fabulous goyisha husband learned to do for me was make Chopped Liver. The first time we ate a leg of lamb for dinner, he learned that all Jewish women keep a lambshank in the freezer for Passover! You never know when you’ll actually have lamb, so it’s best to be prepared!

Ketzirah, you married well!

I loved this piece, other than the misleading title. (L. Meir is right — the word “intermarried” doesn’t apply to most of these couples. if you convert to Judaism, you’re a Jew, with full Jewy-Jew status. And thanks for joining us! You rock!) All the spouses mentioned in the piece converted, except possibly for Brooks, whose conversion status isn’t mentioned. Anyway, AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, I too really want to try the harira — anything with cardamom, mint and cilantro sounds divine. Yum.

Interesting that “intermarried” doesn’t sit well with some, I always pause when writing I was raised in an “interfaith” household since my mother clearly was an atheist and rather worshiped in the great temple she called nature than anywhere else. However, she did agree to have my father raise me Jewish.
Jacob was an excellent oook and so was Nita and together they worked on my multiculti palate. She baked a mean >kugel and pears albeit not with noodles but dough, I didn’t see noodle kugel until I came to the U.S.
When my dad offered me something treife and I got bumbs or hives, he said “G-d punished immediately.” When his son, my half brother learned I was intolerant to many foods he worried I would never survive a war. I eat kosher by necessity I may not be considered a Jew by some, I’m punished when I don’t abide by certain dietary restrictions.
Great article with diverse information (Geraldine Brooks eh? The more to read and eat the better). Thanks for the appetizing melting pot, so appropriate!

Besides the “intermarried” comments as above with which I agree, a really wonderful article, and so true! Even though I practically grew up with my husband (we dated for 10 years before we got married 3 years ago), was around his family for all of the holidays, and converting 4 years ago (though practicing for much longer), I still find the task of cooking for the holidays daunting!

Delicious sounding recipes… I will have to try that kugel recipe this year!

Rebecca says:

I suppose that I have an authentic intermarried marriage. My husband is Armenian, I’m Jewish but grew up in Argentina so there are some dishes he makes, some that I make and some that we have invented together. In this house, no one goes hungry! And I have to agree with Geraldine, I much prefer the Sephardi cuisine to the Ashkenazi, lighter on the stomach and better use of a wider variety of ingredients

In case I wasn’t clear Geraldine Brooks did convert to Judaism. Your comments on intermarried couples are fascinating.

I think it’s okay to allow that couples can be *culturally* intermarried, even among Jews. Kugel, for example, is not Jewish cooking; it is Ashkenazi Jewish cooking — which is closer to Polish and Ukrainian cooking than to, say, dishes created by the Jews of Morocco. So when referring to someone’s unfamiliarity with his/her spouse’s particular heritage of Jewish cooking, it feels okay to me to say that the person didn’t know those foods or customs before.

I know we’re not supposed to refer to a convert’s background, but can’t we at least acknowledge the cultural differences? We’re all fascinated by them, because they tend to play out in particular ways.

I am more concerned with statements like, “The Jewish palate is more eclectic than what I grew up with as a young Protestant boy in Queens. Jews have the whole world, from Middle Eastern to Asian foods.” What does this person mean by *the* Jewish palate? Jewish palates are no different from anyone else’s, and in terms of food traditions, most of us didn’t grow up with more than one, be it Eastern European, Greek, Iranian, or what have you. There is no one Jewish palate, and our taste for foreign cuisines is no more or less wide-ranging than others’. As the granddaughter of Eastern European Jews, I grew up with matzoh balls, kugel, kasha varnishkes, etc. I didn’t start eating felafel earlier than any of my non-Jewish peers.

Similarly, I don’t know Ketzirah’s background, but her statement — “The first time we ate a leg of lamb for dinner, he learned that all Jewish women keep a lambshank in the freezer for Passover!” — is not true of any of my Jewish relatives or any other Jewish women I know. Like members of all groups, we don’t *all* do any one thing, certainly not these days.

What a great piece. I grew up with two Jewish parents, and four grandparents who cooked traditional Jewish food — brisket, kasha varneshkas, compote and everything in between.

I’m struck by the example of harira in this piece though (and the fact that everyone seems most interested in that dish). I started making harira a few years ago, having read a recipe in a Moosewood cookbook, and it’s now a regular staple for pre-fast meals. If you eat Harira (made by me as a vegetarian choice with lentils, potatoes, tomatoes, chickpeas and saffron), you are never hungry on the fast day. But I think of that as my departure from Jewish food — for pre-fast, I’m sure my grandparents were never have thought of making anything other than brisket and four types of meat and potatoes. If Harira is a sephardi food (is it?), perhaps we need to educate Jews in what makes up Jewish food!

Goode was the one whose conversion status isn’t mentioned — to paraphrase the old hair-color ad: is she or isn’t she? Only her rabbi knows for sure!

(And how psyched was I to find out Geraldine Brooks was Jewish? Nine Parts of Desire is SUCH a great book.)

I’ve posted elsewhere on Tablet that I keep adapting various Sephardic haroset recipes (I have a nut allergy) — they’re so varied and so much more fun to experiment with than the Ashkenazi apples-wine-nuts standard.

Benjamin Entine says:

Yes, Joan, delicious recipes. But with so many possible examples, why feature a dairy kugel along with meat soup and entre? Do you know any really traditional chefs who would offer such together–or traditional families (other than vegetarians) who won’t be featuring meat-based cuisine on Rosh Hashonah? To educate in a traditional vein and subtly mislead those relying on you, as a resource, is just not cricket–or kosher.

Marjorie, Veronica Goode also converted. And I agree. Geraldine Brooks is a great writer although I haven’t read Nine Parts of Desire but will now! Benjamin, just because someone puts two recipes in an article, one meat and one dairy does not mean they are meant to be together. It is not a menu! Colleen makes her kugel to break the fast of Yom Kippur as do many other people.
Joan Nathan

My mother wasn’t Jewish. My father’s older sister, my aunt Ella, taught my mother everything — from gefilte fish, to hamantashen, to fried matzot. My gentile mother could cook Jewish cuisine as good as any member of the tribe.

Joan, we at the Jewish Outreach Institute couldn’t agree with you more. As we know from our Mothers Circle program for women of other backgrounds raising Jewish children, Empowering Ruth program for women who are Jews-by-choice and Shofar program for men who are Jews-by-choice, it can be daunting to learn the many traditions and laws connected with Jewish food and keeping kosher. The Mothers Circle, Empowering Ruth and Shofar provide safe environments for participants to discuss not only their questions related to food but other questions and thoughts they have about Judaism and the Jewish community.

To celebrate The Mothers Circle, our longest running educational course, we are creating a cookbook of recipes that are by and for Mothers Circle participants. Later this year, the cookbook will be available online so that others in the Jewish community can benefit from the recipes. Visit to learn more.

Harira is not Sephardi per se but it is a traditional soup in North Africa. It is mostly associated with Ramadan and it is basically a minestrone-like one dish soup found in many countries. Sometimes meat is used. The Moroccan version is more peppery and lemony. It is not served during Jewish holidays. We serve other kinds of soups like for instance pumpkin soup at Rosh Hashana and leeks and potato at Passover.

anti-intermarriage says:

The “Mother’s Circle” is a farce. ONLY JEWISH WOMEN CAN GIVE BIRTH TO AND RAISE JEWISH CHILDREN. The gentile women you refer are raising gentile children. You and Joi think that gentile women are superior to Jewish women. In your eyes Jewish women are insignificant trash and inferior to gentile women. The truth needs to be told about your anti-semitic attitudes toward Jewish women.

anti-intermarriage says:

The only reason these gentiles “converted” was to marry their Jewish lovers. These are not what I would call real converts.

You are absolutely right about harira. My editor took out what I had to say about it being a Moroccan soup to break the fast of Ramadan and JEws adapted it to break the fast of Yom Kippur fast.
Joan NAthan

melanie wells coleman says:

Joan ,
I loved your article . I normally don’t read food columns , stories about people and food . Yours was of interest to me because your coming to Pittsburgh and I thought great , an opportunity to see what you’re up to before you arrive .
To my delight I found myself really enjoying your stories . I love Jewish middle eastern foods !! Especially around the holidays , YUM !
I converted 30 years ago and am grateful every day that I did …
Happy New Year .

Ra'anan says:

Here in Jerusalem Eastern-Western JEWISH marriages lead to mixed fare. Our Ashkenazi-looking Yitzchaq MUST have super charif/spicy hot, red-peppered salmon for Friday night/leil shabbath dinner & he cheers his mother in Arabic for this. Our Yemenite-looking Ariel, though, HATES even the faintest whiff of chilbei/fenugreek sauce. My Yemenite wife & I share gefilte fish w/khrain, but the kids hate it. All of our food is homemade, thank G-d. Even my wife’s Ashkenazi challoth (Yemenite challoth are, surprise, like IRAQI pita!) are as soft & succulent as her kubenei.

The first shabbath I spent at their house I was confronted w/an empty dining room, except for a table, chair, books & a dangling light bulb. My blessed mother in-law obm brought in a big bowl of Yemenite soup (full of turmeric/chawaij), chicken & chilbei/fenugreek sauce. I sat there not knowing what to do because there was no spoon. After a while, I thought, “well, Yemenites don’t use spoons, I guess they just drink directly from the bowl…” so I finally grabbed the bowl & began to drink when suddenly my mother in-law obm walks in on my with a…spoon in hand & looked at me pitifully. I guess she though Americans are so backwards that they don’t use spoons!

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Kitchen Conversions

Intermarried couples must learn new holiday recipes and traditions

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