Exploring the Mysteries of Jewish Cuisine

The Jewish people have wandered the face of the globe, picking up various culinary traditions, rendering “Jewish food” into a wide and somewhat undefinable genre of cooking.

Throughout history and under different circumstances, the Jewish people have journeyed across the world, bringing with them their rich cultural heritage and traditions to their new destinations. When arriving and settling in a new place, Jews, influenced by the world around them, would adopt local customs, something that is strongly reflected in the different food cultures that developed in both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions.

The breadth of Jewish cooking spans as wide and as far as Jews have traveled. The culture of food in different Jewish communities often reflected the social and economic status of the Jews in that particular part of the world at a specific point in time. Many classic Jewish foods also reflect Kashrut, the laws that pertain to dietary restrictions, and other Jewish laws that apply to issues of food and cooking in general. The global reach of the Jewish people means that Jewish food has no perfect definition, but rather a wide range of influences that left their mark and guided the Jewish kitchen to become what it is today.

Modern Jewish cuisine has evolved and grown over time but those classic dishes, the ones that smell and taste of home, draw people back to their roots no matter where those roots were planted. From the shtetls of Poland and Hungary to bustling metropolises in Egypt and Morocco, Jewish food has evolved and diversified all the while holding strong to Jewish tradition, creating a historical connection between the journeys of Jewish people and the food that they eat.

Interestingly enough, while Mizrahi and Yemenite foods are extremely popular in mainstream Jewish cooking today, especially in Israel, research on the subject yielded few written recipes or cookbooks from Jewish communities in the Middle East and the Orient. Instead, the National Library of Israel collections yielded such fascinating items such as a small cookbook from Poland that is filled with recipes for Middle Eastern cooking written in Yiddish.

“Dei Yiddishe Kuch,” a small and inconspicuous cookbook with a green and brown spotted cover written by B. Shafran was recently rediscovered in the collections of the National Library of Israel and serves as an interesting example of the global reach of Jewish food. Printed in Warsaw in 1930, the cover page promises recipes from a wide range of countries including but not limited to Poland, Russia, Romania, Germany, Alsace, Morocco, Tunisia, and the USA – and it delivers.

“Dei Yiddishe Kuch,” published in Warsaw, 1930. From the National Library of Israel collection.

A quick flip through the yellowing pages reveals Eastern European recipes for gefilte fish and kugel printed alongside North African dishes like couscous and shakshuka. While for some this may seem like a stretch, this unassuming book serves as a fascinating reflection on just how connected the Jewish communities were across the world through the language of food. A Jew living in a small village in Poland could create an inherently Mizrahi dinner from a cookbook written in his or her native Yiddish all before the age of digital technology and communication. The universal language of food spread across borders and oceans allowing for the creation of that seamlessly blended flavor that is a trademark of the Jewish kitchen.

A page from “Dei Yiddishe Kuch” featuring a recipe for Shakshuka written in Yiddish. From the National Library of Israel collection.

While Jewish cooking is hard to define, there is beauty in the hodgepodge of cuisines that makes up Jewish culinary tradition. It reflects the history and tribulations experienced by the Jewish people and its constant state of transformation are what keeps Jewish food so endlessly fascinating.

In honor of the Jewish New Year, a time spent dedicated to tradition, renewal, and family, the National Library of Israel seeks to bring some of the oldest and most interesting recipes from the Library collections out of the archives and back to your dinner table. Home to the intellectual and cultural treasures of Israel and the Jewish people, the National Library of Israel works to preserve and make these treasures available to diverse audiences in Israel and across the globe. A variety of items now preserved in the National Library collections mirror the journeys taken by Jewish people and the rich and diverse food culture that was developed and maintained over the centuries.

Shakshuka (Cracked eggs) Recipe from Dei Yiddishe Kuch:

Fry a clove of garlic in a bit of oil. Add a half-pound tomatoes chopped into small pieces. Leave it cooking for a 1/4 hour. Crack four eggs whole and ‘mix’ with the tomatoes for so long until it’s done.


Explore the Mysteries of Jewish Cuisine:

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The Strange Connection Between a Medieval Shopping List and a Divorce Contract

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The Strange Connection Between a Medieval Shopping List and a Divorce Contract

 A shopping list found among the treasures of the Cairo Genizah was scrawled on the back of a rather important document.

It happens to us all about once a week – the refrigerator and cabinets are suddenly bare and we need to go to the grocery store to restock. Most of us don’t have a special place to write a shopping list – a pad or a notebook dedicated to such mundane things. Typically, we will improvise, grabbing the closest piece of scrap paper to use for scribbling down a basic list of groceries to get us through the week.

It’s easy to forget that people have struggled with the same mundane parts of life as we do for thousands of years – things like grocery shopping and list-making – and like us, they improvised, finding creative solutions to everyday annoyances. In fact, the Cairo Genizah held one extreme example where a random, unremarkable shopping list was actually scrawled on the back of a torn-up divorce agreement from the Middle Ages.

The Ben Ezra Synagogue, originally built over a thousand years ago in Fustat, the heart of ancient Cairo had a special room which held a Genizah. The Genizah was a place where, per Jewish tradition, documents containing holy Jewish texts were deposited instead of simply throwing them in the trash. Over time, people began depositing any document written in Hebrew lettering, including items like marriage contracts, divorce papers, court documents, and private letters. Materials were deposited in this room from the time the synagogue opened through the 19th century. When it was rediscovered, the incredible collection of papers written in a variety of languages including Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic served as documentation of a thousand-year history of Jewish culture and society in the Middle East.

Among the treasures found inside the Genizah is what appeared at first glance to be a simple shopping list scrawled on a scrap of paper that is now held by the Cambridge University Library and is digitally preserved in the National Library of Israel collection. The list seemed perfectly ordinary, filled with everyday purchases that would be made in the local market. It was relatively detailed as each entry in the list included specific weights of each good to be purchased, using the dirham as the unit of measure. The dirham, equivalent to approximately 3.125 grams, is frequently mentioned in Jewish law as it was used to measure such things as the weight of a quantity of silver promised in a marriage contract.

A shopping list from the Cairo Genizah, Cambridge University Library.

This particular list included ordinary ingredients like sumac and tahini, as well as olive and sesame oil. When researchers turned the list over however, it became far less commonplace when they realized the list was written on the back of a fragment from a torn-up Get (Jewish divorce contract).

Talk about grabbing a piece of scrap paper.

As it turns out, this was not as unusual as it sounds. In accordance with Jewish law, when a marriage ends in divorce, the Get (divorce agreement), is torn to pieces so it cannot be used again. Historically, these agreements were written on the front side of large pieces of paper and the backs were left blank. Once the contract had served its purpose and was no longer necessary, the torn pieces were simply used for scrap paper – recycling ahead of its time. This might lend explanation as to why something so trivial as a shopping list would be scrawled on the back of a divorce contract.

The back of the shopping list from the Cairo Genizah with the text from a divorce contract, Cambridge University Library.

The shopping lists found in the Cairo Genizah tend to be written in order of what was required for a specific recipe. This means that sometimes lists include the same product more than once but with different weights for each entry, as the product was needed for more than one recipe. For example, on this list, sesame oil is included twice as the shopper expected to purchase the amounts needed for two different dishes. The list read as follows:

Sumac 3/8 (dirham)

Tahini ¼

Olive and Sesame Oil ¾

Salt ¼

Sesame Oil 1 5/8

Wood for Fuel 1/4

Serving suggestion: For anyone wishing to recreate a recipe based on this list, it seems the best option would be to prepare a fresh batch of tahini. We recommend mixing raw tahini paste with some sumac and water. Add some sesame oil and salt to taste.


Discover a world of Jewish cooking:

Exploring the Mysteries of Jewish Cuisine

The Book That Taught Europeans How to Cook in Palestine

The Simple Grain That Saved the State of Israel from Starvation

The Nuremberg Laws: The Ban Against Jewish Blood

At an assembly of the Nazi Party in September 1935, the Reichstag passed laws that stripped German Jews of their citizenship

From the moment of their appearance on the stage of history, the National-Socialist Movement, its leader, Adolph Hitler, and his immediate associates left no room for doubt regarding their racist views, mainly concerning Jews. The anti-Semitic assassinations carried out by the Nazis already in the days of the Weimar Republic was certainly not exceptions to the rule, and Hitler himself often referred to Jews in both his speeches and his writings. The Nazi leader and his supporters believed that the Jews were responsible for a long succession of ailments in German society in particular, and in human society overall.

These crude and unsophisticated ideas were fed by old anti-Semitic prejudices that had existed in various European societies from as early as the Middle Ages. Beginning in the last years of the 19th century, various racial theories gradually gained acceptance among Western anthropologists, and many believed that the health of the human race depended upon the preservation of “racial purity.” When this thinking even became a field of academic research, Nazi hatred of “the non-German races” found very fertile ground in which it could take root.

With the Nazi rise to power on January 30, 1933, aggressive anti-Semitism became a guiding principle for the official policy of the German authorities towards Jews. Already in April 1933, a law was passed enabling the termination of employment of all state employees of Jewish origin. The new rulers of Germany and the inhumane steps they took caused many German Jews to immigrate to other countries including the Land of Israel.

Beginning in 1927, members of the National-Socialist Party started convening in Nuremberg for their annual assemblies. Over time, Nuremberg became the permanent site of the party’s assemblies, which were held there consecutively from 1933-1938. For the seventh assembly of the Nazi Party, in September 1935, thousands of supporters of the regime gathered as usual, and at the last moment, all members of the Reichstag – the German parliament, or, more precisely, the grotesque political body that remained after the Nazis took care to fill the entire chamber from their own ranks – were also invited. In a supposedly democratic move, the heads of the Nazi party introduced three laws for a vote in the Reichstag: the law concerning the German flag, the Reich Citizenship Law, and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor.

The three laws were brought up for vote with full Nazi regalia serving as the decorative backdrop, at a mass, showcase event. The members of the Reichstag, needless to say, approved the three laws unanimously. All three pieces of legislation received the status of “Basic Laws”, laws with a fundamental and special significance in terms of the constitutional structure of the country. For those living at the time in Germany – Jewish and non-Jewish citizens alike – the significance of the new legislation was not sufficiently clear. It quickly transpired, however, that the laws passed at Nuremberg, which later were named after the city, in effect brought an end to the process of the emancipation of German Jewry, while stripping them of their citizenship.

One of the first editions of the Nuremberg Laws, including legal interpretation. From the National Library collections.

The practical significance was that the laws derogated the basic rights of Jews, such as the right to vote in political elections, and prohibited marital and extra-marital relations between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans. Persons caught in such relations with a Jew were subject to punishment, and new marriages between Jews and German became impossible. Any new couple of this type was considered guilty of “blood defilement” (Blutschande). Later, terminology was devised for various gradations of “Jewish blood” based on one’s family tree, and categories were established such as “full Jew” (Volljude), “half-Jew” (Halbjude) and “quarter Jew” (Vierteljude), in order to define to whom exactly the Nuremberg Laws applied. During the years of the Nazi regime, these categories determined who would live and who would die, and tremendous numbers of people were influenced by them since they were dependent on the legal status accorded to them by the laws.

Understandably, within Nazi Germany, no voice of protest against the Nuremberg Laws was sounded, but outside of Germany, the laws and their ramifications still aroused no outcry or noteworthy public response. Less than one year after the Nuremberg Laws went into effect, most of the world did not see cause to refrain from participating in the Berlin Olympic Games, and today, it is known that many of the delegations adhered to the racist German policy: not only did Germany prevent Jewish athletes from participating in the competitions, but even the American delegation hesitated to allow for Jews to appear in the games.

The Nuremberg Laws remained in effect until the end of the Third Reich and were also implemented in Austria after it joined Germany in 1938, as well as in all of the territories occupied by Germany during WWII. In September 1945, these laws were annulled by the Allied Powers while they were administering occupied Germany. Both the Nazi assemblies in Nuremberg and the demonstrative act of legislating the Nuremberg Laws in the same city, served as criteria for the selection of Nuremberg as a symbolic site for the foundational event at the end of the war: the trials against the heads of the Nazi regime and its chief criminals, which began in November 1945, were held in the same city whose name signified the race laws. Now, the city would be forever branded by the expression “The Nuremberg Trials.”

Wilhelm Stuckart and Hans Globke’s interpretation of the race laws, 1936. This copy was part of the chief prosecutor’s library in Vienna, even before Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, as can be seen by the seal.

In this context, it is fitting to tell the story of one Dr. Hans Globke, a legal expert who was among those quick to praise the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, yet when they were canceled with the defeat of Germany, his legal career did not end.

As a senior official in the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, Globke was one of the first lawyers to publish a scholarly interpretation of the Nuremberg Laws. In 1936, together with Wilhelm Stukart, he published a detailed commentary with a long introduction, a text that exuded Nazi ideology. However, with the end of WWII, his great legal knowledge opened new horizons for him in the “new Germany.” After 1949, he became a close associate of Chancellor Adenauer and ultimately, and was ultimately even appointed Chief of Staff of the Chancellory of West Germany in 1953. Globke served in this key role until Adenauer’s resignation in 1963.

The burgeoning career of a person who had been an ardent supporter of the Nazi race laws aroused grave doubts among many in Germany and the world as to the reliability and validity of the “new Germany” that emerged after WWII and the Third Reich.


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Four Ketubot and a Wedding

Okay, two weddings, but this is still the strangest story you will have heard in a while...

By Chen Malul

A ketubah is a traditional Jewish wedding contract. As such, it is not a particularly romantic item, and not just for the obvious reasons. Consider, for example, the four ketubot that were recently unearthed by the staff of the National Library’s Manuscripts Department on an old microfilm reel. These four documents appear to attest to a strange sequence of events, and they unfortunately represent the only evidence available…

The first ketubah from Trieste

The story begins in Italy. The year was 1842, and in the port city of Trieste (which served as a free-trade zone of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) the dear bride-groom Jehoiakim ben Shimon Schulhaff was being wed to the honorable virgin Leah bat Yaakov Gabriel. The groom’s signature and that of the two witnesses at the bottom of the ketubah sealed its validity. But, apparently, the groom did not hold up his end of the bargain, failing to financially support his bride, and soon enough she was married to another suitor.

A year and a half after the lavish seaside wedding at Trieste, a second ketubah was inscribed, but not signed, in another Italian port city, Ancona. On the thirteenth day of the month of Iyar, in the year 5604 (1844), the same young lady – Leah bat Yaakov Gabriel – was to be married once again. This time, the groom answered to the name Joseph ben Yehuda Schwarzenberg.

The second ketubah from Ancona

Neither the groom’s signature, nor the two required witness signatures appear in this second ketubah. This made it a matter of no consequence whatsoever for our honorable bride to be married yet another time, this time to (according to our best estimation) the former groom’s brother – Gershon ben Yehuda Schwarzenberg. Did this unusual arrangement for a wedding offer any benefit to the Schwarzenberg family? Perhaps they got a better deal on the catering? Whatever the reason – the ketubah indicates that this festive event took place on the sixteenth day of Iyar, only three days after the date on the previous ketubah. This time, the wedding was supposedly held on the Mediterranean island of Corfu, raising the possibility that the whole episode was a ruse meant to disguise the smuggling of the couple out of Italy. The third ketubah is also unsigned, meaning the union was never given the kosher seal of approval, the document remaining null and void.

The third ketubah from Corfu

This fact, however, served to enable the existence of the aforementioned fourth ketubah! This wedding would be held even further away from Italy, on the shores of the same sea but on a different continent. The event was to be set in Alcara (near Fustat), part of modern-day Cairo in Egypt.

Ketubah number four was composed and signed on the 29th of the same month and year as the previous two. The newlyweds were the same couple appearing on the Corfu ketubah – Gershon ben Yehuda Schwarzenberg and Leah bat Yaakov Gabriel. This time, the document was signed. Incidentally, in the ketubah we see here, the groom’s last name was written incorrectly (“Schwarsenbilgi”), indicating that the scribe was not familiar with Ashkenazi surnames.

The fourth ketubah from Alcara

The National Library’s Manuscripts Department is at a loss as to the meaning and significance of this strange affair. They even declined to comment for this article. At any rate, mazal tov to the newlywed couple!


The National Library of Israel is in possession of the largest collection of ketubot in the world. You can browse through them here.


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