Long Live the Vanished World

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, September 6, 2019 / 6 Elul 5779

Summary: Rabbi Kosak pays tribute to a magnificent cook and reflects on the gifts she left behind.

One of my favorite cookbook authors died this week. Edda Servi Machlin was one of the generation of Italian Jews who survived the fascist Italy of World War II before making her way to the United States. She had grown up in the small but ancient Jewish community of Pitigliano (in Tuscany), and recorded many of her childhood memories in her first book, “The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews.” What makes that book so outstanding to both a chef and a rabbi is the redolent manner in which she portrayed the now lost folkways and spiritual practices of a venerable community. Indeed, the subtitle of her first book is “Traditional Recipes and Menus and a Memoir of a Vanished Way of Life.”

One of the glories of modernity is the ease of communication all peoples have with a global audience. In regard to Jewish living, that has brought isolated communities back into the fold, sometimes rescuing them from certain extinction. An unfortunate consequence, however, is that many very ancient, and therefore authentic, ways of living Jewishly have been lost in this encounter. Sometimes all we have preserved are medieval travelogues or the accounts of authors such as Edda Servi Machlin. To give a sense of what is at stake, Cecil Roth, the eminent British historian, posited that Italian Jewish history most likely began in 70 AD, after the Romans destroyed the second temple and brought the Jews of Jerusalem back as servants.

Twenty years ago or so, when I first acquired my copy of “The Classic Cuisine…,” I was fascinated by her accounts of a communal stone oven used to prepared matzot for Passover. All year long, this catacomb-like space was locked. In the weeks before, the locals would descend with scrubbing brushes until the stone slab on which their matzoh would be rolled was pristine and readied. Unlike our machine-made versions, which are both functional and industrial, her village made their matzoh into works of art. Oval in shape, the holes that are beveled in to prevent the dough from rising took on an aesthetic flair. During our years in Los Angeles, Laura and I once found some French made matzoh which preserved this graceful sense of ornamentation. It was a singular instance. Would the global Jewish community care more about beautifying our matzot (hiddur mitzvah) if small villages and their practices, such as Pitigliano, had survived the ravages of Nazism and fascism?

Edda was also the first to open my eyes to how Jewish migrations impacted local cuisines wherever we lived. For example, while fennel and eggplant are quintessential Italian ingredients, it took the arrival of the Jews to introduce these ingredients to the Italians. Fennel has been in the Jewish cooking repertoire at least since the Talmudic era, So too with garlic, another food staple introduced to Italy, which we have been eating since Biblical times.

On a more intimate level, a personally important branch of my family is from Padua, and that connection has been important to me. In earlier days, closer to my professional life as a chef, and before Laura and I started our family, Machlin’s recipes encouraged me to make homemade pasta. While the pasta roller hasn’t seen use in years, the experience, feel and taste remains in muscle memory.

She also provided a counterpoint to how traditional Jews practice kashrut. In her village (and mind you, her father and grandfather were Orthodox rabbis), the 20 or so Jewish families did not maintain separate sets of dishes or pots and pans for meat and dairy. In an age when fewer Jews attach themselves to our holy rituals, I wonder if more might attempt to keep kosher if they understood that different communities had a plethora of ways to walk in the path of the Torah? These historic options are disappearing from view, and this is another reason we were lucky to have Edda Servi Machlin as our guide.

We are hastening toward our Days of Awe. Many of us have begun to ponder those changes to which we would like to devote ourselves. Some of us are also considering more straightforward decisions, like what to serve friends and family on Rosh Hashanah lunch. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to seek out some recipes of the Italian Jews to grace your table and delight your guests.

I hope that you can discern an area or two for self-improvement. May this coming year offer you moments of awe and rejuvenation. And may we all be blessed with good health and sufficient energy to enjoy the time we have.

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Do you have any special food traditions at the New Year?
  2. When was the last time you discovered a Jewish food that you were unfamiliar with? What was it?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

Torah Sparks Commentary This Week