Jewish food has a way of stirring up our fondest memories: a grandmother’s Formica kitchen, a snowy Chanukah evening, a traditional Shabbat meal.
The powerful connections between tradition, memory and food were not lost upon the small group of tenacious volunteers who first published The Spice and Spirit of Kosher-Jewish Cooking nearly four decades ago. At a time when Jewish cookbooks were mostly limited to spiral-bound Sisterhood fundraisers, Spice and Spirit—widely referred to as the Lubavitch Women’s Cookbook—packed hundreds of kosher recipes into a professionally designed heavy-duty volume. It quickly made a place for itself on cookbook shelves in kitchens from Chassidic Brooklyn, N.Y., to the suburbs of Los Angeles.
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“It’s an extremely valuable and monumental work, ” says legendary cookbook guru Nach Waxman, who founded Kitchen Arts & Letters—a specialized cookbook store containing more than 13, 000 titles—on New York’s Upper East Side in 1983. Over the years, Spice and Spirit’s recipes have appeared in media outlets from Hadassah magazine to The New York Times, representing authentically kosher food to the world. The book has since been followed by a generation of modern kosher cookbooks.
“The kosher cookbook market has since exploded, but Spice and Spirit was a trailblazer, ” attests Waxman. “It’s one of those important standard works. It introduced a lot of people in the Jewish world to the idea that kosher goes far beyond tzimmes and kugel.”
“People were starting to travel more and experience other cultures, and the Lubavitch cookbook introduced new kosher recipes, ” adds Joan Nathan, the doyenne of Jewish cooking who contributes recipes and articles to The New York Times and Tablet Magazine, and whose first Jewish cookbook, The Flavor of Jerusalem, came out in 1975.
The finished product belied the fact that the book hadn’t been produced in the publishing houses of Manhattan, but in a handful of dining rooms and kitchens in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn by a volunteer team of 14 women, led by Esther Blau, Cyrel Deitsch and Cherna Light. What drove the women—at the time all stay-at-home-mothers raising large families—was a passionate dedication to sharing the mitzvah of keeping kosher with Jewish people everywhere.
Sustenance for the Soul
It was 40 years ago that the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—introduced his newest mitzvah campaign, kashrut (keeping kosher). For some time already, his followers had been hitting the streets to urge their fellow Jews to don tefillin or light Shabbat candles, but in the summer of 1975, the Rebbe called on Jewish people everywhere to place a special emphasis on kosher, explaining that its laws have an acute impact on a Jew’s spiritual health.
“It is explained in holy Jewish books … that a person’s makeup is greatly affected by what he eats and drinks, ” stated the Rebbe. “The food becomes a part of his blood and flesh, and just like it affects one’s physical health, it affects one’s spiritual health as well.” The Rebbe also pointed out that modern science has come to recognize the effects food has on the entirety of the person as well.
Shortly thereafter, the Lubavitch Youth Organization in New York announced Chabad’s newest campaign. During his talk, the Rebbe had spoken of a special fund that would offset the costs incurred by an individual going kosher; the notice laid out the details:
A fund has been established to help defray costs of anyone, throughout the entire world, who will change to a kosher kitchen—kasher the stove and other utensils, purchase two new sets of dishes and whatever else is necessary. Half of all these expenses will be reimbursed from this special Kashrus Fund upon receipt of a letter from the local rabbi certifying that the kitchen has been kashered and the amount of the expenses incurred. This will, of course, be kept in utmost confidentiality.
Within days, Chabad activists were working on the mechanics of helping people kosher their homes. Educational pamphlets were printed, and utensils for koshering sinks and stoves purchased.
“I remember we received brochures from New York for us to send out within our communities, ” says Rabbi Shimon Lazaroff, regional director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Texas since 1973. “We started dealing with kashrus; it was all we talked about. Hundreds of homes went kosher here in Houston during that time.”
Meanwhile, just a few years earlier, the younger division of the Lubavitch women’s organization based in Crown Heights—had voted to create a community cookbook not unlike the ones published by synagogues, schools and Jewish women’s groups around the country.
“Cyrel Deitsch, Marilyn Rosenfeld, Fraida Andrusier and Frida Schapiro were in charge of the recipes, ” remembers Blau, who has served as the longtime editor-in-chief of the cookbook. “It was very primitive, all by hand. Women didn’t write recipes in any professional order; it was totally amateur. We collected and tested, and we probably had quite a few hundred recipes.”
The women were also sensitive to the new influx of people into the community who were discovering Jewish practice, and wanted their book to serve as a kosher source and an all-around Jewish reference for the women who hadn’t grown up in religious homes.
“We had people write a little about kashrut, a little bit about the holidays, maybe a half-page for each, ” says Blau. Recognizing that they needed an expert to oversee the kosher-law section, Blau asked Rabbi Yehuda Kalman Marlow—at the time one of the rabbis of the Crown Heights community—for his help.
“That first manuscript was reworked numerous times, and he went over everything very, very patiently, ” recalls Blau. “We submitted it to the Rebbe in 1975.”
The Rebbe’s response was not what the women were expecting.
The answer came in the form of a detailed, handwritten response by the Rebbe in Hebrew, typed up by his secretary, Rabbi Binyomin Klein.
The cookbook would be vying for attention with other ones on the market, the Rebbe said, non-kosher ones included, so:
Since this will have an effect on kosher observance in many Jewish households, it needs to be beautiful externally as well, even if it will cost more to create. Surely, you’ll consult cookbooks that are already sold in stores.
The committee was invigorated by the Rebbe’s challenge and support.
“When we got these instructions, we recognized that the Rebbe attributed far more importance to what we were doing than we had ourselves, ” says Blau. “We immediately started consulting professionals. We knew it had to be typeset and not off a typewriter. Everything had to be done on another level. It had to be beautiful.”
The written sections were rewritten and expanded. Artist Michoel Muchnik was commissioned to illustrate the book and the front cover. As the project grew, so, too, did interest in it.
Clear, simple and easy to follow, “Spice and Spirit” raised generations of kosher cooks. While modern dishes were included, Jewish classics still kept their place in the pantheon.
More than just a collection of recipes, it included pages detailing kashrut, Shabbat and the Jewish holidays.
Clear, simple and easy to follow, “Spice and Spirit” raised generations of kosher cooks. While modern dishes were included, Jewish classics still kept their place in the pantheon. More than just a collection of recipes, it included pages detailing kashrut, Shabbat and the Jewish holidays.
Cyrel Deitsch, whose cooking and hostessing skills would prove to be a great asset over the years to the Spice and Spirit endeavor, remembers their meeting with Macmillan Publishers: “The woman there was very nice, and they wanted the book, but they didn’t want to print it at the level we wanted it. We wanted it on good paper, and during that time all the cookbooks were being printed on this thin type of paper.
We also learned that at all of these big corporations, you’re just as good as your promoter. If your promoter leaves or is fired, no one cares about your book anymore, and it goes straight to the bottom of the pile.”
So they forged on. The women soon discovered that with nothing like it on the market, everybody from the bookbinders to the printers were excited to take part in the project, graciously extending credit on numerous occasions. The heads of these companies—often Jews who were raised with some traditional observance—considered it their privilege to help see a first-ever kosher cookbook of this caliber into fruition.
Throughout the process, each iteration of the book would be presented to the Rebbe, who would offer detailed critiques and instructions.
By 1977, it was finally ready. At that year’s farbrengen gathering held at 770 in honor of the 50th anniversary of the release of the Rebbe’s father-in-law—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—from Soviet imprisonment in 1927, the Rebbe was presented with the finished product. Visibly pleased, the Rebbe responded with a blessing: “Much success with the kosher campaign, and all of the mitzvah campaigns!”
Towards the end of the gathering, the Rebbe further accentuated the significance of the work, telling the thousands gathered about the newly completed book and pointing out that no less important than it being a beautiful guide to cooking, it was also a kosher primer.
Food columnists and reviewers seemed to agree, applauding the fact that they finally had a comprehensive and explanatory kosher cookbook they could use as a reference.
“Because rules for kosher cooking prohibit the mixing of meat and dairy products, cookbooks devoted to such recipes usually resort to awful ersatz ingredients that result in tricked-up ‘mock’ this or that, ” wrote Mimi Sheraton in the Times. “One exception is ‘The Spice and Spirit of Kosher-Jewish Cooking.’
“This large, handsome, illustrated book includes descriptions of all religious requirements for maintaining a kosher home, ” emphasized Sheraton, “along with instructions for the proper observance of Jewish holidays and life-cycle celebrations.”
The initial printing flew off the shelves. Jewish people from all walks of life lapped up Spice and Spirit; they simply loved it.
While each consecutive printing of the Spice and Spirit would rapidly sell out, by the mid-1980s it became obvious to the ladies of the cookbook committee that it was time to update their bestseller. The book—a blue hardcover edition wrapped in a linoleum-yellow dust jacket—contained older recipes (rendered chicken fat, for example, known as gribnes) that didn’t have to be included in a newer book.
Consumers were also clamoring for kosher versions of everything from more modern American cuisine to Asian-inspired foods and ingredients then just gaining in popularity.
Deitsch remembers years of weekly meetings with her fellow committee members, mainly Blau and Light, as well as hours testing the various new recipes included in the new edition. Light had joined the group in 1985, bringing her culinary skills and knowledge of modern foods to the effort.
Meanwhile, Blau recounts that “the Rebbe was very anxious about the book’s release. I remember when Rabbi Nissen Mindel, one of the Rebbe’s secretaries, came out of the Rebbe’s office, saying that the Rebbe asked about the cookbook’s status. There were many other times as well; it was clear that the Rebbe wanted it published as soon as possible.”
With work in full-swing Waxman got a call from Blau asking if they could get his advice on moving forward with an updated copy.
“She said they were doing this new edition of the book and asked if I could consult with them, ” says Waxman. “A few women came in, and we talked very seriously, at a very high level; we discussed everything from cover design to the nature of the recipes to publishing.”
Waxman and other professionals who became involved with the new book were impressed by how precise and organized the work was—this from already busy women who between the three of them were raising dozens of children. “What they accomplished was spectacular, ” declared Waxman. “I find it difficult to see how this group of people with so many other obligations could even begin to put together something on this level. This book leaped the fence between community cookbooks and professional ones.”
In all, the new edition would include almost 900 recipes. The kosher-law, Shabbat and Jewish holiday section, which takes up about a third of the book, was rewritten and expanded by Tzivia Emmer and Tzipora Reitman to make it more accessible and practical. In addition to other design changes, a distinct purple cover was chosen, from which it has since taken its most famous moniker, “The Purple Cookbook.”
The “Purple Cookbook” was released amid much fanfare in 1990, published with the slightly altered title of Spice and Spirit: The Complete Kosher Cookbook. By now, everyone had taken notice. The book came in third place in the Tabasco Community Cook Book Awards; it was included in anthologies such as The New York Times Jewish Cookbook; and its recipes were published in national magazines like Good Housekeeping.
Joan Nathan, who included recipes from Spice and Spirit in her best-selling anthology—an excerpt of which was published as a pre-Rosh Hashanah profile of Deitsch and kosher cooking for The New York Times in 1991—met Cyrel in 1991 when she was doing Jewish Cooking in America. “She invited me to her house in Crown Heights for Shabbat, and I came there with two of my children. We had a great time.”
What fascinated Nathan was how the Chabad-Lubavitch community was integrating foods introduced to them by baalei teshuvah—returnees to Jewish practice, such as Rivkah Katzen and Shulamis Nadler—who by that time made up a sizeable number within the Chabad community.
“There were people who hadn’t been kosher, and had experienced other styles of cooking and then brought that into the community, ” says Nathan, who has written 10 cookbooks and is working on her 11th. “The other thing was that in my experience, so many of the Lubavitchers, such as Cyrel, were really good cooks.”
Nathan says she still refers to the cookbook, noting that it’s one of very few that includes so comprehensive a guide on kosher laws. “The practices were very interesting, ” she says. “It was religious, but at the same time not parochial, not preachy.”
“The Purple Cookbook” has certainly entered the bloodstream of Jewish and kosher cooking in America, helping countless numbers of Jews learn about, and ultimately commit to, keeping kosher. Beyond regular consumers, Spice and Spirit is also often used by caterers and other professionals learning about kashrut.
Its effects, says Blau, are difficult to estimate, and they’re not all food-related.
Take, for example, the time in the mid-1980s when her phone rang incessantly very early in the morning.
“The call was from Russia, and I couldn’t decipher it at all, but someone was urgently trying to reach me, ” she remembers. Finally, Blau asked her Russian-Jewish secretary to come translate.
A Jewish refusenik had been arrested in Russia, and the woman on the line wanted a blessing from the Rebbe. She had no way of getting in touch with anyone in New York, but she did have the kosher cookbook, which listed Blau’s phone number on the inside cover. The woman’s request was passed on to the Rebbe’s office at 770.
“The Purple Cookbook” can be bought online and in stores, and while by now there’s no shortage of kosher cookbooks, Spice and Spirit still stands out as a testament of dedication to a mission and the superhuman feat of a small group of volunteers.
“When someone walks in and asks for one book that orients them on kosher, I will give them this book, ” affirms Waxman. “We will always keep it on our shelves.”
Hungry? Here’s a recipe from Page 137 for “Classic Chicken Soup”:
Chicken soup is the ideal Jewish dish. Ever popular for Shabbat and Yom Tov, it is perfectly complemented by egg noodles or kneidlach. Lovers of chicken soup are quite passionate about the best recipe; each cook has his or her own favorite.
Chicken soup, in all its various forms, is a staple on Shabbat tables and Jewish holidays.
Classic Chicken Soup
1 3-pound to 5-pound chicken, quartered
12 cups water
1 stalk celery
1 to 2 parsnips
1 Tbsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper
1 parsley root
1 clove garlic
Several sprigs of fresh dill
1 sweet potato
8 to 10 servings
Clean chicken and remove excess fat.
Fill an 8-quart pot with 12 cups of water. Bring to a boil.
Place chicken and vegetables in pot. Add salt and pepper. If using optional ingredients, chop parsley root; peel garlic, leaving it whole, pierce with toothpick in order to remove easily. Add both to soup with the dill. Dice the sweet potato, slice zucchini and add to soup.
Simmer, covered, for about 2 hours. Remove garlic.
Note: To remove excess fat, prepare soup in advance and refrigerate for several hours overnight. Fat will congeal on top. Remove and heat soup before serving.
By Dovid Margolin