Neiman-Marcus Hosts Tina Wasserman, Author of a New Jewish Cookbook

You’re probably not inclined to think of the Neiman-Marcus store in Chevy Chase as a place where Jewish education takes place.  But that’s exactly what occurred there one evening last week.

Now, don’t let be misled.  It’s not like there was a full-length, formal class being taught.  Rather, it was an approximately fifteen-minute-long informal talk given in the home-furnishings section on the third floor by Tina Wasserman, who, like the other fifteen or so of us, was standing up.

Who’s Tina Wasserman?  She’s a Dallas-based cooking instructor who writes a food column for Reform Judaism magazine and has just released an intriguing cookbook titled Entree to Judaism:  A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora.  It’s published by the URJ Press, contains more than 275 recipes over the course of 472 pages, and is priced at $39.95.

She was in town to promote the book, and after signing a number of copies of it while people munched on the rugelach and cappuccino brownies that she had baked before leaving Dallas, she announced in a soft voice that she was going to give a little talk.  She proceeded to speak non-stop and without notes about the book’s two primary themes —  how Jews adapted their culinary habits to the regions of the world they had moved into over the centuries, and how they had also taken their cooking traditions with them to their new lands and in so doing had sustained their continuity with the past.

As she gave us a history lesson that was also a pep talk about Jewish adaptability and creativity, she had the aura of a dynamic leader.  Her compelling speaking style, personal charisma, and extensive knowledge were all being employed to inspire in her listeners an interest in the complex and fascinating relationship that has existed between Jews and their cuisine throughout the centuries.

Discussing the Book’s Mission 

Earlier in the day, she had given me an interview, which began with the following exchange.

I’d like to start by asking you to explain the title, Entree to Judaism.  Do you intend the book, or Jewish cooking in general, to function as a portal to Judaism?  Or is the title simply a play on words?

“It’s both, actually.  A play on words because the ‘entree’ is referring to the main course — you know, the ‘entree’ to Judaism.  But I really looked at this book as a way to give people an entree into understanding their heritage as it is expressed through food.  Because it’s one thing to learn historical dates, and it’s another thing to know that your grandparents came from such and such a place — but there needs to be a connection.  There needs to be a hook.  Not everybody is an affiliated Jew, but they affiliate themselves with Judaism because they say, Well, my grandparents came from here, there and the other.  We’re getting into generations where ‘my grandparents’ could be coming from upstate New York, or ‘my grandparents’ could be coming from Illinois — and I really, really wanted people to have a connection.

“The olfactory sense is the closest link in the brain to memory, and I wanted to be able to re-create memory.  I have literally had experiences with people that have brought tears to their eyes when they’ve tasted something that I made that they remembered their mother making, or their grandmother making.  Literally.”  

What was your motivation for writing the book?

“My motivation for writing the book actually came about seven or eight years ago.  I was giving a program for my synagogue’s Sisterhood, and we went to a major supermarket chain in Dallas.  I pulled foods from the shelf and from their take-out that represented foods with which Jews had had a direct contact with their development, with their cultivation, with their sale or trade throughout history.

“When I got finished with the talk and the tasting, people said to me, ‘This was the best program.  Why didn’t anybody ever teach us any of this?’  And I joked with them and said, ‘Because they had enough to teach you in the three hours of the week that you came to Hebrew school — to teach you Hebrew and get you ready for your Bar Mitzvah, et cetera, et cetera.’

“And I realized that, especially living in the southwest, not everybody is inundated with Jewish culture the way people on the East Coast are.  And not everybody on the East Coast is inundated with the Jewish culture.  So I really wanted to give the experience of understanding the connection to people’s past — and to the stories behind the recipes.  The recipes are stories, and the stories are recipes.  So, that’s why I wrote the book.”         

How the Book Is Arranged

Entree to Judaism is divided into three parts.

The first part is titled “Cooking in the Diaspora:  Adaptation and Reclamation.”  It has thirteen sections, ten of which are devoted to geographical regions, including Spain, India, Western Europe, and “The New World and Latin America.”  The other three sections are devoted to themes such as “Jewish Traders on the Spice Route” and “Jews and the Vanilla and Cacao Trade.”

Each of the thirteen sections begins with a brief historical overview of the region or theme being addressed.  Then come recipes that have a connection to the region or theme.  And at the conclusion of each recipe there’s a box titled “Tina’s Tidbits” in which she provides tips and pertinent insider information relating to the recipe.  (This basic format of  brief introductory comments that are followed by recipes and telling “tidbits” is followed in the book’s other two parts as well.)

The second part is called “Celebration of the Jewish Holidays Throughout the World.”  Its eight sections are devoted to Shabbat,  Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Chanukah, Tu BiSh’vat, Purim, Passover, and Shavuot.

The third part, titled “Icons of Jewish Cooking,” has eight sections featuring such culinary standards as chicken soup, gefilte fish, and cheesecake.

Jews and the Orange Trade

A section in part one is called “Jews and the Orange Trade.” 

In the section’s introductory comments, Wasserman presents a brief overview of Jewish cultivation of oranges in the Mediterranean region from the Roman era to the 12th century, and then writes the following:

“The Jews were involved in orange agriculture because they had been involved, since ancient times, with the cultivation of another citrus fruit, the etrog, or citron. The etrog looks like a large (five or more inches), knobby lemon.  It is very fragrant but contains little or no juice.  It is prized for its fragrance and for its thick rind, which can be candied and is widely popular in baked goods to this day. 

“The Jews cultivated the etrog to fulfill the commandment, on Sukkot, in Leviticus 23:40, ‘On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees,  branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Eternal your God seven days.’  These are the four species that form the lulav and etrog.” 

The section includes a recipe for Moroccan Orange and Olive Salad. 

At the end of the recipe, the following useful “tidbit” is provided:  “The best way to tell if a citrus fruit has a good flavor is to scratch the peel with your fingernail.  Even if the fruit is tart, the scent should be sweet and full-bodied;  a lemon will smell like a lemon lollipop if good.” 

Quoting Rabbi Heschel

In the section on Shabbat in part two, she states:

“Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that God could have made a mountain or a spring that he created holy, but he didn’t, he made time holy:  ‘The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals;  and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn.'”

The Science of Chicken Soup

In part three’s section on chicken soup, Wasserman’s introductory comments range in time from the Middle Ages to the present day.

The soup “has been an icon of the Jewish table since early medieval times,” she writes.  “Its presence defined the Shabbat table,” and at a Jewish wedding feast “chicken soup was served to draw the parallel between the fecundity of chicken and the wish that the new couple be fruitful and multiply.”

She also draws the reader’s attention to research into the curative powers of chicken soup that has been conducted by scientists at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.  The researchers, she says, have “identified some properties in chicken soup with vegetables that suggests it has an anti-inflammatory effect on our bodies that helps lessen the symptoms of the commond cold.”

She includes the medical center’s URL in case anyone wants to learn more about the research —

 www.unmc.edu/chickensoup/article.htm

I checked it out, and the information there is both fascinating and extensive.

What Her Rabbi Says About Her

Ms. Wasserman, who is married and has a son and a daughter, is a very active member of Temple Emanu-el, a large Reform congregation in Dallas.

One of the temple’s four rabbis is Rabbi Debra Robbins, who wrote the foreword to Entree to Judaism.

“This book is a little bit like the Talmud,” Rabbi Robbins writes.  “It is a compilation of rules and stories, with real life examples and illustrations, a guide not only for preparing certain recipes but for living Jewish life.” 

Rabbi Robbins has been a student in the classes that Wasserman teaches in the large kitchen in her Dallas home.

The kitchen is so expansive that it can accommodate up to twenty students, according to Wasserman’s daughter, Leslie, who was able to attend the Neiman-Marcus book-signing reception thanks to the fact that she’s in her senior year at  D.C.’s American University.  (After she graduates this spring with an expertise in public communications strategies, she’s planning to move to Hollywood to start a career in either the entertainment industry or public relations.)     

In the foreword, Rabbi Robbins states:

“In Tina’s recipes each ingredient tells a story.  Each recipe expresses an ethical value, explores an historical event, evokes a memory.  To study in Tina’s kitchen-classroom is to be in a place of challenges and paradoxes, and this book brings that experience to its readers.  To cook with Tina, in her kitchen or in our own, is to encounter the place where precision in technique intersects with culinary creativity, intense concentration gives way to laughter, and our personal lives blend with the historic stories of our ancestors…. These are recipes that will nourish and nurture not only our bodies but our hearts and minds and souls. ”

Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

Ms. Wasserman grew up on Long Island in the 1950s.

“From the time I was twelve, I knew that I wanted to teach people about food and cooking technique,” she writes in the book’s preface.

She also states the following:

“Although most of my parents’ relatives got out before the start of the war, news from Eastern Europe and the popularity of Molly Goldberg on television rekindled the family’s interest in traditional Jewish cooking, for food was the connection to the cousins left behind.”

Molly Goldberg was the main character in the groundbreaking 1950s TV sit-com “The Goldbergs,” which prior to its launch in 1949 had been a radio show for seventeen years.  I had never heard of either Molly or the show before last year’s release of “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” — the documentary film by Washington’s own Aviva Kempner about Gertrude Berg, the creator, star, and primary writer of the sit-com.

I didn’t get to see the movie during its run at the classy Avalon Theater in Chevy Chase, but thanks to Kempner’s information-filled website that’s devoted to the film, I was able to see some clips of the show.  You can see them as well, if you go to www.mollygoldbergfilm.org/home.php

In the interview, I asked Wasserman to expand on the point she made in the preface about Molly Goldberg’s influence on her.

“It had to have had a different effect on me than my parents.  My parents had cousins that got out just before it got really tough, and that’s how my mother learned how to speak Yiddish.  My father learned how to speak Yiddish from HIS family.  I mean, I grew up in a household where my parents spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want me to understand something.  I mean, literally….

“Molly Goldberg, with the Yiddish intonation, (when I was) growing up in the New York metropolitan area — she was like one of my relatives.  She was like a member of the family.  But at a time that was before I was born.  Essentially it was supposed to be in the fifties, but I was little then, so it felt like it was the forties — you know, when people lived in apartment buildings.  You kinow, I was already of the generation that the parents moved out to the island and had their first little house, their little bungalow house.  So, Molly Goldberg and the cooking and the intonation and everything was what I was used to, so it was like an extension of the family.”

What She Was Wearing

When I mentioned that I wanted to shift to the topic of fashion, she said, “I have a masters in fashion merchandising, so go for it.” 

“What are you wearing?” I asked.

“Actually, I’m so glad that you asked, because I got most of it here.  I wear Armani Collezioni. ”  She said that most of her suits and jackets are from that line.

She had on black slacks, a dark navy blue jacket, and a dark navy blue satin tuxedo shirt.

“I buy classic, tailored, basic clothes.  And I have them for years.”

Her Jewelry

“I’m wearing David Yurman earrings,” she said.  They were dangling and elliptically shaped, and made out of what she called “his classic rope and smooth-gold surface.” 

On her right wrist was a “very old” French bangle bracelet about a quarter-inch wide, made out of gold and “dark navy to green” marbleized enamel — with “gold swirls with little diamonds.”

She was wearing two necklaces.  One was of pearls — and was given to her by her husband for their thirtieth anniversary.  “I don’t know who they are, but they’re good.”

When discussing the other one, she first touched it and then said,  “It’s a Jewish star, with seed pearls in it, on a gold chain that has spaced-out, little seed pearls as well.  The gold Jewish star was given to my mother for singing in the choir sixty years ago.  And the chain is from my Bat Mitzvah, and that was almost fifty years ago.  So, I put them together.  And I wear them whenever I give a talk about the book.”

The ring on her right hand was a half-inch gold band with diagonal rows of pave diamonds and small dark sapphires. Her husband had it custom-designed for her, and gave it to her as a present for her fortieth birthday.

On her left hand she wore a quarter-inch, diamond-braided band, which she said was “probably filled with dough at this point.”  And on her left wrist she had a dark, stainless-steel watch.

Comments from a Couple of Guests

At the evening reception, I asked Aviva LeKuch of McLean what had prompted her to attend.

She said that she hadn’t planned on doing so.  She had simply been passing through Neiman-Marcus on the way to a film festival in Mazza Gallerie’s movie theater, when “suddenly I saw a Jewish cookbook.  And I said, ‘Wow!  That sounds very interesting.’  I looked through the book and I remembered some of the things that my grandmother used to cook.”

While the memories of her grandmother’s dishes were undoubtedly pleasant ones, the trip down memory lane inspired by the recipes probably had some dark undertones for her as well, considering that her childhood was spent in Latvia when it was part of the Soviet Union and Jewish observances (along with other religious practices) were not permitted.

During the afternoon’s book-signing session, Bethesda’s Phyllis Meyers was among the individuals who purchased a copy of the book and then had it inscribed by the personable Wasserman.

“I’m looking forward to trying the recipes,” said Meyers, who told several of us a story about the time when she and two of her friends received a private cooking lesson from Joan Nathan, the highly acclaimed Jewish cookbook author who happens to live in the D.C. area.  The private lesson, which Meyers had acquired through making the winning bid at a charity auction, took place in Nathan’s home kitchen. Incidentally, Nathan has called Entree to Judaism “a delicious tour de force” and “a treasure for us all.” 

Backstory — The Neiman-Marcus Connection

Since 1982, Wasserman has been living with her family in Dallas, which also happens to be  where the headquarters of Neiman-Marcus is located.

When I asked her to explain how she came to be promoting her book at the famed fashion emporium, she said:

“For twenty years, I was involved in a non-profit organization that had a child-care center for homeless children, and Neiman-Marcus was always, always very helpful.  Their employees once did a fund-raiser that raised over a hundred thousand dollars for our organization.  The current CEO, the past CEO, and Mr. Stanley Marcus himself were co-chairs of our big event, where I coordinated the dinner for eleven hundred people at the Symphony Hall — so I had a chance to work directly with all of them.  I also had a chance to work directly with the head of special events for Neiman-Marcus.  I knew the quality of Neiman-Marcus.  I was grateful for what they did for my organization and for the children.

“I sent Karen Katz, who’s the president and CEO of Neiman, an e-mail.  I said, I have written a book and I know it’s of Neiman’s quality, but I don’t know whether you can use it in the store.  I’d like the opportunity to at least show it to somebody.” 

The company’s executives eventually “decided to take a chance” on it, she said.  A book-signing event was held in the Dallas store, and it turned out to be “very successful.” 

Because of the gratitude that she feels for the company’s support of the book, “I try very, very hard to go out of my way to get all the publicity I can for Neiman,” she said.  “I believe in giving back.”

To learn more about Ms. Wasserman, please visit her website at CookingandMore.com

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