Welcome to Speaking Torah. I’m your host Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, Director of the Innovation Lab at Hebrew College. In this podcast, leaders from Jewish communities around the country read essays by Hebrew College rabbis and leaders. These essays tackle the pressing issues of our world, in need of healing and hope, and do so with Hebrew College’s signature compassion, creativity, and relevancy.
This week, Lydia Kukoff gives us a really tasty essay, Squash with Egg and Cheese, a beautiful reflection on the power of food and cooking to invoke memory, history, family, and love.
Lydia Kukoff is a member of the Hebrew College Board of Trustees. She created – and for 13 years lead – the Reform Movement’s Outreach Program, the Jewish community’s first national program for intermarried couples and Jews by choice. In that capacity, she traveled widely throughout North America, leading seminars and speaking about intermarriage, conversion, and the changing demography of the North American Jewish community.
She’s the author of Choosing Judaism and coauthor of Every Person’s Guide to Judaism: An Introduction to Judaism, a Course Outline, with Rabbi Stephen Einstein.
Lydia was awarded the Weinberg High Award by the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, the Isaac Mayor Wise award by Temple Emanuel in Denver, and the Faculty Award for Academic Achievement by HUCJIR in Los Angeles.
We asked Judith Rosenbaum to read her good friend Lydia’s essay. Judith is CEO of the Jewish Woman’s Archive, a pioneering national organization that documents Jewish women’s stories, elevates their voices, and inspires them to be agents of change.
Judith earned a BA from Yale University, a Ph.D. from Brown University, and won a Fulbright Fellowship to study women’s collective communities in Israel, and received a dissertation grant from the Radcliff Institute for Advanced Study to pursue research on the women’s health movement.
She has taught and lectured widely at institutions including Brown University, Boston University, and Hebrew College, and also serves on the faculty of the Bronfman Fellowship and was awarded a Schusterman Fellowship. Here’s Judith reading Lydia’s essay Squash with Egg and Cheese.
Judith Rosenbaum: Cut potatoes into small-ish cubes. Cut onions into pieces. Cut zucchini into chunks.
Oh, those zucchini. I spotted them on my pre-work morning foray to the weekly farmers’ market in my Manhattan neighborhood. From some deep recess in my mind came the image of “squash–with-the-egg-and-cheese,” a dish I hadn’t eaten, or even thought of, for years.
Heat olive oil in a pot. Add the cut-up vegetables. Stir constantly so they don’t stick.
“Squash-with-the-egg-and-cheese” is a dish so specific to my father’s Apulian family that I’ve never seen it anywhere else. My grandparents transported it from Faeto, their small Italian village, to South Philadelphia, where they sold fruits and vegetables in the Italian curb market above which they lived. Their six children all worked with them and, when they made families of their own, they continued to live within 10 blocks of the store and my grandparents’ kitchen.
Every person in the family – male, female, young, old – cooked. My grandmother taught all her grandchildren to roll gnocchi, five at a time, one for each finger. My grandfather would enter with ingredients for his pasta dishes; big wicker baskets of snails he had captured in the garden, wild mushrooms he had foraged, dandelions he had dug from sidewalk cracks. From their battered pots came the earthiest, tastiest surprises. That kitchen became the radiant center of my childhood universe.
Cook until almost tender.
South Philly was an ethnic, blue-collar neighborhood where people stayed put, and adult women wore black for much of their life. Not the chic black hanging in my Manhattan closet, but the black of the Southern Italian village, worn for a year to mourn the departure of someone closely related to them, and then continuing to be worn as, inevitably, other close relatives would die.
The world of these women was the family and the home. They were praised not for their looks, their chic, or their accomplishments in the larger world, but for keeping a clean, well-organized house, rearing well-mannered children, and preparing delicious, bountiful meals. Most of my contemporaries graduated from high school and held secretarial jobs until they got married, usually to a boy from the neighborhood. A very few lived at home, went to local colleges and became teachers.
Puree a can of plum tomatoes in the food processor. Add the tomatoes to the zucchini mixture. Add salt and pepper.
I chose a different path and did the unthinkable. I left home. The first person in my family, male or female, to go to college, I went away for school and then moved to New York City to live and work among strangers.
I made the life I had always dreamed of having when I was a child in South Philly, and I thrived in this larger world of theatre, museums, friends from around the world. Drawn to Judaism since my adolescence, I fell in love with a Jewish man and converted.
My Italian family and his Russian-Jewish family found common ground in the fact that their children had made such good choices in marrying a spouse who came from “such nice people.” Our wedding took place under a chuppah in a friend’s Manhattan apartment, and a remarkably good time was had by all.
Scramble eggs. Add grated Parmesan cheese. Turn up the heat and stir the egg and cheese into the zucchini mixture. Cook a bit more.
I tear some basil, stir it into the mixture, and let it sit for a couple of minutes. Breathing in deeply, I let the aroma fill me. Then I ladle some squash with the egg and cheese into a bowl, take a spoon from the milchig drawer, and sit down with it at the kitchen table. I put a spoonful in my mouth. I close my eyes.
It is just as I remembered it.
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: We asked Judith what she thought of Lydia’s essay.
Judith Rosenbaum: I love this piece. And I love it not only because I love and know Lydia very well and have even eaten this meal at her table, and so it’s very present to me, but I think that even for those that haven’t had the pleasure of sharing this meal with Lydia, her piece is so evocative. And of course, it’s a piece about sense memories. But in the way that she wrote it and in the rich description of the writing itself kind of evokes all of these different senses, so it really brings to life that feeling of the memories that you associate with particular tastes and smells and sights and what those mean as you weave them into your full life.
I have been so lucky to spend so much time with Lydia in her kitchen and her kitchen is really, in some ways, the heart of her home. and we have spent so many hours standing over pots and talking and stirring and sitting and eating and cleaning up and putting things away and taking them out and reorganizing the refrigerator so that we can fit in leftovers.
And I think that it’s been – I mean, first of all, being in Lydia’s kitchen is one of my happy places. It’s a place of such richness. And it’s a place, just like this essay, of such fullness, of full sensory experience. It’s about tastes and smells and sights. It’s a very packed kitchen. There are a lot of beautiful things in it stacked all over the place. And it’s a place also of rich conversation and connection.
And I think Lydia is someone who is so gifted at thinking about how all those pieces fit together and inform one another, that the depth of a conversation and a relationship is related to what you serve someone and how you present it. And I feel so lucky to be part of Lydia’s world in that way and being able to share food with her and learn about her recipes and how those connect to her past is definitely part of that deep connection that I feel so privileged to share with her.
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: I love how she mentions taking a spoon from her milchig drawer in the end, so you learn it’s a kosher kitchen. Lydia doesn’t talk specifically about her Jewish journey in this piece, but it makes me want to learn more about it. What do you think is the Jewishness of this piece?
Judith Rosenbaum: One of the things that comes through very clearly in this piece is that memories are so immediate and clear, even in a piece like this that’s in part about leaving and about traveling a distance. She’s talking about traveling this great distance and she traces it in the piece from her South Philly childhood to her life as a Jew in New York.
And one of the lines that really struck me, I love that line about taking the spoon from the milchig drawer. I think that that is such a great connection and grounding us in the Jewishness of Lydia’s life now. But it’s a reminder of the ways that Judaism and Jewish tradition grows because non-Jews join the Jewish family and become Jews.
And so, part of the way that the Jewish expands is when we incorporate people who come from other backgrounds. So, the memories that Lydia is recalling in this piece aren’t Jewish in origin, but they become Jewish because they matter in her life as a Jewish person now. And that distance between her grandparents’ apartment in South Philly and Lydia’s table, which is a very Jewish table, are bridged by taste and bridged by this recipe which didn’t start out as a Jewish recipe, but now in some ways is a Jewish recipe because it’s one of Lydia’s recipes and she serves it in her family. And so, I think it’s a really important reminder of just the richness of expanding our tradition and welcoming new people into the fold.
One of the other lines that really strikes me is the comparison between the chic black hanging in her Manhattan closet and the black of the Southern Italian village. And to me, that was really very much about how context is everything and the same act, wearing all black, means something very different in the different contexts. So, here, it’s not a connection of sameness. It’s really a connection of difference.
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: You’re a historian. So, I’m wondering how you think about pieces like this; pieces that will become a primary source one day. How can they help us understand Jewish women’s lives?
Judith Rosenbaum: I read this as a historian of women and gender and I’m interested in it as a woman’s story. And in particular, it’s a story of a woman who made unconventional choices, who left home, went away to college, and then to the big city to, as she says, “Live among strangers.” And then on to become a Jew.
But it’s also a story about traditions and the hold of traditions on us, in this case food traditions. So, I think that this piece also reminds us that we’re all in relationship with tradition. It’s not black and white. It’s not that you’re either conventional or unconventional or traditional or not traditional. We all bring traditions into our lives and adapt them in different kinds of ways, so it’s a beautiful way to see how Lydia, who really forged her own path, also brings with her so much of what shaped her and what she grew up with.
And then, I think the other piece about this that really resonates for me, as someone who spends my life thinking about women’s stories and women’s documents is the way in which it’s helping us think about domestic ritual and sort of sacralizing the everyday. So, I think that the sense memories are really important to ritual. We sometimes forget that in Jewish life today. I think it was so much a part of Judaism in the temple, in the ancient times. You know, there’s so much in the description of the temples about the smells of burning sacrifices and the different spices you were supposed to use.
But I think, of course, we have that all around us all the time, you know, the smell of a book or the taste of cookies at Kiddush or dishes that are served as holiday celebrations. And I think it’s the reminder of the importance of the domestic and the familial – which traditionally are realms that have been directed by women – as being very important to how we experience spirituality and ritual and religious practice. And those are realms that may seem to fall outside of formal religious practice, but are such an important piece to the way that we feel connected to the traditions that we come from.
You know, I think so often, in the ways that the Jewish community talks about the kind of boundaries of Jewish community and talks about interfaith families or talks about Jews by choice is with a framework of conflict. And I think part of what – Lydia has been such a leader in helping the Jewish community think differently about outreach – what was called outreach – about Jews by choice, about how do we make our communities more welcoming?
And I think part of her gift is that she hasn’t framed it as conflict. And we see in this piece, it’s not about conflict. It’s about being able to encompass many things at once. And that is what the Jewish community should be doing, not setting up tensions there, but rather saying, “Okay, what are the pieces that we bring with us? What are the pieces that we’ve learned from other traditions? How do we think about the diversity of our community in a way that acknowledges the benefits and the gifts of it rather than seeing it as something to be afraid of?” And I think that is something that Lydia has been really a leader in, in the larger community, but also modeled so beautifully in her own life.
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: We asked Lydia how she came up with the idea for this essay.
Lydia Kukoff: It was completely a Proustian Madeline moment that I was having literally at this farmer’s market. I had no idea of writing anything. I was in the farmer’s market and I saw the zucchini, just as I said. And I had this real – it was my Madeline, you know, the zucchini, because I’m Italian, I don’t go in the direction of sweets. I go in the direction of vegetables. And so, I saw these gorgeous zucchini and I thought, “Okay.” And as I said in the piece, this dish came to me in a flash and I hadn’t made it in forever. I forget I even knew how to – it was so far deep buried in my consciousness.
So, I got the zucchini and I went home, and I made it. And then, the piece came to me, written almost. It just came to me. I wasn’t thinking about writing anything. I was thinking about cooking. And I made it and I did it and then just boom, at some point right after that. And it came to me and I sat down and I just wrote it through.
And I had it and I forgot about it. And then, years later – and it was buried in my files – in the synagogue, our little Chatham Synagogue here, I had been talking to people about ethical wills. And people get very interested in that. Because we were doing a Torah discussion.
And one of the people, Alan Gelb – who’s a wonderful writer and does a lot of work with writing with people, especially kids going to college, helping them become writers around their essay – was very taken with the idea of ethical wills. And we started talking about legacy. And so, he started to – he had the idea of doing a book, which ultimately became a book called Having the Last Say. And it’s a whole book about how you write something that tells something about you that you want people who come after you to know about you.
And he did a little workshop with several of us that he invited to participate as a test for this book he was thinking of. And so, I took out the piece and reworded it and it became this current form. So, that’s the story of the piece. But it really started with those zucchini in the market. We always rush around everywhere. And if you really take time and think about things, they lead you places. And that’s where those zucchini led me.
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: Tell me about your Jewish journey. You hint at it in the piece, but you leave us wanting to know more.
Lydia Kukoff: People who choose Judaism are always sort of interesting in the sense that there has to be this sort of – I don’t want to say a negotiation, but certainly a consideration about who you really are and who you’re becoming and what that means in terms of who you were.
And I’m completely fascinated by Italian Jewish history and Italian Jewry because I think it’s one of the little-known and least understood traditions. And one of the things I did in our shul was, for a year, we had a whole year about Italian Jewry. My father’s side comes from Puglia, which is the heel of the boot. And it comes from a little tiny remote village that it only has, at this point, maybe a few hundred people in it. And they speak a very peculiar – not peculiar, but they speak a unique dialect. It’s only spoken by the people on the next mountaintop.
And they’re always having people from Ohio state and everything there doing linguistic patterns. Because it’s actually a variation of 12th century Provencal, the dialect. It’s a very interesting dialect. And since that area was conquered by everybody from the Greeks forward, it was part of Magna Graecia there.
And so, I had these fantasies that I was some kind of a foundling, you know, that there was some – with all the persecutions and the disruptions and all that, that there were hidden Jews up there. This is totally not born out genetically, but it was my fantasy before there was 23andMe and stuff like that. It was my fantasy because our family is sort of a semi-unusual Italian family. It’s quirky and stuff.
And my grandfather converted when he came to this country and was one of the founders of this Italian Baptist church where the whole first service in our day was in Italian, including the Baptist hymns that we would sing in Italian.
The truth is, what happened? So, we came here and I helped start this shul. And it’s its own kind of interesting – I think – interesting quirky place. So, it’s interesting. And I’m growing my vegetables the way my grandfather did.
I feel as if there’s such a through-line. It’s so peculiar. None of it planned, all of it serendipitous. But ultimately, if I look back, there really is a through-line even though, you know, who knew? It’s a different kind of – it’s like a Lech-Leche story, you know.
My mother had a great line when I told her I was converting. She said, “Well, I suppose this means you won’t be Italian anymore either.” And I thought, “Isn’t that interesting.” I said, “I am Italian. And now I’m going to be Jewish. And I’ll figure it out.” But the truth is, you don’t become – you are who you are even if you’re an adult in your fullness and you’re a Jewish newborn. And so, you’re sort of growing yourself Jewishly but you are still the person you were, so you have to navigate that.
And so, for me, I always, from my early teenage years I always knew I was going to be Jewish someday. And I don’t know how that was. It just was something that drew me, even though… the one Jewish person in our elementary school was my best friend. And my friends were always Jewish, even though I lived in basically an Italian ghetto in my growing up years.
My friends were always Jewish and I was always drawn to Judaism and there was just this pull. And my mother remembers that I told her when I was about 13 that I was going to be Jewish someday and she thought I was just, you know, trying to get a rise out of her, which I had also been known to do.
But the truth was, I just knew it from an early age. And so, when I met the person who would be my husband, it was a foregone conclusion because at that point, I had only ever dated Jewish men, largely. I mean, not entirely, but mostly. And so, I had this pull.
And I think my hunch, from the work I’ve done in this area, my hunch is that there are a lot of people out there who don’t continue to be drawn to whatever they were raised in. And as one person said to me in a workshop I once did said, “You know, I couldn’t believe it when I found Judaism because it’s like, if I had to invent a religion, it would be Judaism. It just made so much sense to me.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: I love the way you use senses to invoke memory.
Lydia Kukoff: I think the senses are something so basic to us, you know, smell and taste especially. And I think food is – we’re bound up, I think, early, especially if you come from a food culture. I mean, I definitely came from a food culture and then I entered into a food culture. So, I mean, it was perfect. It was the perfect fusion for me.
But when I grew up, it would be you wake up in the morning, you say, “So, what are we going to have tonight?” and you start thinking ahead to your next meal and making it. And food, for me, was always this – first of all, it was connected to family and it was connected to memory, you know, making gnocchi with my grandmother. So, it’s tactile. It’s touch. It’s smell. It’s sight. It’s family. It’s memory. It’s everything. And it just comes forth so forcefully because it’s so basic and so innate, I think. And it’s preverbal. It reaches a place that’s so basic inside, so elemental.
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: You sound like a serious foodie.
Lydia Kukoff: Where I come from, everybody made their tomato sauce based on the way they – it was like where you came from, you made that kind of tomato sauce. And there were all kinds of Italians living together on any given block. But we always had a critique of other people’s tomato sauces, you know, did they put in onions or they didn’t put in onions. Or some people put in peas, god forbid. And all this.
So, it’s just something that has always been a source of joy. No matter what else was happening, it was a source of joy and comfort. And my family sold fruits and vegetables in an Italian curb market, so I grew up surrounded by food in the best possible way.
I combine – you know, I’m not orthodox in the sense of my food. It’s a kosher home. But my orthodoxy does not extend. I will make Italian chicken soup with matzah balls in it, you know. It isn’t a classic Jewish chicken soup. It’s really an Italian chicken soup with matzah balls in it.
I think it’s the way you combine things. Or in other words, there are certain things we do that are more or less traditionally Jewish, sort of, but always with sort of a kind of Italian tom to them, you know. For instance, on Rosh Hashanah, I’ll make a fried kugel for dinner on Erev Rosh Hashanah, which Judith can attest to. She’s had many of them. But I’ll do a very different menu.
It’s more about menu mixtures than just straight-ahead anything. So, you know, we do these marinated – we take these little… they’re not little tiny Cornish hens. I forget what you call them. But they’re a very small, tender chicken cut lengthwise and you marinate it in ginger and mustard and olive oil and garlic. And you let it really sit overnight, and then you just grill it.
And I’ll do that with a veal and mushroom loaf. And then the fried kugel, and then a whole bunch of vegetable salads. And then, for dessert we’ll have teiglach and spitzkuchen and stuff like that. So, it’s more the mixture as well as some things that are adapted like the chicken soup. But it’s more about he sort of way it all combines, which I think is a metaphor. That’s the metaphor.
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: We asked Lydia how she felt about Judith reading her essay.
Lydia Kukoff: I adore Judith, of course, everybody does. But Judith and I have, over these years, developed a very, very close relationship and she’s – Judith lives in my kitchen. Judith is really inside the food. You know, there’s like a level of getting it; just getting it? So, when I say Judith is inside the kitchen, my kitchen, she gets it. She feels it. She’s part of it. She’s just there with it. And she’s that kind of person anyway, and of course, she makes a lot of my food, I mean, my recipes and stuff, my techniques she’s learned over the years. And she’s brought them home to her kitchen, which gives me great pleasure.
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Speaking Torah. We want to thank Emily Hoadley for our logo, and Hebrew College Rabbinical student and composer Jackson Mercer for our theme music Esa Einai. To learn more about Hebrew College, please visit hebrewcollege.edu/podcast. And remember to subscribe, like, and rate Speaking Torah on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. We’ll leave you this week with these words from Lydia.
Lydia Kukoff: Buon appetito. And also Lech-Lecha.
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit: And with Psalm 114 He-Harim composed by Hebrew College graduate Rabbi Micah Shapiro and performed by Micah and Aaren Alpert. I’m your host Rabbi Jeff Summit. See you next time for Speaking Torah.