A synagogue cookbook unlike other synagogue cookbooks
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A synagogue cookbook unlike other synagogue cookbooks

Mixing vegetarianism and interfaith relations, ‘Nourishing Our Souls’ fulfills its mission

Maayan cuts out the circles after rolling the dough as she makes hamantaschen with her grandmother, Abby Meth Kanter.
Maayan cuts out the circles after rolling the dough as she makes hamantaschen with her grandmother, Abby Meth Kanter.

What makes this synagogue fund-raiser cookbook different from other synagogue fund-raiser cookbooks?

After all, this volume, “Nourishing Our Souls” — like others published by synagogues, in this case, Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell — is in many ways like those others.

As in other such projects, the call went out for community members to share their favorite dishes, a committee of testers and tasters sifted through the submissions, and the final product delivers cherished family recipes often handed down “m’dor l’dor,” from generation to generation.

So mah nishtanah? Well, while many of the recipes reflect Jewish culinary customs and are traditional fare for the holidays (in keeping with this theme, that includes Matzoh Crunch and Flourless Chocolate Cake), in “Nourishing Our Souls” you will find no chicken soup, brisket, or chopped liver — or for that matter, Sephardi dishes like koftas, kebabs, and ktzitzot.

The absence of such dishes is explained by the book’s subtitle: “A Vegetarian Cookbook” — so nary a fleishig dish is found in its pages.

And there’s another big “mah nishtanah.” Unlike other synagogue cookbooks, in “Nourishing Our Souls,” alongside recipes for challah, kugel, and meatless cholent, you will also discover instructions on how to make Christmas Cherry Cakes, Colcannon (an Irish potato-and-cabbage concoction chiefly associated with St. Patrick’s Day), and Gullac (a Turkish dessert served during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan).

For this cookbook was a labor of love and inclusiveness assembled with mindfulness of health benefits to our bodies and our Earth and of the interfaith harmony that comes from sharing the riches of our tables and cuisines.

It should come as no surprise that the group of CAI congregants who worked on “Nourishing Our Souls” was drawn from the synagogue’s environmental and interfaith committees.

According to cookbook committee (and CAI interfaith committee) chair Gail Kleinman of Fairfield, the seed of the publication was planted after an expansive CAI Earth Day program in 2020 on Zoom that included members of the Christian and Muslim communities who are environmental activists and champions of interfaith bridge-building.

Cookbook committee cochair Deborah Schwenk displays her Couscous Pan Pizza fresh out of the oven.

The focus of the program was food — specifically food from plants and how a diet that eliminates meat accrues benefits to the well-being of individual consumers — and from a global perspective, the planet.

In a conversation with Ms. Kleinman after the meeting, Harriet Sepinwall of Pine Brook, the chair of the environmental committee, who had put the program together, asked, “Where do we go from here?” recognizing that so many people had been galvanized by the mission and messages of the participants. Ms. Kleinman said that when she answered, “Why don’t we do a cookbook?” Ms. Sepinwall seized on the idea and moved it forward.

Besides helping to “increase connections among diverse faith groups,” the publication was planned with the idea that “what we choose to eat has a significant impact beyond the meals on our plates,” Ms. Kleinman said. “We wanted those who would use the recipes we would collect to advance better health for themselves, their loved ones, and the planet — in a delicious way.”

The cookbook committee was formed and reached out not only to CAI members — dozens of whom responded — but beyond, to members of other faith communities, to assemble a book reflecting those values.

Mark Lipsy, cochair of CAI’s Environmental Committee, shows off his Beer Bread.

The organizers tapped established synagogue relationships to solicit recipes. Susan Werk of Caldwell, CAI’s education director, contacted friends and colleagues from the West Essex Ministerial Association, which gave wholehearted support and sent out the word requesting recipes from its associates.

Through CAI’s long-established ties with the Peace Islands Institute, Muslim friends were asked to share dishes celebrating their traditions.

The response was heartening; ultimately, the 100 recipes in the book were the submissions of 53 contributors from diverse faiths and cultures.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2009 book “Eating Animals” sparked the concept for the cooperative venture, Ms. Sepinwall said. While the health benefits of a vegetarian diet are widely understood, it was through Mr. Foer’s work — a moral examination of vegetarianism, farming, and people’s everyday diets — that Ms. Sepinwall recognized that if “breaking bread together is an ideal way to span the divides between our faith communities, it stands to reason that that ‘bread’ should be meat-free. After all, it’s extremely hard to find someone who won’t eat vegetarian!”

The recipes range from appetizers and beverages, soups and salads, and vegetables and side dishes to breads and rolls, main courses, and desserts. A section covering holiday dishes includes Vegetarian Cholent with Jachnun Topping, Frijoles Negros (a time-honored Cuban Christmas Eve dish), and Turkish Ramadan Pide (a traditional bread served for Ramadan break-fasts).

While the recipes are the heart of “Nourishing Our Souls,” other sections advance the work’s mission. An essay from Ms. Kleinman and her cookbook cochair, Deborah Schwenk, convincingly invites readers to welcome healthier traditions to their tables, emphasizing that “if you want to achieve better health for yourself, your loved ones, and the planet, this cookbook will help you with that transformation.” By talking about the physical benefits of vegetarianism to the individual, the positive impact that widespread acceptance of such a diet has on the climate and environment, and how its adoption can help alleviate food insecurity, they make cogent arguments to convince readers to undergo that transformation. Their evocation of the spiritual advantages of vegetarianism underpins their arguments. “Breaking bread together is always possible with vegetarian food,” allowing us “to get to know and understand how we are all ‘much more human than otherwise’ while maintaining our identifies, beliefs, and traditions,” they write.

Gail Kleinman, chair of the cookbook committee, makes her Not Too Bland Matzo Balls, included in “Nourishing Our Souls.”

In his introduction to the book, Agudath Israel’s senior rabbi, Ari Lucas of Caldwell, writes about the ties of cuisine to Jewish identity and cites Genesis to demonstrate that “one feature of paradise is a vegetarian diet,” as God gives permission to the first humans to partake of the plants in the world God has just created. Rabbi Lucas posits that with all the complex Jewish laws and restrictions surrounding the consumption of animals — and acknowledging that one of the purposes of the dietary laws is “to sensitize Jews to their place in the natural order of God’s creation” — perhaps kashrut actually was meant “to incentive Jews to be vegetarians.”

Sister Honora Werner of Caldwell — the director of the Doctor of Ministry at Aquinas Institute of Theology at Caldwell Dominicans-Sister of Saint Dominic and a major champion of interfaith relations and of the publication of “Nourishing Our Souls” — explores in depth Christianity’s relationship to dietary restrictions and how the Christian Vegetarian Association promotes religious faith-strengthening of “love, compassion, and peace” and represents “responsible stewardship for all God’s creation.”

And Hakan Yesilova of Clifton, editor of “The Fountain Magazine” — and the contributor of that Gullac recipe — offers an insightful Muslim perspective on a vegetarian diet. He notes that “our spiritual traditions originate from a common call of alignment with the universe and the natural world” and points out, citing the Qur’an, that humans “were not only meant to be ‘stewards of the earth’ and ‘righteous servants’…but should also aspire to be ‘unequalled mercy for all
the worlds.’”

Yesilova explains that “being a steward necessitates ‘care’ in perfect compliance to the ‘order,’ not by corrupting its balance. Being merciful qualifies that care to reflect the God-given dignity of being human and to project it as widely as possible to encompass all creation,” including, of course, animals.

Cookbook committee and Agudath Israel members, from left, Mark Lipsy, Deborah Arbit, Gail Kleinman, Abby Meth Kanter, Bob Markman, Jilana Dellal, Max Kleinman, and Deborah Schwenk celebrate the publication of “Nourishing Our Souls” as they sample some of its dishes. (Mark Lipsy)

Personal reflections on the dishes and how they evoke memories of family gatherings and carry on culinary customs to succeeding generations accompany many of the recipes; there also are memories and insights in the section called “From Our Recipe Contributors.” Maida Richlin remembers her grandmother, a Russian immigrant, teaching her to make challah using a chipped, handle-less teacup to measure the flour. Jen Eisenberg and Bhupesh Bansal talk about the prevalence of vegetarianism in India and their contribution of a recipe for Poha, a breakfast dish from the state of Maharashtra, whose capital, Mumbai, is Bansal’s native city.

Brief descriptions of the holidays represented by dishes in the book, a comprehensive bibliography of works on vegetarian cooking, many highlighting the various traditions showcased, and “Helpful Hints” pages to aid the at-home preparer of the meals round out the brimming volume.

A word must be said about what is certainly not the least of the book’s attractions: the cornucopia of colorful fruits and vegetables that appears on its cover. It was created by artist and CAI congregant Marilyn Rose of West Caldwell, who not incidentally also suggested the title.


Orders for “Nourishing Our Souls” include a comb-bound cookbook, an electronic (recipes only) version, and a bookplate for gift-giving.

The cost is $18 per book; orders can be picked up from Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell or shipped for an additional $4 per book. Net proceeds will be donated to local food banks.

To order the cookbook, go to Agudath.org/form/nourishing-our-souls-cookbook.


‘Midweek’ Curry Masabacha with Tofu and Chickpeas

Recipe courtesy of Meny Vaknin

This masabacha — a sort of hummus variant whose name is based on the original Hebrew and Arabic words for “swimming” (because the chickpeas are left whole, swimming in the sauce) — is a “quick, healthy, vegan dish with a wonderful fusion of flavors from my favorite cuisines: Middle Eastern, Indian, and, of course, the rich Israeli-Moroccan-Jewish culinary legacy I learned — with love — from my mother and grandmothers.”

Ingredients

1 can (13–15 ounces) organic chickpeas
1 block (14–16 ounces) tofu
Olive oil
1 small Spanish onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp. whole cumin seeds
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 Tbsp. ground curry powder, good quality
1 can (13–15 ounces) coconut milk
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
2 cups chopped spinach (optional)
Salt, to taste
1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice (for finish)

Directions

Rinse chickpeas well with cold water; drain and set aside.

Pat tofu dry with paper towel; cut into one-inch pieces.

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan.

Add tofu cubes to pan and brown for a few minutes on all sides. Add onion, garlic cloves, and cumin seeds to pan; sauté until slightly caramelized, about five minutes.

Lower flame to low-medium, add coriander and curry powder to oil; let flavors blossom for 30 seconds before adding chickpeas and coconut milk. Bring mixture to a soft boil; lower flame and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add cilantro and spinach, season with salt, and cook for a few more minutes, until spinach is wilted. Finish with lemon juice.

Serve with quinoa or basmati rice.


A family kitchen affair

Writer’s note (in full disclosure)

As a longtime member of Congregation Agudath Israel, of course I was thrilled to be asked to participate in the publication of “Nourishing Our Souls.” I had edited a lot of the content of “From Generation to Generation,” a cookbook that the synagogue’s sisterhood published more than 20 years ago, and I was happy when I was asked to edit the “front matter” — the introductions, holiday descriptions, pretty much everything except for the recipes themselves — for this one.

And while I am not (yet) a vegetarian myself, my 10-year-old granddaughter, Maayan, inspired by her love for animals, is, and I thought that whatever contributions I could make would be in her honor.

Then I was asked to contribute my recipe for hamantaschen. (Well, not exactly my recipe; it’s from “The Complete Family Guide to Jewish Holidays” by Dalia Hardof Renberg. I’ve been using it — tweaked a bit — for decades to make the hamantaschen that go into my mishloach manot baskets, and people seem to like them. I know I do, especially because, as the recipe rightly claims, they “rarely open up while baking.”)

And so the circle was complete, since every year since she was 2, Maayan has been my faithful Purim baking partner, developing into an excellent roller, filler, and “pincher” of the three-cornered pastry. Her younger brother, Leo, also lends a hand in the kitchen, but he seems to be more adept at eating than baking.

One more family connection: Maayan’s father, Meny Vaknin, was happy to contribute a recipe to “Nourishing Our Souls.” This is no ordinary dish; my Israeli son-in-law is the award-winning executive chef and owner of Marcel Bakery and Kitchen in Montclair, and his Curry Masabacha, he wrote, is a “quick, healthy, vegan dish with a wonderful fusion of flavors from my favorite cuisines: Middle Eastern, Indian, and, of course, the rich Israeli-Moroccan-Jewish culinary legacy I learned — with love — from my mother and grandmothers.”

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