Judy Elbaum of Essex Fells first thought her self-published cookbook, “Seasonal Delights,” would be a compilation of recipes she wanted to pass down to her children, grandchildren, and friends. She never planned to sell it, or to make a profit on it.
But then her plans changed.
“All of this happened with Israel — the horrible massacres of October 7 and the ensuing war between Israel and Hamas,” Ms. Elbaum said. “And then, of course, the raging antisemitism that we’ve been experiencing since then. I was just beside myself.
“I just felt like I needed to do something.”
Ms. Elbaum already was a well-known name in kosher and Jewish cooking. She’s been writing a monthly food column for Essex Fells magazine since 2011 and is a frequent guest on Kosher.com as well as other websites and Instagram accounts. She also writes for her own website, LeaveItToBubbe.com, and she’s @baba_judy on Instagram.
A friend and co-congregant at Congregation Agudath Israel, Rebecca Berman, the CEO of Berman Branding, worked with Ms. Elbaum to design and publish the cookbook. Ms. Berman also manages much of Ms. Elbaum’s website, social media, and marketing efforts.
As Ms. Elbaum waited for the cookbook to be printed and sent back to her, she thought about how she could do more for Israel. She decided to turn the book into a fundraiser, and send 100 percent of the proceeds to Leket Israel, a nonprofit that gets surplus food to needy people in Israel.
Last year, Leket Israel had reached out to Ms. Elbaum along with other Instagram-famous Jewish, kosher-keeping cooks, bakers, and chefs to be a part of its yearly cookbook compilation. “Leket sends out a digital cookbook twice a year to their supporters for Passover and for Rosh Hashanah, and they asked would I be interested in sharing some of my recipes, and I said sure,” Ms. Elbaum said. “That’s how my relationship with them started.”
Leket Israel provides food for the hungry in Israel by working with farmers and other suppliers to get the surplus where it is needed. After October 7, its mission became even more critical. Ms. Elbaum shared Leket’s objectives on her social media, but she didn’t feel that she was doing enough. That’s when she thought of turning her book into a fundraising opportunity. The goal was originally set at $10,000; the book quickly brought in double that amount, and the numbers continue to rise. Ms. Elbaum “is just thrilled,” she said. “Every time we get a new donation, I just can’t believe it!”
Leket is providing hundreds of thousands of meals for displaced Israelis and for the IDF. It’s also giving rechargeable credit cards to economically struggling people to use to buy food. It also is sending volunteers — most recently a group of American cowboys — to help their counterparts with their crops, because many farm workers in the IDF reserves have been called up.
Food and cooking have always been a big part of Ms. Elbaum’s life. She was born in Brooklyn and grew up there and in Linden. Her parents, Fela and David Urman, were Holocaust survivors. “My father survived Auschwitz, and he had a saying,” Ms. Elbaum said. “He would say this in Yiddish, but I’ll say it in English. He said: ‘I’ll eat anything but razor blades and potato peels.’ The potato peels reminded him of his meager sustenance while at Auschwitz.
“He loved food. To the point where I was not allowed to throw food out. So if something had been in the refrigerator for two weeks and he saw me throwing it out, he would say ‘No no no, give it to me!’ and he would eat it.”
Ms. Elbaum was an only child. “My father was in the wholesale meat business,” she said. “His day started at 4:30 in the morning and he came home by 4:30 and we sat down and had a meal together every day. My mother made a home-cooked meal, and we sat together, and we just felt so blessed to be able to have this meal together.
“I was brought up with all this gratitude that after all they went through that we had such good lives now. My father never let me forget how lucky we were to be living in America. He would say ‘God bless America’ and ‘only in America’ all the time.”
“And I never thought I would see something like this in my lifetime. America was wonderful to my father and mother. They were able to make a living. They were able to live in freedom. They were able to send me to get a wonderful education, and we had wonderful lives here.”
“It’s traumatic for me to see what’s going on now and I just felt like I needed to do something.”
All four of Ms. Elbaum’s grandparents and two of her aunts were killed in the camps. Her mother was in a concentration camp when she was a teenager, so she never got the chance to learn how to cook from her mother. But when she came to America and got married, she had friends and family who taught her how to make some Ashkenazi meals.
“She had a limited repertoire,” Ms. Elbaum said. “She didn’t make a lot of things and she didn’t follow recipes. I would ask her for a recipe, and she would say there is no recipe.
“She’d say to me in Yiddish, ‘ikh mishn aun ikh gisn,’ which means ‘I pour and I mix.’”
Ms. Elbaum is fluent in Yiddish, which was her first language as a child. She and her husband, Steve, with whom she’s been married 44 years and who also is the child of Holocaust survivors, sometimes speak it to each other.
The first time Ms. Elbaum asked for a recipe, she was 15 years old. Her friend’s mother had made a sour cream coffee cake that was to die for, she recalled, and Ms. Elbaum had to know how to make it. “I remember her handing me a pink Hadassah cookbook, a notecard, and a pencil so I could copy the recipe,” she said. “I still have that notecard.” And she still considers that recipe as one of her all-time favorites.
Ms. Elbaum has collected countless recipe files, cooking magazines, and cookbooks since then, and often she adds a little twist to traditional recipes. Some of her favorites include a chestnut soup served in a hollowed-out pumpkin which she describes as labor intensive “but totally worth the work and the calories.” The recipes in her book are organized seasonally. With beautiful photos of every recipe by John Paul Endress, and helpful hints and notes, it’s as close as you can come to having this proud bubbe of four grandchildren cooking alongside you.
As she taught herself how to make her husband’s favorite childhood foods, Ms. Elbaum’s focus on cooking snowballed.
“My husband’s mom had passed away a year before we got married and he would say, ‘Oh, my mom used to make the most delicious stuffed cabbage and she used to make the most delicious rugelach,’” Ms. Elbaum said. “And so I would go to the store and I’d buy some books and I’d research it. We didn’t have the internet back then, so I just kept buying a lot of books and magazines and I learned how to make real a really good stuffed cabbage and I learned how to make really good rugelach.
“I was getting all this positive feedback and so I started collecting more cookbooks and I started testing more recipes. And that’s where I get my inspiration.”
She eventually took some classes, and later even taught them. She’s begun to film video tutorials, with Rebecca Berman’s help, and they’re up on her website.
“I have a whole tutorial with a really wonderful recipe for challah,” she said. “And another fun one for something I call Matzo Braffle, which is matzo brei made in a waffle maker. It’s wonderful. Those are also in my book.”
One of Ms. Elbaum’s most popular tutorials shows how to make a perfect hard-boiled egg.
“You need a lot of eggs for Passover, and so I did a lot of research and found the perfect way to make the egg, so it peels beautifully with a nice smooth white,” she said. “When you slice these eggs, you’ll see a yolk cooked to perfection without any of that gray green around the edges.”
The book includes recipes for many desserts, including Ms. Elbaum’s mother’s butter cake. She has vivid memories of picking the streusel topping from it and devouring it before her mother caught her. “I would pluck all the streusel off when she left the room,” she said. “Sometimes she would hide it from me so that the cake didn’t look all pockmarked by the time I was done with it. I never got her recipe for that cake, but I did try to replicate it and I have a version of it. It’s not as good as hers, though.”
Other delicacies in the book include a pineapple and honey glazed corned beef, Nanny Fela’s Epic Chicken Soup, and another twist on chicken soup called Columbian Penicillin that Ms. Elbaum swears will cure what ails you with its secret ingredient, turmeric.
To buy the book —100 percent of the proceeds are sent to Leket Israel — go to my.israelgives.org/en/fundme/JudyElbaum.