Maywood’s Temple Beth Israel plans medieval feast

Maywood’s Temple Beth Israel plans medieval feast

A plate from the Golden Haggadah, a Spanish Hebrew manuscript from about 1420.

Few synagogue events are truly unique.

However, it would not be surprising to learn that the Nov. 14 event planned by Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood is one of a kind.

Taking up a proposal from its fund-raising chair, Jenne Heise, the synagogue is inviting community members to a medieval Judaic Spanish feast.

“Jenne’s very involved with the Society for Creative Anachronism,” said Caryn Starr- Gates, RTBI president and one of the chefs.

Heise and fellow congregant Sarah Fiedler, both Fair Lawn residents, have been part of the SCA for more than 10 years. The two belong to the local chapter, Shire of Rusted Woodlands, which encompasses Rockland County in New York as well as Bergen, Sussex, and Passaic counties in New Jersey.

According to the website of SCA’s East Kingdom, the international group is a nonprofit educational organization that studies the Middle Ages by re-creating the pastimes and crafts of the period.

“They love all things medieval,” said Starr-Gates. “[The congregation] thought it would be fun,” she added, citing the publicity flier for the dinner that invites would-be attendees to “eat like our medieval Sephardic ancestors.” The evening’s activities will center on La Convivencia, the “the golden age” of Iberian medieval culture, when Jews, Moors, and Christians coexisted in mutual tolerance.

Heise – web manager/reference librarian at Drew University in Madison – noted that she had coordinated a similar feast in Lancaster, Pa. That meal, however, had included Jewish, Christian, and Islamic elements.

“Sarah said it would be fun to cook a feast for the synagogue. I agreed and said I had already done some research” and could organize a meal around Jewish foods, she said.

Heise subsequently pitched the idea at an RTBI board meeting “and they were very enthusiastic.” Indeed, she said, “a number of people have come to help with the cooking.”

Heise said the SCA member who conceived the program was interested in La Convivencia because “it was a period of balance between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, which is extremely rare in European history and especially in medieval history. It’s a fascinating time period.”

In addition, she said, Jewish history during that time is fairly well documented, although there is less material about food “for reasons that are not clear. We have only six recipes that are documented as Jewish that have been located in recipe books from this period.”

As a result, the Maywood dinner will be based on recipes “that have some compatibility with Jewish practice from a slightly later time.”

For example, she said, information has been obtained from “A Drizzle of Honey” (St. Martin’s Press; 1999), by David M. Gitlitz and Dr. Linda Kay Davidson. Called by Publishers Weekly “a cookbook of medieval recipes that is, more significantly, a document of religious persecution during the Spanish Inquisition,” the book contends that crypto-Jews who secretly struggled to maintain their Jewish identity “were betrayed by what they ate, what they wouldn’t eat, and how their food was prepared.”

According to Heise, the authors of that book did a lot of research into Inquisition reports, “looking for things indicative of a Jewish diet.”

The Maywood dinner will be both delicious and educational, said Starr-Gates, noting that Rabbi Jarah Greenfield, religious leader of RTBI, will kick off the event with a study session on Jewish life in medieval times. In addition, a speaker from the SCA will talk about the cuisine of the period.

Attendees will have a chance to sample many dishes, and children have been invited to dress up in costume and help serve.

The three-course meal will be based on 14th-, 15th-, and 16th-century recipes – adapted, where necessary, for kashrut, said Heise. Among the offerings will be clarea de agua, a spiced honey drink; figs in the French style, stewed in wine; mustard sauce with red grapes; chickpeas with onion and honey; and quince paste.

While the event is open to the public, seating is limited and reservations are due by Nov. 10. For further information, e-mail

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