What kind of connection does food have to the Torah, aside from the laws of kashrut? Diana Lipton explored this concept in the book From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah (Urim Publications, 2018), where she worked with a team of 52 internationally acclaimed scholars to write essays on each parasha (Torah portion) and how food plays a role. Lipton includes her own verse-by-verse commentary on food and eating in the Torah. From Forbidden Fruit was originally an online project to support the food rescue charity Leket Israel.
Diana Lipton has been a fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King’s College London and a lecturer in Bible at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School. She is the proud mother of Jacob and Jonah and lives in Jerusalem with her husband, Chaim.
Jewish Food Experience®: How were the contributors for From Forbidden Fruit selected, and what kind of guidance (if any) were they given?
Diana Lipton: I started with academics and Jewish educators I knew personally, which got me a very long way! Some contributors recommended other scholars they knew, along with a few outstanding students, and that enabled me to complete the list. I wanted contributors to be about half Israeli and half [from the] Diaspora, and to represent the full spectrum of religious observance. It was important for me that contributors be trained to deal with texts, but not necessarily Jewish texts. As it turned out, half the contributors were men and half women, which I was very happy about.
In the end, we started after Simchat Torah, not Shavuot as I hoped when I wrote the guidelines, and every parasha commentary was posted in English and Hebrew on the website of Leket Israel, accompanied by recipes. I found the recipes in English, mostly by contacting Jewish food bloggers. I was fortunate, though, to have contributions from published food writers such as Claudia Roden and Joan Nathan. The recipes in Hebrew were located by a Leket’s director of marketing, Anat Friedman-Coles. Anat was lucky to have a distinguished food writer among her close family members: Elinoar Rabin! I really enjoyed the process of tracking down the recipes. I’d hardly ever looked at food blogs before that, and it opened up a whole new world for me. The recipes were temporarily taken down during recent website renovations at Leket, but they will be back soon.
JFE®: What is Leket Israel’s connection to From Forbidden Fruit?
DL: I approached Leket to ask if they were interested in hosting the project on their website as a way of increasing the number of visitors and raising their profile. They were. Profits from sales will be donated directly to Leket Iarael, and the book will be available for purchase from their website, as well as Urim’s website, Amazon, bookstores and so on.
JFE®: How has becoming vegetarian had an effect on how you perceive Jewish ritual meals?
DL: Before answering, I should I explain that I became vegetarian following the decision by my late husband, Peter Lipton z”l, to become vegetarian. Peter was a philosopher whose motivation was ethical. For me, and for him, this was an answer to the kashrut question; we ate vegetarian food everywhere. I continued to be vegetarian after his death to honor Peter’s memory, to honor our nuclear family (our two sons, Jacob and Jonah, grew up as vegetarians; Jonah now eats fish) and because being vegetarian was part of me by then and I could not easily have changed. My husband, Chaim Milikowsky, cannot imagine a Shabbat without at least one meat meal, and since our marriage seven years ago, I cook meat, happily, but without eating it.
For me, it’s important to do everything within my power to make sure that Jewish ritual meals in my home are feasts. Being vegetarian made that more time-consuming—it’s much easier to put a beautiful piece of meat in the oven than to chop vegetables! Perhaps I tried to compensate by making the food look as colorful and aesthetic as I could. Subconsciously, perhaps, I also created a feast-like atmosphere with large numbers. We regularly had 15 to 20 people to dinner on Friday nights; first-time guests often commented that it looked like a seder! Now that I do prepare meat, I could in theory slack off on the vegetables, but—perhaps because I have more time than I used to—the opposite has happened!
JFE®: What was the most fascinating thing you learned about food and its connection to the Torah?
DL: I learned that there’s nothing new under the sun. All the different ways we, especially Jews, use food to communicate where language isn’t enough are already in the Torah: love, favoritism, belonging and not belonging, guilt, emotional nurture, control, manipulation, power, desire, seduction, celebration, gratitude, commitment, memory, nostalgia…
JFE®: You write, “Cookbooks are cultural guides to life as it was once or should be lived.” Would you please share an instance in which you’ve found this in your own life?
DL: In preparation for writing the commentary, I taught a course on food in the Tanakh at Rothberg, Hebrew University’s International School. The students read biblical passages from the Tanakh alongside novels, poetry, anthropological and sociological food studies and so on. A book that made a huge impact on me was Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He happens to be Jewish, but not shomer mitzvot—the book ends with a meal featuring a wild boar he hunted and killed himself.
There are many important things in this book, but what I took from it above all is that food takes time. The faster you try to get it on the table (processed, packaged, ready-made), the more you lose in emotional and psychological added value, not to mention health benefits! Of course, we’re all very busy, and it’s easier to talk about spending time on food preparation than to spend the time, but as it happens I do have that luxury at this point in my life, and I love spending Friday mornings trying (I’m really bad with recipes!) to follow all the steps in Ottolenghi recipes! My favorite, which of course I don’t eat, is his oven-roasted lamb shawarma from the Jerusalem book, which also involved marinating overnight.
JFE®: What is a memorable Jewish food experience you’ve had?
DL: When I made the decision to stop using vegetarianism as my answer to kashrut, my life became much more complicated. In particular, the decision to be more stringent affected my social interactions with my friends and family, and that was difficult for me, and for some of them. So it was the 50th birthday of our very close family friend, Melissa Lane, a professor at Princeton. Neither I nor my younger son, who lives in London, could go to the US for the celebration, but it turned out that he and I could meet Melissa for Shabbat in Amsterdam at the end of a conference she was attending. Melissa and her husband Andrew used to live in Cambridge, England, where we lived for 17 years. They came to us for many, many Shabbat and chag (holiday) meals. Melissa even wrote about those meals in the obituary she wrote for my late husband in one of the UK national newspapers.
That’s what I wanted to do to celebrate her birthday in Amsterdam—a Shabbat where I prepared the food myself, just as I would have if we’d lived in the same place. So we rented a beautiful Airbnb, and—other than the amazing cookies baked by my husband’s daughter Elisheva, a world-class baker!—I made all the food for Shabbat in my kitchen in Jerusalem. My husband Chaim, a world-class packer, helped me pack it all, and I took it in a huge suitcase to Amsterdam, along with enough aluminum foil to double-wrap the things that needed to be warmed up in the oven before Shabbat. The biggest hurdle was the three flights of steep, narrow, winding stairs in the canal house we were staying in, but the owner was young and strong and carried it up on his shoulders almost effortlessly. There was something magical, almost miraculous, about unpacking it all that night and setting it out on the table the next day, like a picnic in the desert. All three of us experienced the power of that, and also the continuity the food represented. But my greatest happiness was that my more stringent kashrut observance hadn’t prevented me from preparing food as a demonstration of care and love.
In fact, had it not been for my more stringent observance, I would probably have found a local gourmet deli and bought everything on Friday morning, which would have been nice, too, but very different. I guess it’s indicative that my memorable experience involves food I prepared, not food I ate. It’s also indicative that the only dish I can now remember was a Smitten Kitchen recipe for roasted cauliflower slivers.