For Miriam Feinberg, memories of family and home have been preserved in many ways, including through food.
Her family came from Grajewo, a small city in Poland’s Lomza province. Arriving in the US in 1886, her paternal grandparents settled in New York City and then moved to Poughkeepsie, New York. Her maternal grandparents left Europe later, so her mother was born and spent part of her youth in Grajewo.
Miriam’s parents married in Brooklyn in 1934 and then settled in Poughkeepsie, where she and her sister were born. An immigrant, Miriam’s mother remained very connected to Eastern Europe, and she kept memories alive through traditional Eastern European dishes. “My mother was a very good cook, but very limited. She always made the same things,” Miriam explained. While Miriam learned a great deal from her mother, cooking was not one of those things.
After Miriam was married, she learned to cook from her mother-in-law, Rosa Feinberg, who was born in Baltimore to a German family that had come to the US in the 1850s. A rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife), Rosa frequently hosted guests at her house. She was an inventive cook and loved beautiful presentation, using food as her artistic medium. She regularly invited the synagogue’s Hebrew school teachers to her house for Hanukkah where she served edible menorahs, based on the description in the Torah. Whenever the rebbetzin visited Miriam, they would cook together.
Since then, cooking has become an activity that Miriam relishes and one that connects her to Jewish life around the world. In fact, Miriam’s love of cooking and different cultures inspired her vision for Kitchen Stories: The Lives and Recipes of Beit Shemesh-Mateh Yehuda Women. “I see food as a connecting element. It connects me to Jewish holidays, Jews from cultural backgrounds that are different from mine and, most importantly, to beloved family members, past and present.”
These days, Miriam prepares special foods for the holidays that include specific dishes the members of her family like to eat.
For Rosh Hashanah, she always prepares chicken soup with matzah balls, stuffed cabbage, carrot pudding and her mother’s apple cake. She recently discovered that a newer member of the family, her daughter-in-law, likes hard knaidlach (matzah balls), so Miriam has started serving both hard and soft variations for the holidays.
With their children and grandchildren dispersed across the Maryland area, New York and Israel, the Feinbergs don’t get to spend every holiday together. Her oldest son and his family, who live in Beit Shemesh, Israel, and stay there for the holidays, have begun to incorporate traditions and foods from the Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder into their holiday meals. Serving similar vegetable dishes as well as the symbolic pomegranates and figs at her own table in Maryland, Miriam feels the sharing of tradition across oceans.
For the Passover seder, Miriam serves traditional Eastern European haroset, supplemented every year by two variations from different countries, each adorned with a toothpick bearing a flag of the country of its origin. Last Passover, it was Italy and India.
A passionate Zionist and lover of Israel, Miriam served as a committee member of The Jewish Federation’s Partnership2Gether program, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s platform that partners greater Washington with the Jewish communities of South Africa and the Beit Shemesh-Mateh Yehuda region in central Israel. She participated in several visits to the DC area by a delegation of ethnic cooks from the partner region in Israel. Impressed and inspired by the diversity of the group and the women’s unique stories, she was the visionary behind Kitchen Stories: The Lives and Recipes of Beit Shemesh-Mateh Yehuda Women, which came to fruition with the help of Smadar Kaplinsky and Miriam “Mickey” Blumberg.
The cookbook empowered the women involved in the project, but also serves as reminder of widespread Jewish connections. As Miriam concluded, “We’re really one people even though we have come from different places.”