Cooking up a life

The course of Nirnberg's life is chronicled in her recipes, spiced with the people she knew and the families she created.

At the age of 83, Margalit Nirnberg finally realized her long-held dream and published her very own cookbook. From Margalit's Kitchen is not an ordinary cookbook. In addition to the wonderful color photographs and great recipes, Nirnberg's cookbook tells the story of her remarkable life and, with it, the story of Jerusalem. Born in 1923, Margalit Bar-Zion, a third-generation Jerusalemite, grew up in what she remembers as "a loving house" with her four sisters and three brothers. Her mother had given birth to a total of 18 children, but 10 of them had died in infancy or early childhood. Nirnberg has lived most of her life in Jerusalem, except for six years when she lived with her family in Tel Aviv. They had moved in order to be closer to Nirnberg's sister, who had married and moved to the big city. In those days, Nirnberg recalls, girls were married off at a very young age. Her sisters were wed by the time they were 13, and Margalit was considered quite the old maid when she had not married by the time she was 15. So the family returned to Jerusalem to find her a husband. "My mother could not understand why no man had asked for my hand in marriage yet and was very distressed about it," recalls Nirnberg. Salvation came soon after when Nahum Netanel, then 24, asked to marry her. "I caught only a quick glance of him when he came to our house. I was too shy and I hid from him. He was practically a complete stranger to me, and, up until our wedding day, I didn't even know his name," she says. Recalling those days, Nirnberg does not voice anger or resentment, and even nostalgically recalls her colorful wedding party in the Bukharan compound. Netanel was very tender and loving and soon she grew to love and cherish him, she says now. Life has not been easy for her, yet there is something very calm and soothing about Nirnberg, even when she speaks about some of her most difficult experiences. Within only a few years, she was a young mother of four small children, living in the Old City in besieged Jerusalem during the War of Independence. When the Old City fell to the Jordanians her husband was taken prisoner. For an entire year, she cared for her children alone, in the poor, newly founded State and the even poorer city. Then Netanel was released - only to die shortly after in a car accident on his way to a reception in honor of the returned prisoners of war. Nirnberg continued to struggle to provide for her children. Yet she also continued to find, and, almost astoundingly, continues to focus on the good instead of the difficult. She prefers to talk about her friendships with her neighbors rather than on the grief and hunger, on women's strength rather than on their vulnerability. "Even before the war, we women in the Old City used to help each other with everything. We even breastfed each other's babies when one of us was short of milk. I can recall breastfeeding Fatma's baby. She was our Arab neighbor. To me, it was natural. I even tried to find her after the war, but never succeeded," she says. The course of Nirnberg's life is chronicled in her recipes, spiced with the people she knew and the families she created. She learned old Sephardi recipes in her mother's kitchen and new ones from her husbands. Netanel's family had taught her the ways of the Kurdish kitchen. After Netanel died, she married David Shloush, of Egyptian descent and learned the secrets of the Egyptian cuisine. But like Netanel, Shloush died young. With no professional training, she took on work as a domestic. For seven years, she cleaned. And then she found love a third time, nine years later, with Moshe Nirnberg. From him she learned to cook Ashkenazi delicacies, such as gefilte fish and kugel. But Moshe Nirnberg died in the late 1970's, after 10 years of marriage. She recalls that they were waiting together for a bus, when Nirnberg put his head on her shoulder. At first she thought he was only resting, but, to her great horror, she discovered that he was no longer breathing. The bus driver drove them to the hospital, but he was already dead. She continued to work for years, eventually promoted to the position of cloak room attendant at the Knesset. She retired in 1988 at the age of 65. Her small pension from her years at the Knesset provides her with enough to live on. But after her retirement, she realized that she did not want to live alone in her Jerusalem apartment. Now, Nirnberg lives in the Golden Hill retirement home for the elderly in French Hill. Here, she befriended a Hungarian widower, Meir Vardi, and together they discovered that love can be found even in old age. Vardi recently passed away, at the age of 86. The Hungarian dishes that he taught her to cook have, of course, found their way into her cookbook, too. "I'd dreamed of publishing my own cookbook for quite a long time, but somehow it never worked out," she says now. And when she did prepare a manuscript, it was rejected by several publishing houses. Determined, she approached Kavim Publishing House in Tel Aviv. They approved the project immediately. "They were very kind to me right from the beginning," Nirnberg says. "After we signed the contract, all the meetings were held in Jerusalem, for my convenience." Editor Na'ami Keshet Levanon interviewed Nirnberg for hours and edited her stories into the book. Photographer Ro'i Yehuda photographed the notes and scraps of paper on which she'd scribbled and recorded recipes, and these photos were also included. "We created a book that is also my life story," Nirnberg says, pleased. Preparing the many dishes, she was surprised to find how difficult a task a cookbook is. Nirnberg had to cook nonstop for six months to try out and perfect the recipes. "My daughter from Karmiel came to give me a hand and we got another oven and put it in the living room. My neighbors let me use their refrigerators to store the food." But in the end, she says with a broad smile, everyone benefited - "because they all enjoy my cooking so much." Nirnberg's eyesight is deteriorating now, and she continues, more seriously, "Because my eyes are so weak and I know how terrible blindness must feel, I've decided to donate all the money I received from my publishers to an association for blind children. I didn't want to make any profits from this book, as for me it was merely the fulfillment of a dream." Nirnberg has already sold some 3,000 copies of "From Margalit's Kitchen." Published in Hebrew, the book was released in time for Hebrew Book Week. It is now available in most bookstores, retailing for NIS 98.