Becoming a Jerusalem-based food writer

When I was doing the walks in Mahaneh Yehuda, the vendors started calling me “The shuk lady,” so I have on my computer my unfinished cookbook titled The Shuk Lady Cooks.

 The writer, Sybil Kaplan. (photo credit: Courtesy)
The writer, Sybil Kaplan.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

I grew up in Overland Park, Kansas. Raising two daughters and being a conscientious food writer and cookbook author, the concept of eating disorders was never part of my life or my daughters’ lives. They grew up eating healthily and still do. 

So how did I, from my youth in Kansas to my latter years in Jerusalem, become a food writer?

In the 1960s, I was working in Manhattan for a major publisher, and my mother connected me with a Hadassah chapter in New Rochelle, which had young women. I gathered a group of friends who, like me, were living in the Bronx, and once a month we traveled to New Rochelle for the meetings. 

I became the Zionist chair. Before I made aliyah in 1970, fellow member Ruth de Sola Mendes and I compiled a cookbook titled Inspirations from Rena Hadassah to fundraise for our chapter. That was my first venture into cookbook writing.

An entry into the world of food writing

While living in Israel from 1970 to 1980, I wrote three cookbooks: The Wonders of a Wonder Pot – Cooking in Israel without an Oven, published in 1973 and 1975, which revolutionized two-burner cooking for students, those on sabbatical and olim; Israeli Cooking on a Budget, published by The Jerusalem Post in 1978 and 1979; and From My Jerusalem Kitchen, which was written in 1980 based on my five years of writing columns in The Jerusalem Post but never was published. 

 A chef cooks in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A chef cooks in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

In my autobiography, Witness to History – Ten Years as a Woman Foreign Correspondent, I explain why I wrote the first cookbook. 

When I walked into my first rented apartment in Israel in November 1970 (owned by the Jerusalem Post art editor), the kitchen had a lovely refrigerator with a freezer and a two-burner stove.

I bought a “wonder pot,” a top-of-the stove, sponge-cake-looking pan with a base placed directly on the burner and a lid with strategically placed holes. Cakes, an apple pie, chicken and a multitude of other fantastic meals came out of my wonder pot, so I started spreading the word to my friends and writing a cookbook to advise other prospective immigrants how to cook well with one and two burners and no oven.

Little did I realize that the wonder pot had been a mainstay of women on kibbutzim for years before they got stoves and ovens or used the main kitchen ovens. It was amusing to Israelis that we had rediscovered this clever piece of cookware.

Right off the boat, where I had interviewed other olim, I had written an article and decided I would become a journalist, since writing had always been a hobby of mine. My articles as a food writer began with the trials and tribulations of cooking in Israel.

Making chocolate chip cookies meant slivering chips off a candy bar with a knife and making six cookies at a time in my toaster oven. Making a chocolate cake meant melting down the candy bar, adding self-rising flour and other ingredients and pouring the batter into the wonder pot, hoping it would bake throughout.

Although I started collecting the recipes almost from the beginning, the book came about because of my own needs. All my friends were very excited to have their recipes included in a forthcoming cookbook.

As I began work on The Wonders of a Wonder Pot, or Cooking in Israel without an Oven, I enlisted the assistance of Marion, an English immigrant friend of Caroline, my first roommate from the absorption center. Marion was a freelance graphic artist, and she undertook the artwork.

I collected, compiled, edited, tested, authored, typed and published my first cookbook in April 1973, two and a half years after I had arrived. It even rated a very straightforward and lengthy mention in the “Marketing with Martha” column in The Jerusalem Post, by Martha Meisels, a former American who was the consumer affairs columnist.

Marketing my own cookbook involved renting a post office box, placing ads in the papers, bringing home the ads and filling the mail orders, and shlepping the mailing envelopes with books inside back to the post office. Forty years later, so many people remembered the book and contacted me, that in 2015 I reprinted a small number of the cookbooks and still sell them to this day.

One of my most treasured keepsakes is a copy of an article with a handwritten note by the food columnist for The Jerusalem Post, Molly Lyons Bar-David, originally from Canada. I had remembered her columns and had a copy of her cookbook. She wrote that she was mentioning my cookbook in her October 24, 1973, column, telling readers how to order it from my post office box and including recipes using the wonder pot. 

My wonder pot cookbook was also the subject of an article in Hebrew called “Outside of the Kitchen Hours,” which appeared in Israel’s daily Maariv at the end of May 1974. By 1975, The Wonders of a Wonder Pot was ready for a second edition. 

July 1976 was the American Bicentennial, and Hilton International became the only hotel chain outside the United States allowed to celebrate America’s bicentennial in its 70 hotels. 

Ruth Abileah, who did public relations for the hotel, invited me to attend an American press dinner.

At the dinner, I was seated next to Erwin Frenkel, The Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief. That gave me an opportunity to ask why there was no food column since Molly Lyons Bar-David had left that position. I didn’t get much response, although Ruth also mentioned the missing column. I did feel encouraged to subsequently send a proposal to Helen Rossi, the Women’s Page editor, suggesting a food column. There was no response until a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah 1976, when Ms. Rossi phoned and asked me to send in three food columns. The idea was a go.

From Rosh Hashanah 1976 until I left Israel at the end of 1980, I wrote “From My Jerusalem Kitchen” weekly columns. Each week had a theme derived from my weekly shopping at the Mahaneh Yehuda market to see what was in season and then come up with recipes.

While in my second apartment, which also did not have a stove initially, I acquired a stove from someone returning to the States and graduated to a new style of cooking. I always said I should have titled my next cookbook “Now I’ve Got a Stove!” Instead, it was called Israeli Cooking on a Budget, and was published by The Jerusalem Post in 1978. It remained in print and gave me royalties for a whopping 12 years, with some 21,000 plus copies sold!

Another edition of The Wonders of a Wonder Pot came out in 1978. Late summer was when my thoughts began to turn toward the approaching holiday season, when I would search for unique angles for a food story. 

In 1978, I contacted Aliza Begin, Ofira Navon and Reuma Weizman to send me their holiday recipes. Aliza, wife of prime minister Menachem Begin, sent me her recipe for apple pancake. Ofira Navon, wife of president Yitzhak Navon, sent a recipe for mutton with almonds and pumpkin. Reuma Weizman, wife of defense minister Ezer Weizman, sent eggplant a la champignon, which she learned from her mother-in-law.

One day in 1978, I was excited when the phone rang and the voice at the other end said, “I’ve just met a very interesting woman whom I think you’d enjoy meeting, since she’s coming to Jerusalem.”

The call was from Ruth Sirkis, well-known Hebrew cookbook writer, food editor of the woman’s magazine Aht (You) and host of a weekly radio cooking program, as well as author and publisher of cookbooks in Israel. She was also one of the founders of modern writing about food in Israel and a major contributor to the development of culinary art in Israel in the past 40 years. 

By the time she added a few more comments about “the very interesting woman,” I knew whom she wanted me to meet. It was Claudia Roden, whose cookbook was part of my collection and an important reference work. When I called Claudia for an interview, she laughed because she had just purchased my second cookbook, Israeli Cooking on a Budget, and was curious to meet me!

Unfortunately, at the beginning of January 1980, this exceedingly popular column was cut from weekly to every two weeks.

Sometime after this happened, at a party I met Shmuel Katz, also one of the Post columnists, author of the book Battleground and a very strong right-wing advocate. When I told him my name, he said, “Oh, you’re the lady with the political recipes. You had your column cut back also!”

In the fall of 1980, my husband and I left Israel and returned to the US and Chicago. While my two daughters were studying at Solomon Schechter Day School in 1990, I edited the school’s fundraiser cookbook, Alphabet Soup.

Moving later to my home town area, Greater Kansas City, while living in Overland Park I compiled and edited Kosher Kettle in 1997, which was reprinted in 2006.

After several trips to Israel with Hadassah as a member of its national board and on my own, in 2006 I compiled and edited What’s Cooking at Hadassah College, focused on its prestigious and now defunct culinary program.

My husband and I moved back to Israel in 2008 and became members of Kehillat Moreshet Avraham in Jerusalem. In 2009, I compiled and edited the synagogue’s What’s Cooking at Moreshet Avraham? In 2009, I created walks in English in Mahaneh Yehuda, the city’s major produce market. These continued until 2020 when COVID-19 struck.

During 2012 and 2013, I also wrote a chef column for The Jerusalem Post. In 2014, I began to write feature articles about kosher restaurants for the English-language website Janglo, with my husband taking the photographs. These continued until the new ownership in 2019.

Today, I write food columns, which I send to North American Jewish newspapers, and I write a food column in the National Jewish Post and Opinion out of Indianapolis.

When I was doing the walks in Mahaneh Yehuda, the vendors started calling me “The shuk lady,” so I have on my computer my unfinished cookbook titled The Shuk Lady Cooks.

I love reading Jewish cookbooks and have a large collection of them, but I have no plans to write another cookbook of my own. I love cooking and creating new recipes and, of course, I still shop in Mahaneh Yehuda and again lead walks through the market. So, that’s my story as a food writer!  ■

Sybil Kaplan can be contacted at