The Torah on a plate

Pair each parasha with a recipe

Eating the Bible By Rena Rossner Skyhorse Publishing 288 pages; $24.95 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Eating the Bible By Rena Rossner Skyhorse Publishing 288 pages; $24.95
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One night in 1998, Rena Rossner (then Bunder) sat down to a Friday night dinner with a family in Dublin, Ireland.
It was parshat Toldot, the portion of the Torah that tells the story of how Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of red stew.
And what was on the menu that chilly Irish night? A bowl of red lentil soup.
Rossner, then a 19-year-old student, was intrigued.
“It was the first I’d ever seen something like that,” recalled Rossner. “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could do that for every week? I started jotting things down in a notebook every week for many years, but it was never more than that.”
It wasn’t until years later, as a mom living in Jerusalem and working for The Jerusalem Post, that Rossner devised a weekly column pairing a commentary on the Torah with a recipe. The practice became part of a weekly tradition at home, where the whole family would take part. And what Rossner enjoyed the most was the opportunity to contribute to the discussion of the weekly portion.
“It bothered me that my husband would take half an hour to read a book [on the parasha] before Friday night and he’d have something to say at the meal. And I spent 10 hours cooking and I had nothing to say, but I prepared way more than he did,” said Rossner. “So I wanted to find a way that I could incorporate something to say with all of my hours upon hours of preparation, so that I wasn’t just bringing food to the table but I was bringing a message to the table. And that I had something to say too, because I really had prepared more than he had.”
What began as a lentil soup that sparked a lightbulb in Rossner evolved into two and a half years of innovative recipe pairings and involved dinner-table discussions.
Now Rossner, today a mother of five and literary agent, has turned the best of her columns into a beautiful cookbook, titled Eating the Bible: Over 50 Delicious Recipes to Feed Your Body and Nourish Your Soul.
“When the column was over I got letters from fans who were like ‘why did you stop?’” recalled Rossner. She knew that the natural next step was to compile them into a cookbook.
Each recipe in the book begins with a biblical verse, followed by a discussion of the various commentaries, then the ingredients and instructions for the related dish.
In Exodus 20:17, Moses approaches Mount Sinai, where God was hidden “in a thick cloud.” Rossner offers a “thick cloud pavlova,” as a pairing, the meringue casing filled with billows of whipped cream.
But she doesn’t stop there. With “the knowledge as a mom that some people don’t have time to really prepare,” Rossner also offers quick and easy serving suggestions that can still facilitate discussion: instead of the pavlova, bring marshmallows, or anything topped with whipped cream, and discuss why God shrouded himself in a dark cloud.
Some of the connections are effortless, like the lentil soup; or a chicken dish made with all seven species; an extra-virgin olive marinade like the olive oil used for the menorah in the Temple; a fruit salad made of all the produce the spies brought back from the Land of Israel; and “Half-Shekel Carrot Coins” for the passage that describes how the Jewish people were counted.
Others are more innovative, like starshaped cookies for the passage that says “here you are today as numerous as the stars in the heavens” (Deuteronomy 1:10). Don’t have time for that? Rossner recommends using star-shaped pasta or cutting fruits or deli meats with a starshaped cookie cutter.
There is a Torah passage and connected recipe for each of the 54 parshiot, or weekly Torah portions, though Rossner has removed explicit references to those divisions to make it more accessible to non-Jewish audiences.
Each recipe is accompanied with a beautiful photo, and some with detailed, multi-step photos that are truly a pleasure to see, like the “Woven Tapestry Bread,” an intricate loaf of alternating pumpernickel and halla strands, illustrating the “master weaving” involved in the building of the Tabernacle, which housed the divine presence as the Jewish people traveled through the desert.
Rossner obviously had a good time creating “A Gingerbread Tabernacle,” complete with a fondant-covered ark, an icing- decorated parochet, or curtain, and an altar topped with frosting “fire.” A bit too time consuming? Bring graham crackers and frosting to the table and let the whole family create their own mini mishkan.
Some of the pairings require a stretch of the imagination, like three-bean burritos for the story of Balaam’s talking donkey, since “burro” means donkey in Spanish.
For the verse on leprosy, contracted for speaking badly about others, Rossner offers “Cat’s Got Your Tongue Cookies,” decorated with “spots” of sprinkles.
Some of the sections of the Torah were more difficult than others to write about, admits Rossner.
While she was worried that Leviticus, with its detailed lists of laws in the Temple, would be challenging, “it was one of the easiest to do because the korbanot [ritual sacrifices] aren’t just meat, they’re wine and they’re spices and flowers.”
Case in point, the verse that says “As the priest commands, he shall take for the person that needs to be cleaned: two live, pure birds, a cedar stick, a strip of crimson wool, and hyssop” (Lev. 14:4). For that Rossner created grape leaves stuffed with za’atar – commonly believed to be the bibilical hyssop – goat cheese and sundried tomatoes.
“That recipe is really my invention,” said Rossner. “I love grape leaves, but they’re always stuffed with rice and meat, so why not stuff it with something else?” And after years of partaking in the dishes and verses brought to the table, Rossner’s children are now making the tradition their own.
“My kids expect it,” she said, “and now they will often bring something home and they come up with the idea and they find a way to connect it.
“A lot of the recipes are sort of a combination of stuff that I’ve created and things that are tried and true,” said Rossner.
Many have become her “signature recipes,” like the “Meat Lovers Meatballs,” stuffed with slices of hot dogs, for the verse where God tells the Jewish people they are allowed to eat meat, “because your soul desires to eat meat, you may eat meat” (Deuteronomy 12:20).
“I can’t make meatballs anymore if there isn’t a hot dog inside,” said Rossner with a laugh. “We’ll go to somebody’s house and [my kids will] say ‘there aren’t hot dogs inside!’” The book has resonated so much with audiences that is already being translated into Czech, Swedish and Dutch, and a Hebrew version is in the works.
Rossner delights in hearing from people around the globe who are making her recipes, and has compiled user-submitted pictures online. “It meant so much to me when someone sent me a picture of a recipe they made,” she said. “It’s about knowing people made my recipes and are enjoying them – that’s just the coolest part for me.”