How to feed both belly and soul
Diana Lipton and food charity, Leket, have launched a novel website featuring a recipe for each Torah portion
Fancy reflecting on the creation of fruit trees and the tree of knowledge as set out in Genesis while munching a slice of Polish apple cake? Or a vision of Joseph's coat of many colours as interpreted by Judy Jackson's chicken with many-coloured vegetables?
All this can be brought to you by the online Leket Project recently founded by British academic theologian and writer, Diana Lipton, which pairs commentaries on the parashah (Torah portion) of the week with an appropriate recipe.
Lipton, who also teaches Bible at the Hebrew University's Rothberg International School, resolved after making aliyah to Jerusalem in 2011 to do something "constructive" with her expertise.
As she recalls: "I thought to myself, who needs another Tanach (Bible studies) teacher in Jerusalem? Then I came up with the idea for the project, partly I think because food became more central in my life when I moved to Israel. I used to have lots of people for Shabbat dinners in Cambridge but I was working full time and didn't so much cook as "assemble". When I made aliyah I had more time and started being more ambitious in the kitchen and actually following recipes."
The acceptance and expectation of seasonal food in Israel also made Lipton more aware of food sourcing beyond the supermarket shelf, as well as its relation to natural forces.
"Many parts of the Bible deal with food and the lack of food, and those texts took on a different meaning when I moved here. I was actually living in the land that would or would not get rain in its season, and would or would not be fruitful as a consequence."
There may be a time-honoured association between Jewish food and over-feeding but, as Lipton also realised, the reality is that many people still go hungry in Israel. "It made me want to contribute in my own way and when I learnt about Leket Israel they seemed the best partner for the project."
Leket Israel is a national food bank charity that works with farms, restaurants and supermarkets to distribute unused food to underprivileged children and the needy, and supports all Israel's residents, not just one sector and not just Jews. It was their professionalism, enthusiasm and focus on "rescuing" food as well as distribution that particularly impressed Lipton.
The project threw up more intellectual challenges than she anticipated. Setting it up took a year and the work is ongoing. First, Lipton made a list of possible academic contributors and then compiled a table of all the Torah portions, ensuring there were appropriate references and themes in each one. She then asked each writer to pick a portion.
"The response was amazing. As the pieces started to come in I was moved and impressed by how much work and creativity people have invested. People said how much they enjoyed thinking about food in the Torah -- suddenly it's everywhere!"
Among the themes are food as binder and divider; food as a means of communicating with God; food and sacrifice; the significance of famine and plenty; feasting and fasting; food and deception; food and desire; the ethics of food and more.
Contributors include Professor Jonathan Price of Tel Aviv University writing on Jacob's wrestling with the angel, and the sciatic nerve in relation to the laws of kashrut; Professor Melissa Lane of Princeton on sustainability in relation to the creation of the world in Bereshit, and Rebbetzin Malke Bina of MaTan, Jerusalem on hospitality to strangers in Chayyei Sarah.
The range of views and religious involvement was as important as Lipton's reluctance to label or pigeon-hole any contributor. "An important part of the project was that it bridges those divides which, from my point of view are destructive enough in the diaspora and all the more in Israel. Food is essential for us all, and a fundamental human right upon which we can all agree."
Matching weekly commentary with food was the next step. She approached food writers and chefs such as Claudia Roden, Joan Nathan, Helen Nash and David Mendes asking them to suggest recipes to match the themes. US cookery writer Poopa Dweck contributed almond milk for Va'yera which mentions Isaac's weaning feast. Other requests included finding recipes for "A fine dish suitable for eating outside" (Mishpatim) and "A dish emphasising red wine" (Vayehi).
A hard slot to fill was for Chayyei Sarah, when Lipton was reduced to searching for a recipe suitable for a camel ride. "Finally, inspiration struck when I was looking at the blog Rachel's Kitchen, written by Rachel Davies, one of my former Cambridge students. She had a recipe for labneh which is related to the Hebrew word white, laban. Laban is the name of Rebecah's uncle, a central figure in the parashah - so labneh is the recipe for that week."
The long-term aim of the project is to increase support for the charity, both financially and practically. Leket has created a website in both Hebrew and English versions, and hopes to publish the whole proceedings at the end of the Torah reading cycle.
Eat, read, pray. It's a very Jewish tradition.