Writing a cookbook brought this RI synagogue together during the darkest hours of COVID

·7 min read

PROVIDENCE — There are few if any parts of society that weren't touched by lifestyle changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

With people keeping their distance to stay safe and gatherings canceled, religious communities sought to connect in two-dimensional ways with Zoom. Traditional means of fundraising were stalled.

But from some of the loss came creative ways to cope, and even thrive.

This is the story of how the Sisterhood of Temple Beth-El in Providence came together to produce a fundraising cookbook that's now for sale.

"Recipes and Memories that Nourished Us through the Pandemic" is as much about stories as it is about food.

The Sisterhood at Temple Beth-El created this new cookbook for a fundraiser. The cover was designed by  artist Robin Halpren-Ruder.
The Sisterhood at Temple Beth-El created this new cookbook for a fundraiser. The cover was designed by artist Robin Halpren-Ruder.

Using a list of interesting things the members of the temple could do over Zoom, one suggestion was to write a cookbook, said Debbie Barshay. She liked the idea and asked the Sisterhood who would like to join her on the project. A committee was formed with Barshay as chair, working with Lilliane Birch, Kate Bramson, Marcy Cohen and Deb Gordon.

They began their work last winter. Everyone brought their own unique strengths.

"It was a labor of love," said Bramson, who edited the cookbook. "It was a way to connect with each other.

"Sometimes we just told stories," she said.

Sisterhood of Temple Beth-El's cookbook committee meets via Zoom. Clockwise from top left: Kate Bramson, Lilliane Birch, Deb Gordon, Marcy Cohen and chairman Debbie Barshay.
Sisterhood of Temple Beth-El's cookbook committee meets via Zoom. Clockwise from top left: Kate Bramson, Lilliane Birch, Deb Gordon, Marcy Cohen and chairman Debbie Barshay.

Birch, the recipe junkie on the committee, appreciated that working on the cookbook meant making connections. It did a lot of good for all of them, she said.

As she considered which recipes to share, she chose ones that were her mother's. Her mother survived Auschwitz during the Holocaust. When Birch's family felt down about the pandemic, she reminded them, "If Grandma could survive what she did, we can survive anything."

Those are the kinds of stories that nourish the soul as much as the recipes she shared for her mother's gefilte fish and cinnamon buns. Birch spells "gelfute" as her mother did. Those spelling differences became a theme in the cookbook.

Certain Jewish foods are spelled differently throughout the cookbook, Bramson noted. Spellings vary, based on the history and traditions of each family and where they originated. The cookbook recognized those differences in family kitchens and cultural background and went with each chef's spelling.

The committee put the call out for recipes from the Temple community. Both Rabbi Sarah Mack and Rabbi Preston D. Neimeiser contributed.

Gordon designed the cookbook. She shares her recipe for a Tart Lemon Tart here, saying, "Even my chocoholic family and friends swear that this is the best dessert ever!"

Elaine Sandy did the photography.

Cohen calls herself the resident non-cook on the committee, but she wanted to be part of the project and contributed her skills.

"I may be inspired to make some of these recipes," she said.

Barshay shared two recipes she called easy for anyone to make.

One is a Passover recipe that is more about assembling a cool salad plate that is suitable for lunch or supper, a small crowd or a large group.

Her other recipe is a super-simple summer pasta made with a corn salsa sold at Trader Joe's.

Barshay said her mother was a big cook, and she didn’t need a recipe book.

"She had a natural talent," she said.

Her mother told her she, too, could be a fine cook.

"She said, "If you had a little more patience, you’d be good,'" Barshay said.

That story proves that at its heart, "Recipes and Memories that Nourished Us through the Pandemic" is a memory book, she said.

There are indeed pandemic stories in the book, including one from Kiley Ilana Bramson, Bramson's daughter. It's shared here as Harriet Steinberg's Brisket and Potatoes.

"When we were unable to spend Pesach with our extended family in April of 2020, I was still committed to having a wonderful meal," she wrote. "I made matzo ball soup, potato kugel, and this amazing brisket all from scratch. I had never made it before, but I called my Dad’s mom, whom I call Mimi, a few days before, and she explained everything."

Also at the heart of the project is that it's a fundraiser.

After a year where the Sisterhood was unable to do much traditional fundraising, all sales will be dedicated to Temple-related activities that Sisterhood supports, said Bramson.

That means sales will support events and gatherings such as the Women’s Seder, Sisterhood Shabbat, and holiday receptions, plus temple improvements (such as kitchen renovations), religious school, and student leadership programs.

The Collector's Edition hardcover copy is $72. This edition has the COVID stories and the recipes, pictures, and artwork from Sisterhood events throughout the past two years. It includes a digital edition as well.

The cover was designed by artist Robin Halpren-Ruder.

A digital edition of the cookbook is available for $18 and offers recipes only. It can be ordered in regular or a large-print edition.

People can order the book online, on the Sisterhood page of Temple Beth-El's website. Scroll to the bottom of this page at temple-beth-el.org/community-2/sisterhood/ to find the order form. It can be ready for Hanukkah.

Brisket from the Kitchen of Harriet Steinberg

Prepare and bake a day in advance because this is better the day after you make it.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

5-pound cut of brisket

4 yellow onions, sliced, not diced

2 cups ketchup

2 cups red wine vinegar

2 8-ounce glasses of water

1 bag baby carrots

Prepare this in a large roasting pan (preferably a navy blue one with white speckles). Layer the sliced onions on the bottom of the pan. Put the cut of brisket in the pan. Place the carrots around the perimeter of the brisket.

Fill a 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup with 1 cup ketchup and 1 cup red wine vinegar, and pour over the brisket and carrots. Then pour a whole glass of water over the meat. Repeat the ketchup and red wine vinegar step, and pour a second glass of water over the meat and carrots.

Bake at least 3½ hours.

Cool the brisket. Then refrigerate brisket, carrots and onions in one container and gravy in a separate jar. The next day, bring the meat to room temperature and then slice the brisket, perpendicular to the grain of the meat. Reheat everything in the roasting pan, covered, at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes. Serve with Mimi’s Potatoes.

Mimi’s Potatoes

Make these the day you are serving the brisket.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Use Yukon Gold, yellow, or any type of all-purpose potatoes, but not russet potatoes.

Peel potatoes and cut in quarters. Place them in an oblong Pyrex baking dish. Salt and pepper them, and pour some of the brisket gravy over them. Cover the dish with tin foil. Bake for about 45 minutes (so start baking these 15 minutes before you put the brisket in the oven). Remove tin foil after a half hour and bake uncovered for the last 15 minutes so the potatoes brown.

Deborah Gordon shared her recipe for a Tart Lemon Tart in the new cookbook.
Deborah Gordon shared her recipe for a Tart Lemon Tart in the new cookbook.

Tart Lemon Tart

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Butter pastry:

1½ cups flour

¼ cup sugar

1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

½ cup butter, cut into small pieces

1 large egg


3 large eggs

1 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

⅓ cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed

¼ cup flour

¾ teaspoon baking powder


6 very thin lemon slices, cut in half crosswise and seeds discarded

To prepare butter pastry (crust): In a food processor or bowl, mix flour, sugar, and grated lemon peel. Add butter. Whirl in processor or rub with your fingers until fine crumbs form. Add egg. Whirl or stir with a fork until dough holds together. Pat into a smooth ball.

Press pastry crust evenly over bottom and sides of a 10- to 11-inch tart pan with removable rim. Bake until pale gold, about 25 minutes.

To prepare filling: In a small bowl, beat eggs with a mixer at high speed until foamy. Gradually add sugar, beating until mixture is thick and lighter in color. Add lemon peel, lemon juice, flour, and baking powder; beat until smooth.

Pour mixture into baked crust. Bake tart until filling no longer jiggles when gently shaken, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool on a rack. If making ahead, cover when cool and refrigerate. Remove pan rim and garnish with lemon slices. Cut tart into wedges; wipe knife blade clean after each cut.

Makes 12 servings.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Temple Beth-El cookbook sprouted from pandemic