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Cookbook Project preserves history amidst the teiglach



The Singing Kettle Cookery Book, the International Goodwill Recipe Book, The Toni Saphra Cookbook, and many other recipe books published by South African Jewish women’s organisations are favourites in many kitchens.

Yet, because many of these cookbooks aren’t preserved or re-published, they may be lost to history. This is why South African-born public historian, Gavin Beinart-Smollan, decided to digitise them as part of his Masters (MA) thesis.

The result is the South African Jewish Cookbook Project, a digital collection of Jewish cookbooks published in South Africa from the 1940s to the present. The website aims to preserve the rich culinary heritage of South African Jewry, and to bring new light to the social and cultural history of South African Jewish women.

On the site, people will find Jewish cookbooks from all over South Africa, and will be able to browse them. “You’ll encounter recipes for Ashkenazi and Litvak classics like gefilte fish and teiglach, as well as the trendy recipes of the past 80 years,” says Beinart-Smollan. “Through the fascinating lens of food and cooking, we learn about the history of Jewish immigration to South Africa, the role of Jewish women in charity and social work, everyday life during the apartheid era, and much more.”

The project is curated by Beinart-Smollan, a PhD candidate at New York University (NYU), alongside an international team of contributors, and is supported by the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town, and the NYU Center for the Humanities.

Born in Durban, Beinart-Smollan’s family moved to New Zealand when he was six. After school, he learned Torah for a year in Israel and did his Bachelor of Arts at the University of Auckland. He then did his MA in modern Jewish history at Hebrew University (HU). He lives in New York and is finishing his PhD in History and Hebrew & Judaic Studies at NYU.

Like many Jewish families, “I come from a food-obsessed family.” he says. “I got into food history during my first semester at HU, when I took a course on Jews and food with Dr Anat Helman. I discovered that food could be a fascinating lens to explore Jewish history. What people ate and cooked reveals so much about how they thought and what was important to them.

“Sometime later, I was visiting my parents, trying to figure out what to write my MA thesis on. I had never considered exploring my own history, but one morning, a cookbook on my mom’s shelf caught my eye. It was the New International Goodwill Recipe Book, the cooking bible of so many South African Jewish women of my mom’s generation. It didn’t take me long to realise that between the recipes, adverts, and culinary and religious guidelines, this was an incredibly rich source for a thesis.”

His first step was to find as many South African Jewish cookbooks as he could, but “these cookbooks weren’t formally published, and no-one had really considered collecting and preserving them. So the only places I was going to be able to find them were in people’s personal collections.

“Thanks to many family members, friends, and acquaintances, I built up enough of a database to do the research. I also realised that I needed to figure out a way to preserve them. The most popular cookbooks, like the Goodwill, would probably survive, but the cookbooks created by smaller organisations, particularly those in small towns, were at risk of being lost forever. So, I decided to create a digital archive to unite this remarkable collection in one place for the first time, and to give people access regardless of where they lived.

“Most ordinary people, particularly women, don’t get to have a record of themselves preserved for posterity. But cookbooks do that. There’s no narrative in these cookbooks, but in their own way, they tell the story of the women who wrote them.”

He emphasises that “the work of so many different people went into creating this project. All the major organisations that produced these books gave me permission to share them. I got the project started thanks to a grant from NYU’s Center for the Humanities, which enabled me to hire a developer to help build the site and get some of the books scanned.

“The project really took off when Professor Adam Mendelsohn, the director of the Kaplan Centre, agreed to take it on as a joint initiative. The team at the Kaplan Centre have been wonderful partners, scanning most of the cookbooks.

“The biggest credit goes to the many people from across the world who shared their cookbooks. The online South African Jewish history group, Community History Online, has been particularly supportive. I encourage anyone in or near Cape Town who has a cookbook not yet on the site to contact us and get their book scanned.

“Every cookbook contains a fascinating and eclectic mixture of recipes,” he says. “On the one hand, they have the ‘traditional’ Ashkenazi recipes. On the other, each has the trendy recipes of the time, and if you read them in chronological order, you see the development of South African and international food culture over the course of the 20th century. By combining these two elements, you get a holistic sense of who these women were: the children of Jewish immigrants and thoroughly cosmopolitan women.”

The books also shine a new lens on South African Jews’ relationship with religion, gender, Zionism, and much more. “The cookbooks demonstrate how deeply South African Jews were enmeshed in the apartheid system, in the intimate arena of their homes. I hope this project gives people a new way to explore that legacy as well.”

The most surprising aspect of his research, he says, was that “the women who compiled some of these cookbooks were very funny, and their cookbooks are full of jokes, often at the expense of their husbands! A lot have great cartoons. It’s fun to browse the books and get a sense of the personalities of the women who made them.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the interest that this project has garnered, both from South African Jews and others,” he says. “The website has had more than 2 000 unique visitors within the first two weeks of going live.

“I hope that the project gives people who grew up with these books a new way to explore them. I also hope that it gets a new generation interested in these books, that it sparks intergenerational conversations. And I hope that it gets other people interested in the history of this very interesting community.

“I’ve benefited from the work of great scholars like Veronica Belling, Gwynne Robins, and Riva Krut,” he says. “The South African Jewish Cookbook Project is a community history initiative, and we encourage community participation. We invite South African Jews from around the world to share their cookbooks with us, and their memories of creating, contributing to, and using these cookbooks.”

  • If people have cookbooks to scan, they can contact Gavin Beinart-Smollan at Please note that they are only doing scanning in Cape Town at the moment, so anyone interested would need to get their books to the Kaplan Centre at UCT. They will return them after the scanning is done.
  • Visit to see the SA Jewish Cookbook Project

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Ivan basserabie

    Sep 1, 2023 at 7:45 am

    What is the name of the website
    Ivan basserabie
    Wollongong, australiax

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