The 11th Commandment: Cook a Brisket?!

If you’re married to a Jewish guy, but you’re not Jewish yourself, what’s the greatest barrier to making a Shabbat dinner for your family? The Hebrew? The ritual? Not according to one woman who attended a model Shabbat dinner sponsored by The Mothers Circle in Atlanta. Her problem was the brisket:

“I don’t know how to make a brisket,” she explained, “so I was always too intimidated to cook a Shabbat dinner.”

I don’t think it was really making brisket that intimidated her. (OK, it wasn’t only making the brisket.) The problem was everything that brisket represents, especially tradition. Brisket is such a grandmotherly dish that it seems to have been handed down from mother to daughter for generations. It’s as if Moses’ wife created the first brisket recipe at the foot of Mt. Sinai and carved the recipe in stone, creating the little-known Eleventh Commandment: “Thy meat shalt thou cook for many hours. It shall be grey, and neither shall there be any pink in it.”

With all that tradition and authenticity wrapped up in brisket, how could a novice ever make the recipe her own? That’s like asking: How can a woman possibly pass on the Jewish tradition to her children if she wasn’t raised in it herself?

As the national coordinator of The Mothers Circle, I hear that question a lot. The Mothers Circle offers free Jewish education and support to mothers like the woman in Atlanta, women who have chosen to raise their children Jewish even though they are not Jewish themselves. When some people hear about The Mothers Circle, they worry that these children cannot have a “real” Jewish experience. Something indefinable, some authentic flavor will be lost, they worry. They set up a wall of authenticity that excludes anyone not born Jewish, including Jews by choice.

I’m not concerned. All traditions were new once, and any tradition can be learned. I know this from experience. My non-Jewish grandmother makes terrific challah. The truth is, anyone can make a brisket. But if all that cooking is too overwhelming at the end of the week, it’s good to remember that Shabbat is not in the brisket. It’s in the family, the peacefulness of home, the lighting of candles. If need be, order in the food!


  1. Hear, hear!

    Though it’s my father, not my mother, who is not Jewish, I have a complementary tale of learned food traditions to tell. I learned to make a classic pecan pie not from my Kentuckian father (who’s not much for the kitchen) but from my Brooklyn-born mother, who learned it in turn from her Havana-born mother-in-law: they took up Kentucky’s foodways when they took up with Kentuckians…and their pies always tasted as delicious as those of any native!

    Now I bring the Jewish & Kentuckian traditions together every Derby Day (held the first Saturday in May, so always ripe for a Shabbat celebration) by making pies, mint juleps, and sweet iced tea for the kiddush after Shabbat morning services.

    Most of all, I’m glad you remind us all that the depth of a Shabbat experience doesn’t rely on how many generations back your recipes go: “”All traditions were new once, and any tradition can be learned…it’s good to remember that Shabbat is not in the brisket. It’s in the family, the peacefulness of home, the lighting of candles.”

    Well said! I hope that many people hear you say it and take heart from it. (And if they still want a recipe for brisket–or for pecan pie!–I’ll happily put them in touch with my mother!)

    Comment by Becca — May 8, 2006 @ 6:48 pm

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