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Miami Author Finds A Roadmap Back To Judaism Through Recipes

"Recipes of My 15 Grandmothers" by Genie Milgrom
courtesy of Genie Milgrom
"Recipes of My 15 Grandmothers" by Genie Milgrom

As Genie Milgrom researched her ancestry -- and hidden Jewish roots dating back to 15th-century, pre-Inquisition Spain -- she also discovered a treasure trove of recipes.

There’s an old Jewish joke with a kernel of truth that’s supposed to sum up the Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.” It’s an oversimplification of the very real connection between Jewish history, culture and tradition, and food.

Genie Milgrom of Miami had a life that was changed and shaped by that connection – even before she was aware of it. Her family escaped from Fidel Castro’s Cuba to Miami in 1960, and she was raised a devout Catholic. But as she recounts in her memoir My 15 Grandmothers, she always felt a mysterious pull toward Judaism. After much study and searching, her genealogical research led her back hundreds of years to her Jewish ancestors from a village in western Spain. She learned that although the terror of the Inquisition forced her family to practice Catholicism in the open, they carried their Judaism with them in secret, including their dietary customs.

After that, some of her family’s strange customs made sense. For instance, the way her grandmother insisted that she burn a small piece of dough each time they made the sweet fried pastry called “periquillos” echoed the way that orthodox Jewish women break off and burn a piece of dough before making challah. Her journey of discovery culminated in finding in her mother’s home a collection of family recipes that spanned generations. She published the recipes in her cookbook, Recipes of My 15 Grandmothers, which was recently named Best Gift Book in the 2020 International Latino Book Awards.

Robin Sussingham was Senior Editor at WUSF until September 2020.