By Anessa V. Cohen
Each year I look forward to returning to Jerusalem for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Those of you who have been reading my column for a while have come along on my trip as I describe how exciting it is to be there. I find that there is always something new to talk about that is different than the year before. I guess that is how it should be—new year, new observations!
My husband’s family members are residents of the Old City in Jerusalem since the early 1700s. The stories from the late 1800s and early 1900s that the elders of his family tell of the Old City are fascinating to listen to over and over again.
Life in the Old City for Jews prior to 1948 was very different than anything we are accustomed to. Even food preparations for yom tov began weeks before the chag because of the intricate types of dishes that were prepared.
Back then, people did not have a stovetop to cook on as we know it today—or even as we remember from our childhood. Most people in Old Jerusalem cooked on a p’tilliah—an old kerosene-fed, free-standing, cast-iron burner about 2 feet high. This burner had a large iron grate in a flat intricate design with many openings for the fire to come through. It doubled as a heat source in the winter. The p’tilliah could be adjusted somewhat to achieve a low, medium, or high flame. You had to learn the knack of accomplished cooking by using it properly.
The food that was cooked on this p’tilliah tasted better than the same food cooked on a modern stove. I have seen many an accomplished cook in Jerusalem descended from these Old Jerusalem homes who, even today, with all their modern kitchen equipment, continue to cook on these p’tillios. They keep them as an integral part of their kitchen equipment in order to achieve the exact tastes and flavors of those special dishes cooked from back in their childhood years. I have visited many restaurants that continue cooking their food offerings both on modern stoves and on a p’tilliah in their kitchens.
The p’tilliah took care of cooking that needed to be done on a stovetop. It also served on Shabbat, on low with a plata on top of it, as a place for slow-cooking foods such as cholent (or hamin) and perhaps some other dishes that could be left overnight to stay warm.
There were still those dishes that needed to be made in an oven. Some cooks did not leave their cholent on a p’tilliah but preferred putting their cholent (or hamin) in an oven to cook all night. For these people, it was a luxury to have an oven in their homes, even a makeshift kind of oven box that would have to be placed on the p’tilliah and certainly could not be used on Shabbat or yom tov.
It was a more usual custom in the Old City to utilize a larger oven at the bakery. The baker, a shomer Shabbat man, would leave his bakery oven on for Shabbat and yom tov, and the area residents would bring their pots and dishes with the foods needing to be baked and place them in his communal oven. Then on Shabbat or yom tov, they would remove their items from the communal oven after shul when they were ready to sit for the family meal.
This year we will be joining Haim’s 95-year-old aunt for Rosh Hashanah. She still makes all the old-time dishes that her mother and grandmother used to prepare in the Old City of Jerusalem. She still prepares some on the p’tilliah.
Some of the most interesting items she serves are the minim. The custom in Haim’s family—he is Sephardic, descended from Spain—is to prepare the minim into actual creations (my terminology) as opposed to just putting out the individual items to use for the berachot. Meatless forms of meatballs (or ketzitzot) are made from the minim, such as leek meatballs, pumpkin meatballs, spinach meatballs, etc. A casserole-type dish of “lubya” (black eyed peas) is another example. By the time we finish with the minim, there is hardly any room for the sumptuous dinner that she prepares for us afterwards. But this is an experience I would not miss for anything!
Shanah Tovah and a Happy New Year to all! v
Anessa Cohen lives in Cedarhurst and is a licensed real-estate broker and a licensed N.Y.S. mortgage broker with over 20 years of experience, offering full-service residential and commercial real-estate services (Anessa V Cohen Realty) and mortgaging services (First Meridian Mortgage) in the Five Towns and throughout the tri-state area. She can be reached at 516-569-5007 or via her website, www.AVCrealty.com. Readers are encouraged to send questions or comments to anessa.cohen@AVCrealty.com.