For 12 years, Betty Newman wrote a weekly recipe column for the Jewish Bulletin, “The Joy of Jewish Cooking.” After it ended in 1998, people often said to her, “Why don’t you put your recipes into a cookbook?”
“I tried many times, and I even contacted a publishing house, but I just didn’t know how to put it together,” she said. When her husband, Harry, fell ill and ultimately passed away, she put the idea aside.
Then about a year ago, a reader who had moved and misplaced some holiday recipes contacted Newman. “Most were Passover recipes,” Newman said. Then this woman became the latest to ask, “Why don’t you write a cookbook?”
“She was the inspiration,” Newman said.
Newman has collected almost all of the columns she wrote for the Jewish Bulletin (now J.) from 1986 to 1998 and compiled them into a self-published book titled “The Joy of Jewish Cooking.” Each page is a photocopied version of her column as it appeared in the paper.
“I did lose a few,” Newman said. “But I had a good person helping me. I couldn’t have done it without her.”
Newman, 83, is a native San Franciscan who still lives in the city. She grew up attending Congregation Sherith Israel, but later joined Congregation Beth Sholom. She didn’t learn to cook until she married.
“My mother did all the cooking, and I had an aunt who lived with us who did all the Jewish cooking,” Newman said. “My mother did make wonderful stuffed cabbage and great rice tomato soup.”
Before Newman, a teacher, married in her 30s, her husband-to-be asked whether she would keep a kosher home. She said she would. “I’ve done it ever since. It’s very easy, and very gratifying,” she said.
Though she began cooking out of necessity to feed her husband and children, it soon turned into a passion.
“We’d always invite people over for Shabbat dinners,” she said. As soon as Friday night dinner was over, “my husband would start figuring out who were going to have next Friday.”
He was the one who suggested the recipe column. Before that, the paper ran recipes only around the Jewish holidays.
She suggested a weekly column that would also give a biblical, ethnic or travel connection to the recipes.
At first, the Bulletin didn’t want to pay her, but Newman was persistent. “Psychologically, I needed to be paid something,” she said, so they agreed on $25 per column.
At first, she typed them up on her mother’s Olivetti typewriter, and then she switched to her own electric Smith-Corona.
And a lot of the Jewish content came from Harry. “My husband helped me, not with all of the articles, but if they had to do with the Bible or Jewish law, he was a big help,” she said.
Newman said she loved cooking for people because of all that went along with it. “I loved shopping and planning the meals, and knowing people are enjoying it,” she said. “It’s not just about the food. It’s about sitting around the table with the kids, and now the grandchildren. It’s so much more than just putting food in your mouth.”
In the book, Newman included one funny letter she received while doing the column: A reader took her to task for glorifying shmaltz (chicken fat) when it’s responsible for heart disease and other health issues.
“I didn’t write a health column,” Newman countered. “I was writing about traditional foods, and what’s more traditionally Jewish than shmaltz?”
In her column-writing days, Newman did some speaking engagements, but always refused cooking demonstrations. “I don’t like cooking in front of people,” she said.
Nonetheless, the reason why she cooked elaborate Shabbat meals for family and guests is evident from the book. “People would say to me, ‘How do you do it every Friday night?’ I just had a feeling that I want to do it,” she said. “It’s important that people sit around my table.”
“The Joy of Jewish Cooking” by Betty Newman (380 pages). For purchase information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.