In one memorable class of Rabbi Craig Axler’s cooking class series, “Who let the rabbi in the kitchen,” Axler demonstrated his grandmother’s mushroom barley recipe. Afterward, a participant contacted Axler to tell him how it had transported her husband back to his youth in the bungalows and hotels of New York’s Catskill Mountains.
“When he tasted and smelled this dish, it was like the exact dish that he ate as such a comfort food from childhood, that he hadn’t had in decades,” Axler said. “Those hotels and bungalow colonies from the Catskill Mountains are virtually gone, but this recipe, and the unique taste and the smell of this recipe, was something that really just connected him immediately there.”
Axler has been teaching his cooking class series for years, and he views it as a way to share Jewish culture, Jewish memory and Jewish history with participants.
He recalled one session where he made his grandmother’s sweet kugel while giving a presentation on the history of kugel and the variations across different Jewish communities.
“Kugel itself is one of those Jewish foods that certainly has non-Jewish influences in it, and there are certainly noodle casseroles from just about every culture,” Axler said. “But just about every community of Jews has a kugel that has real meaning to it or is associated with a particular holiday or a particular meal.”
Axler actually began the series before joining Temple Isaiah, around 2003, when he worked at Congregation Beth Or in Philadelphia, teaching a post-b’nai mitzvah education program for teens.
“One of the things we know about teens and continuing on in Jewish education is that feeding them is one crucial part of keeping them with you and helping them return week after week, when it is mostly their choice,” Axler said.
The need to provide the students with edible incentives to continue their Jewish education dovetailed well with Axler’s own passion for cooking and passing down Jewish food traditions, helping to spark the series.
“For somebody who really enjoys cooking TV shows and Food Network and such like that, it was sort of living out the fantasy of having your own food TV show, as a rabbi,” Axler said.
Since coming to Temple Isaiah, Axler has offered the cooking series as a four-part elective once or twice a year as part of the teen program, he said. Over the past several years, he has also offered the classes for Temple Isaiah’s sisterhood once or twice a year.
While the sessions had previously been done with an in-person audience in places such as a congregation’s commercial kitchen, Axler said, the pandemic forced the sessions to be held online, with Axler broadcasting lessons from his home kitchen.
Before the transition to virtual programming, the classes normally focused on foods associated with Jewish holidays or specific cultures. When Axler began teaching online, however, it occurred to him to start sharing some of the recipes left to him by his late grandmother.
“It was a sweet thing to be able to talk about my grandmother and to share her recipes with my teen students who were online,” Axler said. “And because it was Zoom, I could also share pictures of her, tell stories about her, share about her life … and shared with these students not just her recipes but also about her.”
Some of the meals or foods Axler has most enjoyed making have included an oatmeal-raisin-walnut-chocolate chip cookie that his grandmother invented and would commonly make for family gatherings, he said. While not necessarily a Jewish dessert, the family strongly associates it with her.
“Every time I taste it, it is certainly one of those things that brings me immediately back to being in her apartment in Philadelphia,” Axler said.
“And really,” Axler continued, “the big key was to share also the power of connecting to the people that we love through something like their special recipes, their favorite foods, the things that define them.”