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ITALICS Edda Servi Machlin and Remembering Jewish Italy

italicsBy Yvette Alt Miller*

Edda Servi Machlin has died at the age of 93. The cookbook writer changed many people’s understanding of Jewish cuisine and culture by writing prolifically about her childhood growing up in Italy’s distinctive Jewish community. Dating to Biblical times, the Jews of Italy have their own unique traditions, distinct from both Ashkenazi and Sephardi culture. Edda’s warm reminiscences – and delectable recipes – brought this world to life.

Edda was born in 1926 in the small town of Pitigliano in Tuscany, which had long been home to a thriving Jewish community. About 20 Jewish families lived in Pitigliano in the 1930s; though small, their community was proud and vibrant, boasting a beautiful synagogue, a Jewish library, two yeshivas, and a Jewish cemetery.

One unusual element of Jewish infrastructure in the town made the biggest impression on Edda: the town’s communal kosher oven, which was said to have first been built by Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. It was built deep underground, and the entire Jewish community used to gather there to bake bread, and before Passover to make matzah, bringing an already tight-knit community even closer. Edda recalled that the communal baking area was a prime spot for Jewish teens to talk and fall in love: “Many a marriage was arranged while kneading the bits of dough,” she later wrote in her 1981 book The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews.

Edda came from a distinguished Jewish clan; her family tree included scholars and authors and rabbis. Her father Azeglio was the town rabbi. He also served as a teacher, chazan (cantor) and shochet (kosher slaughterer). “He was the last to carry on Pitigliano’s rich Hebrew culture and heritage,” Edda said. Even after the Holocaust when Pitigliano’s Jewish community was decimated, “he would travel wherever he was needed to assist a dying person, or simply to conduct a Seder.”

As a child, Edda lived in a distinctly Jewish environment that blended Italian and Jewish culture in unique ways. Both Jews and non-Jews in her town freely used some Hebrew words and expressions, saying B’Adonai (“by God”), for instance. A local slang word, Shachtare, came from the Hebrew word for slaughter, to mean ruining something. Shofetessa, from the Hebrew word Shofetet, a female judge, was used throughout the region to mean a knowledgeable (or bossy) woman.

In her many books and articles, Edda recalled the vibrancy of Jewish life in Italy before the war. She was especially animated when describing the delicious cooking of her mother Sarah. “Mama was such a great cook,” she wrote in her 2005 book Classic Italian Jewish Cooking. This was in part, Edda described, because her mother bought fresh ingredients each day, often directly from nearby farmers. The family wasn’t wealthy and their clothes were simple and usually hand-me-downs, Edda remembered, but the food her family enjoyed was “yafe Melech” or “fit for a king”, in another of the local Hebrew idioms that both Jews and non-Jews alike used.

Shabbat was a beautiful day when the entire Jewish community gathered together. Before the start of Shabbat, her father would go to the town’s synagogue and with the help of the Shamash (assistant) he’d light 200 oil lamps to illuminate the synagogue throughout Shabbat. “The amount of oil was measured to last from one sundown to the next,” Edda wrote, “so that the lights would begin to go out soon after the Havdala…the ceremony at the end of Shabbat. These oil lamps, in the shiny bronze chandeliers, projected a warm, golden light which created an intimate, festive, indescribably rich atmosphere.”

Unmarried Jewish girls of Pitigliano had a curious and unusual custom: every Shabbat they tried to wear something new. Edda explained that they each wanted to dress like a bridesmaid, in beautiful new clothing, to celebrate the Shabbat “bride”. In her 1981 cookbook, Edda recalled how each Friday she and her sisters would race “to finish the dress, the blouse, the skirt, or whatever we had started that week so that we could wear it at” synagogue.

On Shabbat day, “it was customary in Pitigliano to spend the Shabbat afternoon visiting the old and sick,” Edda wrote. “Strange as it might seem to some of today’s youth, we children looked forward to these visits, and not just because of the cookies and the Zuppa Inglese (a kind of soup) we knew would be served to us. We would bring our freshness and gaiety into their lives and they would delight us with stories of their own childhood.”

This idyllic life began to change in 1936 after the Axis pact between Rome and Berlin. Edda recalled “things began to change, at first so imperceptibly that hardly anyone could really notice any difference, until the press started a subtle anti-Semitic campaign, which continued in a crescendo over the next two years, and reached its culmination in the promulgation of the first racial laws.” he local Jewish school closed and Edda and her fellow Jewish children began to attend the local public school. There, they weren’t able to receive school honors. By 1938, Jewish children weren’t allowed to attend school at all.

Edda’s greatest disappointment was in the erosion of personal friendships between Jews and non-Jews. She recalled celebrating her bat mitzvah on the holiday of Shavuot in 1938. It was a beautiful spectacle, but tinged with sadness as Pitigliano’s Jews realized their situation was becoming ever more precarious. “Roses of all kinds filled the synagogue and a carpet of rose petals covered its beautiful marble floor. The children’s chorus sang Baruch Abba, the song sung on festive occasions… All the Jews in the village, who had crowded into the synagogue, wept. Perhaps we were all consciously or subconsciously aware that the beautiful melody of Baruch Abba was our ‘swan song.’”

Whereas a few years before Edda would have invited both Jewish and non-Jewish friends to celebrate her bat mitzvah, in 1938 this was unthinkable. “Tension by now had reached the point that an invitation to any Gentile would certainly have been refused,” she recalled, “causing painful embarrassment to them and to us.” Edda wrote about the ease with which Jews were demonized, after generations of coexistence: “All who had remained good friends up to that moment (when the anti-Jewish Racial Laws were promulgated) began to avoid us as if we were suddenly infected with a repulsive disease.”

In 1943 Edda’s parents and her youngest brother were arrested and sent to a concentration camp in Northern Italy. Edda, along with her sister and two brothers, fled to the countryside where kind farmers hid them for the remainder of the war. “We found safety in the ranks of the partisans and with those generous farmers who risked their own lives and the burning of their farms to shelter us,” she later wrote.

Miraculously, Edda’s immediate family survived the war. They returned to Pitigliano, but the community was decimated. With no synagogue and very few Jews there, the Servi family decided to leave the town they’d called home for generations, and moved to Florence, where a small Jewish community of survivors had assembled. Edda’s sister moved to New York, and in 1958 Edda joined her there.

In 1960, Edda married Eugene Machlin. They moved to Croton-on-Hudson, New York, where Edda despaired of finding the fresh, flavorful Italian food she’d grown up with and loved. She began making all of her own food from scratch, and soon gained a reputation as a dazzling cook, creating Italian-Jewish delicacies that few people in the United States had ever heard of. Edda began hosting large dinner parties, then writing down the recipes of her childhood to give to friends along with bags containing leftovers. Soon, her many friends were begging her to write a cookbook; her first volume of The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews appeared in 1981.

In it, Edda sought to explain that many of the iconic foods and dishes associated with Italian cuisine first originated among Italy’s Jews. Eggplant, artichokes and fennel, for instance, once were all considered exclusively “Jewish” foods in Italy. It was through Italy’s small but vibrant Jewish community that many of the quintessential Italian foods first became popular. Edda cited a traditional Italian adage that to have a good life one should Vesti Da Turco E Mangia Da Ebreo: “One should dress like a Turk and should eat like a Jew.” For years, Jewish food within Italy was considered the best that could be found.

Jewish cooks, who had links with Jewish communities elsewhere, were often among the first to introduce new ingredients and ways of preparing dishes to Italian cuisine. The unique needs of Jewish cooks also was a source of creativity when it came to preparing holiday and Shabbat meals. “While adapting the dishes of their host country to their kosher laws,” Edda wrote in her 1999 book The Classic Dolci of the Italian Jews: A World of Jewish Desserts; “the Jews in Italy, as in the rest of the world, enriched the local cuisine with their ancestral culinary customs. Obviously, then, many traditional Italian dishes have an unsuspected Jewish origin.”

Much of this vibrant Italian-Jewish culinary heritage is unknown outside of Italy’s small Jewish community. “Many dishes which are traditionally and uniquely Italian-Jewish are seldom, if ever, found in Italian cookbooks,” Edda explained. “When they are, no mention is made of their Jewish origin except for a very few.” She sought to remedy that, explaining the Jewish origin of Italian dishes and providing recipes for them geared to an American audience.

In her many wonderful cookbooks, Edda Servi Machlin opened a new world to American cooks, introducing the beauty of Italian Jewish heritage and giving us a taste of the rich Italian Jewish world in which she’d grown up.

Here is a classic Jewish-Italian recipe from Edda, which she identifies as having a long Jewish heritage before it became a part of mainstream Italian cuisine. As Edda Servi Machlin might have said, Buon Appetito, or (in Hebrew) Bite’avon.

*The article was published in Aish on September 7, 2019.