Friday, 29 January 2021

David Gitlitz by Gillian Polack


I was going to write about the extraordinary and the enormous today, but we’re living with too much history right now. We don’t need the enormous. We do, however, need a sense that we can continue, despite everything.

We have lost far, far too many people from the pandemic. One of them was David Gitlitz. He is one of the scholars whose life work reminds us that life continues and even shows us ways of how to make that happen. He was the co-author of a cookbook. Not just any cookbook.

The Jews of Spain and the Spanish colonies were expelled, murdered or converted, starting in 1492. Those were literally the three life choices they had. This book is a research tour-de-force, showing us what they ate and when they ate it.

The Church was worried about Jewish conversion. It felt that Judaism was in the blood. Inquisitions were set up to investigate the lives of many individuals and families. One of the aims was to destroy Jewish culture, including family recipes and any lifestyle that was not Spanish Catholic. For those who were discovered to be secretly Jewish, the worst outcome was being burned alive. Others had to atone. Even the best outcome meant a secondary status, for those with Jewish ancestry were not considered to be pure of blood. There was no good in the investigation. No happiness. People who had thought “I will give up my ancestral religion and be a proper Spaniard,” were being dragged into a life where friends and neighbours and even the household help was spying on them.

David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson documented some of these people in A Drizzle of Honey. They used the records of the Inquisition to find out about the everyday and who survived and to bring that whole shameful episode of history to life for us. They rebuild the foodways of a persecuted people from the very records used to document the persecution.

It’s a reminder that people survive, and it’s also a document of a vanished culture. More than that, A Drizzle of Honey is one of the best cookbooks I own. I use it to remind myself that every single scarp of food in an historical novel is a reminder of people who might otherwise be lost. I use it to cook from. I use it to teach from. And I use it, right now, as a solid reminder of a scholar who is lost to us through COVID-19, and that our work won’t be lost when we’re gone or if we’re forced into hiding, as long as there are historians to investigate.

I opened the book at random, and found a recipe for Brazilian meat pie. The minced beef is flavoured with allspice and paprika and a touch of sugar. It contains garlic and onion. The Fernandez family of Bahia made this for Shabbat. Meat pies for Sabbath are documented right back to the Middle Ages. I know what I’m making for my Friday night soon. Very soon.

David Gitlitz honoured hidden Jews, secret Jews, and murdered Jews. I honour him, every time I pull this book from my shelf.

May his memory be a blessing.

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