The Coyotes Weren’t Kosher: Women’s Role in Preservation of Dietary Tradition in Pioneering Southwest
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Women have always played a major role in the practice of Judaism. They have many responsibilities and obligations to fulfill due to of their faith. Yet, they also must raise their families and often work to provide for their family. Overtime, Jewish women have become an example of women’s ability to live very demanding lives and still sustain her religious devotion. Jewish women have had to overcome numerous obstacles in incorporating the changes inherent with ever-evolving life with their static religious duties. Thus was the case for any Jew who chose to move away from their community and start a new life. Many pioneers found it hard to remain practicing Jews when there were no other Jewish people around them. Some observances became difficult to exercise given the surrounding and Jews would sometimes have to compromise their traditions with physical practicality. This led to great personal struggle for women who had always felt that the family’s religious sanctity was her responsibility. But these fascinatingly resourceful and dedicated women found ways to overcome the hindrances that their new home provided and still plant the seeds that would grow into a rich and strong Jewish community regardless of where they lived.
There were many problems that these pioneering Jews experienced when they tried to adhere to Jewish custom in places where keeping kosher was a unpracticed tradition. This was especially true in the founding of the southwest. It became apparent to Jewish mothers that there would be many difficulties ahead of them. In particular, the Jewish religion calls for its member to follow a strict collection of dietary laws. These laws mandated the separation of meat and milk products and the cleansing of all utensils that came into contact with these foods (Siegel 1959). The women were required to follow certain rules in food preparation. It was important that these rules to preparing the food, especially meat, were followed by any devote Jews. These dietary laws are followed not healthiness, but out of holiness. Judaism teaches that man must give reverence for the things that he has, and those that he takes (Stiengroot 1995). This explains the principal of hollowing one’s natural actions to make them holy and is directly illustrated by the way in which a Jewish woman runs her kitchen.
By adhering to these strict rules, Jewish women can cook food for their family while still keeping the actual act of preparation holy. Women were completely responsible for the kosherness of the family’s food and home. A woman’s kitchen and cooking directly reflected her religious devotion. Therefore mothers imparted an informal domestic religious education onto their daughters. This education took place as the daughters helped their mothers in the kitchen. These were heavy responsibilities, and a wife’s reward came every Sabbath eve when she was praise in the words of the Book of Proverbs, as a “woman of valor.”
One of the hardest of these obstacles to overcome was that of keeping kosher traditions. By definition “kosher” means fit or proper to be used. The word “T’refah’ is the opposite of kosher and translates literally into “torn by a wild beast”(Lebeson 1938). This term T’refah was used to describe food prepared improperly and has also been extended to include other foods that have been deemed objectionable by Jewish standards. The foods permitted by Jewish custom consist of all types of fruits and vegetables, any cloven-hoofed animal, and seafood that has scales. Therefore many pioneering families grew their own vegetables and would sometimes raise cows and other livestock. This provided much versatility. By owning a cow, a Jewish woman could not only supply milk, cheeses, and other dairy supplies to her family. But also could sell the excess milk and these other products to the local market for income. This allowed the women to provide some added financial support yet, did not violate the Jewish taboo against having another man control your wife. For it was Jewish custom to forbid a wife from working under another male boss. The women also had to adhere to strict laws concerning the utensils in the kitchen. The dietary laws strictly forbid the mixing of milk and meat foods at the same meal. This also carries over to the cooking and preparation of such foods. Because many cookware materials absorbed the flavors and smells of food, the Jewish household had to have at least two sets of everything used in the eating and preparing of food i.e. pots and pans, dishes, sinks, and even towels (Seldoff 1977). This was an extremely expensive and impractical for many of the first pioneers, yet was also viewed as a necessary sacrifice to keep religious sanctity.
When adhering to Jewish food preparation laws, meat must also be prepared a certain way. The term Koshering of meat refers to a process in which all of the blood is extracted from the meat. This practice has extreme religious significance for the Jews. Blood is viewed as life and therefore must be respected. In Judaism, blood may never be consumed for it possesses the life essence of the animal. Instead the blood is ceremoniously removed from the meat through the use of kashering salts. Even the way in which the meat was gathered had strict requirements placed on it as well. The animal can only be a herbivore and must be slaughtered properly. The process was also followed because it allowed the animal will feel no pain at death and to signify the reverence for its loss of life. In the southwest, skilled Jewish butchers were not available and families were forced to take on the blessed act themselves. By trying the best they could to follow customs, the Jewish pioneers were able to maintain tradition despite the absence of other Jews in the region. However, they were not always able to overcome the threats to their religious practices. Many migrating Jewish peoples had to forfeit tradition and accept non-kosher food from people that they encountered because they did not have enough to eat. For it was impossible to pack enough kosher foods and cooking equipment for any extended travel and still remain in complete religious compliance. But the mothers did the best that they could on the journey to their new homes. Each woman packed a bundle. In these bundles were most things that they needed. Yet, the serious religious holidays like Passover still proved to be a problem.
Women were charged with creating the proper environment for other observations as well. Passover, the spring holiday celebrating the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, ironically brought with it an enormous amount of extra work. Just as the prohibition against mixing meat and milk foods entailed keeping duplicate items, so did the Passover prohibition against eating leavened food brought about its own problems and impracticalities. The women have the entire responsibility for cleansing the house and preparing the Passover table. Therefore, for Jewish women, this is a very important time of the year When cleaning the house, incredible detail must be spent to ensure that all chametz or leaven be eliminated. Chametz is a term used for dust or small amounts of dirt. Jewish laws require the meticulous avoidance of chametz -even in minute quantities-throughout the Passover holidays both at home and away. In a journal, a young Jewish girl living in Mesa descibes the degree to which her mother enforced this practice. “When we got ready for Passover, we even scrubbed the door knobs. We had a library with books in it. For Passover, my mother made me go through every one of those books, shake them out, God forbid someone would be reading a book a crumb would fall out.” (Siegel 1959). The prohibition of chametz applies not only to certain foods, the use of which must be avoided during Passover, but applies to any of the dishes or utensils that are to be used as well. This meant that the women in the house would have to go through a rigorous cleansing process in order to be able to use the same utensils for Passover cooking that they had been using during the year. In this recollection of a young pioneering Jewish boy it becomes evident to the degree that the entire house was cleaned preceding Passover. “Several days before Passover, my mother, my sister, and I would set about getting the house ready. Mother whitewashed all the walls and scoured the floors. She made the utensils kosher for Passover with scalding hot water. In addition every piece of furniture was carried down to the [slough] and scrubbed and allowed to dry on the bank.”(Seldoff 1997). With all these guidelines it is easy to see the difficulties in remaining a practicing Jew in the old southwest. However, the Jewish women realized that the food and its religious significance were more important than the purification process for the utensils. Because of the lack of Jewish synagogues in region, families became to depend on each other to keep tradition and share observances.
Jewish families would come together and celebrate the scared observance in one house. “Mother seldom went to the temple. She felt it was too far away (Nogales to Tucson in those days took about 2 to 2 ½ hours). Our Jewish upbringing was in Nogales. We celebrated all the Jewish Holidays at home with festive dinners and traditional foods. All baked goods were made at home. We even went to Sonora, Mexico to buy the fish for the gefilte fish for Passover. The Matzos were bought in Tucson.” ( Steingroot 1995). These Matzos are unleavened cakes that serve as a religious reminder of the slavery of the Jews. For when the children of Israel had to leave Egypt, they had to leave so hurriedly that there was no time for the bread to rise. This bread plays an essential part in the remembrance of where the Jews came from. For even if you are rich and well liked now, by eating the Matzo you acknowledge the struggle of your ancestors to keep the Jewish faith alive in times of trouble. Since the observance of Passover is one of the most important Seders or religious events for Jews, it was celebrated despite all costs, no matter how many other Jews were present.
Even though there were only three Jewish households in Nogales in the beginning, it was the bonds between these families that would allow them to continue their practice of Judaism. Families with a rabbi or a learned man would take on the responsibility for the all the children’s religious education regardless if family. While wives would often lend food or other necessities to their Jewish neighbors. As was exemplified by this account of a Jewish girl living in northern Arizona near the White Mountains. “Once we were snowed in for ten days by a snow storm. After a few days we ran out of bread, and my mother sent me over to the Olsons on skis to see if any flour was available. Mrs. Olson said “We are out of flour as well, but here are some potatoes. Tell your mother to make some potato pancakes. They didn’t taste as good as bread would have, but they were a welcome treat for our empty stomachs.”(Sharfman 1977). It was this strong type of inter-Jewish bond that was the sole reason that these Jewish families did not loose their heritage. They continued to help one and another in times of need and come together for religious observations. These inter-family relationships were essential in ushering in the emergence of a Jewish culture in the southwest. For without the support of their neighbors and other Jews, this extremely vibrant community may not have been able to take root due to the hardship of a pioneer’s life.
The Jewish pioneers faced many hardships as anybody did when they traveled into the wilderness in search of a new life. However, the Jews had other factors to contend with as well. For example they had to also combat the fact that there were only a few other Jews around them. Their religion was placed in jeopardy by this seclusion and would have withered away in the frontier if it had not been for the women. For it was the women who were responsible for keeping their homes kosher and raising god fearing children. Women found this to be no easy task but they improvised and became innovators. They were able to overcome these difficulties and founded families and culture that would persist in the southwest for generations. By coming together and not letting go of tradition for the sake of convince, these Jewish women were truly the religious backbone of their families. Through their cooking, support, and way of life, they demonstrated the power of devotion to overcome the physical. These women were truly courageous pioneers in every sense of the word.
Lebeson, Anita Libman. (1938). Jewish pioneers in America. Behrman’s Jewish Book House: New York, p. 123-145
Seldoff, Linda Mack. (1977). “And Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher”. Minnesota Historical Society Press: St. Paul, Minesota, p. 12-55
Sharfman, I. Harold. (1977) . Jews on the Frontier. Henry Regnery Company: Chicago. P. 55-123, 203-345
Siegel, Seymour. (1959). The Jewish Dietary Laws. The Burning Bush Press:New York.
Steingroot, Ira. (1995) . Keeping Passover. HarperSanFrancisco: California. P.34-89