Miriam's Kitchen: A Memoir by Elizabeth Ehrlich Book Review
In Ehrlich’s Miriam’s Kitchen: A Memoir, readers are able to get to know the author and her family members, but especially Miriam. Miriam is Elizabeth’s mother-in-law, and she is a Holocaust survivor. Despite her tragic history, Miriam makes the best of what she has, and she values her family more than anything. Being raised in a Jewish family, Miriam holds close the values of keeping a kosher kitchen, and it is evident in this memoir how important it is to Miriam that her family know and practice a kosher lifestyle. After completing this week’s readings, I feel as if Miriam’s tragic and trying upbringing shaped her into the woman, friend, mother, and grandmother that she became.
In the chapter entitled “Cake”, we quickly learn about Miriam’s wonderful cakes that she bakes. “Miriam bakes every week, according to a fine internal clockwork. We never grow bored with the results.” (Ehrlich 153). Miriam bakes her children and grandchildren’s favorite cakes for their birthdays, and it is evident that she and her husband, Jacob, are very involved in their grandchildren’s lives. Ehrlich states that she would see her grandparents maybe twice a year, but she is grateful for the involvement of her in-laws in her children’s lives. “They are integral weft to everyday time.” (Ehrlich 153). Not only is Miriam involved in the lives of her grandchildren, but she is able to teach them her kosher ways and she can share her love through food and baking for and with them.
As we get deeper into the “Cake” chapter of Miriam’s Kitchen, we are able to read journal entries from Miriam’s days during the Holocaust. These devastating stories shed light on what Miriam had to go through daily in concentration camps. She had to watch families be ripped apart, including her own. Though her stories are sad and almost unbearable to read, I do believe that her past helped to create the strong ties she has to her family now. Before the Holocaust, Miriam had fond memories of baking cookies with her grandmother, which she is now able to do with her children and grandchildren. When reading this chapter of Miriam’s Kitchen, I was reminded of love languages. It is evident that Miriam’s love language is gift giving, in the form of food and tradition. It is important to Miriam that she teach Ehrlich the kosher ways; I see this as giving the gift of tradition, which is often taken for granted, especially in today’s times.
In Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, we read the chapter entitled “The Gift of Strawberries” which taught us that nature is a gift and how we as a society have lost sight in that. In Ehrlich’s Miriam’s Kitchen, we have learned about a very similar thing. However, instead of nature, Ehrlich teaches us about the gift of tradition and how Miriam makes a point to pass that gift down to future generations. It is easy to see that tradition has also fallen by the wayside in recent generations. My mother raves about her grandmother’s homemade pimento cheese; I ask why she never makes it, because I too love a good pimento cheese sandwich, and I would love to try my great-grandmother’s recipe. She said that her Nana knew the recipe by heart, never thought to write it down, and no one thought to watch her or learn how to make it. This isn’t the only family recipe that has been left in the past, and it makes me sad to think about all of the family recipes I will never be able to taste or carry on. However, this does make me more mindful that grandparents don’t last forever; after reading Miriam’s Kitchen, I will be sure to watch my grandmothers make their family-famous dishes, so that I can one day pass those recipes down to my grandchildren, just as Miriam was able to do.
As someone who was persecuted for what she and her family believed in, it would have been very easy for Miriam to leave her Jewish culture behind her once the Holocaust was over. Keeping and practicing a Jewish lifestyle is a constant reminder for all of the terrible things that happened to her loved ones, but Miriam has remained a devout Jew and she continued to emphasize the importance of being Jewish and keeping kosher to her family. Despite her tragic past, Miriam stood strong in her Jewish beliefs. After watching her own family be torn apart, she chose to turn the situation around and cherish her family more than anything. By combining her Jewish tradition and extreme compassion for family, she was able to teach her children and grandchildren, especially Ehrlich, the importance of tradition and how to keep a kosher lifestyle. Of all of the things that were taken away from Miriam in the past, her generosity and compassion were not one of those things. “I blush now to think of Miriam, waking from nightmares, sleepless at dawn, with nothing to turn her hands to, and then no sweets to offer her only grandchildren. Her hungry heart must have wrung itself inside out.” (Ehrlich, 163). This quote from Ehrlich beautifully explains Miriam’s “hungry heart” and how she cherishes giving to others, especially her family.
In conclusion, Miriam’s Kitchen is a beautifully written memoir with many lessons to be learned by all. One of my main takeaways, other than the importance of tradition and family, is to not let your past define you. Miriam is the perfect example of someone who did not dwell on her past, but instead let it shape her into the woman, mother, and grandmother she became. “This was her life and she was consistent in it.” (Ehrlich, 242).