Manual of Jewish Festivals by Freda Kaufman

July 24, 2014

A new book will feature in the Museum shop from 31 August. The Manual of Jewish Festivals by Freda Kaufman depicts both traditional and contemporary Jewish practice of the Jewish holidays with concise insights of their sources, observances, food customs, synagogue rituals and more. It places the festivals in an historic context with tables and timelines, and traces their evolution through the ages to the way they are lived today.

Freda unveiled to us how she wrote the manual.

“Until I heard recently from a well known author that his most recent work, a biography, had taken more than twelve years to write, I felt somewhat embarrassed to admit that this Manual of Jewish festivals had indeed taken me that very same number of years to complete! Of course there were often large writing gaps, such as the month of the Jewish High Holydays, but basically here’s how it happened.

For me, the most productive writing time was in the morning, which meant it had to take place before starting work as a physio at 9.00 am. It really boiled down to a maximum of one full quality hour of writing per day. I knew this would never happen at home, where the inevitable domestic interruptions must take place, so after shower, dress and freshly squeezed orange juice, each weekday morning I set out at 7.00 am to a selected eatery for my hour of writing. I can tell you that I revelled in the mini-joys of unadulterated fresh morning air, a small number of cars on the road and easy parking! Such were the rewards of an early start. My restaurant was large, leaving me a vast choice of tables to set up my writing and reference paraphernalia. It was always warm and well lit, and the Greek family who ran it treated me like their daughter, even though I was only a coffee-and-toast customer. I saw them through laughter and losses, and now, after more than twenty years, they have retired and new owners run the café. Somehow I have not been able to return since that time.

A few words must be said about life out there between 7.00 and 8.30 am. While writing busily at my table, it was inevitable to meet other early birds, who gradually drifted in for coffee and company. I had to close my eyes to the fact that material for a book of another kind was almost pummelling me in that surround, but I wasn’t going to be tempted – yet. There was Jim: tall, dark, presentable and bi-polar, who had a long term on-off romance with Heather: a tiny and vivacious girl who enjoyed keeping Jim on his toes with tales of her other dalliances! Heather looked upon me as a confidante, and thought nothing of appearing at my side with tales of her latest romantic woes! The saddest memory that stays with me is of a girl in her early twenties who arrived every morning with a large bag and set herself up for the morning in a toilet upstairs in the ‘Ladies’. The memories are many.

Back to the book! Another reason for the delay was self indulgence, which is to say that I did not always stick to the subject in hand! Without a time constraint, I could enjoy the luxury of answering questions such as: I wonder what happened after that? or What else happened at that time? Research followed and you can now understand how it came to be twelve years to write a 400 page book! However, the up-side was that it really was a time in the day I couldn’t wait to start, and in fact many of my little asides irresistibly ended up in the Manual. An example is in the festival of Pesach, where there is an explanation of how there came to be a most widely used Haggadah that sold 50 million copies in the U.S. during the 20th century – the Maxwell House Haggadah. In the 1920’s Maxwell House Coffee realized that a significant proportion of their customers stopped drinking coffee during the Pesach holiday because coffee is a bean, and beans and legumes are unacceptable for Jews of Eastern Europe over Passover. Maxwell House engaged an Orthodox rabbi to certify their coffee as ‘kosher l’Pesach’, not only explaining that their coffee was not made from beans, but also publishing a Haggadah to encourage their customers to enjoy coffee through Pesach! The Maxwell House Haggadah became the most widely distributed Haggadah in America and in 2009 President Obama and his wife began using it when hosting Seder celebrations at the White House!”

Read about this and more in the Manual!