SCoJeC was planning a series of talks in July by acclaimed cookery writer Ethel Hofman in various parts of Scotland, including her native Shetland. Although that trip – like everything else – is now on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, she agreed to speak to us online as part of our series of 'talk to the author' events to raise money for the Aberdeen Synagogue Roof Fund. More than 80 people joined us from all over Scotland and the wider UK while others ‘zoomed in’ from Canada, Israel, and the USA, and yet others watched the talk live on YouTube.
Ethel spoke about her childhood in Shetland, her career as a cookery writer and teacher, and her great sense of the Jewish values of respect, tolerance, and kindness. She said she tried to communicate these values, which came from her mother and from all the assorted "aunts, uncles, and grannies" that surrounded her in Shetland during what she remembers as an "idyllic childhood".
Ethel’s father, grandfather, and two uncles came to Scotland from Russia. They didn’t want to compete with the other Jewish immigrants as credit drapers, travelling all over mainland Scotland; so they took the boat to Shetland – and dealt not in drapery, but in jewellery. As she told us, they did fairly well – they bought a store and lived in the apartment above the shop. Eventually Ethel’s grandfather and uncles left, but her father stayed because he thought he’d found utopia! When he decided he wanted a Jewish wife, he travelled to Glasgow to see a shadchen (marriage broker), and was introduced to Ethel’s mother. Ethel recalls her mother often telling her that when she first arrived off the boat in Shetland, and saw the muddy paths and the apartment above the shop, she said “why did you bring me to such a God-forsaken place!" But her father was proud of what he had achieved; and although her mother was unhappy at first with no synagogue, no rabbi, and no Jewish community, she really made the best of it, and, Ethel recounted, she instilled a tremendous feeling of Jewishness in her three children.
During the war, her mother catered for the surprisingly large numbers of Jewish soldiers who came to the island, and the Greenwald shop became a meeting place for the more than 300 Jewish soldiers stationed on the island. Ethel’s mother gathered together a group of her friends – none of them Jewish – and they cooked the traditional foods for the Jewish holidays, using the army kitchens. She even got in touch with the then Chief Rabbi, Israel Brodie, who travelled up to Shetland to conduct some of the services – a big achievement for one Jewish woman on Shetland!
Ethel studied domestic science and taught in Scotland for a while until she was invited to the USA by an aunt, met her husband there, and went on to have two children. From small beginnings, running a cookery school in her own kitchen (with classes timed to take place while her babies were napping), she became a syndicated cookery writer, and rose to be president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. She loves food – and at the invitation of one of the audience, she prepared a recipe for us in her own kitchen for a 'Confinement Cookery Chocolate Cake’.
Ethel concluded her talk by reflecting on what she feels she learned from growing up in Shetland in a minority religion: that no-one is an island; that we all depend on other people – especially now that we’re isolated during the coronavirus pandemic and are having to communicate using online technologies. And she ended by expressing the hope that this period will lead to a better, more connected, and kinder world, a sentiment that resonated with the audience, one of whom wrote “Ethel's words of wisdom about our human values echo what my parents and Granny taught me too about respect for others.”
Other participants commented, “I really enjoy family stories, so Ethel's was just fascinating. The zoom meeting meant many could attend, and it was lovely some of her friends who turned up. I thought you did a marvellous job.” and “Thank you for organising last night's event. It was really delightful. Ethel is a charming lady and a pleasure to listen to. It felt very inclusive. Lovely, too, to see Ethel interacting with her scattered family.”