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Why Rabbi Paula Winnig Cooks From the Heart

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Rabbi Paula Winnig, Executive Director of the Bureau for Jewish Education in Indianapolis. At 101 years old, the BJE is the oldest continually active interdenominational Hebrew School in America. In addition to covering the traditional Hebrew School topics, Rabbi Winnig’s curriculum integrates food at every opportunity: The older children learn about agriculture in Israel and enjoy Israeli breakfasts on occasion and the pre-schoolers learn about compost!

It’s no surprise that Rabbi Winnig feels it’s important to put food on the agenda: raised in Northern Wisconsin, she spent much time during her childhood on her aunt’s farm. While others were eating frozen TV dinners, Rabbi Winnig was making her own raspberry wines and jams. Her great uncles owned a meat packing business and her mom made her own yogurt. “This ‘new food movement’ everyone is talking about?” she told me, “It really isn’t so new to me!”

In addition to running the BJE and being a foodie, Rabbi Winnig is also a knitter. It was this hobby that sparked a flame inside of her making her wonder where wool comes from. She told me she had never really thought about until recently but when it comes to sustainability and ethical treatment of animals, wool is a category that cannot be overlooked. Many of the sheep used for commercial wool, she revealed, are not humanely raised.

Together with her partner, Jerry Schwartz, Rabbi Winnig owns Frisky Lamb Farm, a 75 acre property in Glen Aubrey, New York. All of their sheep are 100% grass fed, and raised humanely and sustainably. They allow their sheep to reproduce and wean naturally, which many conventional farmers don’t allow. She admits that the wool they produce may not be of as high quality as that produced by commercially raised sheep, but this is because those sheep are coated, kept in barns, fed grain, and not allowed to damage their wool through natural living. She tells me how she feels better about using yarn even if it could be considered “lower quality” knowing the animal that produced it didn’t suffer. Now Rabbi Winnig almost exclusively knits with sustainable, local wool (mostly her own hand-spun).

On August 1st, Rabbi Winnig will be giving a talk to the Hazon Cross-USA riders entitled “Cooking from the Heart: Creating Jewish Family Rituals and Memories.” When I asked Rabbi Winnig what the discussion is about, she replied, “It’s really a tribute to my mom.” She then described in detail how her mom always had home-cooked food on the table, and how she would even make her own Twinkies to resemble those of the popular mass-produced ones in the store. Her mom was decades ahead of her time when it came to health and wellness, fearing the chemicals and additives in commercial snacks while others were stockpiling them.

Growing up in a very small Jewish community, Rabbi Winnig’s mom found other ways to integrate their Jewish identity to their lives. While their neighbors were making gingerbread houses on Christmas, her mom would make an elaborate gingerbread Temple. “Then, at the end of Hanukkah” she said, “we would smash it, and eat it”. I can imagine Rabbi Winnig’s nostalgic smile through the phone as she recalled this memory.

Like many of us who enjoy spending time in the kitchen, Rabbi Winnig feels that cooking is a full sensory experience, and a way to keep potentially-fading memories bright and vivid. She calls them “kitchen memories.” Growing up in a close knit family, Rabbi Winnig recalled for me her own kitchen memories growing up, cooking with her mom and siblings in the kitchen. Today, she cooks as a way to remember her mom and create new memories with her own family.

“Each day, memories are created. Experiences happen every day, and food is what sustains us through all of that” Rabbi Winnig told me at the end of our conversation, “it is a very powerful tool and we have to know how to use it”. Rabbi Winnig certainly embodies that idea, whether it’s incorporating lessons in composting into her pre-school curriculum or making us think twice about the treatment of the animals that provide us with our clothing. Perhaps starting today, we should all learn a lesson from Rabbi Winnig, whether it’s a thoughtful approach to animals, creating kitchen memories, or making your own Twinkies!

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Liz Traison is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan and holds a B.A. in History and Judaic Studies. She also attended Midreshet Lindenbaum and Hebrew University. She is incredibly excited about being the newest Program Fellow at Hazon She enjoys reading, cooking, and being outside-particularly on Skeleton Lake.

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