Barbara fled from yeshiva into the arms of husband

BARBARA Bensoussan, who has produced a mouth-watering food memoir on Sephardi cookery, never thought she would marry a Sephardi and live in the chassidic Boro Park suburb of New York.

She said: "There is a famous Yiddish saying, 'Man plans and God laughs.'

"He certainly got a good laugh out of me. I grew up in the 1960s. We were a second-generation Jewish family. Most of the adults were teachers and professors.

"We were proud to be all-American, but on the occasional Jewish holiday or Friday evening, we were prone to indulge in a bit of religion lite.

"I grew up assuming that I too would be a professor, take my religion lite, and, like my dear old mum, Gladys Greenfield, marry a nice Jewish boy from New York. But that's not how things turned out.

"Somehow I ended up married to a nice Jewish boy, not from New York, but from Casablanca. I no longer take my religion lite, but full strength. I became a writer, instead of a professor and have six children."

She recalled: "During the whole of my childhood, Saturday was just that. As I was growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, my parents' idea of a good Jewish way to spend Saturday morning was to take the family to a really good-sized library.

"Then, after spending an hour stocking up on armloads of books, we would drive to pick up baigels and lox for Sunday morning."

As she was growing up through high school and college, Friday nights meant "loud, crowded parties with too much beer".

She said: "I went along, mostly for lack of social alternatives, but deep down I knew there must be a better way."

Halfway through her post-graduate studies, a friend roped her into a weekly class with an Orthodox rabbi.

Having grown up to think all Orthodox Jews were closed-minded, Barbara was surprised to find her teacher "shrewd and insightful", seeming to understand the world better than she did.

She said: "It did not take me long to figure out that Judaism was much richer, deeper and more intellectually sophisticated than anything I'd learned in the Sunday school of my family's Reform synagogue."

Then Barbara received Shabbat invitations which she enjoyed. Her rabbi encouraged her to do a summer programme at Jerusalem's Neve Yerushalayim. As the trip was subsidised and Barbara loved travel, she took up the offer.

But she said: "I wasn't so sure I wanted to spend two months in a place they called a yeshiva, but no-one was going to chain me to my chair. It would simply be a cheap opportunity to go to Israel for the first time."

She described it as "an eye-opening summer, difficult and exhilarating as I struggled, sometimes kicking and screaming, to see things from Orthodox Judaism's diametrically different point of view, to see my modern ideas clash with a world-view so much older and wiser than mine".

Then, in a defiant mood, in her last week in Israel when she had become "sick and tired of yeshiva", Barbara ran off with a friend to Netanya. There, she said, "The good Lord put my future husband right into my path".

They met up on the beach and spent the rest of the day talking and haven't stopped since, more than 20 years later.

She said: "I wondered why the Master of the Universe chose to reward rather than punish my rebellious flight from yeshiva.

"Then I realised that He had actually allowed Himself the last laugh. He sent me someone who would come to demand nothing less than the highest Jewish standards."

Barbara's husband, Ariel Bensoussan, came from a large Sephardi family, whose women-folk had a vast Sephardi cookery repertoire which Barbara was expected to use, especially when they came for long stays in her New York home.

Barbara said: "I originally learned to cook Moroccan-style to please my husband, but pretty soon there was a small crowd of hungry children."

During her decade of pregnancy and nursing, Barbara found herself perpetually hungry. With no concentration for serious reading, she indulged in cookery magazines.

She said: "The years I spent at home with my kids gave me time to dabble in offbeat recipes and concocting inventive ways to disguise disgusting leftovers."

The results of generations of traditional Moroccan cooking combined with Barbara's ingenious culinary creativity are to be found in The Well-Spiced Life, published by Israel Bookshop Publications.

© 2015 Jewish Telegraph