NYTimes: Gil Marks, Historian of Jewish Food and Culture, Dies at 62

My friend has passed away. 

I am grateful to have known Gil for so many years and to have considered him to be a friend. He was a great person, sincere and sensitive and positive in every way. He was meticulous in his cooking, in his writing and in his relationships, always seeking the right ingredients and ever particular about all of the recipes of his life.

He accomplished a great deal, and still I feel he was taken before his time and that we will sorely miss his voice in our communities.

From The New York Times
Gil Marks, Historian of Jewish Food and Culture, Dies at 62

Mr. Marks wrote five books that chronicled kosher menus through the centuries and examined the role of food in the establishment and growth of cultural traditions.


Gil Marks, a culinary historian who wrote widely on the relationship between Jewish food and Jewish culture in a manner that was both scholarly and friendly, died on Friday in Jerusalem. He was 62.

The cause was lung cancer, his niece Efrat Altshul Schorr said, adding that Mr. Marks was not a smoker.

Mr. Marks studied for the rabbinate at Yeshiva University in New York, but he burrowed into the history and culture of the Jews more through the recipe book than the Talmud. Still, some would argue that his work was, in its way, Talmudic — full of information and interpretive wisdom on the foods of Jewish tradition and the governing principles of cooking and eating them.

He was the author of five books, an oeuvre that not only provided a recipe-by-recipe chronicle of kosher menus through the centuries but also examined the role of food in the establishment and growth of cultural traditions.

A writer of eloquent informality with a wide frame of reference, Mr. Marks was as apt to cite the song parodist Allan Sherman or the acerbic monologuist Lenny Bruce, as he was the Torah scholar Maimonides or the Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem. He spent a working lifetime not simply in the kitchen testing unusual seasonings and combinations of ingredients, but also in libraries poring over texts for the arcane details of food preparation.

“If you needed to know when they started eating carrots in Spain, he could tell you,” William Altshul, who is married to Mr. Marks’s sister Sharon, said in an interview on Tuesday.

Mr. Marks’s books included “The World of Jewish Cooking,” a vastly varied introduction to foods from around the globe; and “Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes From Jewish Communities Around the World,” which won a James Beard Award in 2005. He is probably best known, however, for his 2010 compendium, “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” an A-to-Z guide, nearly 700 pages long, through 2,500 years of comestibles both familiar and obscure.

“A filled pastry, either baked or fried,” Mr. Marks writes, by way of definition, in introducing the entry on the knish. Then, after citing an especially appetite-stimulating passage from a Sholom Aleichem short story, he traces the path of the pastry through the centuries, from Eastern Europe to the street carts of New York and Yonah Schimmel, the celebrated knishery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

“The knish is a classic example of peasant food evolving into comfort food and even sophisticated fare,” Mr. Marks’s history begins. “The origins of the knish lay in a medieval Slavic fried patty, called knysz in Poland, a peasant dish made from a cooked vegetable, most notably mashed turnips, or kasha; leftovers were typically used. These small cakes commonly accompanied a soup, and frequently the two dishes were the entire meal.

“Slavic cooks began stuffing the patties with little sautéed mushrooms, onions or chopped meat, and eventually began adding bread crumbs or flour to the outer portion.”

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He added, “Eastern European Jews adapted the knysz to the dictates of kosherlaws and to their tastes, transforming it into the knish, a small, round, fried, filled pastry; this was a tasty way to enhance and stretch staples, most notably kasha, cabbage and curd cheese.”

Gilbert Stanley Marks was born in Charleston, W.Va., on May 30, 1952, a son of Harold Marks, who operated a linen supply business, and the former Beverly Rosenthal, a painter on Judaic themes. The family moved to Richmond, Va., when Gil was a teenager. He graduated from the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, and then moved to New York to attend Yeshiva University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, master’s degrees in social work and history, and his rabbinical ordination.

For a time, he was a guidance counselor and history teacher at Yeshiva University High School for Boys in New York, and he also worked in Philadelphia as a social worker before returning to New York for most of his adult life. He had recently moved to Alon Shvut, near Jerusalem....

At his death, he was at work on a book defined more by national than by religious tradition: “American Cakes,” some of which has appeared on the website The History Kitchen.

Mr. Marks’s interest in cooking began in boyhood when, according to family lore, he would complain about his mother’s cooking, to which she responded, “If you don’t like it, make something yourself.”

A self-taught cook, he became an excellent one, entertaining frequently in his small apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan but otherwise, according to Mr. Altshul, living an ascetic life in an austere home.

“He didn’t buy things for himself,” he said. “He bought kitchen utensils.”

Besides his sister Sharon, Mr. Marks’s survivors include his mother; a second sister, Carol Vegh; two brothers, Jeffrey and Arthur; and, in addition to Ms. Schorr, 30 other nieces and nephews and 25 grandnieces and grandnephews, the first, last and middle names of whom — all 56 of them — Mr. Marks could recite, Ms. Schorr said.

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