Local | Volunteer Salute

Hebrew High cooking class is labor of love

(L-R) Susan Wortman, Lupe Zembrano, Marjorie Cunningham and Paula Riback at Hebrew High
(L-R) Susan Wortman, Lupe Zembrano, Marjorie Cunningham and Paula Riback at Hebrew High

Teaching cooking at Tucson’s Hebrew High gives Marjorie Cunningham hope for the future.

“I have confidence in our young people,” says Cunningham, who has found, over the past 15 or so years that she’s volunteered to teach the class, that her students are “pleasant, polite, appreciative and enthusiastic.”

She created the class, held in the spring, as a way to explore the diversity and adaptability of the Jewish people. “Wherever the Jews went, they would adapt the cuisine of whatever country or ethnic area they were in, and make it kosher. As a consequence, Jewish cuisine is very international,” she says.

Along with Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Middle Eastern components, Cunningham also incorporates aspects of American and Mexican cuisines. Apple pie, she notes, is great because it can be made pareve. Students love making fajitas with the chicken from the previous week’s lesson of chicken soup with matzah balls. “Of course we don’t sprinkle cheese on our fajitas,” she says, but the class does make salsa and guacamole, with coaching from Lupe Zembrano, who was hired by Hebrew High to help clean up.

In the first couple of years, says Cunningham, who has a full-time job as an attorney, she did it all, from shopping to cleaning. Now she has help from several friends, including Susan Glass, who does most of the shopping, Paula Riback, Arleen Goldstein and Susan Wortman. One or more help her set up, demonstrate techniques and troubleshoot if the kids’ dishes aren’t turning out right.

With a class time of 45 to 50 minutes, Cunningham notes, she has to choose dishes that are quick, or do some prep ahead of time, such as bringing in challah dough she makes in advance. She still has students experiment with yeast (tip: use a candy thermometer to get water at the proper temperature). They also make bagels — a popular recent addition to the roster — and rugelach, which are easy but do involve several steps.

Cunningham is also involved with the Tucson Presidio Trust, which sponsors historic events downtown, and helped develop the Turquoise Trail, a self-guided walking tour of historic sites. “I like history,” she says.

In her cooking class she also celebrates tradition, taking students through the issues of kashrut and her theories on how it became more complex over generations. “If you think about it, 1,500 or a thousand years ago there wasn’t much going on except sex, food and prayer. Rabbis who had all these great ideas and mathematical abilities, there was no way to apply them — we didn’t have computers and airplanes,” so they’d apply their reasoning skills to Jewish law, she speculates. Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, another longtime Hebrew High teacher, raised the question of what kashrut might be if the rules were being developed today, says Cunningham. Instead of the separation of meat and milk, might the emphasis be on getting rid of unhealthy foods?

Whatever the answer to that and other questions Cunningham explores in class — such as which came first, Purim’s shaloch manot baskets or Easter baskets? — she enjoys the “feeling of spirituality and cohesiveness” she gets from volunteering in the Jewish community.

“I like the l’dor v’dor aspect of passing on something to the next generation.”