Air and Love by Or Rosenboim: ‘Where are you really from?’

Cover image for Air and Love by Or RosenbuimMigration is a theme I’m often drawn to, fascinated by the way in which people adapt and change, influencing their new culture and country even when it’s made clear they’re far from welcome. Or Rosenboim’s beautifully jacketed Air and Love promised an exploration of her family’s peripatetic history through their food, something I’m also keen on, prompting me to put up my hand for a copy.

In my family, cooking was a way to share a history that often could not be put into words. When we ate together, each dish invited me to discover a place, a time, an emotion.  

Rosenboim structures her book around four stories, following different branches of her family tree. The first is the Asheroffs, prosperous textile traders from Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan), who travelled freely between Central Asia and Jerusalem until the Bolshevik revolution, eventually settling in Tel Aviv. The second is the Efrati branch, Levantine Jews eating every different food from the Asheroffs, also traders navigating the Ottoman Empire with ease until the rise of nationalism and borders presented the need for papers and passports. The third branch, the Adirims, originated in Riga from which Rosenboim’s admirably resourceful sixteen-year-old grandmother escaped just in time in 1941, taking the last train into Russia with her family before the Nazis invaded. These three branches are brought together in twentieth-century Tel Aviv in the new state of Israel, where they must forge a life, some after suffering terrible loss and privation. At each point, the women of the family accommodate their cooking to their new surroundings, discovering the delights of olive oil in happy times, learning to conjure soup out of a few scavenged cabbage leaves amongst other starving refugees in unhappy ones.

The interconnected world could not have existed as we know it without the decisive influence of human mobility.

From her preface, it’s clear that this isn’t quite the book Rosenboim set out to write. Exploring her family history was difficult enough given their constant movement which left little in the way of official archives to study but planning to concentrate on the female line proved impossible. Instead, she uses her male ancestors’ memoirs together with the recipes passed down by the women, often modified to include ingredients from the families’ new homeland yet still redolent of home, as a way of piecing together the undocumented female history. Many of these are scattered through her book, some sobering such as Cabbage Soup on the Road, others celebratory and tempting – I was particularly taken by the Clementine Cake. The histories of all three branches of her family are fascinating, much of it reflecting the turbulent history of the twentieth century. I’ve always seen migration as a positive thing: Rosenboim’s vibrant, absorbing book illustrates this beautifully.

Picador Books: London 9781529098099 272 pages Hardback (read Via NetGalley)

20 thoughts on “Air and Love by Or Rosenboim: ‘Where are you really from?’”

  1. I too am fascinated by migration stories, whether forced or unforced. Combine that with a thoughtful look at food and its place in family culture and there’s a winning premise for a book. I’m definitely hunting for this one, once I’m back home. Thanks!

  2. I’m so glad you said that about migration being a positive thing since all of our ancestors probably started off somewhere different than the country we now call home. Plus the whole debate around borders has become so toxic.

  3. In my late teens, I read so many family saga stories about migration that covered three generations, usually focused on the experiences of mothers, daughters, wives: I always think fondly of that motif, as a result. Those were lighter, more “women’s fiction’ type of books, but they sparked an interest in emi/immigration all the same.

    1. It’s something I’ve long been interested in, too. How much less rich our cultures would be without migration. It was the women’s stories Rosenboim wanted to tell but she was stymied by the lack of documentation of their lives. They’re still a strong presence in her book, though.

  4. I agree with you about migration stories, they are fascinating, often powerful and multi layered. This sounds like a good explanation of family history, home and food.

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