Interview with Sarah Sassoon, author of THIS IS NOT A CHOLENT

Sarah Sassoon’s picture book THIS IS NOT A CHOLENT (Kar-Ben, 2024) illustrated by Viviana Garofoli, is set in Australia and follows a girl named Amira and her grandmother, Nana, who participate in a Cholent cooking competition. Amira and Nana make an Iraqi stew called t’bit, which is different than the other contestants’ dishes. Despite the crowd’s confusion about their ingredients, Amira assures Nana their dish will be a hit. Young readers will love the rhythmic, lyrical language and delightful, colorful illustrations. THIS IS NOT A CHOLENT is full of heart – a joyful celebration of family, culture, and tradition. I look forward to learning more about Sarah’s connection to this special story.

Welcome back, Sarah!

In your new picture book, THIS IS NOT A CHOLENT, Amira and her Nana make their special Iraqi stew called, t’bit or hamin, for the Best Cholent Competition. The story is inspired by a family recipe. Can you tell me a bit about the recipe and why it means so much to you?

T’bit is a chicken and rice dish that my Iraqi Jewish grandmother cooked every Friday leaving it to cook overnight so we would have a hot meal for Shabbat lunch. (Observant Jews traditionally don’t cook on Shabbat.) It’s the kind of dish that feeds an army, so it was always an occasion of family and friends gathering together.

It’s special to me because it reminds me of the Shabbat I grew up with boisterous and Middle Eastern even if it was in Sydney Australia. My family had to flee Iraq to Israel in 1951 with 120,000 other Iraqi Jews. They weren’t allowed to bring anything with them besides one suitcase for a family of seven. Growing up eating t’bit I didn’t realize that I was eating what refugees can bring with them, their culture and culinary traditions. Now when I make t’bit I feel like I am keeping up the chain of generations of Iraqi Babylonian Jewish women cooking for their families.

Sarah Sassoon
Sarah Sassoon

Amira and her Nana are proud of their stew, even if it’s not the same as traditional cholent. Your story provides an opportunity to bring Jewish communities together, to celebrate differences. Why do you think this is so important for young readers?

I think it’s important to give words to the experience of growing up different.

As a child I didn’t own my Iraqi, really ancient Babylonian Jewish background. I didn’t know how. It was so different to be a Middle Eastern Jew in Sydney where the majority of Jews were refugees from post Holocaust Europe. It’s like the difference between t’bit and cholent, chicken and rice and meat and potatoes. Same tradition of eating hot food on Shabbat morning, but totally different ingredients.

Something we don’t talk enough about is that 600 years ago half the Jews in the world were Sephardic or Middle Eastern. The truth is most Jews passed through Babylonia since with both the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE and the Roman exile in 70 CE, Babylonia became the main Jewish centre. So when we share our diverse Jewish communities we open up the discussion of our proud history as Jews. How far we have traveled through many countries and many time periods.

What were your thoughts when you saw Viviana Garfoli’s delightful illustrations? 

I really love Viviana’s illustrations. They’re bright and fun and capture Amira’s joyful exuberance in cooking up her t’bit entry into the competition, and then her self doubt and emotional insecurity for daring to introduce a dish that is so different.

The cute kookaburras, beautiful red wattle and delightful references to the Australian setting are also a lot of fun for kids. As well as the food. Children really love to point out all the different ingredients.

What do you hope young readers take away from the story?

Children should have a space to explore where they are different and to create a place to share their own cultural richness through food, like Amira does with her Nana’s t’bit which was passed down from mother to daughter for generations. I wish I had had the words to share my family story as a child. I hope this book which is a Social Emotional Learning book, (SEL)inspires conversations between parents and children about where they come from, and how sometimes sharing where we come from can be hard, but it still should be done, even if it’s different and maybe strange with the taste of other lands.

Thank you, Sarah!

Sarah Sassoon grew up in Sydney, Australia where she learnt to cook t’bit with her grandmother, Nana Aziza. She is a writer, poet and educator, and author of the children’s picture book Shoham’s Bangle. Sarah lives in Jerusalem where she regularly cooks t’bit for her husband and four hungry boys.

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