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The best dressed girl in the village


Nannies in Jewish families
Claudia Roden Writer
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So, I was invited there to speak when they had a festival of Egypt. And they had film directors from Egypt, they had ancient Egyptian things coming from the Vatican lent them, they had all stories, they had plays that they wrote about their grandmother or their mothers from the letters that their grandmother sent. About them going to Egypt. Letters like, 'I am compressing my breasts all the time to make sure that the milk be there when I arrive'. Because if you don't compress, you lose your milk. They were going as wet nurses. And so, they were telling their stories.

And in their place, I went to a play in a big theatre, where a woman wrote the play. It was a one woman play and it was about her grandmother. From the letters. And she said, 'The boy is having his bar mitzvah'. There was very often a mention of a Jew. And afterwards they said, 'They are a Jewish family, but they are nice'. So, there was anti-Semitism. They had heard that Jews weren't... But they got jobs with Jews, nevertheless. Most of them, but many of them. And so, then after the play, I had to speak for an hour about the nannies. And I had phoned up a lot of e-mails rather, people – saying, 'Did you have a nanny?' – all Jews from Egypt. And 'What did she do? Which village was she from?' And they wrote to me. 'What did she do to you? And what songs did she sing? What words?' And so, I had all these things and I told them I can't tell you what they were like in every family. We were a Jewish family. And this is how we were. And how she came with us, even to Latin America when we thought we would migrate and then came back to Egypt. And she was part of our life, and we went to church to her every day, and the room I shared with her had a crucifix. They had things that she went to collect from the branch from the tree where Mary came with Joseph. And sat under the tree. They had all these things.

Claudia Roden (b. 1936) is an Egyptian-born British cookbook writer and cultural anthropologist of Sephardi/Mizrahi descent. She is best known as the author of Middle Eastern cookbooks including A Book of Middle Eastern Food, The New Book of Middle Eastern Food and The Book of Jewish Food.

Listeners: Nelly Wolman

Claudia Roden talking to her granddaughter Nelly Wolman about her life in food.

Tags: wet nurse, anti-Semitism, Jews

Duration: 3 minutes, 22 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2022

Date story went live: 04 December 2023