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On Master Chef, Feminism, and the History of the Middle Ages

Even when men prepare the food and women eat it, something within us remains the same.
Dr. Channa Pinchasi is a Research Fellow in the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. She is the Director of the Maskilot program and guides research teams at the Center for Judaism and the State Policy. Channa was the Deputy Director of Be’eri and Director of the Be’eri School for Teacher Education at the Institute for 7 years. She received her PhD in gender studies from Bar-Ilan

There are surprising moments in life when the academic meets television-staring. This week, out of the day’s fatigue, it seemed that Caroline Bynum was lying on the couch next to me. Caroline – Bynum from the footnotes – is a historian of the Middle Ages. Boring? You would think. During the day, before settling down in front of the TV, I read her book in which she divides the world into “food preparing women” and “eating men”. These become the glasses through which she interprets the world.

That night I imagined her sitting next to me. We were watching the “Master Chef” TV show, having a drink, snacking and chatting. Like two friends. And Caroline (Bynum, remember?) was saying enthusiastically: “Look how this judge, Michal, eats, opens a big mouth and eats.” And I immediately demonstrate familiarity: “Look how she crosses the line from food preparer to food eater, and with such an appetite too, she actually enjoys her food! Have you noticed the giant bite she’s taking of the cream and then of meat and without feeling guilty at all?” (Thinking to myself, and she also eats the cream and the meat: one right after the other, but I don’t say anything, as Bynum’s a Christian).

“You know what” said Bynum, herself showing familiarity with contemporary matters as well, “maybe she is forgiven for all this eating because she stays skinny even in the show’s third season.” And me, losing my manners: “Really? Why Chef Roshfelt the Hippopotamus is forgiven as though his size is an inevitability? A woman of that size would have never appeared on the screen”.

Commercials. I am in the kitchen boiling water for a fifth cup of coffee this evening, but who’s counting? “Look,” I say out loud, so she won’t feel alone with the Ethiopian soldier in the commercial: “A lot of men cook on ‘Master Chef’, so one might think that this is a breakthrough and that roles have changed but the truth is totally different.” I walk in carefully with two boiling cups in my hands. “The pilot cooks for his own pleasure, he has already proven his machismo”. Her coffee spills a little “And women – cooking family life, its grief and joy. Where men are concerned, it is always a dream, an indulgence, a specialization. For women it is a must, a burden that sometimes turns into a pleasure. Remembering the leftovers on the counter I add: “Somehow, they managed to improve the microwaveable chicken breast.”

We continued for a few moments more, Caroline Bynum and I, discussing the professional religious women from the Tekoa settlement and the representative Arab woman (an Arab man is never on Master Chef, one mustn’t overdo it), and I realized how elusive this business is. Even when men prepare the food and women eat it, something within us remains the same. The roles refuse to flip, because in our heads everything has been too static, for too long.

In the morning I turn back to the summary of the book on the Middle Ages: Through food woman achieves domination in the traditional world. This is a powerful tool for achieving control over her life, and the lives of those around her and in the religious world.” Control?!

I ask myself why didn’t I tell Bynum that so many years have passed since I took on the role assigned to me in her books on the Middle Ages. I feed, and the feel the responsibility and usually, I do not enjoy it. Somehow, I want to convince myself that with the food I prepare, comes another kind of nourishment, one more essential. Maybe. For many years I have been wondering whether it is really necessary.

I try to recall when has food been prepared for me? When am I fed? Maybe just at this moment, in a Jerusalem cafe, the computer open in front of me, and the waitress approaching with a cup of coffee. And a cookie.

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