Like so many around the world, the brutal assault on Ukraine by Vladimir Putin has been on my mind a lot lately. For me and my family, one of the effects of the conversation about Ukraine has been to think about our own connection to this country, which, like it is for many Ashkenazi Jews, is a rather close one. Both sides of my family include immigrants from Ukraine and neighboring areas, and my grandmother Gita herself had fled when she was a young girl in about 1924. Her family was from a medium-sized city called Vinnytsia, in the news recently due to the shelling of its airport.
For Jews, the question of where we are “from” can be a fraught one. This is especially true in this era where antisemitism has been on the rise, (the FBI reports Jews to be the most common victims of religious hate crimes by a large margin) anger about the state of Israel seems to be a steady drumbeat, and the question of whether Jews “deserve” any kind of place in the ranks of non-White persecuted minorities (for the purposes of everything from inclusion in racial sensitivity training to general empathy) gets re-adjudicated regularly on Twitter and elsewhere. So this pesky question of whether we are White or not; whether we are European or not; Middle Eastern or not; somehow keeps coming back, and with it the obvious other question: was Grandma Polish? Ukrainian? Syrian? Iraqi? Or were those merely stops on a longer journey? Were Jews considered to be Poles or Ukrainians? Did they consider themselves to be Poles and Ukrainians? (By comparison, Sephardi Jews have also never been spared these questions as we debate whether Jews who long inhabited Muslim majority countries up until the 20th century were Arab, and even the at-times heated debate over whether Israelis selling falafel is cultural appropriation. We just have to remember the Israeli food truck that was removed from a food festival in Philadelphia merely for calling itself Israeli)
The question of Jews’ nativeness to the Eastern European lands they lived in can be complex, and requires a bit of history to answer. Coincidentally, I have been reading a lot about Russian history lately, and in particular about the history of Eastern European Jewry. I had always heard that relatives on both sides of my family were from Russia, and this is not false. Anyone who knows about the history of the region understands that Russia has long had imperial ambitions in Eastern Europe and central Asia, first in the form of a czarist empire that stretched all the way through Poland in the West and Turkmenistan in the south, and then, after the Russian Revolution, as the Soviet Union. But, in fact, once I looked more carefully at the map, I discovered that my mother’s family was from Lithuania and my father’s mother had actually come from Ukraine. They were both living within the confines of what was known as the Pale of Settlement, an area within the Russian Empire in which Jews were authorized to live, with certain restrictions that were stricter or looser depending on the czar.
But as in most other regions that Jews have inhabited over the course of their 2-thousand-year diaspora, and for reasons that undoubtedly involve both “push” (persecution/separation) and “pull” factors (voluntary separatism), there was most certainly daylight between them and any local identity that existed in their home country. This probably explains why very few Jews do or in fact ever did refer to themselves as Russian, Ukrainian, or Polish. They were Jews of the Russian Empire, or Jews of the Soviet Union, and while there was much overlap in their foods, dress, etc, and always varying levels of cultural sharing, the communities remained separate. They also had their own language, Yiddish, which was spoken up until the Soviet Union made Russian the most common lingua franca of the region. But separateness is certainly not the whole story.
In my attempt to learn more about the identities of European Jews, I’ve been surprised at how few books there are on the topic of Eastern European Jewish life BEFORE the 20th century, despite the fact that the vast majority of American Jews descend from this history, and that up to 20% of the population of these areas was Jewish before the decimation of WWII. In other words, Jews were a major presence in the Russian Empire, and not the microscopic minority that they represent today in the West. Yet most modern Jews’ view of Eastern Europe tends to be a simplified one of vague disdain, and their attitude toward Jewish life within it is mostly one of pity, if sprinkled with the occasional nostalgia.
This is obviously a result in part of the Holocaust, which for most Jews frames their modern conception of Eastern Europe. When American Jews think of Poland and Ukraine, they think of betrayal by neighbors, empty villages, and unmarked graves. They think of countries that have all but forgotten their 500-year presence that ended a mere 80 years ago. In fact, most of what we tell our children about “the old country” starts with the end. It tends to be Holocaust-centered, and paints a picture of either a depressing world on the verge of destruction or an idyllic, rigidly religious world also on the verge of destruction. Eva Hoffman explains this beautifully in her nuanced book Shtetl about Polish Jewish history,
The Shadow of the Holocaust is long, and it extends backwards as well as forward. Our readings of the pre-war Polish Jewish past have been burdened retroactively by our knowledge of what came at the end. For some descendants of Eastern European Jews, the lost world of their parents and grandparents has become idealized, sequestered in the imagination as a quaint realm of “before.” For others the whole Polish past is seen as darkened hues, as nothing but a prelude and a prefiguring of the catastrophe. The retroactive revisions are understandable: the meaning of every story is crucially affected by its conclusion, and the story of Polish Jews has become shaped in our minds by what was, for so many, the final act. And yet history isn’t like a story; it isn’t shaped by an author who is leading up to a preconceived finale from the outset, or who can at least invent an appropriate ending to fit the narrative’s shape. History doesn’t unfold that logically or purposefully…
This coincides with my experience of Googling the Jewish history of Vinnytsia and repeatedly finding nothing except the famous, chilling photograph of the “Last Jew of Vinnytsia” which shows a well-dressed but skeletal man about to be shot into a ditch full of bodies by the Nazis. Indeed it seem to be a heritage worth forgetting. But in fact, Eastern European Jewry was a vibrant and integral part of the Russian Empire. Before it was over, the shtetl was a complex and economically dynamic social order that constantly interacted with the non-Jewish world. (See Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern’s new work on this topic The Golden Age of the Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe). Of course we will always know that had my great-grandparents stayed in Vinnytsia they would have been murdered along with every other Jew of the city, but that doesn’t erase the past they had there.
When it comes to the food of Yiddish culture, the story is the same. As I searched for cookbooks that came out of the Ashkenazi world, I found little. We have many legacy recipes represented in fine Jewish cookbooks such as those by Joan Nathan, Jayne Cohen, Claudia Roden, but when I went looking for a book that was devoted to Ashkenazi cooking in its original context, I could find nothing in print. (I will offer my overview of Yiddish cookbooks in a separate post.)
This is perhaps partly or mostly because Jews themselves look down on Yiddish cooking and would not be interested in a book of Shtetl recipes, which they see as unappealing and outdated, unlike Sephardi and Israeli foods which are now seen as fresh and dynamic.
But I think that the shtetl deserves to be respected. Not idealized or condescended to but studied and respected. We were part of the story of Ukraine, and we shouldn’t forget, diminish, or deny that because of the brutal end. Jews were never exactly Russian, Polish or Ukrainian, but they were a minority ethnicity of these countries and very much part of their stories. As we watch the news out of Ukraine, we can’t help but think back on our connection to these lands and perhaps celebrate a forgotten part of ourselves. As formerly Ukrainian Jews have watched Volodymyr Zelensky from afar, we can’t help but see a part of ourselves and a bit of pride that a Jewish Ukrainian is leading the people.
Here are a few pictures of the world my grandmother and many other grandparents like her left behind.
I’ll leave you with two recipes today. One for Ayer Kichelach, a Jewish bakery staple that I have always loved but haven’t seen in a bakery since I was a child. These sugared kichelach are light as a feather and crunchy, with a crispy sugar shell. They are so simple and yet unique. Subtly sweet, eggy, and with a texture similar to a crispy breadstick. They are just perfect for a snack in the afternoon with tea or a quick bite in the morning.
The second recipe is for an egg onion spread that belongs on the same table with chopped liver, and yet involves no liver. It features one of the fundamental flavor components of savory Yiddish cooking which is onions browned in shmaltz. Schmalz, which is rendered chicken fat, can be made by sauteeing chopped chicken skins (often with onions) or can be bought online. In spite of its bad reputation, schmaltz has less than half the saturated fat of butter and more than twice as much monounsaturated fats. This egg onion spread is so savory and delicious and is wonderful on matzoh or bread as an appetizer.
Sweet Ayer Kichelach (makes about a dozen)
- 3 eggs, plus one for egg wash
- 1 ½ tbsp neutral oil
- 1 ½ cup flour
- Dash of salt
- ¼ cup sugar, plus 1 tbsp
Mix 3 eggs, oil, salt and 1 tbsp sugar in a medium bowl and beat with a fork. Add 1 ¼ cup flour and stir well. Add the rest of the flour bit by bit until you get a soft dough, but not so sticky that it can’t be kneaded. Knead for 5 minutes, flouring as needed. Preheat oven to 450 F. Next roll out the dough to about ¼ inch on a lightly floured silpat. The dough can get sticky, but don’t over flour. Brush the dough with the last egg (beaten) and sprinkle heavily with the sugar. Cut the dough into ½ inch strips and cut again crosswise to make 3-inch strips. Transfer to a baking sheet which has been sprayed with nonstick spray. Bake until very golden, about 15-20 minutes.
Egg Salad with Caramelized Onion and Schmaltz (Based on the recipe Gehockte Ayer Mit Tzibbeles from Yiddish Cuisine by Robert Sternberg)
- 4 hardboiled eggs
- 1 large onion, sliced thinly
- 3 tbsp schmaltz (Sternberg suggest adding in some of the bit of chicken left from the rendering process if you happen to have any. I bought my schmaltz online so did not use this)
- Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Heat the schmaltz and add onions and a sprinking of salt. Stir periodically for about 15-20 minutes until they are golden. Transfer the onions to a cutting board along with the eggs and chop roughly (or fine if you prefer more of a paté texture. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and add any remaining schmaltz left in the pan. Stir and season to taste. Serve with matzah or crackers.