30 November 2011

Memento Menu: Jewish Europe in 2002

In 2002, I led my only child on a trip to Europe. Sara was then 14.
It had started as a trip to Vilne to study Yiddish, and grew and grew.
We travelled "student style," with backpacks, by train, and staying in hostels and homes.

When we returned to our home in Oregon, we sponsored a kiddush lunch at Congregation Kesser Israel and published this document to summarize both what we saw there and the food we served here.

M  E  N  U

Sara and I traveled for 3 months. We visited 20 cities in 15 countries. We changed languages 2 times a week. We visited 22 synagogues, where we attended 15 services. We visited 100 bookstores and wrote 5 volumes of our own journals. We spent 31 days at the Vilner Yiddisher Institute with 50 other people from 13 countries.
This trip intentionally had more breadth than depth. Still, there is a lot to write about.
I won’t write it all here.

Americans who grew up in the 1950s and 60s were puzzled by their parents scolding, “Think about the poor children in Europe! Eat your vegetables!”
Huh? How do I benefit poor children in Europe by eating vegetables?  This made no sense.
(And besides, no one, least of all a poor European child, should have to eat green vegetables processed until they are gray . . .)

A couple of weeks ago, we co-sponsored and prepared a Kiddush Lunch IHO “our safe return to Portland (especially from the Russian visa police)”; and also IHO “the children (of all ages) of Kesser Israel who value and participate in Torah education; because,” we added, “when you have visited places where one in a hundred survived, you appreciate anew the importance of dor l’dor education”.

The menu was intended as an edible sampler of our itinerary:  Russian borsch, Lithuanian kasha varnishkes, Ukrainian bean salad, Swedish cucumber salad, Hungarian cholent, Italian biscotti, Belarussian kichelech, Yiddish rozhinkes-mit-mandeln, and Valencia oranges . . . because every meal should include fresh fruit even if the cook neglected to go to Spain.

So now you have read three paragraphs and you are asking yourself, “Yes . . . but what is the point?”
The point is that I finally figured out the connection between “poor” European children and American vegetables; and I will use the Kiddush Lunch menu to explain what I learned.

Russian borsch: 
Sankt Petersburg, Russia is a textbook case of absolute power corrupting absolutely.
Petersburg was built in the 18th century in a great hurry. Tsar Peter wanted a capital city that would look out upon and rival the glittering capitals of Western Europe. He built grand avenues and sinuous canals and luxurious dwellings for the nobility whom he abruptly moved west from Moscow. He built all this on a swamp.
After this, there were costly wars, murderous shifts in dynasty, Napoleon, a World War, and a Revolution that drove Tsarist ambitions into the ground head first and substituted a collective system that extinguished all incentive to maintain anything. Recently, Petersburg started anew and a lot of the city is being rebuilt. But in 2002, Petersburg remains a tissue of impractically grandiose projects that were not maintained for 100 years enduring in a breeding ground for mosquitoes. On the street, babushki lay out on newspapers their inventory of 6 cabbages, 12 onions, and some small white flowers. For such businesses, the overhead is low; the income is vital.
Petersburg has a population of about 5 million and it has one synagogue. Like so much else in Petersburg, the synagogue is being rebuilt incrementally as funding permits. The street façade is totally redone; but if you were able to enter the locked front doors, you’d walk into a construction site. Behind the synagogue is a smaller, old building that has a chapel and some offices. It is a Chabad outpost. The rabbi is not Russian.

Lithuanian kasha varnishkes:
If we learned anything in Vilna, we learned how thoroughly Lithuanian Nazi collaborators exterminated not only native Jewish communities, but also Jews shipped into Lithuania from elsewhere in Eastern Europe.  Every week, white-haired survivors took us to killing fields, crude prisons, partisan forest bunkers, memorials, and cemeteries. They led us through former Jewish quarters, pointing out the locations of former Jewish government offices, former shuls, former yeshivot, former athletic clubs, former theatres, former libraries, former publishing houses.
Before the war, Vilna was 60 percent Jewish and had 103 synagogues. Now it is one-half of one percent Jewish and has one synagogue. We attended the synagogue regularly. There were never more than 30 people there.
Chabad also has a center in Vilna. The rabbi is from Boston; the bokherim are from New York and Canada. They have started a Jewish school for all Lithuania. It has 40 students.

Ukrainian bean salad:
Kiev is a large, fabulous city full of wonderful old edifices accommodating the dignity of state, of literature, and of opera; cobbled streets that wind up and down hills bathed in color by the setting sun; and hundreds of churches with multiple gold onion domes.
In Kiev there are 100,000 Jews and one synagogue. Marko is the head of the Jewish community. We recognized Marko in Kiev because he has a funny but radiant face you can’t forget, and because he had joined our group in Kovne, Lithuania, for a concert of Jewish music.  If they can, Jews from Kiev happily travel 500 miles to Lithuania to hear music.

Swedish cucumber salad:
Stockholm is another city of grand edifices and picturesque old neighborhoods illuminated by the reflections off numerous rivers, inlets, and canals. Taxes are high, but life is comfortable.
We stayed in Cell 201 of a whimsically converted island prison, and spent an entire day traveling back in time at Skansen, a huge outdoor folklife museum. Our cousins took us to an innovative history museum where we examined the still-unexplained artifacts of our Viking ancestors; and Bernard, who just turned 77, complained to us about “alter cockers” as he drove onto and off of curbs.
On impulse, we rang a stranger’s bell and actually got a tour of the apartment where my mother, Sara-the-First, was born. It’s a lovely apartment – a lot lovelier than I would have guessed was within the grasp of my grandfather, a circa-1900 Russian draft dodger.
There are 3 synagogues in Stockholm. We went to the Great Synagogue – the one that is open in summer. The rabbi is from Pennsylvania.

Hungarian cholent:
We both loved Prague. (Everyone loves Prague). In addition, Sara loved Stockholm . . . and I loved Budapest.
In Budapest, buildings have gone from private to public ownership and back again without ever having been restored. We rented a stuffy apartment that had too many doors and too many furry textiles, and shopped in grocery stores generously stocked with kosher delicacies and soil-dusted produce from the countryside; but where the checkout mechanism was a clerk with a hand-held calculator.
Budapest has a melancholic, nostalgic, and occasionally self-mocking character that suited my temperament more than the frantic entrepreneurship of Prague.
In Erzsebetvaros, the Jewish Quarter, the ground floor of any building may still be occupied but the top floor may be a bomb crater. Soot-blackened and shrapnel-pocked windows are brightened by trays of red geraniums. We entered a tiny storefront selling “Judaica,” and inside found a treasury of worm-bored old Talmuds and museum-quality spice boxes. For Sara, this was The Magnetic Center of the Universe.
The Dohaney Street Synagogue is large and splendid and a tourist attraction. You buy a ticket and go in to see its golden adornments and the leaning headstones in the adjacent cemetery.
The Orthodox synagogue nearby is undergoing renovation. The floor tiles smell of dampness and the stained glass ceiling is draped with spattered plastic. Meanwhile, the “regulars” daven maariv in a nearby shtiebel. The women wait outside in the courtyard, listening, and gently rocking the babies in their prams.

Italian biscotti:
The word “ghetto,” we learned, comes from Italian geto, the old foundry district where Ashkenazic and Levantine Jewish traders were permitted to settle in the fourteenth century when Venice became a mercantile world power.
The Levantine Jews had more privileges and more income than the others in the ghetto. But all 5 remaining synagogues empty into the same piazza. Makes one wonder what things were like on your average shabbos in, say, 1612, when the Haves and Have-Nots dispersed after mincha.
In the ghetto now, there is a gondolier stand, wonderful artisan shops, a couple of kosher restaurants, a museum, and a Chabad center. The rabbi is American.

Belarussian kichelech:
Two great men came from the area around Vitebsk:  Marc Chagall and my grandfather. I knew that too much time had passed to see anything of their world; but I wanted to go to Vitebsk, anyway.
Vitebsk was dream time – an impression much enhanced by the smoke in the air from field-burning; by the absence of anyone who spoke any language except Belarussian; and by arriving at 3:00 in the morning and leaving 25 hours later at 4:00 in the morning.  (Our planned 3 days in Vitebsk shrank to only one because of difficulties with the train schedule.)

Our first stop was the Marc Chagall Museum – the only museum in Vitebsk. It was closed . . . but it was in an interesting neighborhood near one of the city’s 3 rivers.  So we walked around inspecting Soviet-era factories surrounded by high concrete walls and mossy board fences; old “worker housing” long since abandoned, roofless, and hollow except for plants growing in former stairwells; heroic statues of people we never heard of; and wood houses that were barely tall enough to stand up in, with roofs slanted badly by years of wind, each with its apple tree and chickens. It’s a cliché, I know; but those crooked little houses with their trees and chickens were VERY Chagall-esque.
In fact . . . chickens were everywhere in Vitebsk.  Even next to huge, featureless, Soviet apartment blocks where no resident had a yard, there were high-rise chicken coops – one coop compartment for every apartment-dweller. I figure that traditionally, everyone kept chickens as a reliable source for eggs, and maybe even for a little extra cash from selling eggs; and that, under the Soviets, the need for this bit of self-reliance was even more pronounced.
We got into a conversation with a babushka who found us photographing her tumble-down house. I told her that we were admiring her tree and her chickens. This made her very proud, and she ran back and forth to show us the fine eggs from her fine chickens, and to tell us what fine blini she made with them.

We made kichelech for the Kiddush Lunch because kichelech, like blini, are more egg than anything else; but blini are made fresh and you just can’t do that for 70 people on shabbos. 
We never found a synagogue in Vitebsk.

In dem beys hamikdash
In a vinkl kheyder
Zitzt di almone Bas Zion aleyn.
Ir ben yokhid, Yidele,
Vigt zi keseyder,
Un zingt im tzu shlofn a lidele sheyn: ay-lu-lu...

I always liked this song, though I did not understand the words until recently. Now I know enough Yiddish to wonder whether the words are just pretty nonsense, or if they have subterranean  meaning. What to make of a widowed mother named Daughter-of-Zion who sits cornered in a study hall, singing a lullaby about his future as a wanderer and trader in raisins-and-almonds 
-party food-  to her son, Little Jew? And why is there a bleach-white kid under Little Jew’s cradle?

And what has any of this travelogue got to do with eating vegetables in order to aid the poor children of Europe?

The Point
Well, folks, this is what came clear to me.
Europe used to be very, very rich in yiddishkeit. And I am optimistic from the healthy seedlings we saw that it will be rich again.
But right now, Europe is poor. In the erstwhile capitals of Jewish learning, Jewish letters, Jewish trade, Jewish music, Jewish art, and Jewish craftsmanship, very little is left.
In some places, all that remains is 4 synagogues deconsecrated and made into a museum  that explains Judaism to non-Jewish visitors. “This,” it says in 4 languages on the front of the glass case, “is the Jewish sacred book. It is called a Torah.”

If you want to open the glass case and study the Book, you have to walk miles across town to the one remaining shul, or wait for the shul to be rebuilt and for the 40 students to grow up and bear the children that will fill it, or go to the very lovely repainted shul where selections from the Book are read to you in the local vernacular, or petition the government to return the Book which was “given as a gift” to a museum in the 1940s.
Or you can go to Israel.
Or you can go to someplace American:  for instance –believe it or not (and this was a surprise to Europeans)- Portland, Oregon!

American post-war children were right: eating vegetables in the U.S.A. does not feed children in Europe.
But it does feed Americans.
Absorbing Torah and yiddishkeit in the U.S.A. does not promote Torah and yiddishkeit in Europe. But it does promote  Torah and yiddishkeit in America, one of our two remaining vigorous kehillot.

And at congregations like Kesser Israel, the vegetables are freshly prepared. 

Thinking about Europe's “poor children,” visiting the “poor children,” davening with the “poor children,”  singing with the “poor children,” and studying with the “poor children,” makes us appreciate the availability of the Torah "vegetables" right here on the plate in front of us. 

So this is what I learned:  Let’s eat!

. . . another thing I learned from our travels is that I speak French with a Hungarian accent . . .

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