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Healthy eating from a different lifetime

Fania Lewando's Yiddish cookery book, published before the war, has been translated for a new audience

    Imagine a restaurant offering cabbage kreplekh (kreplach), Polish-influenced cheese piroshky (soft doughy parcels oozing with gooey cheese) and potato cutlets stuffed with mushrooms.

    Eight decades ago, in the 1930s, a restaurant serving such delicacies was a popular haunt in Vilna, Lithuania. The city was at the time known as Lithuania's Jerusalem - an eastern European epicentre of Jewish culture and learning. The restaurant was run by Fania Lewando and was a place where the local great and good put the world to rights. The guestbook, which survived the Holocaust, includes comments from celebrities of time, including artist Marc Chagall and Yiddish poet and playwright, Itzik Manger.

    Lewando herself was not so lucky, perishing with her husband, Lazar, when they tried to escape the Vilna ghetto in 1941.What did survive her was her Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook - a collection of recipes from the restaurant - which last year, 78 years after its first publication in Yiddish, was translated into English.

    As well as her kosher dairy restaurant on the border of the Jewish quarter in old Vilnius, Lewando ran a kosher cooking school. She also travelled to England to try to persuade HJ Heinz to take some of her recipes and to look for a job; and worked as a kosher chef on a cruise liner. The book, published in 1938, all but vanished after the Holocaust until an American couple shopping in an antiquarian bookshop in 1995 unearthed a copy.

    Says Londoner, Howard Skolnick, Lewando's great-nephew: "When she came to England, Fania gave copies of her book to each of her siblings who lived here. One of the books must have ended up in the Cotswolds bookshop in which it was found."

    The couple who found it donated it to Yivo, the New York-based centre for the study of Yiddish-speaking Jewry, where it idled in the rare book room until Barbara Mazur and Wendy Waxman, while on a book group tour, happened to view it.

    "We were immediately captivated by the beautiful pictures on the cover," says Mazur. "We didn't read Yiddish but the librarian told us who wrote it, when it was written and about the restaurant. We were fascinated - Fania Lewando was quite a woman."

    Mazur and Waxman started a campaign to have the book republished. First they raised $20,000 (£14,000), which funded a translator, a copy editor and a book designer.

    Having been turned down by a few publishers, they recruited the US's Grande Dame of Jewish food, Joan Nathan, to back their project. "We ambushed her in a car park after an event she was hosting and showed her the book and photos of Fania Lewando," says Mazur. "She put us in touch with a publisher."

    The book was forward thinking, as it broke from the Ashkenazi custom of seeing meat meals as a must for Shabbat, Yom Tovs and simchas. Nathan explains in the book that the growing movement towards vegetarianism was as much out of necessity as anything: "As Hitler's menace loomed on the horizon, antisemitic measures that prohibited the traditional Jewish slaughtering of animals and poultry were enacted into law, starting in Polish-occuped Vilna in 1935."

    Lewando is quite prescriptive about how to eat, kicking off the book with strict instructions on how to maintain your kitchen.

    "She's very bossy - everything must be served in a certain way. She also advises that you must use the best quality produce, that you should not use scratched enamelled cooking utensils and that you should throw nothing out. Even the water in which you've cooked vegetables can be used to make various soups," smiles Mazur.

    Lewando's idea of a healthy vegetarian diet - loaded with butter and cream- may not tally with modern views but many of the recipes (such as vitamin-rich raw fruit compote, below) are fresh and colourful albeit a bit sugar-loaded for our times. The recipes are brief and to the point, but that brevity is appealing.

    The book's translator, Yiddishist and foodie Eve Jochnowitz, who (among other things) demonstrates original Askhkenazi recipes in Yiddish on Youtube, tested more than 400 of them. Mazur also tested many of them. "I've been cooking from the book for four years," she says. "Some of the recipes are good for historical value but others are great recipes. There's a tasty pickle soup and some of the frittatas are delicious - the cauliflower one is so easy and so tasty."

    Someone else who has been testing recipes from the book is Shana Boltin, who last week demonstrated a range of dishes from the book while offering pupils the chance to pick up a little "kitchen Yiddish". Australian foodie Boltin, who took a six-week Yiddish course at Yivo in New York in 2012, said: "I did classes with Eva Jochnowitz, which included one cooking class making cheese blintzes and an aubergine dip in Yiddish in her kitchen."

    Boltin and Lara Smallman of the Jewish Vegetarian Society last week taught a group how to parengl their blintzes, bake kuegels and speak a smattering of kitchen Yiddish at JW3; a course that will be repeated in June at this year's Gefiltefest.

    "Over the last eight years there has been a massive focus on Sephardi cooking and here we are celebrating Ashkenazi cooking, embracing the culture and finding the fun in this shtetl cooking."

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