Reviving The Alice Waters Of Vilna

It’s a “Julie and Julia” for the Jews, but kosher, and sadder.

The 2009 Nora Ephron movie celebrated the life and work of Julia Child through the story of a secretary who decided to cook every recipe in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in the span of a year.

On May 26, Random House will publish a cookbook that is very different from Child’s treif-heavy magnum opus: “The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook,” by Fania Lewando. Published in 1938 in Yiddish, Lewando’s book has its own story within a story. The revivalists are Barbara Mazur and Wendy Waxman, who vowed to restore her book to the world.

“We thought, ‘We have to give this woman a voice and bring this book back, because it’s so extraordinary and so relevant,” said Mazur, 67, who was shown one of the few surviving copies during a tour of the rare book room at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research six years ago.

Lewando’s time was short, but she was ahead of it. She was born in Poland, in the late 1880s, the second of six children, five of them girls. The rest of the family emigrated to England and America but the United States refused Lewando and her husband Lazar, an egg merchant, a visa because he had been wounded in the leg when the Soviets invaded Poland in 1920.

They moved instead to Vilna, a center of Jewish culture known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” and she became an author/entrepreneur/teacher/activist whose ideas and ambition anticipated the careers of famous vegetable lovers like Alice Waters by 40 years. Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan may espouse “Meatless Mondays,” but Lewando pushed for at least three meatless days a week, “to protect oneself and family members from various stomach upsets.”

She “was definitely prescriptive, definitely strict,” said Eve Jochnowitz, the Yiddish language and Jewish foodways expert who translated the book. “She was pretty tough, as an author at least.”

Jewish cookbooks first appeared in the early 1800s and among the earliest examples are short Yiddish manuscripts brides used to learn to cook or supervise a servant, according to the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. The most popular early cookbook was written in German, and it was the basis for the first cookbook known to be written in Yiddish, “Kokhbuch far yudishe froyen.” Lewando’s book was unusual in that it was vegetarian.

The book’s readers were primed for vegetarianism by necessity. Jews couldn’t get kosher meat, or afford it, due to anti-Semitic restrictions on kosher slaughter and boycotts on Jewish businesses.

Originally titled “Vegetarish-Dietisher Kookbukh” and illustrated with images taken from seed packets labeled in Yiddish and English, Lewando’s book has about 400 recipes. Its broad scope and dishes like Cauliflower Soup with New Potatoes evoke Deborah Madison’s 1997 California-style book “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.” Madison wrote the blurb for back cover of “The Vilna Vegetarian,” praising its “simplicity and goodness.”

In other ways, “The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook” heralds the earnest Jewish vegetarianism of “The Moosewood Cookbook” and the chavurah movement. It includes a preface from a doctor answering the question “Why Are Fruits and Vegetables So Important for the Organism?” Another, called “Vegetarianism as a Jewish Movement,” gave a short history of vegetarianism. There’s a whole section of cutlets, from celeriac to nut.

Of course, there’s also Beet Broth With Mushrooms, Sauerkraut Stewed With Sour Cream, Prune Tsimmes — recipes that sound more like what the contemporary reader expects from a Yiddish cookbook of the 1930s. A recipe for Preserved Eggs calls first for the cook to clean a barrel, one that “does not leak or smell bad.”

Jochnowitz converted the recipe amounts from metric to English and from weight to volume to render the book easier to use by today’s home cook. Otherwise, she tried to preserve Lewando’s text and instead wrote editor’s notes that clarify potential anachronisms and add historical background.

Lewando’s recipe for Toasted Farfel Porridge, for example, consists of three sentences including a command to “cook like all porridges.” Jochnowitz gives a detailed recipe, complete with notes on making dough into farfel in Vilna — chopping — versus other parts of the Yiddish world — cutting, plucking and grating — and a citation for an April 1965 article in the International Journal of American Linguistics.

Jochnowitz discovered the book in 1994, and almost 20 years later, Mazur found Jochnowitz online at her blog and asked her to interview for the translator job.

“From the moment I saw it, I knew I would translate it,” said Jochnowitz, who is also a chef and baker. Nobody else knows the difference in Yiddish between celery and celeriac, a bumpy, blotchy variety of celery, Mazur said.

Mazur herself didn’t know it in English before she started cooking from Lewando’s book, and she credits the author with introducing her to “the joy of celeriac,” in addition to a style of Jewish cooking that insists vegetables are as worth eating as meat, traditionally considered the central dish of festive meals.

The upcoming Shavuot holiday, which starts on May 23, is the only major Jewish festival that gives dairy pride of place at the table. The tradition commemorates the moment after the Israelites received the Torah, but before they knew how to do kosher slaughter.

Boris Kletskin’s eponymous Warsaw-based publishing house printed the book, Jochnowitz said. Kletskin likely printed about 1,000 copies, which were sold through a network of multilingual bookshops that served Jews across Yiddish-speaking Europe, said Eddy Portnoy, an academic advisor at YIVO. It received a favorable advance review in Literarishe Bleter, a literary journal with a circulation of at least 40,000. In the late 1930s, there were about 3 million Yiddish speakers in Poland and neighboring countries, Portnoy said.

“American Jews think all European Jews were living in Anatevka,” Mazur said. “And they don’t know how sophisticated a city like Vilna was, and they should know.”

Lewando ran a cooking school where she taught Jewish women about nutrition, in addition to a vegetarian restaurant her husband owned, called Dieto-Jarska Jadlodajnia, which means Vegetarian Restaurant.

Artist Marc Chagall; poet Itzik Manger and diverse journalists, activists, linguists and educators signed the guest book, excerpts of which are reprinted in “The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook.” Chagall praised the food, even though he “came with a delicate stomach.”

Lewando also worked as chef on a luxury kosher cruise across the Atlantic, her grand-nephew Efraim Sicher writes in one of the book’s prefaces. She traveled to England to try to interest H.J. Heinz in her recipes, and possibly get a job.

Many women worked at the time in such jobs as seamstresses or hairdressers, and some owned businesses, Portnoy said. Few women were as prominent as Lewando.

“If I went to a party today and met a woman who wrote a cookbook, and owned a restaurant and operated a cooking school, I would be impressed,” said Waxman, 38. She and Mazur know each other because Mazur was the best friend of Rosalie Katz, Waxman’s late mother. They became especially close at Katz’ bedside in a Houston cancer hospital, said Mazur, who carried a purse of Katz’ for luck the day the two pitched their project to Random House’s Jewish imprint, Schocken.

It took them six years to get the project in front of a publisher. Neither had publishing experience. Waxman, a mother of two, had worked in politics and also has a degree in early childhood education; Mazur didn’t work while raising her three children.

“It was a Barbara and Wendy project,” Waxman said, “and we had to figure out how to get it off the ground.”

They first tried to publish the book themselves. They raised $20,000, much of it from friends and family, and used it to hire Jochnowitz, a copy editor and a graphic designer who created a prototype to show potential donors. They pitched the project to foundations and contemplated raising the money by selling pages of the book to donors, as in a high school yearbook or the journal at an annual gala.

Then they realized they needed the imprimatur of a boldfaced name to help them sell the book and targeted Joan Nathan, the author of 10 cookbooks, most recently “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.” They signed up for a 2013 Passover workshop Nathan was leading at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Westchester County. During a break, they rushed the podium, brandishing their prototype.

“We were channeling Fania,” Waxman said, referring to Lewando.

Nathan grasped the significance of the book right away. She connected Waxman and Mazur with her editor, Altie Karper, the editorial director of Schocken Books, Random House’s Jewish division, who bought the book from YIVO. Nathan also wrote a foreword for the book. Random House declined to reveal the terms of the contract or the number of books they’re printing.

After meeting Karper, Waxman and Mazur sat down to rejoice, not at a bar, but at Bouchon, a bakery near Random House’s Rockefeller Center offices.

“This called for celebration with calories,” Waxman said.

Still, the moment was bittersweet, Mazur said. Lewando’s family doesn’t know exactly when she died, but witnesses say Soviet soldiers captured her and her husband when they were trying to escape the Nazis. Germany entered Vilna on June 24, 1941.

“So much was starting right before everything ended,” Jochnowitz said. “There were so many journals and newspapers for which we have Volume 1 Number 1, so many encyclopedias with [the first volume] Aleph … It was like a rose opening, and it’s just sickening and tragic to know how the story ended.”

About Helen Chernikoff

I'm news editor and reporter.

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