Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Thursday, September 1, 2016

A Cookbook from Palestine 80 years ago

"An Early Taste of Zionism: Published 80 years ago, Palestine’s first Jewish cookbook brought politics into the kitchen, along with new ideas about Jewish food and vegetarian cuisine" -- I'm intrigued by this review by Dana Kessler in Tablet Magazine.

From Martinelli's article in Forward:
the cover of Meyer's book.
I had never heard of this classic and would love to obtain a copy. A search of online sellers isn't productive at the moment, but perhaps I'll persist!

From the article:
“'What shall I cook? This problem, the concern of housewives the world over, is particularly acute in our country. The differences in climate and the necessary adjustments arising out of these differences compel the European housewife to make many drastic changes, particularly in her cooking.' 
"With these words, Dr. Erna Meyer introduced her cookbook, How to Cook in Palestine, which was published in Palestine in the mid-1930s in Hebrew, English, and German. 'We housewives must take an attempt to free our kitchens from European customs which are not applicable to Palestine. We should wholeheartedly stand in favor of healthy Palestine cooking,' writes Meyer, urging new Jewish immigrants to Palestine to shed their European identity and reinvent themselves according to the Zionist ideology. 'We should foster these ideas not merely because we are compelled to do so, but because we realize that this will help us more than anything else in becoming acclimatized to our old-new homeland.' 
"Meyer’s book is widely considered the first Jewish cookbook printed in Palestine during the British Mandate."
A more complete review appeared in Forward a few years ago: "Lessons From the First Israeli Cookbook" by Katherine Martinelli. From this review:
"Meyer repeatedly recommends making vegetables more central to every meal and offers meat substitutes for a variety of dishes from 'liver' made out of eggplant to 'meatballs' made out of soaked bread. Although her suggestions came from a place of economy rather than sustainability, they’d fit right in with Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan’s contemporary cries to consume less meat."
One can only hope that a facsimile edition will become available!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Samuel Tolkowsky, June 27, 1886 - December 19, 1965

Library copy of Hesperides.
Hesperides: A History of the Culture and Use of Citrus Fruits by Samuel Tolkowsky is hard to find, though fortunately for me, I have checked out the library copy shown above. This blog post is taken from my other blog, maefood.blogspot.com, because I think Tolkowsky is a very interesting secular Jewish figure.

Title page.
I find the obscurity of this book surprising, as it's full of fascinating and useful information. John McPhee cites it in his book Oranges; in fact, I think he used a variety of information from it in his historical section. Tolkowsky begins in ancient times, with the origins of citrus trees on the slopes of the Himalayas and in the boundary areas between India and China, and a grapefruit-like fruit in the Malay archipelago. The earliest written records of citrus are in China in a compendium dated around 500 BCE, including a number of older works that refer to the fruit. (p. 6)

Citrus spread through Asia and North Africa, and eventually to Europe, as Tolkowsky documents in several chapters. I found the descriptions of the introduction of citrus fruits into ancient Israel especially interesting. Tolkowsky traces the customs of the holiday of Succoth -- the Feast of Tabernacles -- to the influence of the Persians during their exile in the sixth century, and the introduction of these customs when they returned thanks to the decree of Cyrus. At this point, as the citron was as yet not known in Babylonia, the fruit that served in the ritual was not an etrog (citron), but a cedar cone, which appears in a number of images from that era.

By the second century of this era, the Jewish writings in the Mishnah definitely interpret the ritual fruit as an etrog; the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus also says this, saying "it was the 'Persian apple' that was used by the Jews during the Feast of Tabernacles." Tolkowsky continues the story: "The very earliest documentary evidence of the citron in Jewish sources is found in the representation of this fruit on coins struck by Simon the Maccabee in the fourth year of the 'Redemption of Zion,' that is, in 136 BC. If citrons were extensively grown in Palestine at the time, it seems probable that the center of the industry was at Jaffa." (p. 53)

Simon the Maccabee issued copper coins (above) bearing the picture of a citron
together with the bundle of myrtle, willow and palm branches prescribed
for use at the Feast of Tabernacles.  
Because Simon the Maccabee was the only Jewish ruler who depicted the etrog on his coins, Tolkowsky believes that Simon was the one who introduced the citron in place of the cedar cone.
Above: a bronze seal with Jewish symbols including an etrog. Below: a decorated glass vase including
an etrog and other fruits. From the Roman era.
Citrons were the earliest citrus fruits introduced into Europe, and Tolkowsky includes several chapters describing how later, oranges and lemons arrived in Roman times. Tolkowsky's illustrations include many Roman mosaics and other art works depicting oranges and lemons.

A detail of a mosaic from Pompeii.
Several chapters describe the ways that citrus fruits appear symbolically and literally in European art and literature from Roman times until the Renaissance and early modern period. The development of culinary uses for the fruits are very interesting also. Hesperides is rich in historical information that's not easy to find.

Some notes on Tolkowsky:

I managed to find a brief memoir of Samuel Tolkowsky and his family in Raphael Patai's memoir Journeyman in Jerusalem: Memories and Letters, 1933-1947. Patai (a well-known author) describes the "at home" Fridays at the home of Samuel Tolkowsky and his wife, beginning in 1933. Patai, a young man newly arrived in Jerusalem, met the family in 1933, when Samuel Tolkowsky was 47 years old. Tolkowsky, Patai says, was born in Belgium to Polish-Jewish parents, served as a member of the Zionist Political Committee under Chaim Weizmann in London during World War I, and settled in Palestine in 1919. During World War II, he headed the Citrus Control and Marketing Board set up by the British government there. Patai eventually married Naomi, the Tolkowsky's daughter. (source)

family tree posted at Geni gives Tolkowsky's dates as June 27, 1886, to December 19, 1965, and lists his parents, wife, and children.

Tolkowsky was the author of a number of other books that are even more obscure than Hesperides. Examples from google book search: The Gateway of Palestine: A History of Jaffa (1925) and The Jewish Colonisation in Palestine, Its History and Its Prospects (1914).

Even Wikipedia seems to have nothing about Hesperides or its author! Several years ago, Hesperides was listed in amazon.com but no longer seems to be there, as I guess they never had a copy come up for sale. A few years ago one sold at Bonham's for £312 (US$ 443), according to the Bonham's website.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Franz Werfel and "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh" -- New Information

I wrote about The Forty Days of Musa Dagh a few years ago when I read the book. Today I read a fascinating study of this book's influence: "From Musa Dagh to Masada: How Franz Werfel’s novel about the Armenian Genocide inspired the Warsaw Ghetto fighters and the Zionist resistance" by Stefan Ihrig in Tablet magazine.

This article describes how the book intentionally created parallels between the Armenian genocide (not yet called that) and the coming Jewish disaster. The book was too late to serve its intended purpose as a warning to the Germans because the Nazis suppressed and burned it immediately after its publication. However, it influenced the Jews in Palestine at the time -- a quote from the article:
Werfel’s book was translated into Hebrew as early as 1934. In an early review from the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) Dov Kimchi wrote extensively of the forthcoming book, based on excerpts published abroad. He wrote, among other things, that “we Hebrew readers … read into this book on the Armenians our very own tragedy.” A year later, in 1934, another review, by R. Seligmann in The Young Worker (Ha-Poel Ha-Tzair), expressed similar sentiments, observing, “The book is very interesting for the educated reader in general, but the Jewish reader will find it of special interest. The fate of this Armenian tribe recalls, in several important details, the fate of the people of Israel, and not surprisingly the Jewish reader will discover several familiar motifs, so well known to him from the life and history of his people.” In 1936, Moshe Beilinson wrote a more critical review. He was irritated by the fact that a Jew would erect such a monument to the suffering of another people. But he, at least partially, understood Werfel’s intentions: “This is no more than a shell, for in truth this is a Jewish book, not only because it was written by a Jew, but in a less abstract sense, simpler and more concrete, the author speaks of us, of our fate, of our struggle.”

Friday, March 4, 2016

Umberto Eco: "The Prague Cemetery"

Umberto Eco died last month. In remembering him, I decided to read The Prague Cemetery(published 2011). The book is full of fascinating illustrations, using etchings and other contemporary material from Eco's collection. I had the feeling that the author's imagination was stimulated by these images; I have reproduced several of them below.
Actual French journal from time of Dreyfus case.
(From The Prague Cemetery).

Normally I would write about the very large number of food descriptions in the book. The main narrator LOVES food, and describes many meals including French cuisine, Italian and Sicilian cooking. Food of the richest and poorest classes of society illustrate their fortunes and misfortunes. Equally interesting was Eco's vast knowledge of the city of Paris in the 19th century -- the streets, the sewers, the restaurants, the neighborhoods, and more. These descriptions were somewhat spoiled for me by the revolting antisemitism and visciousness of the central character and narrator, Simonini.

Here is an example of Simonini's love of fine French food and its setting in 19th century Paris -- the reader is expected to know the names of the dishes in French:
"The first place I wanted to indulge myself was Le Grand Véfour, in the arcades of the Palais-Royal. Though it was extremely expensive, I had heard it praised even in Turin, and Victor Hugo apparently used to go there to eat breast of mutton with haricot beans. The other place that had immediately seduced me was the Café Anglais, on the corner of rue de Gramont and boulevard des Italiens. It had once been a restaurant for coachmen and servants and now served le tout Paris at its tables. There I discovered pommes Anna, écrevisses bordelaises, mousses de volaille, mauviettes en cerises, petites timbales à la Pompadour, cimier de chevreuil, fonds d’artichauts à la jardinière and champagne sorbets. The mere mention of these names makes me feel that life is worth living." (The Prague Cemetery, Kindle Locations 2196-2202)
At the young-people's hostel.
The simultaneously racist and gourmet Simonini also writes about the terrible food of poor people when he is forced to deal with them. For example, this description of a hostel for poor students:
"As you entered, you were hit by the asphyxiating stench of rancid grease and mildew, and of soup that had been cooked and recooked over the years, leaving tangible traces on those greasy walls— though there was no apparent reason for this, since you had to bring your own food with you, and the house offered wine and plates only." (Kindle Locations 4771-4773)
Or in another passage, where he is entertaining a Russian business acquaintance (more about the business later):
"With a feeling of relief I invited Golovinsky to dinner at Paillard, on the corner of rue de la Chaussée d’Antin and boulevard des Italiens. Expensive, but superb. Golovinsky clearly appreciated the poulet à l’archiduc and the canard à la presse. But someone who came from the Steppes may well have tucked into choucroute with the same enthusiasm. It would have cost me less, and I could have avoided the waiters’ suspicious looks at a customer who masticated so noisily." (Kindle Locations 5717-5720)
Like most of Eco's books The Prague Cemetery is terribly complicated, and made even more challenging by the expectation that the reader would be familiar with a fairly high level of detail about the liberation of Italy, Napoleon III, the 1871 war between France and Germany, the Paris Commune, the Dreyfus affair, and other events of that era, as well as food names in original languages. 

Further, a Jewish reader like me needs a thick skin to handle all the antisemitic stereotypes expressed by Simonini. Eco makes Simonini clearly despicable as well as self-absorbed -- including his utter lack of principles in all the political sides he pretends to take, his hatred of Jews, and several murders that he committed or claimed to have committed in the course of his unsavory life. Some of the illustrations are especially offensive -- the one at right is moderate in comparison. Still, it's a hard book to read.

Umberto Eco-style details add to the challenges. There are at least three narrators, mostly unreliable. In particular, the reader has to deal with the ambiguity of identity of Simonini and his double, a Catholic Abbé. Maybe the Abbé is just another character or maybe Simonini has some kind of split-personality disorder or maybe something else that I missed, though it's all finally explained towards the end (if you believe the explanation). In the final chapter of the book, Eco explains that Simonini is the only fictition of the book: all other events and characters are, he says, closely based on actual history. 

The character/narrator Simonini was ambiguously both Italian and French, having been born in a region on the border that was alternately a possession of each nationality. His profession was being a spy, a double agent, and above all a forger of documents. Among his invented documents he specialized in anti-Jewish and anti-Masonic ones, including a secret meeting of Jewish elders in the Prague cemetery (hence the title); a precursor to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This fictitious character then wrote the actual Protocols (which he was selling to the Russian he entertained at dinner). He also forged the papers that incriminated the innocent Dreyfus, and many others.

Obviously the way this fictitious character ties together many of the antisemitic inventions of the century is Eco's clever way of exploring the historic circumstances that created twentieth-century antisemitism, and continues to feed twenty-first century antisemitism. The play between real history and fiction is full of irony and fraught with Eco's knowledge of what happened to Simonini's creations after the end of the book.

Reviewer Rebecca Goldstein wrote the following in the New York Times:
"Umberto Eco’s latest fiction, 'The Prague Cemetery,' is choreographed by a truth that is itself so strange a novelist need hardly expand on it to produce a wondrous tale. Eco forthrightly explains that all his major characters but one are historical figures; but a reader unaware of how close to the truth Eco is hewing might be inclined to award him more points for inventiveness than he earns. This is not to say that Eco doesn’t earn points for inventiveness, nor that a novel can’t succeed on other grounds. It is just to say that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction." Umberto Eco and the Elders of Zion, NYT, November 18, 2011.

The historic "reality" reflected in the book isn't really the main key to what Eco was trying to do, I think. His handling of the details of life (like food, streets, military events, etc.) that would resonate with twenty-first century readers and his constant anticipation of the consequences of the ideas he explores make The Prague Cemetery a very complicated historical novel. All historical novels invent characters, actions, and circumstances to stand against the "real" historical background; this one does it in an exceptional way.

Note: this is also posted at maefood.blogspot.com, my other blog.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Langston Hughes and Frederick Douglass

Born on this date in 1902: Langston Hughes, poet and writer of short sketches about Simple, a simple man. I'm a fan of Langston Hughes! See this biography. 

Born in February, 1818 and subject of today's google doodle: Frederick Douglass, advocate of freedom. See this biography. The doodle made me think about these two men, both heroic!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Another Poet to Read: Joseph Brodsky

In a review of a new theater piece/ballet about Joseph Brodsky in the New York Review of Books, Joan Accocella wrote about Brodsky's departure from Russia and how he came to Ann Arbor --
"When literary dignitaries came to Russia, he was often the person they wanted to meet. But he could not get a poem published in the Soviet Union, not to speak of obtaining permission to attend literary conferences outside the Soviet Union. This is the sort of tragicomedy in which the USSR specialized. The authorities eventually tired of it, though, and one day, in June 1972, he was simply taken to the airport and put on a plane.
"He did not know whether the plane was going east or west. It went west, to Vienna, and at the airport he was met by the American Slavist Carl Proffer, whom he knew, and whose small press, Ardis, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, would publish a number of his writings in Russian. Auden had a second home outside Vienna, and the day after Brodsky’s arrival Proffer rented a car and deposited Brodsky there, to what was apparently Auden’s surprise. Brodsky stayed for four weeks. Auden got him some money and called various people to say that he was coming.
"Proffer arranged for him to be given a job as poet in residence at the University of Michigan, where he himself taught."
Brodsky's Ann Arbor lodgings were just up the street from where I live, though, as I wrote in a previous post on Brodsky,  I never knowingly saw him. I found Acocella's biographical sketch very intriguing. While I rarely read poetry, I think I'll add Brodsky to my list for the coming year, which so far includes the poet Yehuda Amichai. In fact, I ordered a book of Amichai's poems today. The third poet on the list will be Robert Hayden (1913-1980).

From the New York Review of Books article titled "A Ghost Story" --

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Is it a New Year?

For me, it's definitely a New Year, 2016, though I am aware that it's not a new year for orthodox Jews, who only live within Jewish tradition. I believe that even religious Jews in the more liberal traditions think this is a New Year... not only those who see themselves as secular.


And here's a reading resolution: more poetry by Yehuda Amichai, who received a very appealing write-up in the New Yorker here:
Like a Prayer The poetry of Yehuda Amichai: by 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Veterans' Day

For today, Veterans Day, I checked the statistics for Jewish participation in the Allied Forces during World War II, and found this:
"During the course of World War II, 550,000 Jewish men and women served in the armed forces of the United States. (Another 1 million Jews served in other Allied forces - 500,000 in the Soviet Army, 100,000 in Polish Military and 30,000 in British Army.)"
For the complete list of statistics about Jews in the war, see "World War II:Statistics on Jewish American Soldiers" at Jewish Virtual Library. According to this website, Jewish members of the US military suffered 38,338 casualties in the war. 11,000 were killed; 7,000 died in combat.

Today, Israelis honored their veterans of World War II:

"70 Years After WWII: Senior Jewish Fighters Honored: Former partisans, ghetto fighters, Soviet soldiers and volunteers in the British army among those who received special medal in memorial ceremony at Latrun"
by Ofer Aderet.

This photo from the article shows three of hundreds of surviving Israeli World War II veterans. Among those honored for Veterans' Day "were partisans, ghetto fighters, soldiers (mainly in the Soviet army) and volunteers from the pre-state Jewish community in the British army." The oldest honoree was Benzion Solomin, who is 102 years old; he spent time in a POW camp in Poland, and later fought in the Israeli Independence War.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

S. Ansky (1863-1920)

Ha'aretz today has an article titled "This Day in Jewish History, 1920 The Man Who Shook the World With 'The Dybbuk' Dies" by David Green.

S.Ansky died on November 8, 1920 at age 57. Anksy, whose birth name was Shloyme-Zanvel ben Aaron Hacohen Rappoport, is most famous for his play "The Dybbuk,"  According to the article, he was also "a champion of Yiddish, and of Jewish culture in general." As a young man he organized a Jewish literary society and journal, and he worked with the Society for Jewish Folk Music.

 In my opinion, Ansky's most amazing work was his effort to preserve Jewish culture and history. For example, he collected the minutes from synagogues throughout Russia, books where the Jews of various shtetls had written down their concerns, their quarrels, and the community events that were most important to them.

From the article:
"In 1911, cognizant of the threat that ongoing pogroms and emigration posed to the Jews of the Russian Pale and their culture, he departed on his first expedition on behalf of the Jewish Ethnographic Society, which was funded by Baron Vladimir Ginsbourg, a Kiev banker. Traveling around the provinces of Volhynia and Podolia, he and his team of researchers, intent on compiling a record of the traditions and culture of Russian Jewry, were armed with a list of some 2,500 questions for interviewees, and collected photos, folktales, music and manuscripts in the thousands."
"After the czar was overthrown, in February 1917, and Russia was led briefly by Alexander Kerensky, Ansky was elected to the new Constituent Assembly. When the Bolsheviks ousted Kerensky, Ansky fled, first to Vilna, then, in 1919, to Warsaw, where he died, on this day in 1920."

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995)

Next week marks the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. I haven't yet read any of the numerous articles asking whether he could have made a difference in Israeli history should he only have survived, and asking how the shock of that event might have influenced the current violence in Israeli society. I don't mind reading counter-historical fiction, but I don't think what-ifs help in understanding real current events. All I know is that the situation in Israel and the worldwide hatred of Israel is a very sad situation, and that I'm becoming more and more pessimistic.

A moment of hope, too long ago.
Of course this is the Rabin image that remains in my mind.

UPDATE: What Haaretz said:
"The past 15 years have been everything but peaceful, particularly in this part of the world. There is no reason to believe that solving the Palestinian issue would have been any easier than any of the other intractable messes blighting the Middle East. Clinging to the notion that if only Rabin had survived, we would be living in a better place now, is just an excuse not to acknowledge how hard this is to solve and avoid re-examining tired formulas." -- Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz Correspondent

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Daniel Thompson, Inventor of the Bagel Machine

A fascinating obituary, including a history of how bagels became mainstream:

Daniel Thompson Dies; Invented Bagel Machine

Daniel Thompson with his father in a wonderful kitchen, 1970, from the NYT.
(Aside: I still have a step-stool just like the one at right, only mine is red.)
Quotes from the article:
"Mr. Thompson’s machine proved to be a mirror of midcentury American history. For bound up in the story of its introduction is the story of Jewish assimilation, gastronomic homogenization, the decline of trade unionism, the rise of franchise retailing and the perennial tension between tradition and innovation. ...
"The tough, round heart of North American Jewish cuisine, with European roots reaching back hundreds of years, the bagel was until the mid-1960s available only in cities with thriving Jewish neighborhoods, most emblematically New York. Its shape — which sprang from dough that was rolled by hand, coiled into rings and boiled in a kettle before being baked in a wood- or coal-fired oven — was said to symbolize the circle of life. 
"Such bagels, prized by purists but increasingly difficult to find now, were known for an earthy taste, an elastic crumb and a glossy, dauntingly hard crust born of their turn in the kettle."

Jewish Rye Bread and Wonder Bread (from my food blog)

"Whole -grain bread has been enjoying something of a renaissance. Actually, that renaissance got a first, false start during the 1960s, when the counterculture, steeped in romantic ideas about 'natural food,' seized on white bread as a symbol of all that was wrong with modern civilization. Brown bread, being less processed than white, was clearly what nature intended us to eat. They probably should have stopped there, but did not, alas. Baking and eating brown bread also became a political act: a way to express one's solidarity with the world's brown peoples (seriously), and to protest the 'white bread' values of one's parents, who likely served Wonder Bread at home. These ideals resulted in the production of some uncompromising and notably bricklike loaves of dark, seedy bread, which probably set back the revival of whole-grain baking a generation." -- (Cooked, p. 263)
In Cooked Michael Pollan writes about his efforts to learn to bake delicious, crusty, naturally-leavened bread, as well as about barbecuing and braising meat, fermenting vegetables, and about cooking in general. He discusses the history of white bread in America, and mentions that Wonder Bread and its competitors dominated the diet of Americans in the 1950s, as well as this interesting observation about 1960's "hippie texture" bread, which I remember with no pleasure at all.

In our family, Wonder Bread was the children’s bread. My sister, brother, and I, as we grew up in the fifties, ate Wonder Bread toasted for breakfast, and our bag lunches always contained sandwiches: peanut butter, tuna, sliced meat, yellow cheese or maybe cream cheese with walnuts on Wonder Bread. At dinner we ate bread too – my parents felt that bread was an essential part of every meal. I sometimes ate the slightly rubbery brownish Wonder crusts first and then squeezed and rolled the soft white center into a solid ball, which had an interesting texture in my mouth.

Even the wrappers of Wonder Bread, which constantly boasted of higher numbers of ways it “built strong bodies,” were for children. When I was in kindergarten or first grade, my friend Judy took one of the brightly colored Wonder Bread wax-paper wrappings to the playground at school and slid down the sliding board with it under her bottom. The wax made the slide really slippery – surprising the other kids when they slid down. Or maybe she just told me she wanted to do this, and didn’t really do it. I don’t know.
For our parents, Wonder Bread was at best unappealing, and I seriously doubt that they believed all its claims to foster growth in their children. Once or twice a week my father went to a Jewish bakery called Pratzel’s, which was a few blocks from our home in University City, MO. He always bought rye bread, which was what he liked to eat. He had several slices of rye bread with breakfast and dinner. I have no memory at all of what he ate for lunch most days, though corned beef on rye with a half-sour pickle might have been his Saturday choice.

This bakery rye was the closest to the bread of his childhood when rye bread was the main food, or even the only food, for almost all meals. Even for Passover, my radical father bought several loaves and kept them in the freezer so he wouldn’t have to resort to Wonder Bread, or for that matter, to matzoh.

Pratzel's made a number of other baked goods, which we ate as occasional treats: pumpernickel, a white bread called “buttercrust,” jelly donuts, bagels, kaiser rolls with a crisp crust, challah, cylindrical cinnamon bread made from a challah-like dough, cheese or jelly-filled Danish, and coffee cake or stollen. But rye bread was most important among all these choices.

My father didn’t just prefer Pratzel’s bread to grocery-store bread. He vastly preferred their baked goods to those from other Jewish bakeries. Each loaf of Pratzel’s rye bread had a Union Label on the heel of the bread, which I remember in a sort of schematic way; it was red and blue. It wouldn’t surprise me if some kind of union politics, not only taste, played a role in my father’s bakery preference. He had a lot of politics in his background. 

As we grew a little older, our taste in bread moved much closer to our parents’ taste, and we began eating the same bread that they did. I think by the time we were teenagers, the flamboyant red, blue, and yellow bubbles on the Wonder Bread package no longer appeared in the white metal flower-decorated Bread Box in my mother’s pantry. Just the white paper bags – or later plastic bags – containing real Jewish rye and other real bread. As a result, I didn't experience the sixties bread folly in anything like the same way that a lot of people did!

In Pollan's long and very readable narrative about bread in Cooked, he visited a Wonder Bread factory and several small-scale artisan bakeries, but he never visited any old-style ethnic bakeries like Pratzel's, though it would have been possible for him to do so. As it happens, Pratzel's Bakery remained in business until the fall of 2012, closing after almost 100 years of baking. Wonder Bread, a brand founded in 1921, was owned by several baking companies in its long history. When the Hostess corporation went out of business, coincidentally also in the fall of 2012, Wonder Bread was one of the brands that disappeared from supermarket and convenience store shelves -- but it came back around a year later.

I've written about some of our family food choices, including bread, before. Other blog posts on Wonder Bread and bread history:

Monday, August 31, 2015

"Dora Bruder" by Patrick Modiano

View of the accommodation block at Drancy with French gendarme on guard
-- from Wikipedia article "Drancy internment camp."
Memory and forgetting are the topics of the book Dora Bruder by recent Nobelist Patrick Modiano. Dora Bruder, born in 1926, ran away and disappeared from her Catholic school, disappeared from her family, disappeared finally into transit camps in France and then into the Holocaust, eventually disappeared from the memories of possible schoolmates, of possible teachers, of anyone possible at all.

Years after the war ended, Modiano had seen a Paris newspaper ad from 1941 asking for news of Dora. She had run away from her school; he became curious and over a period of years, he tried to find out about her life as a Jewish child, a French citizen, daughter of an Austrian-Jewish man and a Hungarian-Jewish woman living legally in a hotel on a particular street in Paris. He searched for information about her life as a runaway or about her life as a child perhaps being hidden by nuns in a Catholic school. He searched for people that had known her, but finds only people whose experiences were simultaneous and parallel.

As Modiano searched, we learn from the book, he visited the streets where she lived and walked, streets already familiar to him because he'd lived his life in the same neighborhood. Exact locations in Paris are so important that one needs Paris street maps. Two small maps, along with a few photos of Dora, illustrate the book.

Modiano, who was born in 1945, writes of his own life -- in safer times -- as he writes about his effort to reconstruct the life of Dora Bruder. She's gone, he finds: disappeared. Of course the idea is that a vast community of lives were not only lost, but their memories completely erased; vast numbers of people disappeared as did this one in particular. 

In writing, Modiano manages to make this point with discretion and subtlety, without being melodramatic. He matter-of-factly describes his search for information about Dora and where she had run to, and where she ended up. He forces the reader to ask the hard questions.

Here's an example. Modiano describes a film, a trivial film, titled Premier rendez-vous that showed in Paris in 1941: "a harmless comedy." He had seen the film decades later. Had Dora seen it? He wondered. The film seemed to have a "peculiar luminosity... Every image seemed veiled in an arctic whiteness that accentuated the contrasts and sometimes obliterated them. The lighting was at once too bright and too dim, either stifling the voices or making their timbre louder, more disturbing." (p. 65)

Modiano speculated:
"Suddenly, I realized that this film was impregnated with the gaze of moviegoers from the time of the Occupation -- people from all walks of life, most of whom would not have survived the war.They had been taken out of themselves after having seen this film one Saturday night, their night out. While it lasted, you forgot the war and the menacing world outside. Huddled together in the dark of a cinema, you were caught up in the flow of images on the screen, and nothing more could happen to you. And by some kind of chemical process, this combined gaze had materially altered the actual film, the lighting, the voices of the actors. This is what I had sensed, thinking of Dora Bruder and faced with the ostemsibly trival images of Premier rendez-vous." (p. 66)
Obviously reading this book is an extremely painful experience, and obviously it must have been even more painful to write. With the world today full of refugees, full of death as they try to find anywhere that they can live, it's even more painful than when Modiano wrote it around 20 years ago. Painful. Impossible.

The last paragraph of the book:
"I shall never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her first escape, or the few weeks of spring when seh escaped for the second time. That is her secret. A poor and precious secret that not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorities, the Depot, the barracks, the camps, History, time -- everything that defiles and destroys you -- have been able to take away from her." (p. 119)
This also appears at maetravels.blogspot.com

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is now writing about his last days. I have always found his insights to be fascinating. Recently in the New York Times, he wrote an op-ed titled "Sabbath" where he describes his lifelong feelings about his Jewish identity -- as an adult and as a public figure, he's always been a secular Jew.

He begins with his early years, growing up in an Orthodox family in England, his separation from all Jewish practice after his Bar Mitzvah, and his current thoughts on his Jewish identity. He wrote:
I chanted my bar mitzvah portion in 1946 to a relatively full synagogue, including several dozen of my relatives, but this, for me, was the end of formal Jewish practice. I did not embrace the ritual duties of a Jewish adult — praying every day, putting on tefillin before prayer each weekday morning — and I gradually became more indifferent to the beliefs and habits of my parents, though there was no particular point of rupture until I was 18. It was then that my father, inquiring into my sexual feelings, compelled me to admit that I liked boys.
His family were totally unaccepting, especially his mother, and he cut himself off from them, mostly.

He moved from England to the US in 1960. Eventually: "Almost unconsciously, I became a storyteller at a time when medical narrative was almost extinct. This did not dissuade me, for I felt my roots lay in the great neurological case histories of the 19th century ... . It was a lonely but deeply satisfying, almost monkish existence that I was to lead for many years." 

Under the influence of a religious relative, he maintained a certain amount of Jewish consciousness as the years past. In 2014, he describes, he traveled to Israel, where he had last been 60 years before. He wrote: 

I had felt a little fearful visiting my Orthodox family with my lover, Billy — my mother’s words still echoed in my mind — but Billy, too, was warmly received. How profoundly attitudes had changed, even among the Orthodox, was made clear by Robert John when he invited Billy and me to join him and his family at their opening Sabbath meal.  
The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?

In conclusion:
And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

UPDATE: Oliver Sacks died August 30: NYT Obituary here.

Friday, April 24, 2015

To Remember the Armenian Genocide

"Armenia, on Day of Rain and Sorrow, Observes 100th Anniversary of Genocide" in the New York Times today describes the commemoration of the terrible events which began 100 years ago today.

The article quotes the speech of President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia.The killing,  he said, was “unprecedented in terms of volume and ramifications” at that point in history.
"'The western part of the Armenian people, who for millenniums had lived in their homeland, in the cradle of their civilization, were displaced and annihilated under a state-devised plan,' Mr. Sargsyan said, 'with direct participation of the army, police, other state institutions, and gangs comprising criminals released from the prisons specifically for this purpose.' 
"'Around 1.5 million human beings were slaughtered merely for being Armenian,' he said."
From a NYT article published August 18, 1915:

How shameful that the Turkish president and its official policy still deny these facts of history!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Passover: Hardships of the Past

"My Father's Shtetl Passover Table" by Chaim Goldberg (1917-2004)
Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. 
On Passover I think about our grandmothers and great-grandmothers and all the work they did to prepare for the festival, especially during the early years when Jews were new immigrants to the US. Women cleaned their houses compulsively. They put away every-day tableware, cookware, and dishes and washed and prepared their Passover equipment. They had to learn or invent recipes that followed the special added dietary laws of Passover in addition to the rules of kosher food they followed the rest of the year. Often, they were already struggling to feed and care for large families living in poverty. Obviously, some Jewish women still observe all of the dietary laws on Passover and every day; they still struggle with poverty; and so on, but I think the past was really more difficult.

I also think about how lucky these ancestors were to get to America, and how glad I am to live here. Scarcities of food in early spring were a yearly burden to Jews in rural Europe. Passover came at the most difficult moment of the year for people living close to the land. Around the Equinox (that is, at Passover), months have gone by since the fall harvests. Markets offer no fresh vegetables, as none are yet growing. A household larder might still have a small store of produce that was carefully put by last fall, like dried fruit and root vegetables. In early spring, there would also be fewer eggs available, as most hens probably hadn't started laying. Meat would also be seasonally expensive, though for people living on the edge it's virtually always unaffordable.

With all these scarcities, Passover requires Jews to give up bread, which for most people in poor villages such as shtetls provided most of their nutrition. So Passover in the past demanded a very stringent commitment to abstain, not like anything we do now with our supermarkets full of special products that are created for the holiday -- if we decide to abstain at all. Needless to say, the social and communal pressure to remain faithful to dietary laws was also far stronger in the shtetl than in most modern communities. The consequence of deviation from the rules could be overwhelming.

In Eastern Europe, Jewish people experienced all these difficulties. Furthermore, Christian antisemitism and government persecution threatened them more at Easter time. Christian belief was that Jews killed Jesus, and Christians in earlier times often identified the Jews that were alive and living in their neighborhoods as responsible for this atrocity. Since the crucifixion was the central theme of Easter, and Easter and Passover almost always fell during the same week, the worst attacks of antisemitic violence often took place at Passover. Sometimes attacks were fueled by the false accusation that Jews used Christian blood to make matzo.

As a result, Passover in Europe became a season of fear and worry that a pogrom would break out or that any Jewish individual could become the target of accusations and violence. The "blood libel" and other anti-Jewish customs associated with Holy Week and Easter throughout European history are the subject of much research and many books; I've only done a very brief summary here.

Negative experiences from our Jewish past rarely come to the surface during modern Passover celebrations. We do think about the Holocaust, and we think about the many dangers to surviving Jews in modern Europe and Arab countries, and about rising antisemitism in many parts of the world. However, most of us happily ignore the real hardship of giving up bread if it was your main food. We may never have known of the old seasonal scarcity of food, and would rather forget the old season of violence that our ancestors endured.

Chagall: The Exodus
Remembering these things is an important part of my identity as a secular Jew. For me, the idea that all Jews stood at Mount Sinai when Moses gave them the Ten Commandments, that all Jews suffered in the Holocaust, that all Jews have a common past, has a symbolic value even if I do not have a strong religious sense to go with this symbolism.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

New in the World of Golems

I've been reading about the history of golem stories in fiction and popular culture. Besides looking into some serious literary history and criticism, I have checked amazon.com for recent publications in popular lit including some sort of golem. Science fiction, thrillers, literary rehashes of the Golem legends, and more are being written all the time.

Below is some information about a selection of these works. There are many more, including iPhone covers, music, jewelry, and so on.

Clay Lord: Master of Golems,
Volume 1, April 21, 2015
by Jun Suzumoto.
It appears that some type of golems have a role in Japanese manga and games. Clay Lord: Master of Golems is described thus:
"An all new manga series about alchemy and adventure for fans of Full Metal Alchemist. The young and impressionable Clay is nothing short of enthralled by the outside world. Finding interest in the most mundane of details, Clay is a young man with a mysterious past and an awesome power to boot: he has the ability to create and shape golems."

There's evidently a Pokemon character of a golem, as reflected in the trading card above.

About Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman's thriller The Golem of Hollywood, Steven King blurbed:
“An extraordinary work of detection, suspense, and supernatural mystery. I spent three days totally lost in the world Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman have created. This is brilliant, page-turning fiction with mythic underpinnings that give it a special resonance; a rare collaboration where the sum is truly greater than the parts. The book is like nothing I’ve ever read before. It sort of took my breath away.”
The two Kellermans have also written a sequel to this titled The Golem of Paris, which is scheduled for publication next November.

I bought this graphic novel. It's
very disappointing.
An unofficial Minecraft book:
Diary of a Mincraft Golem.
A Minecraft
Golem Action Figure
Not to mention the Minecraft Golem tee shirt!
And finally: a Golem Game for PC
My pick for strangest item: a golem on a pillowcase. I guess it would be good for a kid who wants to have nightmares:

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Paul Erdos (March 26, 1913)

Haaretz today commemorated the birthday of Paul Erdos: "This Day in Jewish History / An eccentric mathematician who spent a lifetime crashing with friends is born: A friend, on Paul Erdos: ‘A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.’" by David B. Green.

From the article: Erdos with Terrence Tao in 1985.
A little more about Erdos, who was born in Hungary, and lived an eccentric nomadic life, despite offers of permanent jobs in mathematics:
"In 1984, when he won the prestigious Wolf Prize in Mathematics, he used nearly all of the $50,000 award to endow a prize in memory of his parents, which is presented by the Israel Mathematical Union. 
"Although Erdos lacked many social graces, he had an innocence and generosity that brought him countless friends and collaborators – more than 500 different people co-authored papers with him. Hence arose the concept of an “Erdos number,” by which people denote the degree of separation between them and Erdos, beginning with one degree for those who actually worked directly with him. Some 200,000 mathematicians are said to have assigned themselves Erdos numbers." -- from the article.

Monday, March 23, 2015

S.Y.Agnon (July 17, 1888)

I don't know how I missed S.Y.Agnon in my list of heroes! He won the Nobel Prize in 1966 for a lifetime of writing fiction.

From the Nobel Prize Committee website:
Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888-1970) was born in Buczacz, Eastern Galicia. Raised in a mixed cultural atmosphere, in which Yiddish was the language of the home, and Hebrew the language of the Bible and the Talmud which he studied formally until the age of nine, Agnon also acquired a knowledge of German literature from his mother, and of the teachings of Maimonides and of the Hassidim from his father. In 1907 he left home and made his way to Palestine, where, except for an extended stay in Germany from 1913 to 1924, he has remained to this day. 
At an early age, Agnon began writing the stories which form a chronicle of the decline of Jewry in Galicia. Included among these is his first major publication,Hakhnasat Kalah (The Bridal Canopy), 1922, which re-creates the golden age of Hassidism, and his apocalyptic novel, Oreach Nata Lalun (A Guest for the Night), 1939, which vividly depicts the ruin of Galicia after the First World War. Nearly all of his other writings are set in his adopted Palestine and deal with the replacement of the early Jewish settlement of that country by the more organized Zionist movement after the Second World War. The early pioneer immigrants are portrayed in his epic Temol Shilshom (Only Yesterday), 1945, considered his greatest work, and also in the nightmarish stories of Sefer Hamaasim (The Book of Deeds), 1932.
While these and other works such as Pat Shlema (A Whole Loaf), 1933, andShevuat Emunim (Two Tales), 1943, are enough to assure his stature as the greatest living Hebrew writer, Agnon has also occupied himself with commentaries on the Jewish High Festival, Yamin Noraim (Days of Awe), 1938, on the giving of the Torah, Atem Reitem (Ye Have Seen), 1959, and on the gathering of Hassidic lore, Sifreihem Shel Tzadikim (Books of the Tzadikim), 1960-1961.

Recent Golem Reading

  • Benjamin Ivry, "How the Golem Got Hist Groove Back," Forward, Mach 5, 2015.
  • Elizabeth R. Baer, The Golem Redux, Detroit, 2012.
  • Cathy S. Gelbin, The Golem Returns, Ann Arbor, 2014
  • Gershom Scholem, "The Idea of the Golem" in  On The Kabbalah and Its Symbolism," New York 1965.
  • S.Y.Agnon, To This Day, Transl. Hillel Halkin, New Milford CT, 2009. (Original publication in Hebrew, 1952)

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Secular Family Values

A report on 2012 study by the Pew Research Center and additional research by the author of the article describes the values that secular, or non-religious, families impart to their children. Quote:
"Nonreligious family life is replete with its own sustaining moral values and enriching ethical precepts. Chief among those: rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of 'questioning everything' and, far above all, empathy. 
"For secular people, morality is predicated on one simple principle: empathetic reciprocity, widely known as the Golden Rule. Treating other people as you would like to be treated. It is an ancient, universal ethical imperative. And it requires no supernatural beliefs. As one atheist mom who wanted to be identified only as Debbie told me: 'The way we teach them what is right and what is wrong is by trying to instill a sense of empathy ... how other people feel. You know, just trying to give them that sense of what it's like to be on the other end of their actions. And I don't see any need for God in that.'" -- L.A.Times, "How secular family values stack up" by Phil Zuckerman

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Two Golem Stories

Two famous books about the golem of Prague:
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1914), translated by Mike Mitchell
  • The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague by Yudl Rosenberg (1909), translated by Curt Leviant.
Pursuing my fascination with the development of the golem story, I've recently read both of these books. Each one has an extremely useful and fascinating introduction, offering insights about the authors' originality and background.

I believe that both books had great influence on the huge number of adaptations and appropriations of the Golem story during the last 100 years -- a history that's documented in detail in Wikipedia (accuracy as always unknown and stability of the article unpredictable).

Meyrink's Golem tale is phantasmagorical. The narrator sees words in a book emerge like living creatures. The houses of Prague appear to him to squat like animals. The narrator is never even certain of his own identity.

The appearance of Meyrink's golem is preceded by "eerie portents which presage the irruption of that spectre into the physical world." (p. 59) And people who see the golem are paralyzed with fear at the sight of the hulking figure with a smooth, round head. They are never sure they have witnessed its presence, which manifests only every 33 years.

You can read Meyrink's book as one of those dreams where you keep waking up but you wake up into another dream, becoming more and more disoriented and frightened, and indeed the character of the Puppetmaster, a tale teller in the story, says: "dreams carry within them dark truths, which when I am awake, glimmer faintly in the depths of my soul like the after-images of brightly coloured fairy tales." (p 42)

Yudl Rosenberg's Golem is narrated by an eyewitness to the legendary events in Prague in the days of Rabbi Judah Loew. Rosenberg invented many of the now-classic heroic deeds in which the Rabbi outsmarted the antisemites of Prague by using the Golem to do his bidding. The golem had an invisibility cloak and massive strength, two features that made him especially effective in carrying out his trickster duties and revealing the machinations of Jew-hating evildoers to the more sympathetic authorities. Rosenberg was so effective at making his original tales sound like old legends that most people attribute his creations to folklore.

These two approaches to the Golem as either a figure of fearful danger or as a helpful tool in protecting the Jews are both very fascinating. The straightforward folkish narrative style of Rosenberg contrasts to Meyrink's unreliable narrator: a man who isn't sure of his own identity, much less capable of really explaining what's happening to him. So many other approaches to the idea of a Golem have followed, from serious treatments to those bordering on silliness -- a literary history to savor, I think.