Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mama's Mamaliga -- Elizaveta Bershad'skaya shares her recipe

"Aunt Masha ceremoniously delivered cheese to the table, accompanied by butter and cups of spicy garlic gravy. As she tossed the mamaliga down onto the table from the cast-iron pan, the house filled up with steam. The thick cornmeal pudding, the mamaliga, lay on a white, linen tablecloth, bringing us back to summer fields and sunny autumn days, to flute melodies and Moldovan wedding handkerchiefs. As it lay there hot and round, glowing gold and yellow, I could even have said that the sun itself had suddenly fallen on the white linen. And when she sliced that sun with a string, we could feel it melt in our mouths, even before it ever touched our lips. We dipped hunks of mamaliga into the cheese and butter mixture, drenched them in the garlicky muzhdey and just like that, with everything, relished those first fresh slivers. We ate quickly and noisily, just as we had been speaking earlier."
--Yekhiel Shraybman, "Dimples", translated from Yiddish by Sebastian Schulman (Dirty Goat, issue 25, forthcoming).

Photo Credit: Robert Cohen

The Bessarabian Yiddish writer Yekhiel Shraybman's celebration of mamelige, that cornmeal staple of the Eastern European Jewish (and non-Jewish) diet, is but one manifestation of the food's significance in Jewish life. Mamelige is lauded far and wide to this day for its versatility, affordability, and heartiness. In the Podolian town of Bershad (in Ukraine, just northeast of Moldova), AHEYM recorded the recipe for mamelige that Elizaveta Bershad'skaya learned from her mother:

Because mamelige is parve -- that is, neither meat nor dairy -- it can be enjoyed with milk and cheese or with meat, making it an easy base for any meal. You'll notice that Dov-Ber and Elizaveta also discuss the texture of the dish -- for the mamelige to come out "as it should be", it must be firm enough to slice with a cotton string, a process also mentioned by Yekhiel Shraybman.

Mamelige has been well-document in the Jewish blogging world. See, for example, Leah Koenig, Robert Cohen, and Eve Jochnowitz for more tastes of this fabulous food.

Est gezunterheyt!
--Asya Vaisman

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Keyn Eyn Hore! -- No Evil Eye!

"Incantations must not be taught to anyone," writes Avraham Rechtman in his 1958 book Yidishe Etnografie un Folklor (Jewish Ethnography and Folklore). During an expedition to Tomashpol (a shtetl in the Podolia region of Ukraine) in 2003, AHEYM met Liza Petrunenko, who believed in this rule of silence. Although she knew the formulas that one must say in order to ward off the Evil Eye, she refused to tell the interviewers. However, she did agree to demonstrate the procedure of "rolling an egg", which is done to dispel fear.

After a careful examination of a number of Jewish sources, I could not find any direct references to rolling eggs, though I did learn that eggs were used for other purposes in Jewish folk customs; for instance, the Talmud mentions eggs being used for divination (Sanhedrin 101a). I did find, however, an almost exact description of the procedure Liza performs on Dov-Ber on a website about remedies to ward off the Evil Eye among Mexicans and Latin Americans.

Scholars have proposed that the Evil Eye, as a folkloric and cultural symbol, originates in ancient Sumer and is present to this day in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim folk beliefs. The remedy of using an egg in the way we see above is most likely a fairly old practice and was probably brought over to Mexico by European settlers.

In Jewish custom, the Evil Eye is mentioned as far back as Proverbs in Tanakh (see, for instance, 23:6 and 28:22), and many preventative and curative measures for it exist, including spitting and incantations (mentioned in the video). Folklorist Dov Noy writes that "Although practices of this kind were disapproved of by rabbinic authorities... they persisted... In the Middle Ages there is evidence of a more widespread use of folk medicine among Jews. There are many folk prescriptions in the Sefer Hasidim (13th century), most of them derived from the contiguous Christian culture" (Encyclopaedia Judaica, Second Edition).

How does your family ward off the Evil Eye? Have you ever seen someone "roll out an egg"? Let us know with your comments below!

-- Asya Vaisman

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


May 9 marks Victory Day (Den' Pobedy) in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Victory Day is the Russian equivalent of the American holiday Memorial Day, but without the Indy 500. Instead, veterans of what Russians call “The Great Patriotic War” dress up in their military regalia and march together with their former comrades-in-arms to celebrate the victory of the Red Army over Nazi Germany. The sacrifices that Soviet soldiers made in the Great Patriotic War were staggering: approximately eight million Soviet soldiers lost their lives fighting for their motherland. Among the many soldiers who heroically fought the German invaders were about half a million Jewish soldiers. They were fighting not only to defend their motherland, but also to avenge the murder of their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.

AHEYM has interviewed numerous Jewish veterans over the years, many of whom have shared their wartime experiences with us on tape. The pride they feel in their achievements are palpable; and the respect and admiration they have earned should be limitless. However, Victory Day celebrations in Ukraine have become contentious. Many veterans seek to memorialize Victory Day by marching under the Hammer and Sickle — the flag under which they defeated Nazism. Others, mostly younger Ukrainians, view the Soviet period as an occupation, and bristle at the idea of honoring the Red Army, which wiped out their dreams of establishing an independent Ukrainian state. Since it is often the Jewish veterans who feel most strongly and unambiguously about the Red Army victory over Nazi Germany, the scuffles that sometimes break out during Victory Day parades can take on an anti-Semitic tint. Some Ukrainian nationalists view the Hammer and Sickle as an offensive symbol, akin to the Nazi swastika. For others, the Soviet flag is precisely the symbol that liberated Europe from the swastika.

Victory Day celebration in Kovel, Ukraine, May 9, 2003.  Some 
veterans march under the Hammer and Sickle; others use a 
red flag with the Hammer and Sickle insignia torn out.

David Furman, born in Berdichev in 1919, was one of the 1.1 million Soviet soldiers who fought in the Battle of Stalingrad, the seven-month battle that turned the war on the Eastern front and left one and a quarter million German and Soviet soldiers dead. Furman left school at the age of fourteen to become a carpenter like his father, but he was drafted into the army in 1939. He was stationed in the Far East until the war broke out in 1941, when he was taken to the front. He fought at the front until 1943, when he lost his leg in battle. By the time that Stalingrad began, in August 1942, Furman had already received word that his entire family — his father, Zelig; his mother, Leyke; his sister, Kheyved and his two brothers, Moyshe and Berl--had been murdered by the Nazis in Berdichev. He knew what he was fighting for.

In this clip, Furman, whom we first met at the synagogue soup kitchen in which the interview takes place, tells about his experience in the war. Viewers should note that the question posed to him is “Tell us something about Berdichev? Were you born in Berdichev? Tell us about the old days? Tell us about your schooling?” Rather than talk about his childhood or his hometown, Furman shares with us his proudest moment--his military service. He rushes through his childhood and neglects his postwar life, but straightens his back, raises his chin, and lets out a smile as he tells us that he fought in Stalingrad! Not only that, but he pulls out of his pocket a snapshot of himself decorated with military medals, as though he expected an international camera crew to show up at the soup kitchen that day. For David Furman, every day is Victory Day.

--Jeffrey Veidlinger

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Bones of Berdichev – June 2009

This past Sunday was Yom Hashoah -- Holocaust commemoration day. Dr. Dov-Ber Kerler writes this week's post about one of AHEYM's visits to Berdichev, Ukraine.

"The Bones of Berdichev" is the title of the 1996 book by John & Carol Garrard on the life and fate of the prominent Soviet author Vasily Grossman (1905-1964) who was compelled to re-focus on his Jewishness and on the fate of his people in the wake of the massacres of Soviet Jews by occupying Germans and their local collaborators during WW II. A native of Berdichev, Grossman was deeply shaken by the mass murder of many thousands of Berdichev Jews.

Out of the approximately 20,000 Jews that remained in the city, only 15 were found alive after Berdichev was liberated by the Red Army in January 1944. Grossman's mother was among the martyrs. A short but detailed account of the Nazi atrocities and their murderous "Aktionen" in Berdichev was compiled by Grossman on the basis of testimonies collected shortly after the liberation for his and Ilya Ehrenburg's "Black Book" (cf. the Russian original of that account).

Sometime after the liberation in 1944, the graves at the mass murder sites were opened by the authorities and the victims' remains were as much as possible recounted, and reburied. In 2003, when AHEYM visited the former airfield area near Berdichev, where most of the massacres took place, it still had the old Soviet plaque stating in Russian that the number of “peaceful Soviet citizens” who “were brutally murdered” there totaled 18,640. Two years ago, re-visiting Berdichev, the members of the 2009 expedition unexpectedly came to face some of the Jewish "Bones of Berdichev" vandalized almost 70 years after the horrendous German murder “actions” of 1941. 

The 2003 Plaque

We returned to Berdichev in June 2009 to re-interview Moyshe Vaynshlboym. Born in 1927, he escaped two mass murder actions that were described by Grossman in the “Black Book”. He fled the second one after he and his father had already undressed awaiting their execution. His father, Aron (who, as a useful specialist, was initially spared), told him then: "Moyshe, run away!" And he added: "I will stay and join your mother and your siblings. But you are still young, you can run. Perhaps you will survive the war to tell the truth." That was in late 1941. And for the next long few years 14 year old Moyshe Vaynshelboym had to flee and hide. At least three times he narrowly escaped certain death at the hands of German soldiers and Ukrainian Polizei. Against all odds he survived and returned to his native Berdichev as one of the miniscule group of 15 Jewish survivors of the once famed “Jewish capital” of Ukraine.

After the interview we asked Moyshe to take us to the site of the mass murder that he escaped. We could see it from a distance since it is located across a large inaccessible field. From afar it looked like a large elongated mound with densely planted tall trees. On the other side, across the road was the beginning of the former airfield area, which was the site of the so-called “Bloody Monday” massacre of September 15, 1941 where his mother, his small brother and two older sisters were murdered.

That site was more accessible so we went there. It consists of two mass graves; one is very large, the other one, at some distance away, is smaller. We first approached the large one. Moyshe pointed to the new plaque in Ukrainian, which does not specify the number of victims (often estimated to be close to 20,000) and, although it bears the Jewish Star, the text remains faithful to the old Soviet official style by identifying the victims merely as “peaceful Soviet citizens.” “Some 20, 30 years ago,” says Moyshe, “the mass grave was cared for. Now it’s all abandoned and desolate.” He notices that even though there is overgrown grass and bushes on the mound, its surface is suspiciously uneven. He says that at times the place is raided by marauders who keep looking for gold. 

The 2009 Plaque

We walked to the end of the first mound and proceeded to the second one. “One grave wasn’t enough for them” remarks Moyshe bitterly. By the time we were coming closer to the second site, Moyshe exclaimed: “Look! They were here again!” We came closer still and saw some scattered bones. – Something that no one of us expected to find, the bones of Berdichev, the remains of her innocent martyrs.

Moyshe pointed at a child’s skull and immediately started to cover it with earth, which he kept digging with his strong hands. “Who knows?” he kept saying, “Who knows? It could be the skull of my little brother; he was just 5 years old…”

Nearly 70 years later, the bones of Berdichev can’t be left in peace…

-- Dov-Ber Kerler