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Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman and Sonya Gropman talk about The German Jewish Cookbook: Recipes and History of a Cuisine, the ties between German and Jewish culture,what it means to document the everyday German Jewish experience and its food, and why it still matters.
Gabrielle Gropman is a visual artist and mediation professional who was born in Germany in 1938 and emigrated to the US in 1939. Her art has been exhibited throughout the US as well as in Germany. A multimedia art installation about the history of her Germa Jewish family was exhibited at the Villa Dessauer municipal museum in the town of her birth, Bomberg Germany in 1991, and again in 2013 and 2014.
Sonya Gropman, her daughter, is a painter, photographer, and writer whose work has been exhibited and published in the US. She’s involved in local sustainable agriculture in NYC.
Together, this mother-daughter team have produced the cookbook and also coauthor the website GermanJewishCuisine.com, where they publish original material about German Jewish food and culture.
Their cookbook highlights that there was, and still is, a German Jewish cuisine. It has some fantastic recipes, but even more than that, looking at food can help us think through the relationship between German and Jewish culture and the meaning of the German Jewish experience. Also, it highlights the heritage and history of those who fled from Nazi Germany and brought with them among other things the memory of the culture and food that Sonya and Gabby have sought to preserve and document in this book.
An edited transcript of the episode follows:
The Importance of Food
Jason Lustig: When I saw the cookbook, I got really excited because I love to cook personally, and I thought: This is so great. We have so many monographs, we have so many books about German Jewish history, but not as much that deals with food, and certainly not in the genre of a cookbook. And I realized that there was so much here that we could think about, in terms of the history of German Jews and the continuing history and continuing culture of German Jewry. So what I wanted to talk about today, perhaps to start with, is to think about the introduction… Obviously, this is a whole collection of recipes, but it opens with a profound statement that this is a book that’s about preserving a culture that’s disappearing. I’m curious what that meant to you in terms of putting together this project. What, for you, is the importance of food as a means of engaging with and preserving German Jewish culture and history?
Sonya Gropman: We very strongly feel food is is one of the most important defining elements of any culture. And for a culture to have lost that, the public aspect of their cuisine, that really helps in the demise of that culture. So since there were no other cookbooks on German Jewish food, and none had been published in at least 100 years, it seemed like an obvious project. I mean, food is such a central element. And for any group—and for immigrant groups no matter what circumstances they’re leaving their home country from—recipes are one of the few things people can pack with them. They can have them on a slip of paper. They can have them committed to memory. And food is such a primal, visceral thing. It’s the thing that connects people to their roots, to their history, to their homeland, to their people, to their families, to their childhood. And you start talking to people about food and you’ll immediately get people reminiscing about all sorts of other aspects of their own personal history, and to a larger degree the bigger history of their culture through food.
And we realized that food in terms of German Jewish culture has really been neglected and ignored. We therefore felt like this was a really important project, and I’m still to this day surprised that we are the ones who wrote this first modern cookbook of German Jewish food. But this really had to happen as a way to preserve a really strong element of the culture through the food.
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JL: I hear what you’re saying here about the portability of food—not necessarily only the food itself but also food memories, of recipes—like you said, you can put them on a slip of paper, an index card or whatever. But there’s also something here that you mentioned which I think is really important: this idea of food as a sort of tie between the generations. This is something I came across in another essay that you wrote in German in a recent volume where you have this idea of eating as something that really ties people together. So you have, on the one hand, this idea of recipes as things that tie generations together, but also just food itself (which plays a similar role). And I’m curious what it is for you that this represents, this idea of mealtime as a connection from one generation to the next.
Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman: Well, Jason, I think that in the past twenty or thirty years, there’s been some changes in the field of history. And it’s probably women, mostly, who will have been responsible for that change, such as Marion Kaplan and Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblet; I would include Steve Lowenstein, who wrote about German Jewry, Joelle Bahloul, who is Algerian, Monica Richarz, who is German, and all of them talking about the importance of women— and now I’m talking specifically about Jewish subjects— what they represent in the household, in terms of raising the children, in transmitting the religion and the life and the culture from one generation to the next.
Sonia and I went to visit the Jewish archivist in Munich a few years ago. And when we told him about the project, and that’s before the book was written, he said, well, that’s really interesting because I never thought about food and I never thought about this role of women as a part of history. And I think that probably was very much representative of the point of view some time ago. And so my interest is in really representing the importance of food and women in moving from one generation to the next.
SG: And I would just like to add on to that that I think mealtime, in any culture, is a vital way of communication and discourse between the generations. And it’s something I think a lot of people feel in modern life. that people don’t have the same kind of mealtime where the family sits down together. But one of the foundations for our book was my mother’s childhood. She grew up in a very traditional household with three generations, and they only ever ate their meals at home. So it was her and her parents and her grandparents, and I I can see a direct correlation between the fact that my mother had those mealtimes to the relaying of cultural information passed on to me, even though I never even knew my great-grandparents. So I think it’s a very important thing about sharing not just the food but sharing time between members of the family.
Why Write a Cookbook?
JL: I think there are really two elements. We’re talking about the food itself and also the time that is spent producing that food or consuming it. This act of of breaking bread has an important meaning and symbolism in everybody’s lives.
But I think, before we delve into the recipes themselves, I’m curious maybe if you want to say something about the origin of this cookbook project, why you felt the need to produce a cookbook as opposed to some other genre to preserve this German Jewish culture.
SG: So my mother and I are both visual artists. And I also have had a lifelong very strong and passionate interest with all things food-related, including reading cookbooks and cooking and growing food, etc. And a lot of my interest in food, and really visceral connection to food, came directly from my grandfather, my mother’s father. And through the things he talked about, from his childhood in Germany and the foods that he adored, but also through seeing him and helping him cook in the kitchen as a child.
And I had a lightbulb moment, I realized that my mother and I should write a cookbook. The lightbulb moment had to do with the fact that my father’s side of my family is Eastern European. So I grew up with these two sets of Jewish grandparents. One set, one grandmother, made all the typical Jewish food that most everyone in the country, if not the world, associates with Jewish food: gefilte fish and matzo ball soup and brisket, etc. And then I had these other grandparents who were German Jewish, and we had delicious wonderful food at Oma and Opa’s house, but it was totally different food. So my lightbulb moment was realizing that this food was very different and that it was also completely unrecognized.
And so I put all of that together with the realization that this really had to be a two generation project, for many reasons, and it took me a while to convince my mother to get on board. But when she did, she was gung-ho. And we both, I think, feel very passionately about the food and its wonderfulness, and the fact that it really deserves to be recognized by a wider audience, not just by German Jews or even Jews, but just people. And we have found that all kinds of people have been very interested in the book, both for its stories and history as well as for the recipes.
GRG: Yeah, one of our recipes, which is from my grandmother, which is a cabbage salad or Krautsalat (cabbage slaw) in German, has been picked up by Food 52, which is a very large New York food blog. And it got prizes there, which is very interesting. So, I mean it’s one recipe among many which relates to a lot of people and which has nothing to do with ethnicity or anything else… because it’s delicious. So, I mean, I’ll get back to talking about my historical interest, but we never really separate out the food as a lesser piece of the project.
But I finally acquiesced to Sonya wanting to do this project, even though I never had any idea I would be writing a cookbook with her. But I acquiesced, and then was enthusiastic because it followed up on previous work that I had done, right from my Brandeis days on, about trying to understand something about what happened in the Holocaust, what happened to my family, what my relationship was to that.
After all, I grew up in New York City, in a very, very safe environment. It was in those days actually extremely one-sided the way people grew up. There were no people moving in and out. It was during the Second World War and right after. I knew the same people from kindergarten through eighth grade. Everything was very stable, and how how I was I to reconcile that with the fact that my grandparents were killed by the Nazis? You know, I viscerally didn’t feel that. I felt it through my father’s grief. I felt it generationally. So I always wanted to explore that and learn more about it.
And so I wrote a Brandeis senior thesis that approached that subject, and then later on as a visual artist I did a really big project in 1990, which was multimedia and which wound up being shown in the city I was born in. And it was really bringing my family back there, in some fashion. So this, then, started to feel like a continuity for me in my life’s work. And so and that is what it has been.
The Response, Especially in Germany
JL: I want to come back, a little later, to this this big question of the way in which this cookbook project has enabled the engagement with memory of German Jewry. But before we get into that, I know that you guys were just recently, in April and May of 2018, you were on a trip to Germany where you were presenting and talking about German Jewish food and the cookbook. What has been the response to the cookbook? Both across the board, and particularly I’m curious what the response has been like in Germany.
SG: So we have found incredible interest from Germans in terms of our book, and in terms of the notion of German Jewish food. What’s interesting to note is that there is basically zero recognition of this food tradition, which existed in Germany for hundreds of years. There are many books in print today in Germany about Jewish food, cookbooks, but they’re all Middle Eastern, they’re Israeli, they’re Eastern European. There’s a lot of influence of New York-style” Jewish food. There are even restaurants,New York-style delicatessens in Berlin. Yet there’s really no recognition of the food that was eaten by German Jews for so long, as I said.
So there’s a growing population of Jews in Germany, and they’ve all predominantly come from Eastern Europe, mostly Russian. And so of course, they’ve brought their own food traditions with them. So it’s not a matter of less or more. It’s just different. And that this history of this food tradition has nearly completely vanished in Germany.
So I find it very interesting, slightly ironic and very interesting, that while it’s a law that in Germany students have to learn about the Holocaust in school—school children, they learn about the history, they learn about the Nazi era, they learn about what happened to the Jews. But they do not learn about daily life. They do not learn about the people that were there grandparents neighbors. They do not learn about the bakery that was around the corner. They do not learn about all of that basic stuff about everyday life. And so, we have seen that people are intrigued.
We’ve also seen that there’s a lot of flow, back and forth, between traditions. Maybe a specific food dish had a Jewish origin, but it’s sort of been absorbed and morphed into having a German tradition and vice-versa, which I think is very typical of food traditions around the world because they’re never static. They’re constantly changing and moving and people are being influenced by each other.
GRG: And you know, it’s not surprising that there’s no knowledge of the earlier or traditional German Jewish food in Germany. Because there was nobody there. There was nobody left to promulgate it, to remember it. Except, of course, we do find some Germans who remember it. But that’s a different part of the story.
So, you know, it’s understandable. I mean, after all, German Jews are a very small minority of Jews in the world, and were all along a minority. I mean, there were 550,000 Jews in Germany before the Nazis came along. And there were probably six million Jews or more In Eastern Europe. So, you know, I always feel that German Jews are a minority within a minority. And by and large, we belong to the larger Jewish community but we also have a different tradition to uphold as well.
Food and Cultural Interaction: Jews and Germans
Jason: This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot as I was looking at the book. These recipes, and the history and the culture that they represent, allow us to really think through and navigate a little bit some of the complexities about the relationship of German Jewish culture, both with German culture at large and also with other Jewish cultures, in particular with Eastern European Jewry.
I think that thinking through this history of food allows us in a lot of instances, but especially looking at German Jewish history and culture, to think about the relationship between German Jews and their wider German environment, because there’s an interchange that’s happening. You know, they’re using similar ingredients or similar techniques or even just making the same recipes, and making some alterations. And also, to think about the way that the German Jews engaged with the Eastern European Jews, the Ostjuden. And these, I think, are two very important cultural relationships that looking at the food allows us to think through and to think about.
So for instance, in the instruction to the cookbook you talked about how you suggest that there are essentially three types of recipes in the book: first, those that were German dishes that were adapted by Jews (e.g. swapping pork for another protein) , second, specific Jewish holiday dishes or Shabbat dishes, and third, just plain regular German food which was adopted wholesale by Jews because the recipe might essentially be kosher to begin with. So what I’m curious about here, to begin with, before we delve into this whole question of the East European Jews, is what the history of German Jewish food and the history of these recipes tells us about the meaning of the cultural interchange between Jews and German.
SG: Sure. So, you know, German Jewish food, first of all—I mean, I think that we feel we could say a primary definition of Jewish food is whatever Jews eat. And I don’t mean that to sound glib, but literally. Jewish culture has historically been a nomadic culture and Jews have settled all over the world. And so, of course, a group of people is going to eat what’s available wherever they are living. So there’s Italian Jewish food, Chinese Jewish food. German Jewish food is in its essence German food with, as you stated, the necessary adaptations made. So in this particular case, I mean Germany is a very pork-centric food culture so that’s an obvious adaptation, where a lot of German Jewish dishes substituted other types of meat, veal or goose or duck, for pork. But I think there’s a lot of flow in both directions, and I think that we’ve seen a lot of indication of “German” dishes having an influence or original source, perhaps being Jewish.
On our recent trip to Germany, we interviewed a few bakers in a couple of different parts of Germany who continued to make Berches. Berches, or sometimes called Barches in Berlin, is the German version of challah. It’s the Jewish ceremonial bread. However, Berches is a very different recipe from the challah that most of us are familiar with. And so, it is made 99% of the time today in a few select bakeries in Germany for a Germanclientele. Some of those people might realize that it has a Jewish history, but not necessarily. And there’s no indication in the bakery that this is a Jewish bread. Back before the war, these bakeries would make it for Fridays so that Jews could have it for Friday night. Today, most of these bakeries sell it on Saturday and people tend to eat it as a Sunday breakfast treat. So that’s just one example of a dish that’s kind of moved back and forth— is it Jewish, it it German? It’s both.
GRG: Can I say that if you recall, Sonya, several of those bakeries actually have some information in the bakery about the Jewish past. And the bakers are very interested in the Jewish past, and they don’t hide it. It’s just that the clientele may not have an interest in that. So there’s a little booklet in this in this town of Laupheim, and this baker has a little booklet about the Jewish connection to this bread, which he keeps in the bakery and which he distributes to people But there’s no bakery in the United States that makes this bread anymore.
JL: I think it speaks to some of these issues that you mentioned earlier, that there is interest in Jewish culture in Germany. And part of this has to do with the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union who have come to Germany over the past twenty or twenty-five years. But also, I think that broadly speaking there’s a rising interest in Jewish history and culture in Germany across the board. So this idea of a German Jewish food culture, and how it also is intertwined with German food culture in some ways is one avenue for people to think about all these issues.
SG: I just would like to add something else about our experience in Germany, in terms of our book and the food. One of the events we did was basically a pop-up dinner. It was a multi-course dinner where we prepared, along with some professional chefs at an art gallery that does this regularly, a meal. And the main difference is that for Germans, they recognize almost all of the dishes in our cookbook, whereas for Americans they don’t. Because as I said earlier, this is essentially German food.
But what’s interesting is that a lot of the recipes in our book are “old fashioned” dishes. Since our time period concentrates on a period just before World War II and just after, a lot of these dishes are not made anymore in Germany. But a lot of people remember some of these dishes that their grandmothers made, or that they used to eat when they were a young child. And maybe they had forgotten about them, and then suddenly a light bulb goes off and they remember: oh, yeah, my grandmother made rice auflauf I used to love it when I went to her house on Saturdays for lunch, etc. So that’s a really big difference between an audience in Germany and an audience in the U.S., in terms of their relationship to the food.
GRG: Yes, and of course, it makes us feel, here is a connection we definitely share with the people that we’re making these recipes for. I mean, we share a common history of having eaten this food. I think if you were an Italian Jew, you would have the same experience with Italians, or if you are a Polish jew you’d have the same experience with Poles. Maybe not as much because perhaps by and large Polish Jews were more isolated from the Poles. I’m not sure about that.
JL: I think part of the story here, when we’re talking about food culture is that there is always a kind of hybridization. There’s no such thing as an essential “German” food or an essential “German Jewish” food or an essential “Eastern European Jewish” food. Everything is in conversation with everything else. And so I think part of what you’re showing here, especially as you’re talking about the way in which some of the Germans who you’ve been sharing the food with or been encountering this cookbook and this project, they recognize this food. Because it may be under the framework of a German Jewish cookbook, but fundamentally it comes from this this cultural milieu of this relationship where Jews and Germans were living together as neighbors. Maybe they didn’t go to the same grocery necessarily, but many of the same ingredients would be stocked. Using similar kinds of cooking tools or techniques. And this is just the nature of it, right, that if you look at Italian Jews, Italian Jewish food, or French Jewish food, or American Jewish food so to speak, there is always this cultural interchange that’s taking place. And looking at the food allows us to think about this in very concrete ways.
SG: Absolutely. And I mean, I think that’s a very important premise that we make or that and we definitely agree with. I just want to mention, since Polish Jewish food came up, I read something recently by someone named Jeffrey Joskowitz, who’s very much in the Jewish food world, he co-wrote cookbook a year before ours and has a business making very wonderful gefilte fish and he has a Jewish Polish background. And he traveled extensively through Poland recently and he came away from his trip with this realization. He had no idea. I think he was very shocked and surprised to discover how much of an overlap there was, and how much of the food that he always assumed was “Jewish” actually had origins as being Polish. So I mean, I’m in total agreement with what you’re saying, Jason. And I think we both agree, my mother and I, that food traditions are very fluid and they’re constantly sharing and moving and borrowing.
Food and Cultural Interaction: German and East European Jews
JL: You know, I think that again the food provides a prism for us to think about so many aspects of German Jewish history and culture. And one aspect of this is this question of the relationship between Jews and Germans, this of course is a relationship that some have called an unrequited love or that there was this close tie between many German Jews and the German culture in which they lived. And I’m sure that this spilled over into the food realm as well.
But there’s also another cultural group that I think really looms large when we talk about German Jewry as a whole, but especially when talking about the food. And so here we can think about the Eastern European Jews, in German the term that was used to describe them was the Ostjuden, the Jews of the East. And you already talked about, in one of the dishes in the book, the German form of the challah bread. We see that the way that you’re describing it, anyway in the cookbook, is that there are German counterparts to some of these Eastern European dishes, whether that’s cholent or something else.
It’s really interesting that this is taking place against the backdrop of a historical relationship of German Jews with their Eastern cousins. The challenge that you discussed before, that when people think about “Jewish” food, they often think about Eastern European food… part of this project that to me is so fascinating is the attempt to try to articulate German Jewish culture and to remember it as essentially an autonomous entity, something that’s not necessarily being subsumed under the broader framework or hegemony of Ashkenazi Eastern European culture.
GRG: Well, it’s not. That’s why. Because it isn’t. I mean, on the Jewish side there’s all the similarities of being Jewish. But in the food side, It’s really quite different. And although there is interaction and overlap, especially in northern Germany where there was a great deal of interaction between Poland and Germany, and that includes the food. And they also tend to be close to the ocean up there, so there’s a lot more fish culture up there, and a lot of Polish Jews came to Germany to live over the last 100 or 150 years before the Second World War. So, you know, it’s not hegemony at all.
JL: Right, and that’s exactly my point: I think there’s sometimes a popular conception that Eastern European Jewish culture is Jewish culture. And then, in a similar way, sometimes people sort of group together all of the Sephardic Jews and the Persian Jews undef one heading, right? When in reality it’s a very diverse group of people who are living thousands of miles away from each other. The same thing is true about European Jewish culture, where it is incredibly diverse, in large part because Jews were just living in different environments. And so, again, when people think, OK, kugel, matzo balls, right, gefilte fish, pickled herring, righ— things like this as “Jewish” food—this is really Eastern European Jewish food. And there are so many other kinds of Jewish food that perhaps have been or are being forgotten because of the rise of especially the New York Jewish culture that that really took so much from Eastern European Jews.
SG: Yeah. Well, this goes to our main reason for having written the book, exactly what you just stated. But I just want to point out one bit of irony, which is that in a way it’s always sort of a tiny bit ironic that we generally described this bread, Berches, is by referring to it as “the German version of challah.” And the reason we do that is so that it gives people an instantaneous image of what it is, and an understanding of what it is. But there’s also a part of me that wishes we didn’t have to make that comparison. Eastern European Jewish food definitely has the, for lack of a better word, monopoly on this definition of Jewish food. And we are, in our very small way, trying to attempt to crack open that definition that is held by everyone. And what super ironic is that you even go to Germany and the same definition is still held, even there, because the few Jewish restaurants that exist, it’s essentially Eastern European Jewish food. That’s why we call Berches the German ceremonial bread, as challah is for other cultures, for people who grew up in other places.
JL: I think that what’s interesting here is that there are so many layers to think about, in terms of this question of the relationship of German Jewish culture with Eastern European Jewish culture. There’s there’s the issue of the contemporary framework, the way in which as you mentioned you frame certain recipes by calling it the German version of X, for instance, because that’s kind of the common perception that people have, the anchor, what people are familiar with. But there’s also a sort of a whole interesting story here, as well, of how German Jews historically engaged with Eastern European Jewry in a whole range of ways. So if you think about the German Jewish encounter with Eastern European Jewry, with Hasidim, with Jews on the front during World War One.
There’s this attention, right, because for certain Jews in Germany the Eastern European Jews were kind of a well of supposed authenticity. If you look to Martin Buber, for instance, in his writing about Hasidism, or any number of other people like Franz Rosenzweig, there was this sense that German Jewish culture was lacking in some way. And that they wanted to draw on Eastern European Jewry vitality. That was their sense. And at the same time, Eastern European Jewry presented a foil for many German Jews, that that Jews of the East were a way for them to come to terms with and understand their own identity. So I guess part of the question here is, when you look at some of the sources of these recipes, when they’re talkin about Chalet or Berches or whatever, are they talking about it in the same ways that you are, by calling it the German version of X, Y, or Z? How did they (writing historical cookbooks that you used as sources) engage with the Eastern European Jewish food and culture?
GRG: I mean, they engaged with it the same way that Mrs. Rumbauer would talk about oatmeal. I mean, this is just your basic food. This is what our food is about. So, if Mrs. Elsasser, whose cookbook we used a great deal, or Mrs. Wolf, whose cookbook we also used from the 1890s or 1900s , they’d say so here are our recipes for Schalet. They didn’t have to explain what Chalet is. Everybody who was reading their book knew what Schalet is, and the same for the Berches. They knew what it is. So it wasn’t seen in the context of a larger Jewish world. It was seen in the context of the world they lived in.
What It Means to Preserve Food Culture
JL: One of the things that’s interesting about that is—to sort of go back to this impulse that you expressed in in the book to preserve German Jewish culture and German Jewish food—one of the challenges is that with the destruction of German Jewry during the Holocaust the kind of first-hand knowledge of this cuisine is lost. And so people sometimes need this kind of reference point, because they’re just not that familiar with it. Though, of course, the other half of it as you mentioned is that German Jewry, historically speaking, was always a small minority among all Jews. One might say that numerically speaking, most Jews would not have been familiar with German Jewish food anyway. But the point being that because of this historic break of the Holocaust, this chasm, it means that, okay, so maybe 100 years ago this was basically everyday food for people who would have been using this book. But now people need to remember in a different way.
GRG: Well, I mean I have to say that in my upbringing during the war and after the war it was just as ordinary and everyday as it had been in Germany, just because I happen to have grown up in the epicenter of German Jewry after it was destroyed in Germany. So that’s one reason I was you know involved in writing this book, because I knew it I knew it as well as if I had known it—maybe not as well. I knew it as well as people knew it after.
JL: My question is, essentially, about why produce a cookbook. I guess part of what I’m thinking about here is that this act of cultural preservation and what it means to take knowledge that is firsthand and innate—like you were talking about, Gabby, you know this cuisine because you grew up with it, right? It was cooked by your parents or by your grandparents, right? It was in the home. But as we get further and further away, people have less of this first-hand knowledge, and it needs to be written down. This is something that I think about a lot in terms of my own work, the moment when when memories need to be crystallized in written form and what that represents. So if you look at say a cookbook from 100 years ago versus a cookbook from today, they serve a different purpose, perhaps. One is an everyday book, and here I’m sure you are hoping that people will cook these recipes on a regular basis. But in reality this is an act of the memorialization of German Jewish culture in an era after its destruction.
GRG: I have to think about the word memorialization.
SG: For me, speaking for myself, I’d say that I feel the book serves multiple purposes. We’ve had many people say they do not cook but that they have found incredible things by reading the book, the chapters that are just text, even without the recipes. We’ve had people who have made many of the recipes, and love the recipes. Some of them are not even Jewish. Some are Jewish but not German-Jewish. Some people have bought five or six copies of the book to give to their family members, their kids and grandkids. Many people have thanked us, people with a German Jewish background, for writing this book, because it does preserve these recipes and this cuisine and this tradition. A few people have been upset that we didn’t include a specific recipe. So we’ve had all kinds of responses, and I think that the book fits all of those purposes. I wouldn’t narrow or pigeonhole it into saying it just fits one purpose.
GRG: And, you know, who we’re writing for: At this point, first of all, this is a two-generation cookbook. So Sonya represents the next generation. But then, we’re also encountering the nextgeneration. And we’re really writing for those next generations. We don’t know what’s going to happen a hundred years down the road, and you don’t really expect to be writing for people at that point. But we are writing for younger generations who want this, who are interested in their histories, and in the food, of course.
JL: I didn’t mean to imply that it’s only meant to be a kind of a memorial for German Jewry. What I was referring to is this process of the transformation of memory from a lived experience to something that is written down.
GRG: Yeah, and food is a great way to do that.
SG: I just I think a word that we tend to use more often is documentation, as opposed to memorialization.
JL: So then, I guess, part of the question here—and this goes back to what we were talking about at the opening of our conversation—is, what does it mean for you to document German Jewish culture? What kind of contribution do you think that the cookbook will make to the ongoing process of documenting the cultural vitality of that entire community and that entire experience?
GRG: Well for me, first and foremost what the book does—or hopefully what it does— is to bring a recognition, which is the very first thing, that so many people do not realize there is such a thing as German Jewish cuisine, that German Jews ate different food. So therein lies our main reason for writing the book, to share, preserve, and document that this food tradition within this culture existed, that it is still exists to a smaller degree, for the most part behind closed doors and within families of German Jewish descent. And furthermore, that it has some really interesting food that’s worth exploring, because it tastes good.
The reason I said that is because we’re also fighting against two very long-held generalizations. There’s often a lot of generalizations made about Jewish food being heavy and being beige. There’s generalizations often made about German food, that it’s all heavy, meat and potatoes. And so we defy both of those stereotypes in our body of recipes, because we have a lot of recipes that are seasonal vegetables, we have a lot of fruits, we have a lot of dishes that defy those assumptions.
Making Historical Recipes Modern
JL: It’s interesting that you bring up seasonal vegetables. You’ve mentioned the way in which certain trends in food production, trends in agriculture, in cuisine and cooking, actually allow for the comeback essentially of some of these recipes and dishes. Some of the ingredients, perhaps, were for a time more difficult to acquire. But now that people are talking about butchering animals in a way that all the parts are being utilized or certain kinds of heirloom vegetables and product (are available). And that means that certain dishes that would have been perhaps impossible to make 25 years ago, because you just couldn’t get the ingredients in a U.S. supermarket, are now becoming more possible to produce. So when you mentioned the seasonality, there are certain changes in the culinary Zeitgeist that might allow for some of these recipes to be made in a more “authentic” way, in a very interesting way.
SG: Absolutely. I mean, I’m very involved in local agriculture in New York City. I help run my neighborhood CSA, community supported agriculture. And while we were testing all the recipes for the book, it was really fabulous. Like things like kohlrabi, which is a very popular vegetable in Germany, and we include in some of our recipes, I was able to use local kohlrabi that I got in my CSA farmshare, or celery root or parsley root. So some vegetables that perhaps not that long ago would have been a lot more difficult to find are definitely more accessible, at least in some parts of the country, maybe not everywhere.
JL: I want to talk about this question of the translation, so to speak, of recipes to a new environment. In a certain way, this is an act of translation. And it’s not just about taking the recipe from the handwritten form and transcribing it and translating linguistically or translating it from a cookbook that was written in German. It’s taking a recipe that uses perhaps different forms of measurement, or different styles of describing how we cook or even you know, ingredients and translating it into a form that can actually be utilized in a 21st century kitchen That to me is really fascinating and really exciting, because it again highlights a tension because on the one hand you are trying to produce a cookbook that documents, authentically, so to speak, the history of German Jewish cooking and cuisine, but you also want something that is actually usable by a modern cook.
SG: Right. So you touched on a lot, and overall our goal was to honor these recipes as they were traditionally made. Now, some of the recipes were familiar to us. Some were recipes that my mother made when I was a kid. Some of them were recipes that she ate when she was a kid. Others were recipes that we found in historic German Jewish cookbooks that my mother read, even though some of them were printed in old German and difficult to read, some going back to the late 1800s.
Also, old cookbooks, American cookbooks, German cookbooks from 100 years ago were very different. They wrote recipes very differently than a modern recipe is written. Basically, the assumption was that everybody knew how to cook, and it was not assumed you would have to tell a lot of basic information. So old recipes lack a lot of information that we assume we’ll get today, like quantity of ingredients, cooking time, cooking temperature, method. They’ll just say, mix these ingredients to make a cake, for example, because everybody knew how to make a cake batter.
So when we discovered historic recipes that appealed to us and intrigued us, and added to the body of recipes that we wanted to have, a very balanced assortment of recipes, we would take a recipe and my mother would translate it. And then we would have to develop a recipe. We would have to create a recipe with the scant information that was included and that’s, like I said, very common for recipes from that time period. So, yes, we were adapting or creating and, like you used the word, translating.We were translating not just from German and not just from European to American, but translating from a different time period. And some of those recipes were successful, and some we weren’t happy with so we did not use them.
GRG: And I think every cookbook writer has that task, especially if they are working within a tradition.
German Jewish Food, the Refugee Experience, and the Holocaust
JL: I think it brings up important issues also about not just the universal experience of the cookbook writer, as you mentioned, but also about the German Jewish experience in particular. When we talk about the idea of the preservation or documentation of historic food memories, food cultures, foodways, there’s this important element of the refugee experience, inasmuch as you are not just documenting the way people ate but also what people brought with them to a new place.
GRG: Well, I think the refugee experience heightens the interest in continuing to eat the way you used to eat. Especially if you are in an environment with other refugees. I think for refugees who wound up moving to Greenville, South Carolina, or Nashville, Tennessee, and where perhaps their new environment did not include other German Jews, I don’t think they would necessarily continue cooking the old stuff. But it was a very reassuring and warm way to live, when you were surrounded by people from your previous community.
SG: I would like to add, I think it’s a universal experience for refugees, as I alluded to before, to continue cooking the food of their home country. I just was talking to a friend in Berlin who runs a refugee settlement or refugee camp on the outskirts of Berlin. And there are people there from many, many different countries, and she talked about a big food festival they had last spring and all the different food and how it brings out so much for people. It’s so primal. But the thing about german Jewish refugees is that in many ways they were very fortunate. Because it’s a very similar climate, and to a very large degree the ingredients are duplicated here. There are some exceptions, for sure. There are some ingredients that are very specifically German that when my family emigrated perhaps were impossible or very difficult to find. But overall, it was a much easier experience replicating the traditional food than, for example, a refugee coming from Asia during the same time period. Of course, today we live in a globalized time when you can find close to anything and everything anywhere. I think that’s changed a lot. But I do think the climate really was a big factor in the fact that it’s a very similar climate and a lot of the similar things grow in this region.
JL: I think a lot of what we’ve been talking about has to do with the German Jewish experience and culture at large. But this project is also really particular. It’s very local, in terms of the region of Germany where your family comes from. It’s also profoundly personal. I mean, I know that not all the recipes are themselves family recipes. But many of them are. And many of the anecdotes that go along with the recipes, the stories, this has to do with the experience of your family coming from Germany to the United States. And so what I’m curious about, here, is in what ways is this book an attempt to preserve your own memories and experiences, both in terms of the food and the pathway of your family through the Nazi years and then to the United States.
GRG: Well, I would say this. We were very conscious of the interaction between our own personal family stories and the general stories of German Jews. And it felt very much like it’s very important to keep the story as close to home as possible, to make it live, to make it a lively story. It was not the motivation to tell our family story, but our family’s story was used In order to tell the bigger story. That’s really how I feel about it.
JL: Right, right, but I feel like the anecdotes and the stories that you tell that really punctuate what you’re presenting in this book—for instance, you open the book with this anecdote about the black radish—it seems to have a particular significance both in terms of this story that we were talking about the particular ingredients, what’s available, and what reminds people of their homes, but also the uh, this broader issue of food memory, and personal memory and how they’re connected.
GRG: Yes, absolutely. First of all, that’s a Holocaust story to begin with, and I have to say that as much as we were not writing a book about the Holocaust, the Holocaust was never far away from our book. Because it’s the whole history of German Jews. There’s no way of writing it without that. It’s a Holocaust story because clearly the point of that story was that the main character, who was my father, identified the food, the yearnings, with the fact that he lost his parents. And that felt really very central and basic to us. And so that’s why it was the prologue story.
JL: I think part of the whole story here, and again part of the reason why I feel like the book is very personal—even though as you said that’s not the main purpose of the book—is that I think part of what you’re trying to argue—and again, cookbooks don’t have the same kind of an argument that sort of a another kind of like academic book or a monograph or an article might make—but I think that part of the argument that you’re making in the book is that food provides the ability to span the chasm of the Holocaust. That the Holocaust is, alongside many other tragedies and other historical events, it presents a fundamental discontinuity in history, in Jewish history, in one’s family, one’s personal life, and so on and so forth. And the question is, how do we overcome that discontinuity? And the black radish, right, being able to identify a particular ingredient and eat it. “This is the same thing that that I ate before the war.” This is one way to do this.
And there’s another anecdote that you presented in the book that really struck me in this way as well, where you talked about the physical objects that your family took with them when they were fleeing Germany in ’39, among them the cooking utensils, kitchen tools, and so on. And you wrote, and I’ll quote because I think it’s so important, you said that “These objects provide a visceral sense of continuity, they tangibly connect us to the kitchens, the food, and perhaps most important, the people of our past.” To me, this really is so striking. Because it highlights the way in which food has a potential to provide access to memory of the past that really is beyond our grasp.
GRG: Food, and objects in this case as you say, a lot of them are objects that have to do with food, but they are objects. And that’s a whole other area of experience, is how we exist with objects, and how we value them and what meaning they have. And I suppose the fact that Sonya and I are both visual artists, we bring our own visual impetus to that subject. And yes, these objects are very important to us. They’re not very important to everybody. Well, maybe a different kind of importance for some people. They just want to get rid of them. They don’t want to have anything to do with them. We both are connected to those objects and feel they offer us a connection, as we wrote, to the past.
SG: I’d like to add something, which is you can’t really talk about the objects without talking about the lift van. And the fact that German Jewish refugees were unlike most other refugees at any point in history, because they arrived—many of them, not all of them—but many arrived wherever they were fleeing to with an incredibly large crate referred to as a lift van filled with all of the belongings from their households, In most cases minus the valuable things, like well certainly money and maybe silver and maybe jewellery, etc. and paintings. So our family, when my mother came as a baby with her parents, they had a lift van and then her set of grandparents who survived and came and lived with them, they also had a lift van and these lift vans included furniture, clothing, bedding, kitchen goods, basically every possible thing you can imagine from a household. And then what the Nazis did, because the Nazis were so Nazi, they charged people a tax on their own belongings. And they made lists. And so we have lists from our family lift van. It basically was an invoice, and it listed every absolute single down to the tiniest detail object including wash rags, and it would list a tax for each item. The wash rag maybe was taxed the equivalent of a couple of cents, the kitchen pots and pans might have been taxed more, whatever it was.
We have a ten-page document or something, listing all of these household objects. In our particular family, my grandparents, many of these refugees basically set up their households in New York or wherever they settled with their households intact from Germany, which is unusual. And it also gave a picture, maybe, to their new neighbors as people perhaps thinking they had more means than they did. Because they certainly arrived with no money and no means of earning a living, for the most part, when they first got off the boat. And in our particular family, my mother and now me have kept a lot of these objects. I have a lot of the furniture that my grandparents brought from Germany.
So this is furniture that’s inching towards being 100 years old. And I have a lot of the kitchen utensils that use on a daily basis, not for sentimental reasons, not because I’m actively trying to connect to my grandparents or great-grandparents. But because they’re objects I like to use. They’re well-made, and they work well, and they feel a part of my daily life and I do have as an added thing, I do like the sense of continuity. I do like the sense of continuation. I do get a kick out of the fact that I tested a lot of recipes for our book using the literal pots and pans and knives and cutting boards that my family members used. So I just had to give that background, when you talk about a lot of the kitchen utensils, there’s a bigger history behind those objects.
Food and German-Jewish Cultural Memory
JL: Absolutely. I mean, I think that’s a really important component here and I’m glad that you brought that up. Because I think that a big part of what you’re doing here is trying to preserve the past, right, and that’s in a certain way what you’re doing on a daily basis just by cooking recipes.
So I guess one other thing that I hoped we might talk about has to do with this broader issue of how German Jewish culture is remembered. I think that one possible response to the Holocaust is kind of a disavowal of German culture as a whole. I think that there are still people today who refuse to purchase German products, German cars, travel to Germany even. But one of the things that is so interesting and so exciting about the history of German Jewish immigrants and refugees, both in the 1930s and then in the post-Holocaust period, is that there was this effort to preserve a sense of the the once-possibility of a German Jewish cultural synthesis or symbiosis. And I think that here we see something really fascinating, as part of this broader history of trying to not say that because the Germans murdered millions of Jews, that we should forget about German Jewish history, but that that we should try to understand and to remember and to preserve the marks of this cultural connection between Jews and Germans that existed in the early twentieth century, prior to the rise of Nazism. Um, so this to me is really fascinating aspect of this whole project.
GRG: Well, I know there was a great deal of Interest among a large segment of Jews in Germany, let’s say during the Weimar years, in all the movements and modernities that the German culture was presenting. But I also know that many of the people who were Jews and who did not live in that modern environment, and there were many who continued to live in small places and villages and in small cities who kept a very traditional Jewish life going, who were kosher and who were actually the source of information for us, for a lot of our recipes, who had a. A fish appetizer on Friday night the equivalent of gefilte fish, but in this case not sweet and sour carp instead.
So I see a very broad range of culture that was German Jewish, and we haven’t studied it. We haven’t gotten a bigger picture of those cultural issues that you’re talking about. We look to things from the perspective of what we were doingl and from that perspective we see a very large range of Jewish people’s connection to German culture.
SG: Well, I just wanted to comment on the whole aspect of, you know, a lot of Jews and non-Jews saying they would have nothing to do with Germany, that whole aspect of things. It’s perhaps unusual or less common, I don’t know, but I think our whole family—meaning my mother and me, my grandparents returned one time only for a visit… And my father, yes—my family has had a lot of interaction with Germany, a lot. And speaking for myself, one generation removed… I think it’s somewhat surreal when visit (my mother’s) home town, her home city, to think about what her life might have been like if the Holocaust hadn’t happened. Of course, I wouldn’t exist. But aside from that, we’ve had a lot of concrete interactions with Germany and with Germans on many different levels and many different scenarios.
My mother, one of her other areas of work is doing mediation trainings in Germany with German colleagues. I’ve done an art project there. We both have friends there. My mother has exhibited her artwork there. We have conducted interviews and research for our cookbook there. My parents visited there in the early 1960s, which in hindsight is very, very close after the war. And it’s complicated. It’s never just one thing. But I think, speaking for myself, it’s my family roots. I have family roots in Germany. And for me to say I would never put foot in Germany would be, in a sense, saying the Nazis completely won. Because not only did they eradicate millions of Jews and eradicate the culture of my family in Germany and all German Jews in Germany, but then it would be saying they were successful in eradicating my own personal history. So for better or worse, I have a history there and roots there and so I feel like it’s been a very incredible thing to have the interactions that I have had thus far in my life in Germany.
It’s been a an incredible experience to go there with my mother, not just because she speaks German—and, by the way, even though she grew up in New York she speaks it with an accent specific to her home city, which I find really fascinating and amazing. People can locate where her accent is from when she’s in Germany. But to experience visiting there through her eyes and through her unique situation of being a German Jew born there but having grown up in New York City and knowing so much of the culture, but yet having a distance from it. So it’s complicated, but I’m very appreciative for the interactions that I’ve been able to have with Germany.
GRG: Another thing I want to add to this is that over time, having been a member of a German Jewish dialogue group at one point and my ongoing relationship with Germans, I have the feeling I feel that we have a strange brother- and sisterhood, those of us who are Jews and children of survivors and children of the Holocaust and those Germans who are children of perpetrators. We are left with the Holocaust. It is something we share and we can’t get away from, none of us can get away from it. So I think I’m certainly not the only person who feels this way. But it is an element of of my sense of of the relationship.
Jason: I think part of what I was thinking about before, when I was thinking abouf this idea of a one-time dream of German Jewish symbiosis or synthesis, is that I think that that, like you were saying, today there is I think a growing appreciation—among Jews and also among Germans—for each other. There are fewer people who will take this old-fashioned view, like, yeah. I’ll never drive a BMW, for instance, right? And part of the story here, with this German Jewish cookbook, it’s part of this ongoing development of this relationship between Jews and Germans, of this recognition that that there wasa German Jewish food culture that was so closely tied to German food. And this is something that we can see as a commonality between German culture and Jewish culture.
And I think that in an older generation, perhaps, there would have been more people who would have hoped to disavow that, and I’m not talking about German Jews in particular, but broadly speaking. If you look at the history, the way that people have approached this idea of German Jewish cultural synthesis, I think that an older generation of scholars and an older generation of the public might sort of look down on, for instance, a figure like Hermann Cohen, the nineteenth- and twentieth-century German Jewish philosopher who wrote about “Deutschtum und Judentum” during World War I. He talked about how there was this close connection between Germanness and Jewishness, and of course that was laced with a very intense patriotism, almost a jingoism as you know, being part of the wartime. But people would look at that and say, you know, this is sort of short-sighted, taking a teleological perspective of, oh the Holocaust is coming, so we can write off the entirety of the German Jewish experience as kind of a failed experiment.
And of course, this is an older view, right? I think that part of what’s been happening, especially over the past couple generations, has been an increasing awareness that this was not just like a cry into the void to speak of the Jews who were trying to engage with German culture. But there was a kind of a cultural synthesis that was taking place, and what better place to see that than in food,
GRG: Right. And when subjects like this come up, I always have to think about the experience of Jews in America today, or in the last 70 years, and the development of Jewish life in America over this time. And, you know what how would Jews today in America define themselves? Are they Americans? Are they part of a communal culture? I don’t think it’s a very different from, say, a Jewish lawyer in Berlin in 1925, or for that matter for that matter Jewish banker in Berlin.
JL: I think that you’ve done sort of a really wonderful job here, in any case, of trying to navigate this very complex pathway of trying to understand, through food, some of the complexities of German Jewishness.
Why German Jewish Food Matters
JL: We’re almost out of time. but I wanted to ask one final set of questions, to think about the project as a whole. Because this is not just a cookbook, right? You also have been spreading the word and knowledge about German Jewish food in a number of venues. So I guess I’m curious, based off of these experiences, the response to the cookbook, and so on and so forth… What do you tell to people when they ask you why German Jewish food matters? How do you explain to them why it’s so important to preserve this culture?
GRG: Well, I think everything we talked about just now probably answers the question by a thousand. But let me talk for a minute about the German experience. There is a large new German Jewish community in Germany, and interestingly about ten years ago we had a rabbi tell us that there is no such thing as German Jewish food. And my answer to that, I mean, I don’t want to talk and expound any further than just to say well there is German Jewish food and it is important to document it and besides it’s delicious. So I I think that you know, that’s where that’s where where I feel we’re at.
SG: Yeah, I mean, just to sum up and yeah in complete agreement, it’s it’s a very big indicator of a very very long and rich history of a culture, of a people that resided in a specific place for hundreds of years, Jews in Germany, and the story of their cuisine is a rich part of that history and that story and it’s a living part of the history. It’s a part that can be maintained and participated in by anybody, anywhere, and so that’s why we feel it’s important to continue it, not only for people of German Jewish descent but for anybody who would like to participate in that element of the culture.