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The Jews of Poland: Recollections and Recipes by Edouard de Pomiane

Thursday, May 23, 2013 | Permalink
Last week, Rebecca Miller wrote about Gluckel of Hameln. She has been sharing texts that shed light on the history of Jewish life in France, the setting of her new novel, Jacob's Folly (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Visiting Scribe series. 

When I was researching my last novel, my friend Michael Rohatyn found a book at the Strand he thought I might like: The Jews of Poland: Recollections and Recipes, by Edouard de Pomiane. De Pomiane (1875-1964), a physician, was also one of the most famous chefs and cookery writers of his day. Born Eduard Pozerski, he was born into the Polish aristocracy, brought up poor but refined. Both his parents were Polish patriots who fought against Russian domination of their homeland; his mother fled to France with the young Eduard when his father was deported to Siberia for insurrection against the Russians. Coming of age within the close-knit community of Polish exiles in Paris, he was sympathetic to liberal causes and was a proponent of the Dreyfus cause.

His ethnographic book about Polish Jewish culture and cooking, written in 1928, was originally entitled Cuisine Juive; Ghetto Modernes (Jewish Cooking; Modern Ghettos). It is, perhaps, the weirdest book I have ever read. A tantalizingly vague recipe for Carpe a la Juive (“Take a large, live carp. Kill it…”) follows a horrifying description of a pogrom, relayed to de Pomiane by a museum guide who had survived the massacre by hiding under a heap of hay in which his sister suffocated overnight: “A corpse, belly ripped open, lay with its guts wrapped around its neck…A child wandered aimlessly, haggard, mute, crazed, its body beaten to a pulp.”

In de Pomiane’s writing, appreciative paragraphs about the accomplishment of certain refined Jews rubs shoulders with unwittingly racist pseudo-science. “I observed as a biologist…wrote as a scientist,” claims de Pomiane, as he cheerfully divides all male Jews into three types:

1. “The dark-haired Jew, with a long beard and a delicate, aquiline nose. His lips are often thin, his ears lie flat against his head. His eyes are deep, almost mystical. He is less excitable than the others. It could be said that he belongs to an ethnic aristocracy. He has an Egyptian profile.”

2. “This type is also dark-haired, and much more common. His beard is black, shorter, his eyes are bulging and bloodshot, his nose is squat, his lips are thick and very red, and he enormous, flat eats. This is the excitable Jewish type. When he laughs, he sniggers. The face, overall, has a cruel and bestial appearance. Certainly this type of Jew would frighten a child in France, even if that child were himself Jewish.”

3. “A third, and rarer, type is completely red-headed. The beard is shorter and divided in two. He has the same negroid facial charactersitics as the preceeding type. The lips look even thicker and frame the teeth with two red borders of eaqual sixe. Although they are red, the peissy look brown from being rolled, twisted, and curled between fingers that are constantly being licked.”

Having provided us with this helpful diagram of Jewish types, he takes us on a tour of Jewish Poland, beginning with Kazimierz, the Jewish Ghetto in Crakow since the Middle Ages:

“The whole place seems fairly, and in some places, extremely, poverty-stricken. The more so since the population is dirty and strange. In Kazimierz, everyone dresses in black, everyone rushes about in a hurry, they all bustle about irritably, pushing, shouting, arguing. One would think the whole city were in the grip of some nervous disease.”


De Pomiane believes that these poor, nervous Jews give us a sense of what the tribes of Israel must have been like, “these people who when settled among us became the educated and refined individuals with whom we are familiar.” So, De Pomiane argues, the less “Jew-y” the Jews are, the more European, the more refined they are—and hence, it seems, equal to non-Jews. Unfortunately in only a few years there was no refinement that could save a Jew in Poland, or indeed, France: being Jewish was considered a racial fact, not a cultural subtlety. But de Pomiane’s distinctions are fascinating because they are being spouted by a man who was actually sympathetic to Jewish culture.

De Pomiane’s observations are strikingly detailed. Describing the typical kaftan, he states, “they wear a long black cloth gown which descends to their feet. It is not waisted like an overcoat, but is slightly fuller. Two rows of buttons secure it over the chest. This kaftan is quite high-necked.”

And then, he describes a head-covering that can be found in contemporary Williamsburg: “Older Jews wear black hats of brushed felt. These head-coverings are worn very far forward, a little over the eyes, because on the crown of the head, under the hat, they wear a little black scull-cap.”

He speaks of prostitution: “Just as in the Orient, one sees in the streets of Cracow and Warsaw, Jews attempting to draw in the passerby to admire a supposed daughter or niece.”

And the book is not short of anecdotes: a friend of de Pomiane’s was tempted by an old man who spoke of a girl “as beautiful and fresh as a mountain stream.” Tantalized, he followed the old man into an ancient house and through a rather dark and very smelly courtyard. “The Jew opened a door; my friend entered a room which was quite clean and saw a young girl in profile.” She was a perfect beauty. Then she turned to face him and he saw that one of her eyes had been gouged out. When he left in a panic, the old man cried, “It wasn’t for an eye that you followed me here!”

De Pomiane takes us to a stylish health resort called Zakopane. There, de Pomiane finds a lot of rich Jews. “What is so surprising?” he asks. “They alone…engage in trade. They alone are rich, and they alone can afford to vacation in Zakopane.”

Spending time with these wealthy, assimilated Jews, Pomiane is amazed at their patriotism. A doctor he met “defended both Zakopane and the whole of Poland…he was a proud Polish nationalist. There are men like these among Jewish intellectuals who have achieved a certain status in life… having left the kaftan and the ghetto behind…they have almost forgotten Yiddish, replacing it with very good German. They call themselves Polish.”

De Pomiane the ethnographer paints a fascinating portrait of a class divide amongst the assimilated versus the unassimilated Jews:

“Try and imagine a Jew in his worn, shiny, discolored kaftan, with his beard and side-locks on his temples. Imagine him strolling down the Avenue Henri-Martin in Paris, which is inhabited almost exclusively by wealthy French Jews. Would he be welcomed as a compatriot by those elegant ladies getting out of their automobiles, whose children speak English to their nannies? Definitely not. These “Israelites” [a term favored at the time by assimilated Jews as more politically correct than ‘Jew’] avoid the Polish Jew, whom they have dubbed ‘Polak’.”

The book encapsulates contradictions and subtleties within the Polish Jewish population between the wars, but also within the writer himself, a Polish Francophile exile who loved food and had an abiding interest in Jewish cuisine. Beef Bouillon with Sauerkraut, Chicken Soup with Almonds, Goose Soup with Barley, Carp a la Juive—these recipes and many more are all lovingly preserved for the curious gourmand in this most curious of books.

Read more about Jacob's Folly and Rebecca Miller here.

Rebecca Miller on Gluckel of Hameln

Monday, May 13, 2013 | Permalink
This week on the Visiting Scribe, Rebecca Miller will be sharing texts that shed light on Jewish life in eighteenth-century France, the setting of her new novel, Jacob's Folly (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Gluckel of Hameln was an intrepid businesswoman, a mother of twelve children, a passionate wife, and a memoirist. She died in 1724, at the age of seventy-eight. Her memoirs are a rare window into the life of European Jewish women of the period. What struck me most vividly by her account of her days was her ability to bridge a business career (otherwise known as financial survival) and family concerns, living a unified, if exhausting, life.

“My father had me betrothed when I was a girl of barely twelve, and less than two years later I married.” So ends Gluckel’s childhood. As often happened, Gluckel’s marital deal included her being exported to another town. In this case, she was crammed into a peasant cart along with the rest of the wedding party (her mother was much put out, having expected carriages) and bustled off to the “dull and shabby hole” of Hameln, a small village. “There I was, a carefree child whisked in the flush of youth from my parents, friends, and everyone I knew, from a city like Hamburg into a back-country town where lived only two Jews.” After the wedding festivities were over, however, Gluckel adapted fast. She adored her father-in-law. After a year, however, her young husband’s ambitions were too big for Hameln and the married children moved to Hamburg, living with Gluckel’s family, where her father’s “pack of servants” helped them with daily life. There, as it was the fashion among gentiles to “wear solid gold chains, and gifts were all in gold”, her teenaged husband traded in gold, “plying his trade from house to house, to buy up the precious metal. Then he turned it over to goldsmiths, or resold it to merchants about to be married; and he earned thereby a tidy profit.” In addition to these efforts, Gluckel calls her husband “the perfect pattern of the pious Jew”; he set aside fixed times to study Torah each day, and fasted Mondays and Thursdays, to such an extent that he compromised his health. He was a tower of patience. In its maturity, their relationship was both harmonious and, in its way, egalitarian. Referring to the fact that her husband asked her advice about a business decision, Gluckel effuses, “my husband did nothing without my knowledge.”

By the time she was fifteen, Gluckel was pregnant, “and my mother along with me.” Coincidentally, both mother and daughter delivered within a week of each other. They both had girls, “so there was neither envy nor reproach between us.” Endless visitors arrived in the household, anxious to see “the marvel, a mother and daughter together in child bed.” But the situation could prove confusing. One night, Gluckel’s mother picked up the wrong baby to suckle, causing great alarm when Gluckel woke up and found her baby’s cradle empty. All was well in the end, but not after a furious argument as to whose baby was whose. “A little more, and we’d had to summon the blessed King Solomon himself.”

After a year, Gluckel’s little family struck out on their own, renting a house and engaging “a manservant and a maid.” The manservant, Abraham, looked after the children. So, the concept of a ‘manny’ is in fact not new. Abraham, Gluckel notes proudly, went on to marry and become a successful businessman “worth 10,000 Reichthalers or more”; within the Jewish community, servitude was not a class-dictated condition. One made one’s own circumstances to a large degree. Those with less worked for those who had more, until the servants changed their circumstances, at which point the lucky or industrious ones became employers.

It was in Gluckel’s life time that the false Messiah, Sabbatai Zevi, achieved enormous fame. Thousands of Jews, among them her father-in-law, became convinced that Zevi was in fact the messiah. Throughout the world Jewish families rent themselves with repentance, prayer, and charity. Gluckel’s father-in-law packed chests with dried meat and dates for the trip to the holy land, and waited for the call to join the Messiah. But Sabbatai Zevi, who may have been suffering from delusions, or was possibly just a charlatan, was arrested in Turkey and converted to Islam. It was in part the collective depressive void that followed his unmasking which made space for the Hasidim, and their radical message of joyful worship.

At the age of fourty-four, Gluckel’s faith was tested on her beloved’s death bed. As her man lay dying, Gluckel, who was having her menses and hence was forbidden to touch her husband, asked transgressively, “Dearest heart, shall I embrace you—I am unclean?” but he answered: “God forbid, my child—it will not be long before you take your cleansing (ritual bath that Orthodox women take after menstruation and childbirth).” He died later that day and so she never got to kiss him one last time. The massive struggle of self control she went through in those final moments must have been a torment.

Once widowed, Gluckel redoubled her efforts at business, trading in gems, lending money, travelling frequently. She amassed a tidy fortune and managed to marry off all her children, but then remarried a man with no business sense who lost her money. She ended up in the home of one of her daughters. Yet there is no trace of bitterness in Gluckel’s memoirs. She is, rather, a joyful, enterprising survivor, filled to the brim with life—even now, three hundred years after her death, her life force burns from the page.

Read more about Jacob's Folly and Rebecca Miller here.

Book Cover of the Week: Jacob's Folly

Wednesday, March 13, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Last week, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Rebecca Miller's new novel Jacob's Folly, "a rollicking, ingenious, saucy book, brimful of sparkling, unexpected characters, that takes on desire, faith, love, [and] acting." Oh, and the main character, Jacob Cerf, an eighteenth-century Parisian Jew, has been reincarnated as a fly in the Long Island suburbs of twenty-first-century America. Read more about Jacob's Folly, and the influence of Kafka, over at NPR here, and check out Rebecca Miller's official website here.

View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.