From Cous­cous to Kasha: Report­ing From the Field of Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Work

Sey­mour Epstein
  • Review
By – December 5, 2011
This is a mov­ing mem­oir by a vet­er­an rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Joint Dis­tri­b­u­tion Com­mit­tee. It is an inti­mate record, told with humor and sen­si­tiv­i­ty, of adven­ture and explo­ration by an ener­getic, tal­ent­ed, cre­ative, and com­mit­ted Jew­ish edu­ca­tor who was assigned to assist the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in Moroc­co, France, and the for­mer Sovi­et Union.

The author, known as Epi to his friends, describes the declin­ing but proud and ancient Moroc­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. With the fall of com­mu­nism, he assist­ed in the rebirth and growth of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties scat­tered across eleven time zones of the vast for­mer Sovi­et Union. He mov­ing­ly recounts sparks of life and hope and a thirst for knowl­edge among Jews work­ing togeth­er to build viable com­mu­nal insti­tu­tions and orga­ni­za­tions. The JDC and its rep­re­sen­ta­tives sought to pro­vide mate­r­i­al aid and pro­mote self-respect and local lead­er­ship with­out being over­bear­ing, know-it-all for­eign­ers. Epi also remarks on the dif­fer­ences between how sec­u­lar Israeli and how Dias­po­ra Jew­ish field­work­ers under­stood the new world of for­mer Sovi­et Jew­ry. 

This is a book that should be read by all who mar­vel at the stub­born sur­vival of iso­lat­ed ancient Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties and the rebirth of Jew­ish life after com­mu­nist sup­pres­sion, and by those inter­est­ed in con­sci­en­tious, effec­tive for­eign aid that does not suf­fo­cate or dis­re­spect com­mu­ni­ties in need. Glos­sary, photographs.
Robert Moses Shapiro teach­es mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, Holo­caust stud­ies, and Yid­dish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at Brook­lyn Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. His most recent book is The War­saw Ghet­to Oyneg Shabes-Ringel­blum Archive: Cat­a­log and Guide (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press in asso­ci­a­tion with the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Library and the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute in War­saw, 2009). He is cur­rent­ly engaged in trans­lat­ing Pol­ish and Yid­dish diaries from the Łódź ghet­to and the Yid­dish Son­derkom­man­do doc­u­ments found buried in the ash pits at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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