Recipes for a New Begin­ning: Tran­syl­van­ian Jew­ish Sto­ries of Life, Hunger, and Hope

Kinga Júlia Király

  • Review
By – June 14, 2021

Tran­syl­van­ian writer Kinga Kirá­ly want­ed to know more about Jew­ish cul­ture pre-World War II, before the old­er gen­er­a­tion died out. Gath­er­ing ten Holo­caust sur­vivors who had returned to north­ern Tran­syl­va­nia, she start­ed by ask­ing them about food. What did peo­ple remem­ber eat­ing or cook­ing? How did they han­dle kashrut? Where did they get meat or veg­eta­bles? And most impor­tant, what recipes brought back memories?

Her book of inter­views and com­men­tary is arranged chrono­log­i­cal­ly, from pre-War to life under the Com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor­ship. The pre-War accounts are rosy, with lots of recipes and fam­i­ly tales. Before long, read­ers are plunged into the depor­ta­tions, the cre­ma­to­ri­ums, the star­va­tion, tor­ture, and mass mur­ders of the Holo­caust. When those who sur­vived returned to Roma­nia, they found that their homes and belong­ings had been appro­pri­at­ed by their for­mer neigh­bors. Food was scarce. Friends and fam­i­lies had been killed. Sur­vivors had been phys­i­cal­ly and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly rav­aged by the camps. Strug­gling with their return, some sensed a moment when the anti­semitism almost let up — when maybe Rus­sia was sup­port­ing a Jew­ish state — before Jews were con­sid­ered taint­ed again, a com­mod­i­ty to be sold” to Israel by the Ceaus­es­cu regime.

For many Amer­i­can read­ers, the his­to­ry of Tran­syl­van­ian Jew­ish cul­ture is unfa­mil­iar. Tran­syl­van­ian bor­ders were shift­ed between Hun­gary and Roma­nia by treaties most of us nev­er stud­ied. Names are hard to pro­nounce. Jew­ish cus­toms were dif­fer­ent. Sure, some of Király’s respon­dents kept two sets of dish­es before the War — a kosher set and a treyf set. Milk was kosher if a Jew­ish child accom­pa­nied the milk­ing. A meal was kosher only if a Jew­ish per­son was present for its cook­ing. Shab­bos chal­lahs were cov­ered so they would not be embar­rassed.” Post-War, there’s Adi Perl, the only mash­giah in Tran­syl­va­nia,” dis­cours­ing at length about the things he could inspect, from cab­bages to meats, before admit­ting that he didn’t actu­al­ly do this any­more because no one needs it.” Still, he shared his secret for great cholent — adding a few spoon­fuls of Nescafe and Silan (date syrup) before cooking!

Truth­ful­ly, this is not real­ly a cook­book. The food mem­o­ries and recipes, most­ly in the first part of the book, need proof­read­ing and bet­ter pho­tog­ra­phy — although who will actu­al­ly cook dish­es call­ing for goose necks or goose fat or the occa­sion­al whole carp? Food is a good con­ver­sa­tion-starter for reluc­tant inter­vie­wees, but it can­not go far for peo­ple who have spent years of their lives going hun­gry, years in con­cen­tra­tion camps. Király’s book ends with Kad­dish, not dessert.

Kirá­ly sets out her sur­vivors’ sto­ries in these pages like a patch­work artist lay­ing out a quilt — a shad­ed box with a wife’s com­ments on a detail her hus­band men­tioned, some excerpts from pub­lished works shed­ding light on an interviewee’s mem­o­ries, pho­tos of peo­ple, places, and foods. By eschew­ing a lin­ear nar­ra­tive, by allow­ing all the con­stant inter­rup­tions, Kirá­ly helps read­ers expe­ri­ence some of the chaos that her sub­jects might have felt as they drew out old mem­o­ries, some dear and beloved, but more often, long-sub­merged, frag­ment­ed, and painful. Read­ers accus­tomed to con­ven­tion­al oral his­to­ries or Holo­caust mem­oirs may be uncom­fort­able with Király’s col­lage approach, but it is effec­tive. She has hon­ored her sub­jects by shar­ing the fab­ric of their lives.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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