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 MyJew­ish­Learn­ings 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 (18751964), 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.