- The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook: Garden-Fresh Recipes Rediscovered and Adapted for Today’s Kitchen by Fania Lewando
Does vegetarianism have any place in Jewish cuisine and, ultimately, in Jewish identity? Fruit- and vegetable-based recipes have long been important to the Jewish kitchen, partly because vegetarianism eliminates many of the hurdles to keeping kosher. Nevertheless, anyone who has enjoyed the corned beef of a Reuben sandwich, nursed a cold with a chicken-based matzo ball broth, or debated salt or sugar’s primacy as gefilte fish’s proper seasoning knows that traditional Ashkenazi Jewish cooking relies heavily on meat (the prohibition of pork, shellfish, and other tref notwithstanding). Recent publications about Jewish food, notably Ted Merwin’s award-winning Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli (New York University Press, 2015) and Gil Marks’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Houghton Mifflin, 2010) have reinforced this image of Jewish culture as primarily meat-eating, as does Erik Anjou’s 2014 documentary Deli Man.
Translated by Eve Jochnowitz as The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook, Schocken Books’ reissue of Fania Lewando’s 1938 Vegetarish-Dietisher Kockbukh: 400 Shpeizn Gemakht Oyssliskekh fun Grinsn rescues a lost chapter in the history of Jewish vegetarianism and offers a valuable corrective to the carnivorous narrative. As food writer Joan Nathan notes in her introduction, this new edition represents the culmination of a mission by Jewish food enthusiasts Barbara Mazur and Wendy Waxman to republish an obscure Yiddish manuscript and [End Page 197] shed light on the important contributions of Fania Lewando to Jewish culinary history. Lewando’s story is both fascinating and, like that of so many other Lithuanian Jews who died in the Holocaust, also tragic and senseless in its end. In the 1930s, Lewando and her husband Eliezer (Lazar) Lewando, an egg-dealer, owned and operated the Dieto-Jarska Jadłodajnia (roughly, Vegetarian Eatery) at 14 Niemiecka Ulica (German Street), a popular kosher restaurant in Vilna. Fania also ran a cooking school, supervised a kosher vegetarian kitchen on an ocean liner, and even tried to interest the H.J. Heinz Corporation in her recipes. Although the details of the fate of the Lewandos remain obscure, witnesses report that the Soviets captured both as they fled the Nazis in late 1941. Thereafter, all traces of them vanished. Today, a law office occupies the site of their former restaurant.
Several short forewords and introductions by Nathan, translator Jochnowitz, and Israeli scholar (and Lewando descendant) Efraim Sicher piece together the biographies of the Lewandos, historicize the cookbook, and explain vegetarianism’s role in modern Jewish identity. Of particular interest is Lewando’s own introduction to her cookbook, which offers several compelling secular and theological arguments for Jewish vegetarianism. She justifies her decision to publish “this first vegetarian cookbook in Yiddish”— a dubious claim in the face of N. J. Kvitner’s 1907 Vos zol men esn?: Vegetarishes kokhbukh (What should one eat?: A Vegetarian Cookbook)—on several grounds. Drawing on modern nutritional sciences, she stresses the health benefits of a vegetable-based diet, noting that, “It has long been established by the highest medical authorities that food made from fruits and vegetables is far healthier and more suitable for the human organism than food made from meat.” (3) Lewando also points out vegetarianism’s advantages within the traditions of Jewish ethics, as a meatless diet squarely obeys tsar baaley khayim, the Talmudic ban on inflicting pain on animals.
Although The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook is not offered primarily as an academic title, it will nevertheless interest scholarly readers for the subtle insights it offers about Jewish food and its broader relevance to Jewish cultural history. In her article about cookbooks for The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, for instance, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett emphasizes the centrality of the form in the history of Jewish women. “Compendia of instructions for the preparation of Jewish food or addressed to the Jewish reader,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett writes, “constitute the single largest body...