April 21, 2019

Mother, Daughter Pair to Bring Back German-Jewish Cooking, Culture

By Sonya Gropman

Like many Jewish kids, I grew up with food-centric visits to my grandparents, which generally revolved around meals that were both copious and delicious. At some point it dawned on me that the foods of my two sets of grandparents differed from each other.

Sonya Gropman (l), Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman (r) . Photo credit: Don Gropman

Sonya Gropman (l), Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman (r). Photo credit: Don Gropman

My paternal grandparents – who had emigrated as young children from shtetls in what is today the Ukraine – ate food firmly lodged in the grand tradition of Eastern European Jews, the food that most everyone considers “Jewish food”, such things as chicken soup with matzoh balls, gefilte fish, chopped liver and brisket. My maternal grandparents, on the other hand, ate the foods that their families had been cooking and eating in Germany for many generations. My mother, Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman, Brandeis ’59, emigrated as a one-year-old in 1939 with her parents from Germany and grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. A year later her maternal grandparents arrived and the three-generation family settled into their shared household in a large, 5th floor apartment overlooking the Hudson River, next to the George Washington Bridge. After the Nazis eradicated Jewish life from Germany, Washington Heights was home to the largest community of German-Jews in the world. About 20,000 German-speaking Jews lived in the neighborhood from the late-1930s and into the 1960s. While people from other nationalities and ethnicities also lived in the neighborhood, German was commonly heard spoken on the street, and there were many shops and businesses catering to the needs of German-Jews. It was easy for people to continue eating the same things they had eaten in Germany. Thus, my mom grew up eating a diet that consisted of very traditional foods cooked by her mother and grandmother and to a lesser extent her father, who was an avid cook and collector of recipes. They ate such things as beef soup with pfankuchen (pancake ribbons) or matzoh balls; potato schalet (kugel); hand-grated potato dumplings served with roasted meat; wine cream; and grimsele (matzo fritters for Passover). She didn’t have her first taste of all-American classics such as chocolate cake or peanut butter until she was in junior high! And her very first introduction to gefilte fish was at her future mother-in-law’s table when my father, writer Don Gropman, Brandeis ’56, invited her home for Friday night dinner, though truth be told, she didn’t have the nerve to actually taste it that night.

Gabrielle holding a loaf of Berches. Photo credit: Sonya Gropman

Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman holding a loaf of Berches. Photo credit: Sonya Gropman

While specific recipes differ between German and Eastern-European Jewish food, most of the same symbolic foods exist in each tradition, albeit in different iterations. One example is in the ceremonial bread prayed over and eaten on Shabbos and holidays. Challah, the braided bread with an egg dough, is the Eastern-European version. In Germany, Jews ate berches, a ceremonial bread that is also braided, though it is made with a “water dough” (no eggs) and often with mashed potato, which gives the bread a bit of a tangy flavor. With a crisp crust, sprinkled with poppy seeds, berches is a wonderfully light bread, with an airy texture. Though it is virtually impossible to find in bakeries in the U.S., we include our recipe for it here.

By the time I was born, my mother had branched out and become familiar with, and enamored of, many other types of food. She and my father both cooked from a wide repertoire of dishes from many different traditions.

So, while I grew up with a varied food experience, German-Jewish food was certainly one of the major components. Because it has always been there for me, as well as for my mother, we both took it for granted. Neither of us realized how unique it is, familiar only to the limited number of German-Jewish families who continue to cook it in the privacy of their homes. Many of the people we have spoken to, have memories of wonderful cakes their grandmothers made, but have no idea how to reproduce them. There are no longer any German-Jewish restaurants, delis, bakeries or cookbooks. Even in Germany, where we have travelled numerous times, there is little to no awareness of the long food tradition that existed as part of the 1,000-year history of Jews living in Germany. With the dawning of this realization, I proposed to my mom that we should write a cookbook featuring the food of our culture. We would write it in order to introduce the food to a new audience and share its many delicious dishes. But more than just sharing the taste of the food, we would also be sharing the meaning of the food. Food as an important element of German-Jewish culture, a culture which in many regards has become invisible. For any immigrant, originating anywhere in the world, one of the most important things — often one of the only things — that they can bring with them when they depart their homeland and head to a new home is recipes. They take up little space in a suitcase, just a slip or two of paper, or a book. Yet recipes transport so much. They have the ability to root people in their history, their homeland and their family.

Root vegetables: turnip, potatoes, carrots, and celery root. Photo credit: Sonya Gropman

Root vegetables: turnip, potatoes, carrots, and celery root. Photo credit: Sonya Gropman

For me, the idea of writing a cookbook is a dream come true! As a life-long devourer of cookbooks and all food literature; a life-long cook and baker; a gardener (mostly limited to pots of herbs that fit on my urban window sill); and a local food supporter and organizer, a cookbook embodies all of these interests and rolls them up into one place. As a mother-daughter team, our project is multi-generational, with each of us bringing a unique perspective to the project. My mom brings memoir describing life in vibrant Washington Heights during its heyday, while I bring my experiences from the next generation. She brings her fluency in German – and her self-taught knowledge of reading Old German script – to the task of translating historic cookbooks, while I bring a sensibility of recipe-writing, weaving stories into recipes, and bringing aspects of food from a larger picture into individual recipes. In addition to recipes, our book includes stories from different German-Jews we have interviewed, both in the U.S. and in Germany, and an overview of the history of Jews in Germany. As we approach Mother’s Day, I am filled with gratitude to my mother for sharing this aspect of our history with me. We are blessed to be able to work on this project together.

The German-Jewish Cookbook: Recipes & History of a Cuisine will be published in the fall of 2017 by Brandeis University Press, HBI Series on Jewish Women. The Gropmans are running a Kickstarter campaign until May 26, 2016 to raise completion funds for aspects of the book such as the food photography, hand-drawn illustrations, indexing and transcribing audio tapes.

Sonya Gropman is a visual artist and writer who lives in NYC. She is the coordinator of her neighborhood CSA (community supported agriculture).

Comments

  1. Hey Sonya,

    This is a fantastic post. A cookbook that also explains the meaning behind the recipes is a great idea.

    For some reason, when I know the history of something I’m about to eat, it tastes that much better. It’s like I can appreciate it much more than if I hadn’t given any thought.

    I hope you pursue writing a cookbook, I think it’ll definitely be a hit. Keep up the great work!

    Cheers,
    Tara

    ps. Please consider checking out my blog and sharing it in your “BLOGS WE FOLLOW” section 🙂

  2. Bea says:

    My mother was never able to find her most beloved recipe that her mother made. She called it Gebrannte Mandel Speise. Do you by any chance have anything in your repertoire that might be similar. She told me it had whipped cream, gelatin and burnt almonds.

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