Eve Jochnowitz (photo from Limmud Vancouver)
Limmud Vancouver, a now-annual festival of Jewish learning, takes place Jan. 30 and 31. The “pan-denominational” event includes seminars, lectures, workshops and discussions on a diverse array of topics. This week and next, the Independent features a few of the presenters who will participate in the local version of the international phenomenon that has now reached more than 60 Jewish communities worldwide.
A national fish story
Eve Jochnowitz calls gefilte fish the national dish of the Ashkenazi Jewish people.
“Wherever you have Ashkenazic Jews, you have the Yiddish language and you have gefilte fish,” she said. “It’s like DNA. It’s in many different permutations and incarnations, but the gefilte fish pretty much goes wherever the Yiddish-speaking Jews go.”
A culinary ethnographer who hosts a Yiddish-language cooking show, Jochnowitz doesn’t want to tip her hand too much in advance of her presentation here this month.
“Let’s just say there are some very surprising variations on gefilte fish out there and let’s just say that the Ashkenazic Jews will come up with ingenious ways to have gefilte fish in the most unexpected situations,” she said in a phone interview from her New York home.
If there are so many variations, then what, at root, defines geflite fish?
“Usually it is made of freshwater fish; in Eastern Europe, most frequently carp, pike and whitefish,” she said. “The more carp there is, the more dark and the more fishy, more flavorful, it is. Some people like it to be more fishy, some people like it to be almost a tofu substitute with the fishiness very understated and the gefilte fish itself being more of a base for some horseradish or egg sauce or whatever it is you choose to put on your gefilte fish.”
It may or may not have matzah meal, it may or may not have sugar, she said.
“This is another very controversial issue with gefilte fish – should it be sweetened or salted or both?” she said. The term itself means “stuffed fish,” but stuffing a fish is very difficult and labor-intensive, so “most gefilte fish is not gefilte.”
Although she is a gefilte fish maven, Jochnowitz stressed that Ashkenazi food is not limited to the familiar.
“Yiddish food is a universe,” she said. “There is much more to Yiddish food and Yiddish cooking than just challah and kugel.”
Her other presentation at Limmud will focus on the little-known phenomenon of Jewish vegetarian cookbooks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Two sides to the story
David Matas, a noted human rights lawyer who represents the organization Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, says the world needs to recognize that Palestinians are not the only refugee population that emerged from the war of 1948-49.
“What we see is two refugee populations that were generated as a result of the Arab invasion to stop the creation of Israel,” he said. “The Jewish population is, in fact, more numerous than the Palestinian.”
The United Nations, with a few exceptions, has been concerned about the Arab refugees from that time, but not the Jewish ones who were forced from their native lands across North Africa and the Middle East, he said. Israel has also not taken a strong lead on the issue until recently, he added.
“Israel, on the whole, has not been a great advocate on this issue historically because there has been the Zionist mythos that people wanted to come to Israel rather than the fact that they came because they were refugees,” he said. “It’s only recently that Israel has itself adopted this position that these people are a refugee population and should be treated in any overall refugee settlement.”
There is also the fact that Jewish refugees have been given citizenship in Israel or other countries, while the Palestinian populations have largely remained stateless.
“The Arab population mostly has not been resettled and, in fact, they’ve grown because their descendants have been classified as refugees,” Matas said. “They’ve remained as a perpetual refugee population. There’s been an attempt to keep this population as a refugee population, as an argument for the destruction of the state of Israel.”
Matas and his organization believe both refugee groups should receive justice. Most likely, he said, a resolution might involve a compensation fund that wouldn’t necessarily come from Israel or the Arab states, but possibly from the United States or third parties willing to facilitate a larger peace settlement.
“That compensation fund would be available to people who were victimized from both refugee populations, as well as their descendants, or something like that,” he said. The idea of compensation for massive human rights violations is not new. “There’s been lots of experience with the Holocaust, amongst other [cases]. You’ve got a kind of jurisprudence and experience to draw on in order to make these programs work.”
While some commentators contend that the refugee issue can wait until later stages of any negotiated settlement, Matas disagrees.
“I think it’s important to bring it in at this stage of the negotiations,” he said. “This Palestinian notion that we are the refugees and the Jews aren’t plays into this false narrative there’s only one victim population when in fact there are two.”
A Polish journey
Jewish Canadians often travel to Poland in search of their family’s roots or as an exercise in history. Norman Ravvin travels there frequently, but he is as focused on the present as on the past.
“You can visit Poland on different terms,” said the Montreal academic and author. He will lead a session on traveling Poland that focuses on the major cities of Warsaw, Kraków, Lodz and Poznan, as well as his maternal ancestors’ hometown of Radzanow.
“The overall depiction will be of Poland as a place that is alive and contemporary,” he said. “Aspects of that are related to Jewish memory and parts of it have to do with contemporary Polish life and then the way that one feels as you go back to the ancestral place.”
Things are changing fast in Poland, Ravvin said. The end of communism, the integration into the European Union and the general march of time means things have altered significantly since Ravvin first toured there in 1999. One area of progress relates to Jewish and war-era history.
“In the last 25 years, they’ve become very effective at commemorating Jewish prewar life,” he said. “If you had traveled to Poland in 2000, this wouldn’t necessarily have appeared to be true, but now certainly it is true and, when you walk in Warsaw, the sidewalks are marked with these remarkable inlays which say this was the ghetto wall, so that you step over it and you actually feel that you understand the prewar and the wartime city and now the postwar city.”
Some of the efforts, he speculates, are for the purposes of tourism, but he also acknowledges Polish efforts at education.
“They’re doing a reasonable job of confronting how to live with the shadows of the past,” he said.
Ravvin’s mother’s family fled Radzanow in 1935 and all those left behind were murdered. The family made their way to Canada, eventually to Vancouver, where Ravvin’s grandfather, Yehuda-Yosef Eisenstein, was a shochet (kosher slaughterer).
Ravvin welcomes people to bring their own family history to his presentation.
“If they’re carrying their own version of this story,” he said, “they might warm that up in their minds, their own families’ Polish past, what they know about it, what they wish they knew, if they’ve gone, whether they might go, so that the possibility is the thing they’re considering and then maybe my talk will change the way they think about that.”
For this year’s Limmud schedule, visit limmudvancouver.ca.