A Land of a Thousand Cheeses
To cast your eyes upon me is to know I like food. Some people eat to live. Not me!
Over the years I have been more than a fresser or a nosher. I have matured into a bona-fide foodie. In fact, rarely do I go on vacation without researching restaurants more than attractions. I am the first to try a new eatery in town to broaden my palatial choices. When I cannot make up my mind on the menu, I will frequently order both. Perhaps that is one of the many reasons that I have such a deep love for Israel. To be in this land is more than stones and soldiers. It is a place of a thousand cheeses and award winning wines.
Israel wasn’t always this way. My first time in this country was 1990, when Israel was not fully baked, only 42 years young. Those were the days when Israel had 2 kinds of cheese; yellow and white. Wine options were limited to a red, sweet Manischewitz that brought us back to Passover Seders. Mc David’s was the fast food place of choice – with greasy fries and thin burger patties that made any patron, undoubtedly kosher from birth, excited to have something close to a Big Mac. In those days, people came to Israel and spoke about climbing Masada and kissing soldiers on the street while suffering through bad falafel – just to be here.
Almost 25 years later, Masada is still the same, soldiers get perpetually younger but the cuisine here is nothing like it was. In fact, I would argue it rivals the likes of New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Milan and Rome. Many are even claiming Israel is a foodie destination spot.
To illustrate this point, I will share some menus from 24 hours. This evening, I broke bread with an amazing group of people in downtown Tel Aviv at a premiere steak house called Goshen, the likes of which gives Peter Lugar’s a run for its money. From Merguez and Chorizo sausages to beef Carpaccio, flanken steak, prime rib, seasoned kebabs, entrecote, tornedos and more – were enough to fill the table and the belly. To say it was wonderful is an understatement. The best part, it was all kosher! Another amazing place on the other side of town in Tel Aviv is DECA, known for its seafood. A few years back it was ranked as one of the best seafood restaurants in the Middle East. And while the food is a 10, the décor and ambience are a 12!
Tomorrow night we will taste the ambience and flavors of Jacko Street restaurant in the hip section of Machane Yehuda. The atmosphere is half of the appeal and the music playing gets everyone humming along, even if you do not know the words.
The food is all farm to fork – in the sincerest sense of the word. The chef walks the bustling halls of the central market each day for the freshest ingredients that were on vines the day before it is on your tongue. The wines that are paired with dinner are vast. Today, any wine store in Israel could boast 40 varieties of Merlot alone. Whites, reds, ports, blends all contribute to an amazing array of award winning wines from coveted cellars and vineyards that continuously win awards and recognition, despite the fact that it is kosher.
In that very same market where the Jacko Street chef walks you can find a cheese store that offers more than 70 assortments of cheese, all kosher. The pungent stench when passing takes our noses from France to Italy to the United States and of course, Israel. These cheeses come in all shapes, sizes, colors, tastes and price points.
Like my belly, I could go on and on, even though we are full.
One marker of arrival is cuisine. This country has indeed arrived. If you plan to come here for the first time or the first time in a long time, come hungry. There are many more cheeses, wines, meats, fruits and yummy things to fill your belly and soul and give us a collective sense of pride in knowing we are part of a delicious country.
God tells Abraham to come to a land that is flowing with milk and honey. I guess God was speaking literally?!
Betayavon. Bon appetite!
Umschlaggplatz is a simple place, easy to miss if you are not looking for it. A few decades ago only a small bronze placard outside of a working a gas station in downtown Warsaw marked the spot, where 70 years before a slab of concrete and a ramp immediately outside the ghetto walls once stood. It was not the place of a an ancient synagogue or a mass grave or home to resistance fighters.
The memorial, modest in its design, is made up of marble slabs in black and white to symbolizing the talis/shawl that enwraps us during prayer. Common societal given names of men and women from that time period are etched into the walls, as if a private memorial to all who shared a particular forename. A small sliver of the back wall of the monument is open with a tree growing behind it. It is about the small sliver of hope that existed and allows the sun to still shine through.
The memorial monument does not make this place special. Today, memorials are strewn all around the 20 by 4 square blocks that made up the ghetto. Umschlaggplatz gains its sanctity for being the final deportation place for 270,000 Jews, all systematically liquidated from the Warsaw ghetto and transported to murder at Treblinka.
The people that boarded the train there were told they were being resettled in the east. They boarded the train optimistic about their future naïve to their fate.
Temple Emanu-El’s women’s mission left Poland this morning. We drove out of our way, via Umschalggplatz, the final platform. For 270,000 Jews that place took them to their death. For us, we boarded a plane to Israel which each time our feet touch the soil there, we are reborn and improved. Our stop took us to life. Thiers to death.
This juxtaposition of polarities has defined our 5 days in Poland. We absorbed the rich history of the Jewish people of Eastern Europe, centered in Poland while learning of its systematic evaporation. We saw the places where synagogues still stand and once stood and prayed in those very places today. WE laid stones and uttered prayers at the cemeteries of rabbis that codified laws we still follow today along with Yiddish writers and Jewish playwrights yet, we were a group large enough to say Kaddish. We tasted the origins of recipes and delicacies that have trickled down to our kitchens and compared how we tweaked and changed it in our kitchens, keeping the customs alive. We bore witness to the factories of concentration, torture and death and the nameless memorials to the unidentified souls that were taken from the world but we embraced and uttered the Aramaic words from the Talmud, “Eekah Anah” – I am here.
This trip takes us from darkness to light. We will take a stone from Birkenau and touch it on the Kotel. In essence, it takes us from a time of God’s deafness to hearing our collective prayer. Even the feelings that live within us are not linear. Naomi Shemer sings, we bless the bitter and the sweet; the honey and the sting of the bee.
As the sun sets ushering in Shabbat, it brings a new dawn to our lives that have been regenerated and our souls that have been rekindled. This trip does not bring back the dead or make their memories any closer or distant but, as fewer survivors grace this world, the obligation to continue the teachings of a time that has shaped our collective identity is critical. If indeed we are to say and believe, Never Again, we start by seeing first hand what was lost to ensure our safeguarding for the future.
Go Forth to Where?
This story is inspired by one of our participants on our Temple Emanu-El Women’s Mission to Poland and Israel, Lynn Hirschhorn.
When Lynn’s dad and uncle were liberated by the Red Army, they were told simply, “Go. You are free!” These are words the Jewish people have yearned to hear since our oppression under Pharaoh, in Spain and from the brutal years of 1939-1945.
When the hole was cut by the Russian Army soldiers in the fence of the forced labor camp, the family had no idea what to do. Was this a hoax? Was it safe to leave? Where would they go? How would they get there? How do you take the dust and rubble that littered the streets and towns that were bustling full of life for the past 1000 years in Poland and rebuild and find those you are looking for?
Today we visited Treblinka. It is a haunting place nestled in the middle of the forest about 120 kilometers away from Warsaw. It was a killing factory where close to 1M Jews were systematically murdered in a 14-month period. The Germans razed the site after a small uprising and worry that the Russians would see the atrocities of the infamous place. Only about a dozen people survived Treblinka. Know physical remnant stands from its time.
15 years after the war ended, in 1960, a monument was erected on the hallowed site which is now a cemetery to Eastern European Jewry. The memorial consists of 17,000 stones of sundry shapes and sizes. All uneven. On many stones there are the names of towns of where Jews were sent from to this horrible place. But not every stone. Just the towns that had more than 5,000 Jews within it.
17,000 stones is a vast area. It expands through the forest. When we arrived, Lynn looked for the stone that had the name of Riga, the city where her family came from in Latvia. She wanted to touch this stone and take a picture next to it too. If nothing else, it connected her to her heritage and her family.
When we arrived, and our eyes digested the vast expanse of space and stones and shards strewn throughout the space, Lynn did not know where or how to begin the search for one stone with the words, ‘Riga.’ Would you start in the North? To the right? Bigger stones? Smaller stones?
Lynn could not help but think of her dad and uncles upon their liberation. Where do they go when they crawl out of that hole from the fence? Where do they go to put the pieces of their lives and family back together? How do you find the few that survived, if they did at all? When do you give up on the search? Do you ever?
This week we read the story of Abraham’s journey to Canaan. He was not sure where he was going, who he would meet or how he would settle the land. In life, Lech Lecha – Going Forth – is a metaphor for the searches we make to reconnect.
In a few short hours we will ‘go forth’ from Poland to Israel. We, like Lynn’s ancestry will reconnect with family, though with more ease. We will journey to link past present and future.
Will that quest ever end? I hope certainly hope not.
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner
The Candle Sticks
Written by, Deborah Finkel
Both my mother and my father are Polish survivors of the Holocaust. Since we will be visiting Auschwitz, this is about my mother. Ita Szlamowicz was the youngest of 4 in a traditional Jewish family in Lodz, Poland. The war broke out when she was 16. She was in the Lodz ghetto for 4 years until it was liquidated in August 1944. She worked in a textile factory in the ghetto and often gave her meager food rations to her starving father. In 1942, both her father and her brother died of starvation in the street. In August 1944, my mother was put in a cattle car with her mother, her sister, and her sister’s 4-year old daughter Golda, headed for Auschwitz. When they arrived, the selection took place on the platform, where they were met by shouting guards and angry German shepherds. My mother and her sister were put in a different line than their mother and Golda. Not wanting to be separated from her daughter, my mother’s sister begged the guards to go with her daughter, and they obliged. After my mother’s line of young girls were shaved bald and deloused, my mother asked about the whereabouts of her mother and sister. A more experienced inmate pointed to the smoke of the chimney and told her “that’s where your mother is now.”
No opportunity to mourn or cry, now totally alone and the sole survivor of her family, she endured the hell on earth of Auschwitz. She was 21 years old. Her new name was 50-777. Eventually she was taken to a textile factory in Germany to do forced labor. She made thread from wheat in a factory. Found eating the tiny seeds of the wheat plant, she was beaten over the head with the butt of a rifle by a cruel guard, splitting her scalp to the bone. She often spoke of the line-ups that took place in the morning and in the night that lasted hours during the brutal winter. Sometimes without shoes, her skin stuck to the icy ground and she was forced to run with the others, leaving her skin stuck and her feet bloodied.
One day in May 1945, all the girls were locked in the factory. As the Russian army neared, the Germans still tried to kill all the Jewish prisoners and the girls heard the gunshots outside the locked door. Huddled in a corner, one on top of the other, not wanting to be the next one shot, they heard the lock open and in came a Russian soldier who said ” Kinderlach zennen zei frei” (children you are free). My mother said the screams and cries could have opened up the sky.She spent 4 years in a Displaced Persons camp in Steyr, Austria, where she married my father (also the sole survivor of his large orthodox family), and where my oldest brother was born. In 1949, the new family of 3 left Europe for a new life in America, where they settled in New York. Before they left on the ship in Bremen, Germany, they used half of the money they had ($10) to buy a silver Shabbat candelabra which they used every Friday night for the rest of my mother’s life. I now use it.
Written by Lynn Hirschorn
Everyone has an idol, someone they look up to and admire. In my case, it was my father, who we all affectionately called, “Poppy”. He was a quiet, gentle man who was charming, caring and very intelligent. The youngest child of seven, he was a survivor. My father would often say, when discussing the Holocaust, that surviving was merely a matter of luck. While I know in large measure, he believed that, I also know that after listening to his stories over the years, that sometimes you make your own luck.
The day a German Shepard guard dog named Barry, was ordered to kill him, the dog jumped over my father and refused to attack. Lucky you ask? No – night after night, passing the room where Barry was chained, stopping to say a few kind, reassuring words to the dog, that probably caused the dog to refrain from hurting his “friend”. Waiting on line with my mother to board the ship to America, my Poppy knew that my mother’s red throat might keep them from being allowed to leave. Leaving her for a few minutes he returned with a chocolate bar and told her to eat it right before the doctor showed up. Presto, no red throat and they were America bound.
Poppy was very creative and bright. He had studied to be an architect. When he came to America he could not afford to continue his studies and support his family. He had to sacrifice his dreams for his family. I still have a wooden stick he carved with a small penknife as a reminder of how talented and creative he was.
I know the stories confirm to me that Poppy often made his own luck because he believed that it was important to retell what happened so people would know and remember. It was not easy to share these stories but he did and there was no bitterness in his voice. It was from his stories that I learned how loyal and brave he was. He survived with two of his brothers. Arrangements had been made for he three of them to escape. When one of the brothers failed to show up, instead of leaving him behind, Poppy and his other brother went in search of their missing brother. They would find him and, as a result lost their chance to be free. They never once expressed regret, because keeping the family together was the most important thing.
Poppy died at the age of 92, having worked his whole life at the same place, Hadoar, helping to promote the Hebrew language. It seems that the war would finally catch up with Poppy. He had Mesothelioma, which was the result of his contact with asbestos while in a work camp. Even at the end, he was that same quiet, gentle, graceful man, never complaining and appreciating what we were doing to help make him comfortable. His mind was always active and constantly discussing the state of Israel and what was happening around the world, right up until he took his last, labored breath.
It was for these reasons and a thousand more little moments that I recall that made him my idol.