Exploring the Jewish Labyrinth of Vilnius
Updated: Mar 3
It all started with a late-night text from my mom, directing me to a Jewish vegetarian cookbook written in Vilnius before the Holocaust. My eyes slanted, "Consider my interest piqued." I had spent countless Shabbos [Jewish Sabbath] meals in my aunt's home, where she lovingly catered to my own then-vegetarian needs. I've often wondered how she accommodated so well to everyone's needs, but in a deliberately Jewish way. [Shout out to my Aunt Cheri for always making chocolate dessert available when I come over!]
So, this Vilnius recipe book immediately caught my attention: who was the writer of this cookbook? What happened to them? I was envisioning a 1930's Mollie Katzen. Before even clicking on the link, some geographical context gave me a hunch that this person didn't make their way out of the war.
It turns out I was right.
Her name was Fania Lewando, and the reason I didn't know about her or her cookbook was because its 1938 Yiddish edition disappeared into obscurity after the Second World War. And sadly, her and her husband also didn't survive the war. There are no words for how unfortunate this is; she clearly had a bright and visionary mind. But, by pure chance, her cookbook showed up at a 1995 London book fair and it was published in English in 2015 by YIVO. She appeared to be something of a revolutionary, bringing Jewish vegetarian cuisine into the spotlight right on Vokiečių Gatvė (German Street) - one I happen to pass by often. As I skimmed through a random article at 1 in the morning, I came into my own synchronicity: this article was written by my friend, Aušra, who you may remember from my Jewish history tour at the beginning of August.
Well, well, well! I'd been patiently waiting to spend time with her one-on-one, so you can imagine how excited I was to bring this to her attention. Her article mentioned a small memorial stone on Vokiečių Gatvė, so of course I had to check it out. Days later, I ended up on Vokiečių g. having coffee with my history buff friend. Both of us agreed that Fania was before her time, an iconoclast and bright star of Jewish Vilnius. And then, she led me over to the memorial, which - as most things near the Jewish quarters of Vilna - brought me back in time. Vilnius is filled with Jewish history, and you can't even notice it all in one go. It would have probably taken me a year to notice this memorial, except for this little scavenger-hunt-labyrinth-spark of Jewish culture.
I'm currently in between two Jewish-informed books: one, a dialogue between Jewish delegates and the Dalai Lama on Jewish mysticism (and its inaccessibility), survival tips, and a question on how to maintain Jewish life in the face of modernity; the other, three short stories on lives lived in Vilnius. Coming home to Eastern Europe as a diaspora Jew, I constantly live in between these spaces. I may not be your typical Jew - there's a whole discourse on what that even means, because: Jews - but I do like the spaces between mysticism, reverence, and modernity. [Note: the spiritual soup really gets swirled once you add in my other current reading! What can I say? I contain multitudes.]
The point is this: Jewish life may have thrived here in the past, thanks to pioneers like Fania, but now, we get to create our own way and find our own meaning. Is that better? I don't know, but I would definitely call it my own personal Jewish renewal.
As a small nod to a Vilnius pioneer, here's a recipe from Fania Lewando's cookbook:
Finely shred 2 pounds cabbage (about 1 head) and grate 1 parsley root [a parsnip can be substituted], 2 carrots, 1 celery root and 2 peeled tart apples. Add to cabbage, along with the juice of 1 lemon. Cook in 2 quarts water for 1 hour. Meanwhile, sauté 2 large grated onions in 3/4 cup melted butter with 1 tablespoon flour, and add to the soup. Sprinkle in salt and sugar to taste. Serve with 1 tablespoon sour cream in each dish.
Until next week - viso gero!