Kindness to Creatures

G Walter HarrisGeorge Walter Harris (1835–1912)

Several years ago, culinary ethnographer Eve Jochnowitz came across a Yiddish vegetarian cookbook from 1938. The book was written by Fania Lewando, a restaurant owner in what was then Poland (it’s now in Lithuania).

“She says it has long been established by the leading medical authorities that the vegetarian diet is the most healthful for the human organism,” Jochnowitz translates. “And then, in the second sentence, she says … our Jewish tradition upholds the principle of tza’ar baalei chaim — kindness to God’s creatures.”
There’s also an exploration of all sorts of dishes and ingredients, like Jerusalem artichokes and chanterelle mushrooms, or red wine soup and radish jam.
Jochnowitz argues about Lewando’s recipes: They’re more than just a historical document of that era. First of all, they’re delicious. But more than that, they capture a Jewish practice that continues to this day — of looking to the spirit of the times, or your own internal compass, and making that a part of tradition. And that can happen in a vegetarian restaurant in Poland in the 1930s or in an American kitchen this Passover.

Jochnowitz says the underlying striving for an ethical, healthy future was very much part of the zeitgeist in the years just before World War II.
“I think there’s very much a feeling that one is really just on the brink, the threshold of a great new world,”
Lewando didn’t survive the war, and neither did those hopes for the future.
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