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The Jewish food code

The monks' surprising menu in an old Polish monastery exposes a deep bond among Jews and Poles: chicken soup!

With 93 other Dominicans, I live in a monastery that has been on the same spot in Krakow since 1222.

Some of the buildings are older than the community. We eat in a dining room (smart folks say “refectory”) made of stones from the eleven-hundreds. If King Arthur had founded a kibbutz, the hevreh would have eaten in something like this. Maybe without the monumental fresco of the Crucifixion.

When I first came to this place at 22 — and then, to live, at 24 — most things seemed strange. When you have never heard Polish before, it sounds like a slurry of sibilants: a language for dry brown leaves. When you come to this place for the first time, the brethren (aged 20 to 95) are a blur of matching habits. Every crooked hallway leads to a perplexing blind corner, invariably decorated by a lithograph of the Matka Boska. You are grateful for anything familiar.

The food in the Krakow refectory was familiar.

Regular readers know that I grew up in a house with eight children. Food was important. But the food I encountered here came not from my mother’s kitchen in Milwaukee, but from diners in New York.

This is a monastery that runs on Jewish food.

The first time I ate smoked salmon and an onion bialy in the refectory, I looked up and down the wooden tables to see if anyone was in on the joke. They weren’t.

Chicken soup? We eat it every Sunday and call it “niedzielny rosół” (Sunday broth). With lokshn? Yes, with kluski.

Every time I eat in this monastery I sense a million bubbes in spotted aprons whispering “I was here!”

Borsht and schav? Barszcz and szczaw. Kneydlekh? Pierogi. Blintzes? Naleśniki. Stuffed cabbage? You bet. And goulash, very regularly.

There’s much more, from challah (chałka) to halva (chałwa). It’s uncanny.

On Fridays, we don’t eat meat, so it’s herring. The particular brand they’ve been giving us lately is called “Śledź Amore.” Only someone from this part of the world could look at a herring, pickle it, and say to it, “Amore.”

To older American Jews, I can say: What your grandfather ate, I eat. And it’s delicious. We also have a few things he wouldn’t have admitted to eating, like the proverbial kasha mit chazer schmaltz — buckwheat groats with pork fat.

I am not Polish by ancestry. I am not a Polish apologist. I have no particular interest in Polish-Jewish matters: Christian-Jewish — religious and not ethnic — matters are perplexing enough. I am not even a particularly good cook. But you’d have to be blind — or dysgeusic (taste-impaired) — not to know there’s something going on here.

Why is this soup unlike every other soup? Because it’s in the soul of two cultures.

A link endures even when Jews and Poles are worlds apart. It binds despite the sour history and blood and imperfectly-assumed iniquity. Despite Polish sins unconfessed and unpardoned. Despite a Zionist project that can come off like one big “feh!” to anything on the Visitula River. Despite Bolsheviks, the Endecja, or Radio Maryja. The soup bubbles yet.

The old neighbors, sometimes happy, often not, may anathematize and ignore and even ridicule each other. But the haimishe maykholim tell another story.

About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.