How Picking Mushrooms in New England Became a Jewish Tradition

Nov. 10 2016

Residents of Cape Cod, Massachusetts and its surroundings have come to know the large numbers of mushroom foragers who arrive every year between late September and early November as “Russians.” In fact they are almost all Soviet-born Jews and their immediate descendants, now living throughout the northeastern U.S. Although they will cook the mushrooms in traditional dishes, or preserve them—through various methods—for later use, much of the appeal comes from the hunt itself. The veteran mushroom picker and writer Maxim Shrayer describes the annual ritual, and speculates as to how Jews came to adopt it:

Was mushroom hunting a Jewish tradition in the Slavic lands? I doubt it. For some strange reason, I can’t think of a 19th- or early-20th-century Jewish literary work where mushroom foraging or eating is described. There are, of course, plenty of such scenes in Polish or Russian literature—think of Anna Karenina and the episode in which Levin’s half-brother Koznyshev and [Kitty’s female friend] Varenka go mushroom foraging, and Koznyshev fails to propose. There also doesn’t seem much of a mushroom trail in Jewish cuisine, save for an occasional recipe for a mushroom kugel or else for buckwheat kasha or pearl barley with onion-fried mushrooms. Given the cult status of mushrooms in Polish or Russian cuisine, and also considering how many Slavic dishes the Ashkenazi Jews have made their own, it’s curious that mushrooms have such a marginal status in East European Jewish cooking. . . .

[T]he three grandparents I got to know (and also some of their siblings I’ve met) never shared childhood memories of foraging mushrooms in the former Pale. I don’t believe they had any. My father’s uncle Munia Sharir, who left the ancestral Kamenets-Podolsk [in modern-day Ukraine] in 1924 to become a ḥaluts, left a memoir in both Hebrew and Russian. In the chapters devoted to his Podolian youth, Uncle Munia didn’t touch on mushroom-picking. . . .

I suspect that for Jews of my grandparents’ generation, mushroom-picking was a habit acquired in the 1920s and 30s, part of a complex of social activities that came after moving into the mainstream. For many Jews of the former Pale of Settlement, developing a love for mushroom-picking must have been simultaneously a form of Russianization and Sovietization. At least, this is my tentative explanation for the rise of mushroom-picking among Jews during the Soviet period. My late maternal grandmother, Anna Studnits, who came to America with our whole family in 1987 and lived to be ninety-five, enjoyed collecting and cooking mushrooms. Yet I always felt that with her it was not a childhood love, as it had been for me since as long as remember. . . .

[Thus it seems that], as a mainstream Soviet phenomenon, mushroom picking reached the American shores with the rest of the Jewish immigrant baggage. More than a loving tribute to one’s Soviet youth, mushrooming in America is becoming a Jewish tradition because much of what we brought with us is now being added to Jewish American culture. I admit that there is something of a contradiction here, but I also think there’s some truth to what I’m saying. To put it most bluntly, while in today’s American mainstream Soviet Jews may be thought of as “Russian,” mushroom-picking in America may very well be considered a Jewish family activity.

Read more at Tablet

More about: American Jewry, Food, Jewish World, Leo Tolstoy, Soviet Jewry, Tradition

Israel Has Survived Eight Years of Barack Obama’s False Friendship

Jan. 20 2017

In his speech justifying America’s decision to allow passage of the UN Security Council resolution declaring it a violation of international law for Jews to live in east Jerusalem, the West Bank, or the Golan Heights, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that “friends need to tell each other the hard truths.” John Podhoretz comments:

The decision in December by President Obama to abstain on the UN Security Council vote . . . marked the moment he crossed the finish line in the course he had charted from 2008 onward. The turn against Israel was complete. And, as he had when he began it, in farewell interview after farewell interview he characterized his assault on the legitimacy of the Jewish presence in the Holy Land as an act of tough love. . . .

Which raises the key question: why [only] abstain [from the resolution]? If “hard truths” define friendship, then by all means they should have made the truths as hard as possible. If Barack Obama and John Kerry truly believe the Jewish presence in east Jerusalem is illicit, then they should have voted for the resolution. Instead, they took the coward’s way out. They opened the vault to the criminals and placed the jewels in their hands while wearing white gloves so there would be no residual trace of their fingerprints. The abstention was in some weird sense the mark of their bad conscience. They wanted something to happen while maintaining some historical deniability about their involvement in it.

In the eight years of the Obama presidency, war broke out twice between the Palestinians and the Israelis and nearly broke out a third time. In each case, the issue was not the West Bank, or east Jerusalem, or anything near. . . . The idea that the settlements and the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem are the main barrier to peace between Israel and the Palestinians was proved to be a lie right before Obama’s eyes in 2009, and 2012, and 2014. And he didn’t care to see it, because he is blinded by an antipathy he wishes to ascribe to Israeli action when honesty would compel him to find it in his own misguided leftist ideology—or within his own soul.

Israel has survived the horrendous blessing of Barack Obama’s false friendship.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Barack Obama, Israel & Zionism, John Kerry, U.S. Foreign policy, US-Israel relations