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.

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Read more at Tablet

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

Condemning Terrorism in Jerusalem—and Efforts to Stop It

Jan. 30 2023

On Friday night, a Palestinian opened fire at a group of Israelis standing outside a Jerusalem synagogue, killing seven and wounding several others. The day before, the IDF had been drawn into a gunfight in the West Bank city of Jenin while trying to arrest members of a terrorist cell. Of the nine Palestinians killed in the raid, only one appears to have been a noncombatant. Lahav Harkov compares the responses to the two events, beginning with the more recent:

President Joe Biden called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to denounce the attack, offer his condolences, and express his commitment to Israel’s security. Other leaders released supportive statements as well. Governments across Europe condemned the attack. Turkey’s foreign ministry did the same, as did Israel’s Abraham Accords partners the UAE and Bahrain. Even Saudi Arabia released a statement against the killing of civilians in Jerusalem.

It feels wrong to criticize those statements. . . . But the condemnations should be full-throated, not spoken out of one side of the mouth while the other is wishy-washy about what it takes to stave off terrorism. These very same leaders and ministries were tsk-tsking at Israel for doing just that only a day before the attacks in Jerusalem.

The context didn’t seem to matter to some countries that are friendly to Israel. It didn’t matter that Israel was trying to stop jihadists from attacking civilians; it didn’t matter that IDF soldiers were attacked on the way.

It’s very easy for some to be sad when Jews are murdered. Yet, at the same time, so many of them are uncomfortable with Jews asserting themselves, protecting themselves, arming themselves against the bloodthirsty horde that would hand out bonbons to celebrate their deaths. It’s a reminder of how important it is that we do just that, and how essential the state of Israel is.

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Read more at Lahav’s Newsletter

More about: Jerusalem, Palestinian terror