Michael Schwartz learned about his family’s history and culture in part through the food of his grandmother, who, as a teen, fled the Holocaust.
Schwartz, the director of community engagement at the Jewish Museum and Archives of B.C., relates that his late grandma was 16 and living in Vienna when her father managed to obtain her a spot as a chaperone on the Kindertransport, a British rescue effort that saved about 10,000 children, most of them Jewish, from Nazi Germany, Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. (Nazi authorities had staged a violent attack on Jews in Germany in November 1938.) She was later reunited with her parents in Chicago, and the family eventually made its way to Vancouver.
Schwartz remembers her making brisket and wild-mushroom soup; coming from Austria, she also baked exquisite cakes filled with fresh fruit.
“She sparked my love of food,” Schwartz says in an interview downtown over coffee, noting that although the food he grew up with had a lot of European influence, that’s not the case for many Jews living in Vancouver who have come from other corners of the map.
Having had a presence in B.C. for 150 years, Jews have brought with them recipes and ingredients from places as far-flung and diverse as Morocco, Syria, Iraq, Greece, and South Africa, to name a few.
“When you say ‘Jewish food’, the quick reaction is smoked meat, matzo-ball soup, challah, chicken dinner… Those are the standards, but that’s a really narrow slice of a much bigger spectrum,” Schwartz says. “People assume there’s a unity or that everyone came from the same place. Jews in Vancouver come from all over the world. I know the food my family eats on family gatherings, but the more opportunities I’ve had to have conversations with people through the museum, I’ve learned that other people eat totally different things on the same holidays.
“The Jewish community here has a diverse range of ancestries and histories,” he adds. “I wanted to delve into that diversity and draw attention to it.”
To explore the culinary variety of B.C.’s multicultural Jewish community, the Jewish Museum and Archives recently launched a series called the Chosen Food Supper Club. The monthly gathering gives people a taste of Jewish feasts from around the world. At each event—before sharing some of their favourite dishes—the hosts tell stories of where they’re from, the history of that region, when and why they left, and how they’ve adapted and maintained the culinary traditions of their grandparents and great-grandparents.
A past Sunday dinner focused on the food of Jews from the Greek island of Rhodes. Guests dined on Mediterranean salad, stuffed grape leaves called yaprakes, and fresh fish with egg and lemon. Another evening centred on the reinvention of a harvest festival in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. It was hosted by Lior Ben-Yehuda, pastry chef at Coco et Olive (3707 Main Street), who grew up on a kibbutz.
On July 30, Mensch Jewish Delicatessen chef Nitzan Cohen will re-create an authentic New York deli, with pastrami and rye, while teaching participants the differences between pastrami and its cousins Montreal smoked meat, New England corned beef, and southern U.S. barbecued brisket.
The September installment will feature a traditional meal for Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New Year, prepared by Aleppine Jews. It will include ingredients such as pomegranate, dates, black-eyed peas, apples, leeks, and Swiss chard, items chosen because each carries symbolism related to people’s wishes for the new year.
There’s usually a hands-on component to the evenings as well. Past diners have learned to braid and bake challah bread and make traditional Jewish dumplings.
Although the September dinner is the last one scheduled, the series may continue beyond that. The museum also has an accompanying podcast series called Kitchen Stories. In it, people share stories about what it’s like to be a Jewish family living in places like Eritrea, Chile, and India and about the challenges that go with keeping culinary traditions alive after migrating to a new country.
“Food carries with it a diversity of issues: migration, war, colonization, resource scarcity, and communicating culture—passing it down to other generations,” Schwartz says. “Food offers a hook to get people to talk about their stories, sometimes difficult stories. But food opens discussion. Really, that’s the goal: to encourage people to have those conversations.”