The Making of the Story “Shloyml Boyml and His Lucky Dreydl”

A klezmer-infused children's book inspired by journeys to the Eastern Bloc and the Black Sea

From the cover of “Shloyml Boyml and His Lucky Dreydl”, artwork by Emil Singer-Fuer

In 1981, I was slated to start law school, but those plans were upended after I attended a klezmer concert.

I was inspired to form a band instead, but I knew it had to be unique. I realized there had to be a lot more forgotten and unpublished klezmer melodies among the Holocaust survivors and Romani musicians who had played for Jews before the Holocaust.

So I bought a one-way ticket to what was then the Eastern Bloc. My first stop in Romania was Bucharest. After speaking to several Jewish informants, I quickly learned that if there were any Jewish and/or Romani musicians still playing klezmer music to be found, it would be in the northeastern province of Moldavia.

Moldavia, 1969 (Photo: Zusya Efron). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

It was in Iasi (the capital of the province) that I met Itzik “Cara” Svart, Romania’s leading scholar on anything to do with Romanian Jewish folklore (including klezmer music). We would meet either in his home or at the kosher kitchen (cantina, as they called it in Romanian).

I was the student asking question upon question and Itzik was the patient teacher. He told me how in his town of Podu Iloaiei, there had been no Jewish klezmer musicians, so they would hire klezmers from Iasi for all the Jewish weddings.

On Purim, however, local Roma were hired to accompany the Purimshpilers (Purim actors) from house to house.

Yale Strom with Itzik “Cara” Svart and his wife Cili, 1996 (Photo: Elizabeth Schwartz)

He also said that some of the Jewish musicians had even traveled as far as Constantinople before World War I, where they played for anyone who would pay to listen to them. He delivered all of this information in perfect English in between bites of his hot kosher lunch.

One day, Itzik introduced me to a Romani gentleman named Paul Babici, who, along with his father, played klezmer music on the alto saxophone with Jews before and after the Holocaust.

Paul Babici and Yale Strom playing together in the cantina in Iasi, 1985 (Photo: Brian Blue)

Babici told me in Yiddish about a Jewish man, Yehuda Schulman, in Piatra Neamt, who remembered many “Buhusher nigunim”, tunes according to the traditions of the Buhusher Hasidic court.

Schulman’s family had been Buhusher Hasidim, followers of the righteous sage Yitshak ben Shalom Yosef Friedman (1834-1896) and his successors.

I finished my research in Iasi, took a bus to Piatra Neamt and went straight to the synagogue, where someone told me that Yehuda attended Friday night services. As it was Thursday, I only had to wait one day.

Yehuda was extremely friendly and was more than happy to sing many Buhusher nigunim, which he had learned from his father and grandmother. We met several times, and on one occasion, he sang a nigun that was sung especially during the festival of Hanukkah.

Click for rare footage of a Hanukkah candle lighting celebration with the last Buhusher Rebbe, ca. 1990. The nigun taught by Yehuda Schulman can be heard at 0:41. From the National Library of Israel collection

He told me how in the mid-19th century, klezmers would travel to Constanta (a city on the coast of the Black Sea in what is now Romania) to play music, exchange tunes with other musicians – some of whom came from as far away as the Ottoman Empire – and buy goods that were not available at home, such as olive oil from the Land of Israel.

Some of their nigunim certainly had origins in these travels.

The Great Synagogue of Constanta (Photo: Moshe Kunes). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

These journeys to Constanta, characterized by the exchange of melodies and exotic wares including precious olive oil from the Land of Israel, stayed in my mind for years and would inspire my second children’s book.

My first children’s book, “The Wedding that Saved A Town”, was also based upon a kernel of Jewish history.

In certain parts of Eastern Europe (particularly Poland) there was a little-known practice of klezmer musicians being asked to play in a Jewish cemetery for two orphans who were getting married. This was done during cholera epidemics when all else failed to alleviate the plague and desperate rabbis resorted to this superstition. They called this in Yiddish a “shvartse khasene” – a black wedding.

Illustration by Jenya Prosmitsky from “The Wedding That Saved A Town”

“Shloyml Boyml and His Lucky Dreydl,” my latest story based on those long-ago journeys to Constanta has recently come out, published by a wonderful small publisher I found, Olniansky Tekst Farlag in Lund, Sweden. They were established in 2010 to publish new Yiddish material for all ages.

This past spring, they got a lot of press as they published the first volume of Harry Potter in Yiddish by the renowned Yiddishist Arun Schaechter Viswanath to resounding success. The first edition sold out.

The illustrations for “Shloyml Boyml and His Lucky Dreydl” were done by a wonderful Hungarian Jewish artist in Budapest, Emil Singer-Fuer. The book is in Yiddish (right to left) and in English (left to right).

My research over the years in Eastern Europe has resulted in books, documentary films, plays, recordings, photo exhibitions and oral histories, and I look forward to mining further in creating new art that celebrates Yiddish culture.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

Hannah Senesh: The Girl Who Never Stopped Writing

A glimpse of Hannah Senesh’s childhood writings


Hannah Senesh and her brother Giora as children, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

Hannah Senesh was born into a home where writing was an integral part of family life. Her father, Béla, was a well-known journalist, playwright and children’s author in Hungary. His books sold well and his plays were very popular in Budapest—but his short career ended abruptly with his sudden death from a heart attack at the age of thirty-three. Hannah (nicknamed Anikó) was then only six years old.

Hannah Senesh with her brother Giora, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

It soon became apparent that little Anikó had also been bitten by the writing bug. In November 2020, the Senesh (often spelled Szenes) family decided to deposit the entire Hannah Senesh Collection with the National Library. It includes dozens of items gathered throughout Senesh’s all too brief life. A number of these rare items document the very beginning of this creative girl’s journey.

Hannah Senesh with her brother Giora, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

Senesh was “writing” even before she actually knew how. She dictated to her brother Giora (Györi) a greeting for her grandmother and mother. When she started composing poems in her head—at the age of six!—Grandma Fini made sure to write them all down by hand in a notebook she kept just for that purpose.

A note Hannah dictated before she knew how to write. It reads, “Dear Mother and Grandma Fini, Because today is my birthday I received writing paper, chocolate, flowers, and a beautiful drawing from Györi. . . . In the afternoon, we went out in the carriage. I kiss your hands, Aniko.” From the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen


A drawing and greeting for Grandma Fini, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen


The notebook of poems by Hannah Senesh, collected by her grandmother, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

Shortly after, Hannah, still a child of 7 or 8 years old, tried her hand at a career similar to her father’s. She felt that the Senesh family needed its own newspaper, and she would be the editor-in-chief! Thus came into being the family newspaper she called Kis Szenesek Lapja (“The Little Seneshes’ Newspaper”).

Illustrated cover of “The Little Seneshes’ Newspaper”, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

For several months in 1929, Anikó edited her own little newspaper. At the top of each issue was the date, just like in any proper paper. Hannah typed everything on the home typewriter. She wrote the articles, chose the poems and stories and drew the illustrations for the enjoyment of the whole family. She even attempted to write an entire play. This newspaper will also soon be available for viewing at the National Library of Israel.

Hannah Senesh and her brother Giora, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

The complete Hanna Senesh Collection reveals the creative roots of the person who would come to be remembered in Israeli and Jewish collective memory mainly as a brave paratrooper. She began creating even before she could write. Her early work is in Hungarian, but soon after arriving in Mandatory Palestine, she very quickly gained command of the Hebrew language and continued writing in Hebrew as well. Hannah Senesh remained a writer throughout her life, from her early childhood to her very last days in a Hungarian prison.


The materials above are part of the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

Four Fateful Weeks in the Life of Sigmund Becker

From medical school to the battlefield, he wound up in Siberia and China before America

Taken as a POW to Siberia, Becker would settle in China before ultimately moving with his family to the United States. Image: Becker's Chinese ID, 1922

I never met my paternal grandfather, Sigmund Becker, who died a few years before I was born, never having fulfilled the great promise of a bright medical career that slipped through his fingers during three fateful weeks in 1914.

In his memoir, Making Do (Z4 Editions, 2017), my father, Johnny Becker (born Meyer John Becker), described my grandfather as “vocationally and intellectually dislocated.” He said that my grandfather was the “’Wunderkind’ of his European village,” who “would pay dearly for the rest of his life” for enlisting in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I.

This description of my grandfather had always intrigued me. Over the years, I have been able to fill in some of the pieces of the puzzle that defined my grandfather’s life and to better understand his aspirations and frustrations, as well as the calamitous world events he miraculously navigated.


Uszer, Zisha and Sigmund

The oldest of six children, my grandfather was born on December 30, 1890, as Uszer (a Yiddish variant of Asher) Zusie Becker. His family called him by the more endearing Yiddish diminutive Zisha, and later in life, he adopted the name Sigmund. He grew up under relatively comfortable conditions in the small village of Kopyczyńce (present-day Kopychintsy, Ukraine), outside Tarnopol (now Ternopil, Ukraine).

Tarnopol, early 19th century. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the NLI Digital Collection

His father, Meyer, a sought-after estate overseer, managed the large agricultural estates of wealthy noblemen and resided with his family on whatever estate he was managing at the time. Depending on the contract, he could manage an estate for up to 10 years or more.

My grandfather was an excellent student. He attended gymnasium in Lemberg, followed by medical school at the University of Lemberg, where he studied from about 1908 to 1914. While two of his younger siblings immigrated to America in 1913, my grandfather was nearing the end of his medical studies at that time, with a very promising future just around the corner.

The Jewish hospital in Lemberg, ca. 1917. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the NLI Digital Collection

My grandfather interrupted his studies in order to enlist in the military as a medical officer. By volunteering, he would have only had to serve for one year, rather than be conscripted for three—he had no idea, of course, that that one year was about to turn into four catastrophic years.

The Becker family had enjoyed a relatively idyllic life in a liberal, multi-ethnic Austrian society.

However, all this would change dramatically in early August 1914. On July 28, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war, one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne.

All existing military units were immediately mobilized. Although my grandfather’s unit had probably not even completed training yet, they were likely shipped out to a garrison town near the Russian border.


Becoming Refugees

Never expecting the new war to be literally at their doorstep, the Becker family woke up one morning during the first week of August 1914 to find soldiers hiding behind bundles of wheat and shooting at one another.

Both armies had infiltrated in the middle of the night and had taken up their respective positions.

An Austrian soldier warned the family to go into the cellar as it was dangerous to stay in the house. According to a cousin who described the scene to me 61 years later, as they were heading into the cellar, a shell exploded on the steps, tearing off their clothes and leaving most of the women deaf for a week.

Fighting continued during the day, but not at night. After three days, an officer advised the family to leave the estate because it was going to be a long and bloody battle. Before leaving, they encountered a Cossack who demanded to know where they hid their gold and silver. When my great-grandfather, Meyer, refused to answer, one of the Cossacks struck him in the stomach with a shovel.

Given the ensuing dislocation and chaos of the war, his injury was never properly treated and likely festered, ultimately contributing to his death in 1922.

With only a few hours to pack, the family abandoned their house and their possessions. In a matter of hours, they had become refugees, escaping along with the retreating Austro-Hungarian army. Moving on foot, by horse, and by wagon, the family passed many dead bodies on the side of the road.

Refugees in Brassó, Austria-Hungary, August 1916 (Public Domain)

Each time my great-grandmother, Clara, saw a corpse, she frantically ran up to it, crying and swearing it was her son Zisha.

The Beckers didn’t know that the Russian avalanche had begun to thunder down onto the plains of Galicia, first taking small farms, estates, and surrounding villages. On August 16th, Russian soldiers led by General Brusilov entered Tarnopol, which was the first city to be captured by Russia during the Great War. From Tarnopol, Russian troops led by General Russky kept steamrolling westward toward Lemberg, eventually crushing the Austro-Hungarian army and capturing the capital city of Galicia on September 11th.

Week after week, the Beckers retreated with the Austro-Hungarian army, suffering from hunger, thirst, and lice along the way. During their trek, my great-grandmother had a stroke, resulting in partial paralysis and causing her to be disabled for the rest of her life.

The family eventually made it to a refugee camp in Kapuvár, a small town in Hungary. They remained there for the next four years, until November 1918. Since the camps tended to be ethnically homogeneous, their camp in Kapuvár housed Jewish refugees. Overall, two million Austro-Hungarian civilians were displaced during the war. Although the camps were strictly segregated from the civilian population, refugees were still able to earn money.

The refugee camp in Kapuvár was an overnight’s drive from Vienna, where my great-grandmother’s nephews lived, including a lawyer and an accountant. As the war progressed, there were severe food shortages in Vienna.

In an ironic twist, some of the Becker refugees would smuggle in flour and chicken to their more well-to-do relatives. For example, my grandfather’s youngest sister, Rosa, who was only 15 at the time, would wear a corset with food hidden inside as she traveled by train to Vienna. She would then return to the camp with items from our relatives.


From Officer to POW

While his family was escaping the Russian onslaught, my grandfather was thrust into a living hell in a world of gruesome battle, death and destruction.

As a medical officer, he would have been assigned to the battlefield dressing station, which was still in the line of fire. Stretcher bearers would bravely run to the wounded, load them onto a stretcher, and race to the closest dressing station. The stations were divided into two sections, one for the slightly wounded and the other for the severely wounded.

A World War I field hospital. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, National Library of Israel

My grandfather’s military medical training likely did not prepare him for the sheer magnitude of industrial killing taking place all around him. Unlike the Austro-Hungarian army, which was high on spirit and bravado, but short on modern weapons, the Russians were well armed, with machine guns that could mow down advancing soldiers in a matter of minutes.

Destroyed and disfigured bodies were everywhere, and the overwhelmed dressing stations were not prepared to properly treat the ghastly physical wounds that could only be inflicted on a body by machine guns.

Injured soldiers during World War I. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, National Library of Israel

After four weeks of combat my grandfather’s regiment surrendered in Rzeszow.

During the critical first three and half weeks of the war, Austria-Hungary lost one- third of its army. Total Austrian losses were 220,000 wounded, 100,000 captured, and 100,000 killed.

The Austrian army ceased for the moment to be an effective fighting force.

Sigmund’s world and his future was irreparably shattered. However, by being captured, he was at least taken off the battlefield and out of harm’s way.

His new life as a POW then began.

It took more than a month to transport his unit over a thousand miles from the Russian border to the Kostroma POW camp, which was three hundred miles north of Moscow. POWs had to walk for days to arrive at the closest rail line, where they were loaded into cattle cars with no more than a hot stove in the middle of each car.

The stench of the sweaty, unwashed soldiers, with no proper bathroom facilities, must have been unbearable.

By mid-October, my grandfather arrived in Kostroma, which was a holding facility from where prisoners were sent out to other, more remote locations. During the prisoner intake, my grandfather was deemed useful to the Russians for his medical background, at a time when Russian doctors were in short supply because of the war.

Kostroma train station, early 20th century

After successfully saving the leg of a young Russian soldier, my grandfather so impressed a Russian doctor that he was removed from the camp and permitted to stay temporarily in the doctor’s home, while tending to the medical needs of the local villages.

As the war progressed and more and more Austro-Hungarian POWs were captured, Russia decided to ship them to various parts of Siberia until the war ended. My grandfather was sent over 5,000 miles (ca. 8,000 kilometers) away by train to a newly constructed POW camp in Nikolsk-Ussuriysky, a growing town specializing in agricultural products, located about 60 miles north of Vladivostok, on the Sea of Japan.

After the October Revolution of 1917, the town experienced rapid growth. It was at this time that the Gourevitch family from Cherkassy, Russia, moved to town after having escaped the revolution. My grandfather met the family, including 17-year-old Vera, while he was handling the medical needs in Nikolsk-Ussuriysky.

After Russia decided to withdraw from the war in 1918, my grandfather and Vera quickly became engaged. Normal military authority broke down, and my grandfather simply walked away and stayed with the Gourevitch family.

Joint Distribution Committee Siberian Jewish prisoner’s card for Sigmund Ascher Becker, indicating that he was captured on September 13th, 1914 in Rzeszow

Two years later, in 1920, Sigmund and Vera — my grandparents — were married in Vladivostok.

My grandmother’s father, Samuel, was a combination businessman/inventor and a violin player. He had developed innovative ways to extract oil from plants and served as an adviser in the agricultural industry. His oldest son, David, was an entrepreneur, and together, they moved the family to Harbin, China.

Harbin had a large Russian Jewish population at the time, in part because it offered refuge from the war and the revolution. My grandfather joined my grandmother’s family in the grain business in Harbin, even though he still hoped to one day return to medicine.


Different Routes to America

Since the war was officially over in November 1918, the Becker family’s four years in the Kapuvár refugee camp came to an end. The Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer existed, and Austria began sending Russian POWs back to Russia in boxcars.

With Galicia being returned to Poland, the Beckers were no longer considered Austrian citizens and were transported back to their village of Kopyczyńce in the same boxcars as the Russian prisoners.

Still suffering from his stomach wound and no longer able to resume his career as an overseer, my great-grandfather, Meyer, could barely make ends meet for his family, even with the support of Jewish charity.

In addition, living a few miles from the Russian border, the Beckers became caught up in the tide of advancing and retreating armies again for nearly three years as a result of two more back-to-back wars.

From 1918 to 1919, Poland fought the West Ukrainian National Republic, and from 1919 to 1921, Poland fought Bolshevik Russia. In 1920, after the retreat of the Bolsheviks, units of the Ukrainian Peltura army raided Kopyczyńce and tormented the Jews. Women were raped, 14 Jews were wounded, and a few Jews were murdered.

The Beckers feared for their lives and sought to leave as soon as possible.

Desperate to immigrate to America, they finally received the necessary visa documents in late 1921, and their family in America sent an agent to Warsaw to bring them to the US.

Meyer died en route, but the others continued on to Warsaw, where, after three weeks, passports were purchased. From there, the family traveled to Cherbourg, France, and then sailed in third class on the ship Emperata, arriving at the immigration processing center at Ellis Island in New York in 1922. My great-grandmother, Clara, died that same year.

Back in Harbin, in June 1922, my grandparents welcomed their first-born son, my father, Meyer. At the same time, the family in America offered to provide financial help for my grandfather to complete his medical studies if he would move to the US.

Sigmund Ascher Becker’s Chinese identification document, 1922

As much as he enjoyed his new life in China— married, away from war, and no longer a POW— he was tempted by the offer. In August 1923, my grandparents and their young son left China for Japan and then sailed from Yokohama on the SS President Jackson, arriving in Seattle, Washington, on September 1st, 1923. From there, they took the train to New York.

Their arrival at this time was significant because the following year, the US passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which instituted restrictive immigration quotas. Although my grandfather never got to see his parents again, he was finally reunited with most of his family after nine years of being apart.

Needing to support his wife and son, he went to work for an insurance company. Since he was multilingual, he was able to serve German, Polish, and Russian clients. After several years, he opened his own insurance company.

His plan was to save enough money to continue his medical studies, but circumstances forced him to delay and then, ultimately abandon that plan. In 1932, he suffered his first heart attack, causing him to lose his business and limiting his ability to support his family. He never fully recovered, and he experienced ill health for the rest of his life. With his dream of becoming a doctor irretrievably lost, my grandfather suffered periodic bouts of despondency until his early death in 1946.

From left: Sigmund, Charlie, Vera, and Meyer John Becker, with Vera’s brother, David Gourevitch (standing), who was visiting New York from China, 1930

However, this final sad chapter of his life paved the way for future generations, for had he been forced to return to Kopyczyńce, he would have ultimately been rounded up and exterminated by the Nazis, along with anyother family members who were there with him. Firsthand accounts indicate that there were only 20 Jewish survivors left in Kopyczyńce after the Holocaust.

Certainly, I would not be here to record his memory, but thankfully, from generation to generation, his family legacy lives on.


A version of this article first appeared as “My Grandfather’s Rendezvous with History” in the March 2020 edition of The Galitzianer, the quarterly journal of Gesher Galicia. It is the culmination of countless hours of detective work spanning more than 40 years of research, including taped interviews in 1972, obtaining scraps of family photos, letters, documents, reading countless WWI related books, and using the GesherGalicia and JewishGen’s archives.

It has been published here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

For more “Jewish Journeys”, check out our online exhibition launched in collaboration with AEPJ as part of European Days of Jewish Culture 2020.

Kosher Pork Chops and Crypto-Jewish Identity

In Genie Milgrom's family, hidden Jewish identity was preserved for generations in the food they ate

For centuries, food connected Crypto-Jews in Europe and the New World to their hidden heritage (Map: "Regnorum Hispaniae et Portugalliae", ca. 1769; from the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, National Library of Israel)

One of the saddest chapters in Jewish history is also one of the more interesting on a gastronomic level. Following the forced conversions in 15th-century Spain, the Inquisition and subsequent Expulsion, many so-called New Christians secretly maintained Jewish beliefs. Practicing in secret to avoid arrest and torturous execution, they are now known as Crypto-Jews.

Foods that were considered “Jewish” could mean a death sentence when Crypto-Jews ate certain telltale dishes. Inquisition court documents repeatedly make this connection clear.

Inquisition document regarding the confiscation of “New Christian” property,  Cordoba, Spain, May 1487. The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Ms. NH 63; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Many Crypto-Jews conspicuously ate pork to “prove” their Christian faith, while others devised tricks to avoid such transgressions while not giving away their secret.

Nonetheless, clearly not everything Crypto-Jews ate was necessarily related to their true or assumed identity – most foods were probably neutral in this regard.

So what did Crypto-Jews eat? And how have those foods developed over the past 500 years?

The recent book Recipes of My 15 Grandmothers by Genie Milgrom offers a fascinating personal window into the lives and foodways of the descendants of Crypto-Jews across the centuries.

Twenty-Two Generations

Milgrom’s story is a big part of what makes the book as interesting as it is. Born Catholic in Havana, Cuba, she felt Jewish from a young age. Finally, in her 30s, she converted to Orthodox Judaism. It was tough for a single mother of two, largely disconnected from her old life and still struggling to integrate into a new community.

A Cuban ketubbah (Jewish marriage contract), ca. 1900. From the National Library of Israel collections

In time, she began to conduct intensive genealogical research, eventually uncovering “an unbroken maternal lineage going back twenty-two generations to 1405 pre-Inquisition Spain and Portugal.” It turned out that she had actually been Jewish all along!

Still, while names and cold biographical facts drawn from archival records may be significant, what Milgrom really yearned to discover were the more personal details. Turning to her mother, she asked for anything that might have been handed down from previous generations.

Her mom denied having anything. And then fate stepped in.

“Finally, the sad day came when my mom could no longer live in her home, and it was at that moment that I found many old books full of pages of handwritten recipes and scraps of paper with small writing and tiny notes written in light pencil. All of these pages were done in different handwritings, some with more flourishes than others, but always written by the women. With this, I found the recipes of the grandmothers.”


Culinary Connections

Depiction of Jews fleeing Spain, from a 19th century book on the Inquisition. From the National Library of Israel collections

While Milgrom had already written and spoken a lot about her genealogy and her research, this discovery led her to edit and compile the recipes into the cookbook.

Though an experienced home cook, Milgrom was neither a professional chef nor cookbook writer.

She recruited a cadre of friends and colleagues to help her test-cook the recipes, and throughout the book she repeatedly mentions that she had not even tasted all of its recipes herself.

While on the culinary level this might not hold up alongside other contemporary cookbook favorites, there are certainly unique and delicious recipes to be found within. But beyond that, the book is a great exploration of a certain blank spot in Jewish culinary history.

I know of one other book that looks at the subject. Husband and wife professors David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson published the fascinating (and award-winning) A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews, culling food facts from Inquisition archives and reconstructing the original dishes.

But their recipes, enlightening as they may be, were largely their own approximations and guesses. Milgrom’s book works as a perfect companion — personal recipes to pair with the broader archival research.

Kosher Pork Chops

Milgrom writes that she was surprised to find no recipes in the entire collection that mixed milk and meat. When I asked her about pork (a major ingredient in Spanish cuisine) she told me, “As a matter of fact, my family recipes only started having pork in Cuba in the 1930s and 1940s.”

Thus, one of the most surprising recipes she uncovered among the collection of hand-bound books and paper scraps was one for chuletas — pork chops.

She could barely bring herself to read the recipe, but when she finally did, she was greatly amused. Though they are called “pork chops”, the recipe is actually a sort of French toast that is disguised to resemble pork chops! Perhaps a more suitable name would be “imitación de chuletas”.

Milgrom’s kosher pork chops (Courtesy: Genie Milgrom)

Milgrom claims that they are “the best look-alike to a pork chop that I have ever seen,” and speculates this dish was designed to throw off suspicious neighbors.

I have not made these, nor do I know what pork chops should really look like, but I must admit that I find it hard to believe anyone could be truly convinced for more than just a passing glance. Smell and consistency would be dead giveaways. Still, whether or not this was actually their origin, there is undoubtedly an intriguing history cooked into this imitación.


Preserving Hidden Identity

Perhaps the most oft-repeated aspect of Crypto-Jewish life is the persistence of Jewish practices that generations performed, without even necessarily knowing why. Famous examples include lighting candles in a hidden place on Friday night, circumcision and sweeping towards the center of the room (rather than out the door, so suspicious neighbors wouldn’t know they are preparing for Shabbat).

Throughout the book, Milgrom mentions a number of food-related customs that her grandmother passed on to her, all of them quite clearly having Jewish origins. Examples include checking eggs for blood spots, strictly washing and checking lettuce leaves to avoid all insects, burning a small wrapped piece of dough in the back of the oven (“taking challah”) or even just describing a pareve cake as something that “could be eaten after any meal” with no further explanation.

Most of these were described to Milgrom simply as “family traditions” or things that would bring good luck.

From great grandmother to granddaughter (Courtesy: Genie Milgrom)

She explains that her grandmother only taught these recipes and techniques to her, though there were four other grandchildren. This makes one wonder how much her grandmother knew about her Crypto-Jewish background. Reading through the grandmothers’ recipes we must ask whether she too pieced together the truth of their Jewish background, or whether something more subconscious was at play.

Unfortunately, we will never know.


For the Holidays and Beyond

On a broader level, there are many other crossovers between the recipes in this book and Jewish food in general. As Milgrom has pointed out, it is worth noting that her family’s recipes are distinct from Sephardic cuisine, as that community blended its Spanish roots with the influences of the areas in which they lived — Turkey, Italy, the Balkans and the Levant, largely. Primarily, her grandmothers’ food is typically Spanish, with adjustments and developments over time.

Hornazo, a festive pastry with assorted meats inside (Courtesy: Genie Milgrom)

Many dishes were things that Milgrom sees as more or less connected with Jewish holidays.

Cocido madrileño is a clear stand-in for a Shabbat hamin or chulent – the traditional lunch dish left on the fire throughout the night to avoid the prohibited cooking on the Sabbath. Other recipes appear perfect for various holidays as well, such as the dark fruit cake for Rosh Hashanah and orejuelas y pestiños (“ears and pastries”) for Purim. Sweets shaped like ears and other body parts are prepared for the holiday in many Jewish cultures, with the Hebrew term for hamantaschen being “oznei Haman” or “Haman’s ears”.  Pestiños are a common Spanish pastry often associated with the period preceding Easter, roughly the same season as Purim.

Dulces en almibar are like donut holes covered in a special kind of flavored syrup. Whether intentional or not, they certainly seem Hanukkah-appropriate.

Dulces en Almiba (Courtesy: Genie Milgrom)

Milgrom also points out how many dishes there are that surprisingly contain no wheat flour, making them appropriate for Passover.

Finally, though distinct from Sephardic cooking, as mentioned above, there are a number of dishes represented that are indeed Sephardic classics. She highlights her grandmothers’ “Decorated Rice” (saffron rice with raisins, almonds and cinnamon) and the pareve flan-like Tocino del Ciello as Sephardic classics. Bollas and rosquillas are other common Sephardic pastries that appear in these pages, too.

While the descendants of Crypto-Jews may now be free to cook whatever they like, their recipes offer a window into generations of kitchens and lives, providing a tangible and tasty link to the past.

A version of this article first appeared on “The Taste of Jewish Culture“. It has been published here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.