Polish & Russian-Jewish Cuisine

Ashkenazi food moves east.

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Reprinted with permission from The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, published by Knopf.

From the 13th century, Jews in flight from France, Italy, and Germany were moving into Poland, which already had some Jewish communities, mainly from Byzantium. By the 16th and 17th centuries they moved in great masses at the invitation of the king of Poland. At first they lived under the king's protection in the royal cities of Cracow, Poznan, and Lemberg.

eastern european foodBut by the end of the 17th century, faced with the hostility of the townspeople and of the Church, they moved to the provinces of Galicia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine, where the Polish nobility (Jews called them Poretz) invited them to manage their agricultural lands and to settle in the shtetl—the new towns built on their demesnes. The nobles leased the Jews flour mills, dairy‑processing plants, and taverns, and gave them exclusive rights to brew vodka and schnapps. They allowed them to farm fish in ponds, especially pike and carp, which became associated with Jewish foods. But the masses remained very poor, on the verge of starvation, limited by restrictions and prohibitions, and in constant fear of attacks by the peasantry and Cossacks.

When Poland was partitioned three times at the end of the 18th century and its territories were annexed by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, the Jews in these territories became subjects of three different crowns. It was in this way, and also with the heavy migrations of Jews from Poland into neighboring countries, that the foods of the shtetl—including those that originated in Germany, such as challah bread, gefilte fish, chopped liver, and lockshen pudding—were transported all over Eastern Europe, together with the social structures (large families, men devoted to religious studies, women earning the family living) and the culture based on the Yiddish vernacular and German rabbinic traditions.

In 1772, when the Polish territories of the Ukraine, Lithuania, Courland (now in Latvia), and Belorussia were annexed by Russia, the great Jewish masses living in those territories became Russian subjects under the rule of the tsars (before that, Jews had not been allowed to live in Russia). In this way Russian Jewry was a continuation of Polish Jewry It came to represent the largest Jewish community in the world, and was the stronghold of the Ashkenazi culture.

In the beginning in Russia, as in Poland, the Jews had represented a kind of middle class between landowning aristocracy and peasantry. Many earned their living from leasing flour mills, inns, and taverns, and managing estates and forests. They were also craftsmen, shop­keepers, and hawkers, and their shoestring enter­prises included making and selling soda water and shoe wax, syrup, pretzels, goose fat, and pickles. But their position deteriorated. They were confined, by Catherine the Great, to re­stricted areas in the Pale of Settlement (former Polish territories) and lived in a state of disen­franchisement and poverty under the constant threat of pogroms. Permission to live outside the confines of the Pale was granted only to cer­tain groups, such as professionals and wealthy businessmen.

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Claudia Roden

Claudia Roden is one of England's leading food writers. Her works include the James Beard Award winning The Book of Jewish Food and A Book of Middle Eastern Food.