East Central European Cuisine

Ashkenazi cuisine with a cosmopolitan twist.

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

The Ashkenazi  Diaspora gradually spread westward and southward. During the Thirty Years’ War (1618‑1648), Germany began to readmit Jews, who supplied the armies. By the eighteenth century, the numerous German courts offered opportunities to financiers and “court Jews”—as those who served as financial advisers and agents to rulers in Europe were known—some of whom became extremely wealthy and powerful. The old Jewish communities in the lands that were to become Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia grew large with Jews from the annexed Polish territories and immigrants from Poland and Russia. 

In the nineteenth century, the Jews of Europe achieved emancipation. The process had begun when Napoleon’s revolutionary armies carried their ideals of the Rights of Man and equality into the countries they conquered, ending the age of the ghetto. The spirit of Enlightenment spread through a Europe that was shedding feudalism and industrializing and helped all the Jewish communities to achieve economic and social integration. Jews flocked to large cities like Prague, Budapest, Vienna, and Bucharest.

A small minority attained wealth and prominence in banking and commerce, the liberal professions, and various industries, but the majority who flooded in from Russia and Poland remained a poor, uprooted working class. While Jews in the villages remained steeped in religious orthodoxy and tradition, speaking Yiddish—their Polish roots much in evidence—the Haskalah (Hebrew for “Enlightenment”) spread modernization, acculturation, and integration in the cities. Although there was a certain replication of Polish Jewish culture, there was also a gradual assimilation of the varied local and ruling cultures (the lands were part of the German, Russian, and Austro‑Hungarian empires and were ethnically diverse). Several essentially different Jewish communities developed. Hungarian became the language of the Jewish elite, German that of the business communities, and Czech, Romanian, and other languages were spoken regionally.

For the wealthy city elites who integrated the new European societies, the hold of the past and of tradition loosened. Many turned their back on their Jewish heritage and opened themselves to the new experiences of the modern, non‑Jewish world. It was through this mid­dle‑class society who lived well that many of the more refined dishes entered the Jewish repertoire. At that time, the term fressfroemingkeit, or “culinary Jew,” was used to describe assimilated Jews whose devoutness found expression only in eating traditional dishes on Jewish holidays.

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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.