Brunch Comes to Poland
Polish has no word for a leisurely, late-morning meal, but brunch is catching on in Krakow, with french toast, stiff drinks, and schmoozing
When I joined the Jewish Community Center in Krakow last year, few people there had even heard of brunch. Now the community has developed a real taste for brunch—and the connections it fosters.
Brunch, as most Americans know, is a unique meal, with its own typical dishes, its own special hour, and a distinct style of conversation. JCC Director Jonathan Ornstein was immediately enthusiastic when I pitched the idea of organizing a Sunday brunch six months ago—not surprising, since he’s a native New Yorker. Post-communist identity in Poland is still evolving, and Ornstein says many people here are just learning about and exploring their Jewish roots. Brunch seemed like an ideal setting for this. “In a place that is often defined by its past, I see people streaming back to reconnect with their Judaism,” said Ornstein. “That is what brunch is about: connecting to community. And schmoozing.”
New York University professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who is currently leading the exhibition development for Warsaw’s Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, agrees that brunch is uniquely suited to bring the community together in a new way—in this case, a way that younger generations, in particular, can mingle. “Breakfast and lunch aren’t festive enough for Sunday, a day which is meaningless to Jews, but brunch is perfect because you can get up late,” she said. “Brunch is not just a meal, it’s an informal and social tradition that brings people together … and anything that brings people together in Poland is good.”
Preparing for brunch begins the day before with shopping, and shopping for kosher food, something new for me, requires a bit of help.
“There are two important lists here,” Ornstein tells me. “Schindler’s and Schudrich’s.”
I’m already familiar with the first one, from seeing the film Schindler’s List, which is credited with transforming Krakow’s former Jewish quarter Kazimierz into a tourist attraction that Ornstein calls “Jewrassic Park.” (Many tourists tend to visit more filming locations than actual historical sites, a pattern I refer to as the Schindler Effect.) But the second list is more relevant for brunch: Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich’s list of kosher products sold in Poland. I take it to the grocery store, along with my shopping list and my closest friend here, Joanna Sliwa—who is bilingual. Sliwa is moving to Warsaw next week, so this week’s brunch has a theme in her honor: sliwka, meaning plum, from sliwa, a plum tree. She helps me decipher the difference between smietana (sour cream) and smietanka (heavy cream), the latter being a key ingredient in the meal we’ll be preparing. We are relieved that maple syrup, a delicacy in Poland and a brunch essential, is available—and kosher.
Bakeries all over Poland still sell chałka (challah), which is a testament to how embedded Jewish culture is, even though the Jewish population today is sometimes estimated to be as low as 30,000. But not many people in Poland have sampled that ultimate American brunch staple, french toast. When Jan Kirschenbaum, a local student from Wrocław who runs the JCC Students Club, savored his first bite of challah french toast smothered with Nutella and topped with bananas at brunch, he told me, “Wow … now I get it!” This aha! moment has since been repeated by several other first-timers.
A few minutes after noon on a recent Sunday, a group has gathered on the sun-filled top floor of the JCC, a colorful building that overlooks the stunning prewar façades of Kazimierz. There are a few regulars who are JCC members, including Ornstein and Michael Newmark, a Brooklyn-born Ph.D. student of mixed Polish-Jewish ancestry who typically prepares brunch with us. There are also some newcomers, including a Viennese friend with Polish roots who spent three years in Israel, and Michael’s Polish cousins from nearby Katowice, who have never been to any event at a Jewish institution. Jan Rozwadowski, a local student who comes to the JCC weekly, is also a loyal brunch attendee; today he comes early and arranges the spread: Canadian maple syrup, Nutella, Ukrainian shampanskoye (champagne) and orange juice for mimosas, yogurt, apple-sliwka cereal, and chocolate-covered sliwka.
Aside from the special plum theme, this is now a fairly typical scene for our brunches, which we’ve held at the JCC every few weeks since November. The conversations around the table are a blend of Polish, English, sometimes even Hebrew. The attendees, typically 10 to 20 people, are a mix of Polish JCC members who are highly involved in the Jewish community, and American students and expats, many of whom speak Polish. Diverse identities intertwine here, unlike in other places, where customs have the ability to segregate rather than unite. We have more than 30 people on our Facebook page, and the number continues to grow; there is no Polish word for brunch, so we invented one to describe the event on Facebook: brancz.
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