Last night, as the sound of thunder cracked in a sky thick with heat, a loft in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant played host to a celebration of the food and experience of Soviet Jews during the 20th century.
The event served as a promotional preview of a culinary venture called “The Hidden Matzo Chronicles,” a creation of Olga Benis, a 37-year-old accountant who is one of this year’s COJECO BluePrint Fellows, an award that enables Russian-speaking Jews to pursue a community project that explores “personal and collective identity.” (The fellowship is funded by the UJA-Federation of NY and the Genesis Philanthropy Group.) Benis’s project, which she hopes will ultimately become a commercial cookbook, weaves personal stories of oppression, Soviet culture, resilience, and salvation with recipes–dishes that sensuously brings to life the experience of a Jew born and raised in Soviet Russia.
Shortly after I arrived at the event, the dark clouds in the sky parted, painting the sky an ethereal mix of purple and yellow. Inside, canapés were served, providing a sample of some of the recipes that Benis has been cultivating over the past year. The indulgent nibbles ranged from crackers heaped with piles of orange caviar to delicacies like pieces of cow’s tongue. I tried everything that was put in front of me, and, to my estimation, no matzoh was served.
“’The Hidden Matzo Chronicles’ is about viewing the world of Soviet Jews through the prism of food,” Benis announced to mingling guests who sipped glasses of wine and chucked down vodka shots (Benis pointed out that 90% of the attendees were Russians). She began reading an excerpt from her developing cookbook, which was somewhat stymied by the increasingly lively crowd, lubricated by the healthy amount of free-flowing booze.
“Perhaps that’s why Jews from around the world share a love for sweet and sour flavors,” Benis said to the crowd. “[It’s] a culinary metaphor for Jewish optimism in the face of tragedy and oppression.”
The evening was brought to a close with a performance from a Klezmer rock band called GOLEM, who were previously featured on an episode of Vox Tablet. The band brought pretty much all of Benis’s guests–now decently merry–to their feet with their frantic blend of Eastern European and Yiddish music. On of the songs they played, titled “7:40,”is inspired by a traditional Russian-Jewish song; pertinently it’s about a Jew’s experience of leaving the Soviet Union for America in order to practice religion freely.
Benis was 13 when her family arrived in America, settling in Brooklyn in 1991, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. “Matzoh remained symbolic of something Jewish,” she says, explaining her choice of project title, at a time when “we had no idea who we were.” The events of Russia’s 20th century, shaped by the tragic end of Tsarist rule, the rise of the Bolsheviks, and the establishment of Soviet Union, resulted in the stamping out of all religion. The communist regime required allegiance to the state and the state alone. Russian Jews remained labelled as Jews but they were stripped of their culture and tradition, but it was kept alive in the meals that they ate. “The State could forbid us from observing major religious rites,” Benis writes in the intro to her preview cookbook, “but it could not tell us what to eat.”
Benis makes it clear she remembers her childhood through food. She told me about a winter spent in the Soviet Union when she was just 5 years old. During New Years, “Noviy God,” a unique time in the Soviet calendar in which Russian people were temporarily released from the hold of propaganda and ideology, her parents would frequently host the festivities. On New Year’s Eve, the dining table would be brimming with meats, alcohol, salads and vegetables. One day after the party, Benis was sledding when she reached into her pocket only to touch something cold, dry and oddly textured. To her pleasant surprise she pulled out a piece of beef tongue, a morsel left over from her parent’s party.
She describes it as being “still perfectly delectable and chewy.”
Benis told me, “Food is where my heart is.”