Every fall, hordes of mysterious visitors descend upon Cape Cod from Boston and Providence and as far away as New Jersey and Philadelphia. They aren’t the garden variety of tourists; they are seekers of fungi. Some of them come for the day; others stay for the weekend. The locals refer to these visitors on a mission as “Russians,” but in reality, the vast majority of them are ex-Soviet Jews and their descendants. They drive down Route 6 in the direction of Provincetown. Once they reach Wellfleet and Truro, they begin to disperse around the nearby forests and hillocks. Some of the most hard-core mushroom foragers stay on the freeway until the outskirts of P-town, whereupon they veer off to the north, heading for the Municipal Airport and Race Point. There, amid the moss-covered dunes crested with crooked pines, the hunters—baskets in hands, blades of pocket knives glittering in the morning sun—find their mushroom abodes and pick, pick, pick. This is the time of year, starting around the third week of September, when Facebook is abuzz with reports of foraging expeditions and photos of Jewish-Russian children holding gigantic red-capped mushrooms with gray-speckled stems and spongy undersides. Some of the immigrant mushroom lovers deliberately reveal the location (so as to foster competition), while others suppress it (so as not to attract copy-foragers). Depending on how warm and wet the conditions remain in the fall, the mushroom bacchanalia here can last through the beginning of November.
Along Route 6 between Truro and Eastham, the Audubon Society has put up signs saying “Please don’t pick up mushrooms,” because it apparently disturbs the habitat of the local bird species. The pleas are mainly directed at the mushroom tourists, and they might as well have been printed in Russian, not that it would matter to the ex-Soviet foragers, who are well-versed in the art of dissimulation and the craft of mushroom hunting. For the ex-Soviet immigrants, gathering (and eating) mushrooms is a sport, a pastime, and a passion. The writer Lara Vapnyar told me that mushroom-picking was sviatoe (“sacrosanct”), and her husband, Boris Lokshin, who writes about film, nodded in agreement. Vapnyar and Lokshin visited our family on the Cape three years ago in the summer, two months before the unofficial start of the mushroom season, and they were already planning their annual autumn pilgrimage. The Odessa-born virtuoso clarinetist Julian Milkis, a disciple of Benny Goodman, recently posted a photograph of himself sitting at a long dining room table all covered in mushrooms he had gathered with the émigré historian Yuri Feltishinsky. A few weeks ago, my father’s first cousin, a native of Leningrad, said he collected “125 mushrooms” in the dunes of P-town (we take his word for it).
What does one do with so many mushrooms? One can cook them fresh, but also preserve mushrooms in various ways, which include dehumidifying and freezing them whole; quartering the mushrooms, bringing them to boil, draining them and then freezing them in Ziploc bags; and air-drying them on strings. And, of course, there are different ways of pickling and curing mushrooms, with various agents, of which salt, dill blossoms, and garlic are indispensible. My top three mushroom dishes are: mushroom soup with barley and carrots, served with a dollop of sour cream and chopped dill; mushrooms sautéed with onions, cooked in a cream sauce and served over potatoes or noodles; and pickled mushrooms (especially as a vodka chaser). There are also wild-mushroom pâté and risotto, but I personally stick to Russian (Soviet) culinary heritage.
Jewish-Russian memory still craves living off the land. But is it simply the nourishment or the culinary virtues of mushrooms that draw ex-Soviets to Cape Cod in the fall? Mushrooms and mushrooming are also a revered part of the Soviet immigrant legacy. Just to confirm that it wasn’t only me who felt this way, I queried several people. Our Boston friend Galina Lipton, a pediatric emergency physician, grew up in Gomel in the south of Belarus, where the forests are a veritable shroomadise, and came to America as a teenager. Every year, Galina and her family rent hotel rooms in P-town and spend several days foraging mushrooms. This includes her parents and her husband, Jonathan Lipton, a pediatric neurologist, whose Jewish-Russian mother hails from Shanghai. Jonathan tolerates the mushroom-intensive weekend, but is not a mushroom fanatic like so many “Russians” (read: Russian Jews) in America. For some reason, I remembered Galina using the word “ritual” to refer to mushrooming, and I asked her to elaborate. She emailed: “I think the expression I used was ‘tradition,’ a family tradition. … I guess I could have used the word ‘ritual’ because the things we do during these annual events have become pretty standard and are usually carried out in a certain order—so ritualistic indeed. And magical. Not just the mushrooms, but everything associated with these events … all of it magical.” My mother’s younger sister, a musician, also characterized the whole experience as something volshebnoe (magical), and this seems to be the adjective of choice to describe the activity of mushroom picking. Magical mushrooms on Cape Cod?
Mushroom-loving, I submit, isn’t in one’s genes; it’s an acquired fondness, a special habit. Consider my own story. My wife, Karen, a child of Jewish immigrants from South Africa and Bukovina (by way of South America), likes the flavor of mushrooms but doesn’t like the texture. When she eats mushroom soup or a mushroom pasta dish, she relishes the taste but puts the actual pieces of fungi on my plate. My older daughter, Mira Isabella, who aspires to be an all-American kid, dislikes everything about mushrooms. And my younger daughter, Tatiana Rebecca, the one who acts more Russian and more Jewish than her sister, loves mushrooms. We’ve gone mushrooming as a family, but one must follow one’s natural inclinations. Which is why Tatiana has become my regular mushroom companion and apprentice. While on the Cape, we sometimes go on a local foraging expedition in the woods that separate our neighborhood in South Chatham from the nearby Forest Beach. We usually find some mushrooms along the beach road and in a forest glen overlooking the remains of one of the original Marconi towers. Our very local mushrooms include red, olive-green and yellow russulas with delicate gills. We also find lesser varieties of boletes, all of them with porous undersides: slippery jacks (with slimy caps), matt boletes (with a greenish underside), wood boletes (which develop a violent inky pigmentation upon being cut at the stem), and darker brown peppery boletes (which can be used for flavoring). Every once in a while we come upon a family of birch boletes, so flavorful in soup or stew, but in our local Chatham groves we have yet to find the finest, “noblest” boletes, such as the aspen boletes, which are close in flavor to the royalty of mushrooms, the cep (known in English as penny bun, in Russian as belyi grib, and in Italian as porcino). We haven’t found many ceps on the lower Cape, but we have known forest clearings and hilltops all dotted with their terra-cotta-reddish caps.
On a recent Saturday morning, which happened to be the last day of Sukkot, Tatiana and I left South Chatham at 8 in the morning and drove down to Truro. It was drizzling, foggy, and as we left Wellfleet behind, we passed a black pickup truck with red lettering across the back. It said “Dorman’s” on the truck, and I immediately thought of my Moscow friend Oleg Dorman, filmmaker and Woody Allen’s Russian translator, and of a new immigrant life he’d secretly started on Cape Cod, probably as a mushroom forager. We turned off Route 6 at an inauspicious spot, parked our station wagon, donned rain boots and rain jackets. For about half a mile we stayed on a rickety path, woven baskets in hands, small paring knives in our baskets. We walked past an abandoned cabin in the direction of a small cranberry bog. Then we saw the first red caps of the day, our first aspen boletes. Tatiana and I played the game of who-spots-the-mushroom-first, and she always won and got to cut the mushrooms, placing the blade close to the wet ground lined with leaves and protected by chainmail shirts of lichens. It took us less than an hour to fill two baskets, and this was more than enough for Karen to make soup, for me to pickle three jars, and also to give some mushrooms to my parents in Boston. My parents were—are—my mushroom teachers.
Talking about teachers, our secret mushroom spot in Truro is not far from where my Yale mentor, Robert Louis Jackson, one of America’s greatest readers of the Russian classics, has a summer house. Jackson’s parents, New Yorkers and descendants of German Jews, bought the place in the 1940s, when it was mostly backcountry with only a few small farms and cottages. It’s now a place favored by the Jewish intelligentsia. Not far from where we go foraging, another former Yale professor used to have a summer place. I’m talking about the late Victor Erlich, son of the Bund leader Henryk (Genrikh) Erhich and of the writer and social activist Sofia Dubnova-Erlich, daughter of the great Jewish-Russian historian Simon Dubnow. It’s a spot rich in Slavic, Jewish, and mushroom traditions, and yet, when I recently asked Jackson if he ever went mushrooming, he vigorously shook his head. “We didn’t. Never got into it,” said Jackson, who is in his 90s and is working on a new Chekhov book. But Jackson did mention a princely family of Georgian émigrés who left Russia after the Revolution, subsequently immigrated to the U.S., had a summer house in Truro, and went mushrooming. For the older generations of American Jews, mushroom hunting was a Russian thing, perhaps with white Russian connotations, and not a Jewish thing.
Is there some Jewish prohibition against, or perhaps some Jewish skepticism toward, mushrooms?
To suggest that mushrooms hold a privileged place in Slavic lands, especially in the historic lands of Russia and of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, is to commit a useful truism. And it’s equally trite and true that a hundred years ago the bulk of the world’s Jews lived in Slavic lands. And yet I have difficulty imagining men in black kaftans and fedoras foraging mushrooms, even though much of the Pale of Settlement, especially in Northern Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania, is also the Pale of Fungi. I even have trouble picturing my own grandparents, all born in the Pale in the 1900s and early 1910s, gathering mushrooms as kids or teenagers. Why is that? Is there some Jewish prohibition against, or perhaps some Jewish skepticism toward, mushrooms?
From the Halakhic standpoint, fungi are different from plants because they feed differently (not from soil and sun, but from nutrients in the very top of the topsoil, where decomposition takes place), and also because they multiply differently (by spores, not seeds). There’s some possible discussion of mushrooms in the Hebrew Bible, and Leviticus 13-14 has language referring to mold and mildew, which may also pertain to fungi. But Jews don’t officially become mycologists until the Talmud, which is hardly surprising. A brief tour of Jewish sources reveals that in more than one place the Babylonian Talmud speaks of fungi that grow both above ground and in the ground (pitriyot and kemehim, generic mushrooms and truffles). In Shabbat 30b, Rabbi Gamaliel illustrates how “whole cakes” appear overnight from the ground in the Land of Israel and uses the example of mushrooms. And in Berakhot 40b, in connection with abstaining from eating, a distinction is made between fruit of the ground (mushrooms are excluded from this category) and everything that grows on the ground (mushrooms are part of this category). Such a subtle distinction is based on the rabbis’ understanding of fungi as a separate life kingdom, distinct from plants but unlike animals. (A fascinating discussion of mushrooms in religious traditions is found in Moselio Schaechter’s In the Company of Mushrooms). The Jewish blessing before eating a mushroom is different from the one said before eating a fruit (fruit of the tree, bo’rei pri ha-etz) and vegetable (fruit of the ground, bo’rei pri ha-adamah). For mushrooms, the same blessing, shehakol nihiyeh bid’varo, is used as for meat, fish, water, and miscellaneous created products. Maimonides, who knew a great deal about health issues, didn’t advise eating mushrooms. He was correct to recommend that we exercise caution, just as mushroom guides advise the uninitiated not to gather and eat mushrooms without special training. It appears that there’s no Jewish dietary prohibition as such against fungi, and mushrooms are generally considered kosher. And yet, slugs, bugs, and maggots are trayf, and it’s virtually impossible to guarantee the absence of some small being feeding on good mushrooms. Kosher with a twist? This would be a great question for yeshiva students to tackle in the course of learning.
Did Jews not go mushroom hunting in the olden days? Some probably did, or there wouldn’t be references to them in Jewish religious texts. Was mushroom hunting a Jewish tradition in the Slavic lands? I doubt it. For some strange reason, I can’t think of a 19th- or early 20th-century Jewish literary work where mushroom foraging or eating is described. There are, of course, plenty of such scenes in Polish or Russian literature—think of Anna Karenina and the episode in which Levin’s half-brother Koznyshev and Varen’ka go mushroom foraging, and Koznyshev fails to propose. (Let’s leave aside the vexing question of Levin’s Jewish roots.) There also doesn’t seem much of a mushroom trail in Jewish cuisine, save for an occasional recipe for a mushroom kugel or else for buckwheat kasha or pearl barley with onion-fried mushrooms. Given the cult status of mushrooms in Polish or Russian cuisine, and also considering how many Slavic dishes the Ashkenazi Jews have made their own, it’s ponderous that mushrooms have such a marginal status in Eastern European Jewish cooking. In Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic guide, The Book of Jewish Cooking, mushrooms make only a few cameo appearances.
Allow me to introduce a personal testimony and a brief childhood recollection. I doubt very much that my paternal grandmother, the daughter of a Mitnagedic rabbi from Lithuania, went mushrooming in her childhood. But I cannot be sure because I never knew her. But the three grandparents I got to know (and also some of their siblings I’ve met) never shared childhood memories of foraging mushrooms in the former Pale. I don’t believe they had any. My father’s uncle Munia Sharir, who left the ancestral Kamenets-Podolsk in 1924 to become a halutz, left a memoir in both Hebrew and Russian. In the chapters devoted to his Podolian youth, Uncle Munia didn’t touch on mushroom-picking even though his best childhood friend was a local Ukrainian lad and he fashioned himself as something of a socialist-revolutionary eager to live with “the people.” I suspect that for Jews of my grandparents’ generation, mushroom-picking was a habit acquired in the 1920s and ’30s, part of a complex of social activities that came after moving into the mainstream. For many Jews of the former Pale, developing a love for mushroom-picking must have been simultaneously a form of Russianization and Sovietization. At least, this is my tentative explanation for the rise of mushroom-picking among Jews during the Soviet period. My late maternal grandmother, Anna Studnits, who came to America with our whole family in 1987 and lived to be 95, enjoyed collecting and cooking mushrooms. Yet I always felt that with her it was not a childhood love, as it had been for me since as long as remember.
The memories of going mushroom foraging with my parents are golden. It’s the summer of 1969, I’m 2 years old, and we’re renting a hut in the village of Mikhalkovo, some 15 miles west of Moscow. The village and its peasants were once the property of Russian aristocratic families, the Golitsyns and the Yusupovs. The Yusupovs built a luxurious estate, Arkhangel’skoe (“abode of Archangels”), and it’s on the daily strolls across the fields and groves, from the village to the former manor house, that my parents taught me the rules of mushroom foraging. I will never forget the sensation of finding my first mushrooms, the rush, the boundless pleasure of holding a brown-capped creature with a leg, a cap, and myriad tiny hands, each tremulous and alive. It was love at first sight for me, and yet my Soviet memories of mushroom foraging are both good and bad. The good ones mainly come from Estonia, our annual summer vacation spot between 1972 and 1986. Summers by the Baltic Sea; our beloved Pärnu—a Hanseatic seaport turned popular beach resort. My best friend Katya and I are walking home through the old seaside park; we’re always looking for mushrooms. Her grandmother’s Polish blood pulsing through the valves of Jewish traditions, Katya usually beats me at the mushroom hunt. She finds slippery jacks and crème-colored russulas and picks them from the ground, gently with two slender fingers, the way one picks up a wondrous moth or a fragile flower. There are also secluded Nordic forests about an hour’s drive inland, where my parents and I motor once a week to stock up on winter supplies of mushrooms to be dried and taken back to Moscow. Finally, there’s the homestead of our dear friend, the Estonian artist Jüri Arrak, and a nearby, blessed aspen grove with clearings filled to the brim with chanterelles. In Russia, people sometimes called these ornate, bright-orange fungi “Jewish mushrooms,” but to me, they were signs of universal beauty. As refuseniks, my parents and I came to Estonia to get away from the oppressive Soviet living, to disappear for a little while, and mushroom picking was for us a form of escapism.
Back in Moscow, foraging was less magical, laden with memories of dirty suburban and local trains overcrowded with mushroom zealots, for whom all the other Muscovites represented potential rivals. Most mushroom folks who lived in the city claimed to know a spot of their own, first an hour-and-a-half by train, then an hourlong haul across some rugged terrain, and then… Just get up early and bring enough baskets. And I also remember the campus of Hospital No. 52 across the street from where we lived in Moscow: grounds choking with uncollected maple leaves, and patients in pajamas and robes shuffling their heavy feet, filling plastic bags with chernushki (literally: “blackie mushrooms”) and svinushki (literally: “piggy mushrooms”) to hand over to family members during weekend visits. Finally, there was the summer 1986 expedition from Moscow to North Caucasus and the Black Sea, during which we were protein-starved almost all the time and often supplemented the meager rations with local mushrooms.
Foraging mushrooms in Russia was fun when it was a whole experience, not a means of procuring food. I tried to leave the not-so-bright memories behind the turnstile of Soviet passport control in June 1987, while the best memories of mushrooming have remained an active part of my immigrant identity. Or, to put it a bit less personally, as a mainstream Soviet phenomenon, mushroom picking reached the American shores with the rest of the Jewish immigrant baggage. More than a loving tribute to one’s Soviet youth, mushrooming in America is becoming a Jewish tradition because much of what we brought with us is now being added to Jewish American culture. I admit that there is something of a contradiction here, but I also think there’s also some truth to what I’m saying. To put it most bluntly, while in today’s American mainstream Soviet Jews may be thought of as “Russian,” mushroom-picking in America may very well be considered a Jewish family activity. Just drive to lower Cape Cod in late September or early October, find hillocks overgrown, not too thickly, with pines, and carpeted with bright-green moth. And talk to the mushroom foragers you encounter. You will quickly discover that they are mostly ex-Soviet Jews, their children, and their grandchildren who understand Russian but respond in English.
Of course, there are mycological clubs in America, especially here in New England. And, of course, one hears about recent Polish, Czech, or Italian immigrants who have become professional foragers and supply fine New York restaurants with “wild mushrooms” from Maine, New Hampshire, or Massachusetts. Surely there are mushrooms foragers in New England who are not Jewish, but by and large, this is a Jewish-Soviet métier simply because the immigrants from the former USSR are predominantly Jewish. How many Russian-speaking mushroom gatherers flock to Cape Cod on a good October weekend? Several thousand? More? Survey those men and women and children with woven baskets and pocket knives, and probably 95 percent of them will be both Russian speakers and Jews. If I’m wrong, please get in touch with me, and I’ll show you my secret mushroom spot in Truro.
After the most recent weekend of mushrooming on the Cape, I posted a photo of my younger daughter holding a red-capped bolete of biblical proportions. A colleague of my wife’s, also an internal medicine doctor, immediately commented: “Are these edible?” Even today, in our mainstream mushrooms are associated with the common supermarket variety that many Americans call “mushrooms” (that is, button mushrooms, cultivated champignons). For ex-Soviets, it is not a Platonic idea, not mushroom in general, but something alive and replete with specific sensory associations and memories, with physical locales, with colors, aromas, and textures. Here in America, Soviet immigrants have made mushrooming a hallowed preoccupation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the rabbis decided to do something about it.
On a Sunday morning we were preparing to drive back to Boston with the hope of getting across the bridge before noon. It was Simchat Torah, and in the evening we planned to go to shul, where my wife would play the cello in the band and we would dance with Torah scrolls. The following week I’d be traveling to Russia to speak at a conference on anti-Semitism, and I knew we wouldn’t be returning to the Cape for several weeks. So this was probably it for the mushroom season.
“Humor me,” I said to my daughters. “Let’s take a quick stroll to the nearby woods.”
Tatiana immediately showed enthusiasm for a brief foraging excursion, while Mira dithered, but then agreed to go along. The three of us briskly walked toward the ocean, sun, and pines. Mira was the first to spot a slippery jack under a fir tree. Then Tatiana located a family of russula mushrooms showing red through withered feathery grass.
I was elated to see them find mushrooms. “There you go,” I said in Russian to my American-born daughters, “you’re learning about mushrooms. You’re now part of a tradition.”
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Maxim D. Shrayer is an author and a professor at Boston College. His recent books include A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas and Of Politics and Pandemics. Shrayer’s new memoir, Immigrant Baggage, is forthcoming in April 2023. Follow him on Twitter @MaximDShrayer.