Tales of how hard life was in Siberia permeated my early married life. My in-laws, Polish Jews, were lucky enough to have been deported to Siberia during World War II. I listened to their stories of chopping wood in the brutally cold winters, bribing guards with shirts stitched by my mother-in-law, living together in a cramped hut, and, most of all, eating the wretched Siberian food. My mother-in-law, Peshka, used to say that even squirrels wouldn’t eat the food they were given. When I asked about Passover, she said, “Who thought about Passover? All we wanted was a piece of bread.”
I never thought that Jews would voluntarily live in this vast, distant part of Russia that extends from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean and north beyond the Arctic Circle. But once when I was giving a talk in Providence, R.I., a woman named Eleanor Elbaum quietly approached me. “Would you like some Passover recipes from a Jewish family in Siberia?” she asked. She said her family had lived there for generations.
I had read about Dostoevsky and others being exiled to Siberia, and now I learned the Jewish Siberian story. In 1632 the first Jews were sent there from Lithuania, after being captured during the Russo-Polish war. In the early 19th century Jewish convicts from Moscow landed in Siberia too, sentenced to hard labor. In 1859, after the Crimean War ended, merchant classes of Russian Jews were permitted to settle outside the Pale, and some found their way to Siberia.
The next time I was in Providence, I stopped by Eleanor Elbaum’s brick home on a quiet residential street. She had made a few dishes that were waiting for me on her table. But first we talked.
“My great-grandparents on both sides came to Siberia after the Crimean War in 1859,” she said. “My great-great-grandfather was in the army and when the war ended he was permitted by the czar to move to Siberia from Lithuania.”
Her father, who was born in Ishim, Siberia, and served in World War I, went into the hotel business. He and her mother, who was born in the old Siberian town of Tomsk, married and lived in Vladivostok, Russia’s biggest port on the Pacific side of the country. In 1922, they took a leg of the Trans-Siberian railroad to Harbin, Manchuria. Manchuria served as an escape route for Russian Jews after the revolution and remained one during World War II.
Elbaum, who was born in 1932 in Harbin and grew up in Japan during the World War II, knows about Siberia primarily through the food she ate as a child. “There was no discussion about Siberia when I was growing up,” she said. “My mother would make piroshky and pelmeni, the Jewish ravioli, and put them outside to freeze. They told me they didn’t need a freezer. They had a sort of igloo outside for the food.” Because it was practically impossible to buy fresh lemons, her mother would use sour salt when making jams and curing meat like brisket. They also ate typical Russian Jewish fare—cucumber and sour cream salad, cabbage rolls stuffed with meat and rice, borscht, kasha, and sauerkraut.
Sharon Hudgins’ wonderful saga, The Other Side of Russia, A Slice of Life in Siberia and the Russian Far East, gives a vivid account of life there in the late 1990s, when she spent several years in the region. “Now it has changed completely,” she told me. “But when I lived there it must have been like it was in the late 19th and early 20th century.” There were few middle men. You would get what little food was available off of farmers’ trucks. The staples were beets, potatoes, cabbage, onions, and leeks; they were kept in root cellars until late in the season. Berries, lemons, and even flour were scarce. They couldn’t count on having sugar either, and if it did appear, it was often laced with impurities.
After a childhood in the Far East, Elbaum—who speaks Russian, English, and Japanese and understands French—made her way to California for college, then to Toronto, where she met her husband, and they eventually settled in Providence. Now she frequents farmers’ markets, where she buys strawberries, cherries, apricots, and blueberries for her jams. When she was a child, these jams constituted dessert, eaten with a spoon and served with tea. Each time Elbaum puts out her canning jars, she spends a few moments remembering her parents and wondering about their life in Siberia.
Whenever she meets Russians they tell her that the best food is in Siberia. “I really don’t know what they have in mind when they say that,” she said. “I just remember that whenever we complained about having something too often, like chicken, my father would remind us to feel lucky to eat chicken. I tried so many times to get my parents to talk about the past. That generation just wiped out segments of their lives.”
As she told me her story, I looked around her house for more on Siberia—artifacts, books—but she there was little. All she had were the stories from her parents and the recipes her mother made.
On her table was a Passover candy she grew up with, a candy made from Siberian nuts and honey, the precursor to our commercial peanut brittle and fruit-and-nut bars. I have seen similar candies in other Jewish homes made with radishes, carrots, and beets; no matter how different the mixture, it always includes honey and ginger. You can also add cranberries, chocolate chips, chopped apricots, whatever you want. I love old recipes like this; they give a hint at what life before the commercialization of so many food products.
Elbaum served us tea in glasses, and with it she brought out Siberian chremsel. It’s a matzoh fritter of sorts, probably based on a blinchiki, eaten in Siberia and perfect for breakfast during Passover. I have eaten chremsel before, made out of fried potato and matzoh meal and stuffed with meat. I’ve also made a doughnut-like chremsel with nuts that I serve for dessert at Passover. I had never seen one like this before, made from matzoh meal and stuffed with tart blueberry, cranberry, or any other fruit jam, then browned and baked with a little more jam, fresh blueberries or cranberries (it should be a little tart), and honey. It’s delicious—and all the more so for the remarkable journey the recipe took from its birthplace in Siberia (or maybe Lithuania), across Manchuria to Japan, California, Toronto, and then to Providence, Rhode Island.
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.