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The Gefilte Fish Line: Is South African Jewish food really from Lithuania?

This article from the South African Cookbook Project discusses the fascinating origins of South African Jewish food

Reprinted with permission from the South African Cookbook Project

The influence of the approximately 40,000 Litvak (Lithuanian Jewish) immigrants to South Africa was so strong that Zionist leader Nahum Sokolow called the South African Jewish community “a colony of Lithuanian Jewry”. The immigrants maintained deep emotional ties to their communities of origin. Anxious about the fate of the family and friends they had left behind, they sent money to their hometowns, and helped east European Jewish refugees displaced during World War One.

Photo courtesy of the South African Cookbook Project
The Women’s Association of immigrants from Moletai, Lithuania in Johannesburg, South Africa. Yad Vashem Photo Archives.

But the Litvak immigrants soon found themselves cut off from home. The South African “Quota Act” of 1930 effectively ended immigration from Eastern Europe, and physically isolated South African Jews from their relatives. As the annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry in the Holocaust became clearer through the course of the 1940s, South African Jews began to realise that their community had suddenly been orphaned from its now-destroyed cultural homeland.

After the Holocaust, South African Jews felt a desire to preserve their connections to their Litvak past. One way to do this was by eating “traditional” food. South African Jewish cookbooks claimed that their “traditional” recipes came from mothers and grandmothers, in a direct line of transmission from Eastern Europe. They emphasised that this was food “Just Like Mamma Made”. The “traditional recipes” in the Club and I cookbook (1974), the editor wrote, “have been handed down from generation to generation”. 

Many of these recipes were not quite as traditional, or directly transmitted, as cookbook editors, contributors, and readers imagined. For example, linguist Marvin Herzog argued that the line that divides the Central Yiddish dialect (spoken in what today is Poland) with the Northeastern dialect (spoken by Litvaks in what today is Lithuania, Belarus, and parts of northeastern Poland) corresponds almost exactly to geographical differences in the way Jews in those places prepared gefilte fish. While Polish Jews added a lot of sugar to their gefilte fish, Lithuanian Jews preferred theirs heavily flavored with black pepper. You would expect South African Jewish community cookbooks, created by the children of Litvak immigrants, to feature Litvak-style gefilte fish. But most of the cookbooks feature recipes for heavily sweetened, Polish-style gefilte fish.

The-Gefilte-Fish-Line

So, how did these recipes for sweet gefilte fish find their way into South African Jewish cookbooks?

South African Jews’ “traditional” recipes often came not directly from Europe, but rather from across the Atlantic. In the period of mass migration, from the 1880s to the 1920s, hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants arriving in America from all over central and Eastern Europe created an intra-Jewish food exchange, bringing together regional cuisines to eventually form a generic American Jewish repertoire. The homogenising effects of this American Jewish food exchange spread across the east European Jewish diaspora, in the form of written recipes and cookbooks.

South African Jews only began to seriously produce their own cookbooks in the 1950s. Prior to this period, Jewish bookstores imported cookbooks from America. American matza manufacturers distributed brochures with Passover recipes in Yiddish and English in South Africa, and South African Jewish women clipped recipes from American Yiddish newspapers. The editors of South African Jewish community cookbooks adopted American Jewish recipes and spellings too, mixing them with recipes inherited from their Litvak parents and grandparents.

Image courtesy of South African Cookbook Project
A selection of American Yiddish cookbooks, circa early 20th century. Yiddish Book Center.

Some of the earliest South African Jewish community cookbooks produced in the 1940s and 50s did preserve evidence of a Litvak oral tradition. For example, many Litvaks, especially those from rural areas, spoke a form of Yiddish that other east European Jews derogatorily referred to as “Sabesdiker Losn” (Sabbath language)––the pronunciation of the “sh” sound as “s”. South African Jewish cookbooks thus offered recipes for “Saltenosses”, a Lithuanian form of the Yiddish word Shaltenosses. The dishes hamentashen, geshmirte matzos, and kishke appear in a number of earlier cookbooks, like Favourite Home-Tried Recipes and the International Goodwill Recipe Book as ‘hamentasen”, “gesmirte matzos”, and “kisker”. Similarly, the 1951 Union Cook Book featured a recipe for “Carrot Chimmes”, a Northeastern Yiddish dialectical variant of the word tzimmes.

By the 1960s, these uniquely Litvak words had disappeared from the pages of South African Jewish cookbooks, replaced by general, pan-Yiddish spellings. In the Union Jubilee Cook Book (1982), the editors changed the title of the recipe to the more common “Carrot Tzimmes”. Only the most treasured Lithuanian Jewish dishes persisted throughout all of the cookbooks: namely the sweets teiglach, ingberlach, and pletzlach, which hardly appear in British or American Jewish cuisine. Influenced by Jews in other parts of the world, South African Jewish cooking lost much of what made it specifically Litvak.

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