The following article was written in partnership with The Belarusian-Jewish Cultural Heritage Center.
If you look at the works of Marc Chagall and Chaïm Soutine, you could not be faulted for thinking that they both suffered from nightmares featuring salted fish. Herring, known well to both artists from their childhood’s in Belarus, is a common motif in their work. Marc Chagall’s father worked his entire life in a store selling salted fish and smelled of it, from head to toe. Before leaving Viciebsk, his hometown, Chagall wrote in his diary: “Hi, goodbye, Viciebsk! Keep your salted fish, my friends!”.
For the Jews of Belarus and Lithuania, salted fish is much more than a humble fish from the Baltic Sea – it is an intrinsic part of their cuisine and lifestyle, one of the symbols of the Jewish world before the Holocaust, just like a goat out grazing at pasture or klezmer music.
But why did herring, and not another fish, achieve special status in Jewish specialty shops? The reasons were entirely practical: herring was easily caught, and was one of the most common fish in the Baltic and North Seas. The quick pressing method- during which it is salted and compressed in barrels- is attributed to Dutch fishermen, and is the source of the expression “packed like herring’s in a barrel” found in various languages. This pressing method made commercial fishing more efficient, lowered the price of herring and made it a cheap commodity that was accessible to almost any poor person in North and Eastern Europe. Additionally, Herring increased in popularity during fasting days for those of the Christian faith, when it was forbidden to eat meat.
In the 1880s, three districts in Lithuania – Vilna, Kovna and Grodno (that is, modern day Lithuania and western Belarus) – whose population was around 3.5 million, imported approximately 23,000 tons of herring every year, at a total cost of 1,800,000 rubles. Almost all of the fish caught were intended for residents of those three districts.
The poor of Lithuania and Belarus grew almost all of their own food. They bought very few groceries, and when they did, it was usually from Jewish merchants. The largest outside expenditure for these peasants was salted fish, amounting to six to seven kilograms per person per year.
Every town, even small ones, had at least one shop selling salted fish, usually owned by local Jews, and the appearance of these shops hardly changed over the centuries. Ethnographer, Pavel Spilavsky, described them in the middle of the 19th century thusly: “What is the lower market in old Minsk? The cabinets – “display windows”, loaded with barrels of salted fish and pickling liquid (one of the Jewish delicacies); a large part of the salted fish is cut into small pieces, which are sold for half a penny; next to the salted fish, on round wooden trays, they scatter pieces of cheese and baked fish…”
The pickling liquid, mentioned in Spilavsky description, was sold as a product in its own right and was considered a delicacy. The poorest Jews, and Christians, unable to afford herring, ate bread dipped in the pickling liquid. This custom lies at the center of a folk tale about a market in Vilna in the period between the two world wars. A peasant came to this market, where there were Jewish shops selling salted fish, to sell his produce. When it was time to eat, the peasant took a piece of onion and a slice of bread and dipped them in the herring barrel of a nearby store. According to legend, the Jewish merchant at the booth said kindly to the peasant, “Oh, what a glutton, what a glutton!”.
The Jews did not sell salted fish exclusively, but it was by far their best seller. An old proverb in Yiddish says: “a hering iz genug far tsen mentshn, a hun koym far tsvey” (a herring is enough for ten people, but a chicken is hardly enough for two). Traditionally, salted fish was chopped up and mixed with cheap raw materials to stretch it out to feed more people. However, Jews in Lithuania and Belarus didn’t call chopped herring spread “forshmak“- the name may have originated from the dialect of Odessan Jews – instead, expatriates from Lithuania and Belarus knew this appetizer as “gehakte hering” (chopped salted fish). Unlike the Hasidic version, which contains apples and is seasoned with lemon, the Lithuanian and Belarusian version features few ingredients and is only seasoned with salt and pepper.
Over time, the symbolic bond between Jews and herring became innate, and also entered folklore and local culture. The poem “Evening Celebration” by Vintsent Dunin-Marcinkievič, one of the classics of Belarusian literature, tells about Zmitzer Melushitsa, a lazy, stupid peasant who worked on the estate of Count Poroshynski. Melushitsa sold a cow at the Minsk market and received a five-ruble bill for it, popularly known as “the blue” because of its color. He also purchased a salted fish at the market and, in his stupidity, put the fish in the same pocket as the bill. On the way home, Melushitsa went into an inn in Serebryanka to celebrate the sale of his cow and, in drinking his fill of Schnapps, ate the bill together with the salted fish. The piercing, sorrowful and ironic speech of the Jewish innkeeper cannot be translated…
And so, despite Chagall’s condescending reference to herring and his evident joy in leaving it behind, the history of Lithuanian and Belarusian Jews tells a different story: vorschmak is the most noted dish in memories of expatriates from Lithuania and Belarus, and the collective longing surrounding vorschmak is the nostalgia for days when herring was an integral part of daily life in the Jewish towns that are no more.