Sunday, June 17, 2007

Happy Birthday for Jack Cohen! Oh, and Father's Day too!

The photo above was taken around 1938 or so in Brooklyn, New York. It's the Cohen family as it stood then (probably taken by my Grandfather,who is not pictured.) From left to right are pictured my Aunt Fran, Aunt Gerry, my father (in his stickball uniform) my Grandmother, and my uncle Eli. Today is Father's Day in the United States, and June 20th is my Dad's birthday, so Happy Birthday Jack Cohen!My Dad served in the US Navy during World War Two, working at Newport naval base in Rhode Island as a torpedo instructor (dead center in the photo above) which was his first experience outside of New York City. Once we were driving up to Boston and he chose to make a detour out to the now deserted Naval base. The Torpedo shop was still there. Then he drove our 1970 Dodge Dart out to the airstrip, revved the motor up, and sped down the runway at 120 miles per hours. "I've always wanted to do that" he said afterwards. After the war Pop wanted to go into the family jewel-setting business, and took a course in gemology. My Grandfather, however, was somwhat old school in these matters. He put my father in a room with two diamonds and a zircon, with no analytical tools, and gave him three hours to tell which was the zircon. When my father chose wrong, my grandfather tore up his diploma. This was way back in the days before men acted sensitively. After that Dad applied to serve in the Israeli Haganah during Israel's 1948 war, but fate led him otherwise into the New York Police Department.As a cop, my father became a member of the Shomrim Society for Jewish Policemen. Not many people associate Jews with police work, but Jews used to comprise one third of the force in the 1950s. Jack Cohen rose to the upper echelons of the Detective dept, and worked for a long time in Chinatown busting gambling rackets, which explains the deep connection that our family has with Cantonese food (Errant Tong leaders would get favorable attention in exchange for a standing table for the cops at their restaurants.) He also worked in a special anti-racket task force undercover, a job that would eventually lead Al Pacino to play a character based on him in the 1981 film Prince of The City.
Handsome Jewish cops were quite a prize for refugee Hungarian girls... my father met my mother at a dance at the Manhatten Jewish Center, and my father offered to walk my mom home. Along the way she stopped and bought him a newspaper. That small act really impressed him, and within a year they were married. Good looking couple, no? I really hit the DNA jackpot with these parents!
At first my parents lived in the south Bronx, and when my sister was born, they bought their baby carriages and such at a local baby supply shop called Sickser's at the corner of Westchester Avenue and Fox. I once asked my father if he remembered a black kid who worked there... "Oh, yeah, der schwartzer... I remember him!" Well, that kid grew up to be General Colin Powell, hero of the first Iraq War and victim - as Secretarty of State - of Bush's second Iraq War. It was at Sickser's that Colin Powell learned to speak Yiddish - which caused Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Shamir a shock when they met and Powell shook hands and said "Men ken red yiddish..." (We can speak in Yiddish.) My sister with my Dad around the time I was born. Some of my first memories were of laughing hysterically while my sister put my parent's 45 RPM records on the record player at 78 rpm speed. It probably ruined my tastes in music for life. My parents were very big on Mambo and Cha-cha-cha, and I have been stuck on latin music ever since.Around 1956 my folks moved to the east Bronx, on Coddington avenue, where I was born. It was great place to grow up. Every evening the neighborhood would come outside and sit on their stoops, which is old New York dutch-derived word for the stairs in front of a house. Our old house - pictured around 1959 at left, is still there, pictured at right as I saw it when my brother Ron and I took a trip back to our ancestral stomping grounds in December, 2007. Television was new and had not conquered the social world, so I remember nights as a kid running up and down the streets while parents chatted away or had parties in the backyards. It was really a wonderful neighborhood back then - a mix of Italians, Germans, Irish, and Greeks, mostly. My dad quit the New York police force in the early 1960s - things had become too violent and corrupt for a family man. He and a partner started an Automobile service station down on Webster Avenue. Then he ran a launderette in the South bronx. Soon, however, he was contracting construction jobs out in New Jersey. When we visited my Mom's family in Hungary in 1965, Dad bought a Volkswagen in Germany and we drove around Europe in it, and eventually shipped it home to New York.We moved out to Teaneck, New Jersey in 1966 and Dad started working first as a building contractor, and later as a real estate salesman. Here's the real estate tycoon version of Jack Cohen around 1990.
So Jack is going to be 81 years young on June 20th! The man is made from pure Moldavian oak. A bit grey at the temples, but mind you, this man ran the New York Marathon every year until about five years ago, and apart from missing a few teeth, he has the strength and litheness of many men twenty years younger. Both my parents have amazingly good health, probably a testamony to their staying together through thick and thin for so many years. The twentieth century threw everything it could at them and still they survived and prospered. So Happy birthday and Happy Father's day, Pop! And don't forget to take Mom out for Chinese food on your birthday...

Lomir Ale ineynem, ineynem, Yitzik mekabl ponim zayn, Yitzik mekabl ponim zayn.

Lomir ale ineynem, lomir ale ineynem,

Trinken a glezele vayn!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Kiev for the Hungry

UkraineHeading home from Odessa, we stayed a few days to enjoy Kiev. Kiev has a chain of self-service resturants that became my lifeline to lunch - good, filling peasant food for about a buck a plate. Below, in the Podil district.
We found these all over town - always packed, always serving fresh dishes, 100% Ukrainian... This next one is directly behind the Bessarabian Market.
Here is a $5 dinner: borscht, baked ribs, stewed cabbage, cabbage salad. I was worried about eating low carb meals in the Ukraine. Silly me.Blintzes, which Fumie eats as an afternoon snack. Cheese filled with sour cream and berry preserves. These were called "blintzy" which will forever cause my appreciation of blintzes as a Jewish heritage food to be filled with mirth and frivololity. Blintzy! Blintzy! Blintzy!
Fruit filled vareniky dumplings. No, I didn't try these, Fumie did, several time a day. She is much smaller than me. I am much bigger than her.
Salo is salt cured bacon fat. Often consumed raw with onions, salo is the stereotypical Ukrainian snack, and the point of many Ukrainian jokes (i.e.: A customs official asks a Ukrainian traveller "Do you have any Drugs?" The Ukrainian answers "Yes. I am carrying salo." "But salo is not a drug!" "Yes it is. When I eat salo I get high..." There is even the phenomenon of chocolate covered salo served in fancy resturants. Even Hungarians, who really love raw bacon and consume it daily, haven't quite made a national cult of pig fat. Bacon. We all love bacon, don't we? I am taking it that not too many frum Jews read Dumneazu, so I'll just say what we all think: bacon is treyf, forbidden, unkosher. And so good. Ukrainians agree, and eat their local version, known as salo, raw. That's right. Pig fat sashimi. Yes they have cured and smoked bacon as well, but there is nothing they love more than some raw pig fat. Given that Ukrainians make about EU 130 a month on average, I can only wonder who it is that chows dowm on all the caviar sold in the market. Most of the jars contain salmon caviar from farm raised fish, but for $10 you can chow down on fish eggs for breakfast in an amount that would set you back about $200 in a japanese restaurant.
Kvas trucks began appearing toward the end of the trip. Kvas is considered a summer drink, and tank trucks appear at city squares offering plastic cups of this fizzy fermented bread drink. It's fantastic on a hot day.
I am definately going to try brewing kvas this summer. Although fermented, it is so low in alcohol that is considered acceptable for consumption by children in Russia and the Ukraine. Horilka is the Ukrainian for vodka. And my, how people love their vodka. A bottle of pure grain based spirit was about $3, and as long as you didn't mix it with anything like beer or wine, one could wake up in the morning with virtually no hangover at all.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Odessa Fish Market

Just next to the Odessa Train station there is a huge, sprawling marketplace offering fresh produce, plastic shoes, Uzbek dried apricots, pink hair ornaments, just about anything that a happy Odessan could want. Including fish.Especially fish. Above are pickled mussels sold by a Korean pickle seller. Well over a half million Koreans live in the former Soviet Union, where they are known as Koryo-saram, and they have been there since the mid-19th century, mainly working as rice farmers. Through their influence, Russians are well acquainted with all kinds of radical kimchee and korean pickles - sea weed kimchee was available in every shop that sold fish, for example.Koreans from Russia were the first to introduce communism into Korean politics, and one of Russia's most beloved rock stars, Viktor Tsoi, was a Koryo-saram. Kim Jong-Il, the madman leader of North Korea, was born in the village of Vyatskoye near Khabarovsk, where his father, Kim Il-sung, commanded a battalion of the Soviet Red army, made up of Chinese and Korean exiles.
Sturgeon for sale. Russians and Ukrainians eat a lot of smoked sturgeon, and caviar is offered at every market, but this was the first time I saw whole sturgeon for sale. Sturgeon poaching for the illicit caviar trade is endangering populations in many areas, so I wasn't surprised that the sturgeon sellers weren't too happy about having their photograph taken. On the other hand, a jumping sturgeon almost killed a woman in florida in April, so let's not get to sentimental about them. They can be bad fish. Smoked fish. In American Jewish food tradition we retain a fondness for smoked fish in many forms - lox for our bagels, for instance, or "smoked sable" which is essentially Alaskan black cod smoked in an almost perfect imitation of smoked sturgeon. Smoked whitefish, which is a staple of New York's Jewish "appetizing" shops, obviously has its Yiddish roots in the Odessa fish market. In the Ukraine, however, most of the fish are either mackeral, herring or various unsavory looking fresh water species. We bought one of these smoked babies (foreground) to take home and try out. It was incredibly salty and just about inedible. Of course I ate it all. But when it comes to inedible... there is always one more border to cross...Dried fish, or vobla is a common Russian snack. Vobla is generally eaten with a glass of beer, which balances the salty taste of the fish. Vobla could be considered as raw fish, but it is, in fact, salt-cured. It is soaked in brine for two weeks and then is thoroughly air-dried for another two, which in the end acts as a form of chemical cooking. As my buddy Igor explains it "Vobla takes the role of chips when you drink beer." You strip bits of salty dried fish meat off the bones and chase it with a swig of beer. I bought a packet of pre-stripped vobla and gave it a try... and gagged. It was... incredibly... horrible. I met my match. I surrender. Vobla wins. I still have two packages sitting in the kitchen waiting for some homesick Russian to show up at my door... How about this: take the lowly pike, which confounds fish lovers by having delicious flesh but is riddled with lots of tiny Y-shaped bones... and give it the vobla treatment. Mmmm... dried salty Y-shaped bones...Basic pork butcher's offerings include blood sausage, bacon, pig's ears, and salo, a raw pig fat delicacy that Ukrainian love. Living in Hungary I'm pretty well versed in the art of pig sushi, so I wasn't at all surprised. I'll write more later on the Ukrainian cult of salo.Free range chicken? And next to that, some very large hares. Trucks offer live carp swimming in their tanks. The owner dips in a net, pulls one out, whacks it on the head with a club, and places it in a plastic bag. Often the carp are only stunned and jump to life while taking them home on the tram. Happened to me once in Budapest. I do not like carp much. At all. It is the number one fish consumed in eastern Europe, if not the world, but carp doesn't do it for me. Soft fatty flesh, tastes like mud, lots of floating Y-shaped bones. Basically, carp is a pig with fins. My opinion of carp can be summed up in one small linguistic pecadillo: the Romanian word for carp. Says it all...

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


Odessa. Few cities carry as much oral history to Jewish families as this beautiful Black Sea port. Russia formally gained possession of the area in 1792, when it became a part of Novorossiya ("New Russia") the vast south Ukrainian steppeland that had once belonged to the Ottoman Tatars. As in Kherson, the area was populated by a mix of colonists, including French, Spanish, English, Germans and Jews. French and Russian were the primary spoken languages, and Odessa - although located in the Ukraine - is primarily Russian speaking today. Waiters in cafes still often use the term rubel (instead of the Ukrainian name for the currency hrivny) when telling prices.
In 1905 Odessa was the site of a workers' uprising supported by the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin. Sergei Eisenstein's famous motion picture The Battleship Potemkin included a scene where hundreds of Odessa citizens were murdered on the great stone staircase (now popularly known as the "Potemkin Steps"), in one of the most famous scenes in motion picture history.
Odessa was unique among Jewish communities in the Russian Pale of Settlement in that its Jewish community - 30% of the population - was not governed by a Rabbinical council, but by a secular Jewish self government. Jewish refugees of the pogroms flocked to the prosperous and relatively liberal city - including my Grandparents, who fled to Odessa from Bessarabia after the 1906 Kishinev pogrom. This led to the developement of a lively secular Jewish culture, the presence of hundreds of Jewish taverns and bars, and eventually to a whole genre of Russian language "Odessa songs" in a style that mixed Yiddish folk music, Russian estrade, and old jazz into a particularly local sound, beloved by Soviet Jews.Duringt he Soviet era, the Jewish population of Odessa assimilated into Russian speakers - according to Prof. Dovid Katz, who did a survey of Yiddish dialects including Odessa, today there are very few old people who still speak Yiddish. Still, the Jewish presence is evident in even the street names: Jew Street.. a major downtown thoroughfare...Just off of Jew Street was the main Synagogue. On a weekday, still used for Talmud Tora by what appears to be a Chabad Lubavitch dominated congregation. The old Jewish quarter, the Moldovanka, the focus of so much Yiddish song (In Ades, in Ades, af di Moldovanka/ Ikh hob gelibt a meydele, a greyser charlatanke!) is no longer what it once was. Most folk under the age of seventy could not even tell you where the neighborhood was. Eric, Drorit, yours truly, and Fumie in front of the old Synagogue.Jewish identity need not be a matter of solemn reflection and good taste. In the Odessa Jewish musuem we found what appeared to be a dancing Santa Claus doll dressed as a hasid, mechanically davening at the entrance to the Museum. Yes, this is the museum run by the Odessa Jewish community. You often find odd takes on Jewishness among assimilated Jewish communities in East Europe... one man's offensiveness is just another man's kitsch.Lunch was to be had at a small working class cafeteria... including pelmeni, which are small meat filled dumplings. Usually, in the Ukraine, these are larger and called vareniky, but such is the stubborn Russophilic identity of Odessa...Strolling around town, one gets a truly mediteranean feeling. The architecture is glorious...But the dancing hasid dummy... you have to see this in action. I actually did a shakey pan shot around the museum just to prove that this thing actually is an exhibit in the Odessa Jewish Museum. This clip actually was a Youtube hit when I first posted it...

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Konsonans Retro: Best World Music Idea in Ages

Christian Dawid is not exactly the kind of name one would associate with one of the world’s best klezmer musicians. Few Klezmer guys are named Christian, although a lot are named David. If you live in East Europe anyone named David (or, in Berlin, Dawid) is assumed to be Jewish. Christian isn’t, for purposes of ethno-pigeonholing, but listen to him play the clarinet and you might doubt you first assumptions. Christian plays with a lot of the best Klezmer bands internationally, and as a mainstay of the Berlin Klezmer scene, he really knows the music. His latest project is Konsonans Retro, in which he teams up with the Baranovsky family village brass band of of Kodyma, in the western Odessa region, Ukraine, right near the Moldavian border, and adds a heavy-handed touch of Jewish musical repertoire and aesthetic to their Ukraino-Moldavian folk style of wedding music, and vice versa. Here is the band as I first heard them – playing for the boat as it approached the port of Odessa just after breakfast in early May, 2007….
This is an approach that should have appeared years ago… someone with a full command of early and modern Klezmer styles working with local east European musicians who still maintain the folk style of local wedding music that fed the spring that made klezmer the world music phenomenon of the pre-WWI years in the suburbs of Odessa.
Odessa is the source city of so much Yiddish tradition. Unlike other ities in the Russian Pale of Settlement, it was Novorossiya at its best – the only city not where Jews were not governed by a rabbinical council. That meant that Jews were free to evolve into a secular, civil society. And that meant taverns and music. Even today the culture and dialect of Odessa is marked by the fact that before WWII over 30% of its inhabitants were Jewish. On the other hand, throughout its history Odessa has been a strong player in the Russification of the former Tatar lands of Novorossiya, and the result is that today there are very few speakers of Yiddish in Odessa. The Jews of Odessa mostly spoke Russian after the 1920s. And they made songs in Russian. Especially Jewish gangster songs. Such as the well known Odessa tune “Lemonchiki”

ja umeju malatit', omeju vimolatchivat'umeju shariki krutit', karmani vivoratjivat'

"I'm so smart and I have a good pair of handsI can empty your pockets outbefore you bat an eye"

oi limonchiki, vi moi limonchikigde rastjoti vi n mojom sadovoi limonchiki, vi moi limonchikivi rastjote v soni na balkonchike

"oi, limonchiki (millions of bucks)where do you grow, in which orchardoi limonchiki, you grow on sonya's balcony"

And Sonya had a hell of a rack.. (i.e., a balcony….)
My Grandfather, Moshe Onitiskansky, lived in Odessa for awhile after fleeing Kishinev (today’s Chishinau, capitol of the Republic of Moldova) after the 1906 pogrom. So did my Grandmother. And the rest is history.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Uzbek Shashlik and Samosa

While in the Ukraine I found a replacement for White Castle Hamburgers: Uzbek food. Big, smelly Central Asian Turkic nomads who have a strangle hold on the dried fruit and spice sections of Ukraines open markets. And Uzbeks like meat. Even better: Uzbeks like marinated lamb shish kebab - shashlik - grilled outdoors on a wood burning mangal grill.
Just before our ship was about to leave Sebastopol, we ran ashore to get a couple of bottles of mineral water at the central market. On board the ship, ordering a bottle of water with lunch cost a mere seven times more than showing up with your own bottle. Following the smell of meaty smoke, we turned a corner and found this shashlik stand behind the market, and immediately lost all our enthusiam for another on-board ship lunch.
Being on a low-carb eating regimen means that I don't get hungry easily, but it had been a while since I had really filled my belly and this was obviously the way to do that. I ordered a double portion of lamb shashlik and Fumie ordered the lagman soup.Fumie needs her Asian noodle soups, and this is as far west as we can get and still call this an Asian noodle soup. Thick noodles in a stewed lamb broth with eggplant and vegatables. Not content to remain seated in meat heaven, I nosed around the back and found an outdoor oven baking the unique Uzbek version of burek called samosa. Nothing at all like an Indian samosa, these were triangular bureks filled with ground lamb or cheese.
The Uzbek bread is called non (compare to Hindi naan) or lepyoshka (lepenje in Croat) and is always stamped in the center before baking.
Finding more Uzbek shashlik joints became my obsession dureing the rest of the trip. In Odessa we met some friendly Uzbek dried fruit sellers in the marketplace. My skeletal command of Turkish didn't work as well with Uzbeks as it had with Tatars, but it broke the barriers down enough to ask where the shashlik shack was...Shashlik stand, Odessa. A tin shack in the back of the junk market behind the vegetable market. Turkish karaoke blaring at full volume.
Happy diners after a very loud meal of plov and shashlik. Belly full, I can once again face the boat.
Moored next to us in Odessa was this:Aha! Now I know where they come from!