The Food of an Extant People

Jewish Restaurant in Lublin
When I was a kid, I had once gone to a Native American ceremonial event. I was young, but I had known that something was not quite right. Perhaps the caucasian-looking men toying around with blunted hatchets, with strikes of face paint, had links to a massacred people. But they were smiling too much and seemed to be having an inappropriate amount of fun; a stark contrast to the man in the background sitting somber and astute. Was he watching his people respectfully reenact some historical event, or examining a bunch of white guys flippantly revise his history? I’ll never know the answer, but when I visited a thematically Jewish restaurant in Lublin, Poland, last summer, I thought about that man and the pow wow.


The first time I had visited the city of Lublin, it was 2010 and I had been with a group of twenty-somethings. At dusk, I encountered a swastika painted on the sidewalk of the old city. Later that evening, on the walk back to the hotel from a Shabbat dinner at the synagogue, a few men sitting in dark pubs along the roadway shouted anti-Semitic comments. At concentration camp Majdanek the next day, which sits just outside the city center, the phrase “Lublin, Beautiful Lublin” was printed on a coffee mug in the gift shop. A gift shop? At Majdanek?


Today, there isn’t much in the city that testifies to the murder and displacement of Lublin’s Jews. The city that once had more than forty thousand Jewish residents, at present, has about thirty–not thirty thousand, just thirty. Three. Zero.


I walked past the buildings that had once belonged to the war-time Jewish ghetto. They were mostly intact, but devoid of any signs indicating their past use. I looked for old nail holes in door frames–historical placeholders for removed mezuzahs.


Of the Jewish neighborhood that once swelled around the castle there remains one plaque, a well, and a lamppost. The plaque noted the main synagogue’s existence, but it was lost to most passersby because of the overgrown bushes. Across the street, sat the old water well that I would never have thought to visit. It was part of the old Jewish neighborhood, but was now surrounded now by the growing industries and village. At the northwest corner of a 17th Century Catholic church stood the lamppost. A single sheet of laminated, water-stained, computer paper hung off of a wire at the base. It told the story of the surviving lamppost and its connection to the erased Jewish neighborhood.


Jewish Restaurant in Lublin Mandragora

A Jewish Restaurant in Lublin


The only other Jewish thing about Lublin today is the Jewish-themed restaurant in the old city, Mandragora. I was taken aback when a pretty, red-haired Polish girl nodded to me at the entrance, extended a menu, and said “Shalom.”


Hearing Shalom in Lublin was like a Native American being told that they could pay their dinner bill at a swanky New York restaurant with wampom.


Inside the 16th century building, Mandragora’s walls were painted with a lost people: images of dancing Orthodox men and pious women cloaked with head scarves. Photographs of religious Jews walking the streets of Jerusalem and praying at the Kotel hung in place, while statues of stereotyped fiddlers and menorahs were scattered about. The restaurant felt like a small museum to the victims, or a cruel mockery, or a way to exploit an empty niche carved out by murder.


The latter seemed most likely. After all, Lublin was a popular city for Jewish visitors who come to visit Majdanek. I scanned the menu for disrespect.


In a story that I had read in Ha’aretz, a Jewish-themed restaurant in the Ukraine called Pid Zolotoju Rozoju, which means “At the Golden Rose,” had waiters who wore hats with peyot–which in earlier reports were given to guests–and menus with no prices because, as they see it, like a Jew, you are meant to haggle over your meal.


But instead of insults to my people, Mandragora’s menu told tales of dishes from Grandma’s table. Everything from summaries of Jewish customs and holidays to what’s typical for the Shabbat dinner, like gefilte fish and cholent, were expounded upon.


Later, I discovered that one of the owners of Mandragora had lived in Israel for sixteen years. And the chef, who is the other co-owner, Izabella Dechnite nee Kozlowska, gained her expertise in her grandmother’s kitchen. Her grandmother, she recalled to me the next day, when I found her kibitzing out front of her restaurant, made “perfect gefilte fish.” She also remembered her uncle making matzah, but was adamant that she was Catholic, noting, however, that “part of my grandmother’s family was Jewish.”


Jewish Restaurant in Lublin Mandragora


Still, many of the dishes lovingly portrayed, as the menu noted, “a Yiddish Mama’s kitchen.” “Duck Jewish style” and “festive goose”–gussied up with tzimmis and “Purim sauce”–read as apropos as bacon-wrapped matzah balls, but tasted of something familiar. The classics, too, were deliciously spun. Chopped liver, for instance, named “Jewish caviar” at Mandragora, was far from the Jewish deli texture. Mandragora’s was chunky and mixed with nuts.


While Mandragora’s menu joked that it’s “Kosher once in a blue moon,” the back of the menu explained in more detail the extent to which they observe kashrut: separating milk from meat, ordering kosher products from overseas, using disposable plates for more observant guests, and allowing diners who follow a kosher diet to inspect their kitchen.


Regardless of what felt like respect, I was dubious.


“Why do you wear the headscarf?” I quizzed the shikshah waitress, expecting her to roll her eyes or say something mildly anti-Semitic.


She said it was to keep her hair out of the food, which seemed like a wrong, but certainly plausible answer. Later on I asked about her favorite Jewish customs.


“Purim,” she said.


“Why?” I asked.


“Because you drink a lot of alcohol. It’s funny,” she said.


She sounded perhaps like any number of observant Jews her age sick of the fall rush of fasting and assembling the short-lived sukkah.


The speakers crackled and the fourth rendition of Have Negilah in ninety minutes played. I wondered: was this a beautiful tribute, or was I just letting something that felt like home–or a lost home ever since Grandma died–get the better of me?


How do you reflect the lives of a murdered people: with their lost dances, with their silenced music, with their extant food?


I stabbed at the pickled herring absent the cream sauce, and absent so much more.


A Jewish Restaurant in Lublin

Posted on by Noah Lederman in Europe, Somewhere

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