Barbara Mazur and Wendy Waxman were visiting YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York in 2009 when they had the serendipitous chance to see a rare cookbook that had been donated to the organization.
The original book, Vilna, a vegetarian cookbook written in 1938 by Fania Lewando, had been purchased by Pessl and Henry Stern at an antique book fair in Hay-on-Wye in 1995. They donated it to YIVO in 2008 when they were told that it was actually a rare book.
“Wendy and I first saw it in YIVO’s Rare Book Room in 2009 when we went with a reading group we belonged to, and they were shown a collection of old books, including Vilna,” shares Mazur.
They were first attracted to the book by the lush, beautiful color illustrations on the cover and inside the book, which were in fact photos of seed packet covers.
“Because it was written in Yiddish [a language Mazur recalls her parents speaking when they did not want her and her siblings to understand], we couldn’t read it, but were told that it was written by a woman, that it was vegetarian and that guestbook entries from the author’s restaurant were also included in the book. We were very impressed that a woman in 1930s Vilna was a pioneer in the vegetarian food movement in Poland, owned a restaurant where all the poets, writers and artists of the day gathered to dine and converse (even Mark Chagall made an entry in the guestbook), was a cooking teacher and wrote a cookbook!”
While neither Mazur nor Waxman was particularly interested in cooking or cookbooks, it was love at first sight when they saw Lewando’s book. “We loved it and wanted Lewando’s voice to be heard.”
Lewando, who had been the proprietor of a popular vegetarian restaurant in Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania, had published a Yiddish vegetarian cookbook unlike anything before it. Its 400 recipes included traditional Jewish dishes (kugel, blintzes, fruit compote, borscht), vegetarian versions of Jewish holiday staples (cholent, kishke, schnitzel), appetizers, soups, main courses and desserts and called for vegetables and fruits not traditionally part of the repertoire of the traditional Eastern European Jewish homemaker, such as chickpea cutlets, Jerusalem artichoke soup, leek frittata and apple charlotte with whole wheat breadcrumbs. Also included were impassioned essays by Lewando and by a physician about the benefits of vegetarianism. The recipes were accompanied by lush full–color drawings of vegetables and fruit that had originally appeared on bilingual (Yiddish and English) seed packets. The cookbook was sold throughout Europe.
“We were amazed by the fact that her adages and recipes are still important and being used in many cookbooks today. She was a very progressive woman.”
Enchanted by the book’s contents and by its story, YIVO commissioned a translation of the book that would make Lewando’s charming, delicious and practical recipes available to an audience beyond the wildest dreams of the visionary woman who created them.
Lewando and her husband died during World War II, and it was assumed that all but a few family–owned and archival copies of her cookbook vanished along with most of European Jewry. Mazur and Waxman knew the book needed to get to the public and approached author Joan Nathan, who directed them to Altie Karper at Schocken Books to see if she was interested in publishing the book. She was ecstatic. It was suggested that Nathan write the foreward for the book.
Beautifully translated for a new generation of devotees of delicious and healthy eating, the story of The Vilna Vegetarian is a heartwarming one of a groundbreaking, mouthwatering vegetarian cookbook originally published in Yiddish in pre-World War II Vilna and miraculously rediscovered more than half a century later.
Images reprinted from The Vilna Vegetarian by Fania Lewando. Copyright © 2015 by Random House.