A taste of another world

This picture shows a group of Jewish women, accompanied by a few children, bringing pots of tsholnt to the local bakery. Tsholnt (also known as cholent) is the traditional Ashkenazic stew, variously made of meat, beans, barley and vegetables, prepared on Friday afternoons for consumption on Saturday afternoon. The word tsholnt is a treasured linguistic landmark of Yiddish—one of the few words in the modem language that can be traced back to the medieval romance languages spoken by the first Jews to migrate east and settle in towns along the Rhine Riven where Yiddish was born over a thousand years ago.

The tradition of making tsholnt is a distinctive Ashkenazic variation of a long-standing Jewish practice—maintaining the prohibition against making fires or cooking on the Sabbath on the one hand, while having warm, substantial food to eat on the other hand. The tsholnt pots in this picture were placed in the baker’s large oven; its walls retained enough heat from a week of steady use to keep these pots warm from Friday afternoon until the main meal on the Sabbath.

Shabes nokhn tsholnt—that time on Saturday afternoons after eating this meal—is a distinctive moment in the weekly calendar of traditional Ashkenazic life, when observant Jews were briefly free both from work and from ritual duties. In turn-of-the-century Yiddish fiction it is frequently evoked—sometimes as a time of unique peace and contentment in the traditional Jew’s routine, other times as the epitome of the stultifying existence of provincial East European Jewry.

This photograph, taken in Bialystok, Poland, appeared in the kunst-baylage. or rotogravure section, of the Jewish Daily Forward on November 20, 1932. Like many of the pictures of Jewish life in Poland that appeared in America’s most popular Yiddish newspaper during the interwar years, it afforded readers a vicarious trip back to their Old World homes. This constituted an imaginary journey not only across space but also through time, taking immigrant readers back to their childhood years, to an Old World understood as frozen in time.

The Forwards implicit message that this way of life was “backward” and “provincial” is underscored by the contrast between this photograph and the others that appeared with it on this page, including portraits of actors and actresses of the New York Yiddish Stage, a shot of an outdoor art exhibition in Greenwich Village, and a picture of “Miss Mary Wiechelman of Cincinnati, Ohio, who was selected as the country’s ideal secretary at the annual meeting of the lota National Business Society.”

The photograph was clearly posed for the camera. Rather than offering us an image that captures candidly a ritual activity in process, it offers a portrait of a group of Polish Jewish women bearing the attributes of a traditional life practiced communally. Notions of domestic life certainly vary from one Jewish culture to another! In the same November 20th issue of the Forward, its “New World” female readers were encouraged in Di froyen-velt, its “women’s page,” to pursue a modem, American middle- class ideal vision of life at home. Both advertisement and features “sell” the idea of a ideal woman as married (of course) and free from the obligation to work, thanks to her husband’s full-time employment outside the home. She fully supervises her family’s private life, not only preparing meals that are nourishing and tempting, but also maintaining a home environment that is clean, healthy, comfortable and tastefully appointed.

In the Jewish “Old World,” boundaries of private and public activities and spaces were configured differently. The ability of these woman to carry theirtsholntpots home on the Sabbath (carrying objects outside the home is forbidden on the Sabbath) was achieved by legally transforming the street—normally an open, public place—into a private domain. This was accomplished by means of an eyrev—a wire, strung from one roof to another in a Jewish neighborhood, marking the area within its circumference as an enclosed space. As this picture demonstrates, feeding the family, part of a traditional East European Jewish woman’s role in life, is both a private activity and a public ritual.

Jeffrey Shandler is a Ph.D. candidate in Yiddish Studies at Columbia