For most, the bialy is the bagel's lesser-known cousin, with a scattering of onions and an indentation instead of a hole. For food writer Mimi Sheraton, it's an entree into the history of the Jews of Bialystok, many of whom she befriended over years of obsessive inquiry and travel. The stories she uncovered are a reminder of what food can mean to people living far from their homeland, and the many ways in which it can nourish.
On assignment in Poland, Sheraton takes a detour to Bialystok to sample the bialy on native soil. But she discovers that not only are there no bialys in Bialystok; only five Jews remain of the 60,000 who lived there in 1941, when the Nazis entered the city. More determined than ever, Sheraton embarks upon a project to trace the diasporas of both the bialy and the Bialystokers.
Sheraton finds the fullest expression of bialyness at Kossar's Bialystoker Kuchen Bakery, formerly Mirsky & Kossar, founded on New York's Lower East Side around 1920 by a handful of Bialystokers and Russians. She respectfully interviews the culinary pioneers (none from Bialystok) who've brought the bialy as far as Texas, Florida, and Arizona. But Sheraton doesn't mince words about the sorry specimens most produce; what passes for a bialy convinces her that they are an "endangered species." A real bialy, she insists, should be made with fresh, not dehydrated, onions, and should be crusty, not "pale, strangely damp, and rubbery."
Even Kossar's bialys differ from the ones Bialystokers remember: the originals, baked in a wood-fired oven, were bigger, with a flat, crispy indentation, and plenty of poppyseeds. Interestingly, when Sheraton tastes a Bialystoker-baked bialy in Israel, made with a coarse-grained flour, and certainly closer to the ur-bialy, she prefers the New York version. She explains, "Calvin Trillin once wrote that any man who doesn't think his hometown hamburger is best is a sissy. That may be true of bialys as well."
Sheraton interviews Bialystokers in Paris, Israel, Argentina, and Australia as well as the U.S. They recall bialys -- called kuchen, pletzls, kuchelach, bagels, and pie-cakes -- and how they ate them: unsplit and buttered, with herring or halvah, or, for the poorest Jews, plain.
They also relate stories of lost family, persecution (by Poles as well as Nazis), torture, starvation, emigration, and survival. All the background information about tracking down informants makes the book loose and rambling, but the life story of each interviewee is precious. Former Bialystoker Samuel Pisar hallucinated about bialys while in Auschwitz. Slim Schwartenberg, who could shape 90 dozen bialys an hour, recalls starting at Mirsky & Kossar at age 11: "I wanted a warm place to sleep because our apartment was cold.... If I carried in the coal and wood for the ovens, I could sleep on top of the flour sacks where the ovens were always hot. I loved sleeping there with the smell of burning wood and yeast."
One 101-year-old former Bialystoker, Ben Halpern, recalls the time a streetwalker snatched his bialy: "I still remember how hungry I was in school that day. Bialys in Detroit don't taste like a the real ones, so I'm still hungry." Sheraton may never find the authentic bialy she pursues, but she succeeds in evoking the hunger for it.
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What would a bialy taste like in Bialystok? That is what I wondered as I prepared to visit Poland on a writing assignment for the Condé Nast Traveler in October, 1992. To find out, I planned a side trip to that city and did some advance research. My obvious starting point was Kossar's Bialy Bakery on Grand Street, the main stem of New York's Lower East Side. I knew Kossar's as the source of the very best bialys in the city and, as it would turn out, in the entire country. I called Danny Scheinin, who in 1956 took over proprietorship of the bakery from his father-in-law, Morris Kossar, a partner in the business originally known as Mirsky and Kossar. Danny immediately assured me that I would find no bialys in Bialystok, a sad fact he had learned from several friends who had visited that city and found only five Jews living there. Nevertheless, experience as a reporter had taught me the value of "eyes on," looking for oneself. I was certain that I could find at least some examples or memories of these defining rolls on their native ground. I decided to take some bialys with me so that I could show them instead of trying to describe them, in the hope that I would jog a few memories.
The cold, rainy day that I went to Kossar's to buy the bialys for the trip was a portent of weather to come throughout my visit to Poland. Danny told me of the nearby Bialystoker Center and Home for the Aged and suggested that I speak to someone there and perhaps get a contact in Poland. Because of limited time, I decided to risk an impromptu visit, and so, juggling an umbrella and a bag of twelve bialys, I walked from Kossar's on Grand Street to theCenter on East Broadway and Clinton Street, rehearsing my strange request. Because it is on a rather deserted street, the Center's building, completed in 1930 when the home was established, could easily escape notice, despite the landmarked exterior's rather handsome, simple Moorish art-deco facade. An offshoot of Bikur Cholim, a philanthropic organization begun in Bialystok in 1826, the Center was a nursing home and residence for aging Bialystok "migrs." It is still functioning, with only two aged Bialystokers among the ninety-five residents, and it remains ground zero as the clearing house of information for Bialystok landsleit around the world. The semiannual magazine, the Bialystoker Shtimme (The Voice of Bialystok) is produced here with both Yiddish and English texts and goes to Bialystokers all over the world, many of whom are contributors as well as subscribers. Publication of the Shtimme was temporarily halted from 1998 to 2000, as funds of the Center diminished. However, intermittent publication and a revised form is under way for a readership that still numbers five thousand, albeit not all are Bialystokers.
When I explained my mission to the receptionist, she contemplated me for several seconds, as though she doubted my sanity, but then politely went in search of someone who had the time to talk to me. I got lucky. Fortunately, the person who had time was the now deceased Izaak Rybal, a tall, courtly, white-haired "migr" from Bialystok who was the executive director, as well as the heart and soul of the Center. When I explained that I was a food journalist going to Bialystok to look for bialys, this gracious man looked perplexed as he asked, "Why go so far? Kossar's is only two blocks away. Delicious kuchen!"
"Better than Bialystok's?" I asked.
"Well, no," he replied with a note of longing in his voice. "Those were bigger, crisper in the middle, and had lots of mohn [poppy seeds] and brown onions."
Sitting in the rather bare, dimly lighted lobby of the Center, I told him about my work and why I wanted to make the journey, even if the prospects of success looked slim. He then generously gave me the name of an old, dear friend, Dr. Anatol Leszczynski, a Jewish historian living in Warsaw, although born and raised in Bialystok.
Mr. Rybal told me something of Bialystok, a city that before the Second World War was known for its good schools, with an especially respected Jewish gymnasium (high school), begun in 1920 and attended by the former Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, who grew up in a nearby town, and for its many hospitals and social service centers that earned it the encomium "The city with the golden heart." The city had a majority population of energetic, inventive Jews involved in the businesses of textiles, leather, printing, and lumber, as well as in theater, medicine, and publishing. To succeed, many of them spoke not only Yiddish, Polish, and Russian but also German.
Mr. Rybal named a few of Bialystok's more notable Jews: Maxim Litvinov, born Meier Wallach in 1876, who was Stalin's foreign minister and then ambassador to the United States; Dr. Ludwik L. Zamenhof, an opthalmologist born in 1859 and the inventor of the international language Esperanto; Dr. Albert B. Sabin, born in 1906, who in the United States developed the oral polio vaccine named for him; and Max Weber, the painter born in 1881 who emigrated to the United States when he was ten years old. All of this was a surprising and impressive start for me because my limited knowledge of that Polish city began with bialys and ended with the character of Max Bialystok as portrayed by Zero Mostel in Mel Brooks' film classic The Producers.
Mr. Rybal briefly described two events I was to hear of many times. The first was the epic burning of Bialystok's Great Synagogue, built in 1908 and noteworthy for its size and grandeur, while two thousand Jews were inside. (I have since read estimates ranging from eight hundred to three thousand victims.) He called it a "celebration" by the Nazis of their entry into the city. The date--June 27, 1941--is still marked each year by memorial services in Israel and also by Bialystokers who return to that city on major anniversaries.
The second event was the courageous but ill-fated three-day uprising of the city's ghetto that had officially been established by the Nazis in 1941. Between August 1 and 3, the sixty thousand Jews in Bialystok were ordered from their homes and herded behind barbed wire, an event marked by the jeering and pillaging of many Polish neighbors. In February, 1943, after being terrorized by intermittent mass killings and tortures and the removals of thousands to labor camps, and inspired by news of the brave uprising in the Warsaw ghetto just a month before, two hundred of the ghetto's underground formed a resistance unit that operated for months. Their actions culminated in a revolt that began on August 16, and when they were defeated, the forty thousand remaining Jews were shipped to Auschwitz and Maidanek and any remaining were shot. The ghetto cemetery on Zabia Street in Bialystok was destroyed by Polish punks in 1971. Twenty-two years later, in 1993, an obelisk on the cemetery grounds was dedicated to those ghetto martyrs.
Izaak Rybal also mentioned the nearby Bialystoker Synagogue in New York, just off Grand Street on what was formerly Willett Street and renamed Bialystoker Place in 1978. The synagogue's original congregation was comprised of Bialystok emigrés, but it now attracts Orthodox Jews of all backgrounds, including many young families moving back to this historically Jewish urban enclave for the conveniences of lower rents, kosher food stores, and restaurants and a functioning mikvah, or ritual bath. The synagogue is housed in a handsome rough-cut gray stone building, a landmark built in 1826 as a Methodist church and purchased by the Bialystok congregation in 1905. I was fortunate enough to be given a tour of the interior by the synagogue's president, Judge Martin Shulman, and was surprised to find it unexpectedly brilliant, with lavishly painted Italianate trompe l'oeil marbling, biblical landscapes and scenes from Jerusalem. Most unusual in an Orthodox setting were zodiac signs around the ceiling frieze. I was amused to see that a lobster replaced the crab as the symbol of Cancer, an unnoticed error that is perhaps understandable in a group forbidden by laws of kashrut (Orthodox Jewish dietary restrictions) to eat any shellfish and, therefore, unable to distinguish between different types.
My only other contact in Poland besides Dr. Leszczynski was Roman Powlowski, an editor on the local newspaper Kurier Poranny (Morning Courier), whose name I was given by Gina Piers, my Polish-born dressmaker in New York who got his name from a relative in Warsaw.
As soon as I arrived home with my bialys, I prepared them for the voyage. Following Danny Scheinin's advice, I knew I had to keep them dry and prevent mold by packing them in paper, not plastic. That way they would not rot, even though they would be stale and inedible after a day. I carefully dried them in a low oven for about thirty minutes, then set them on a rack on the kitchen counter so that moisture would evaporate. Just before leaving, I wrapped them loosely in paper towels and slid them into a brown paper bag that I stored in my suitcase, worried that the onions would work like a perverse sachet. During the ten days of traveling before arriving in Bialystok, I unwrapped the bialys and aired them on the dressers of hotel rooms each night, probably puzzling the cleaning staff.
The only person not puzzled by this activity was my husband, Richard Falcone, who had joined me in gastronomic quests whenever he could leave his own business as an importer of silver and china. A food lover with a taste for adventure (otherwise our marriage probably would not have lasted for 45 years), he was most enthusiastic about forays into Italy, where his parents were born. As a child of the Bronx, he, like so many New York gentiles, was as familiar with the bialy and the bagel as he was with pizza and calzone. Diagnosing my latest syndrome as Compulsive Obsessive Bialy Disorder (COBD), Dick was as keen as I was for yet another culinary search.
A Day in Bialystok
By the time Dick and I arrived in Warsaw, my bialys were about ten days old, having survived Moravia and Prague in Czechoslovakia and Cracow in Poland. Once again, I aired them in Warsaw, a city that took me by surprise first because of the prosperous, nervous bustle that swirled around everywhere, and next, because of the smartly dressed women who looked so contemporarily American. As soon as I had a firm plan for fulfilling my official assignment (meaning reservations at all of the restaurants I wanted to try), I called Dr. Anatol Leszczynski and told him I had been referred by Izaak Rybal.
He immediately agreed to meet for lunch, asking if he could bring his wife, Janina. "I like people from New York," he said. "And besides, it gives me a chance to speak English." The impeccably dapper, gentle man and the sweetly shy woman, both in their early seventies, were delights as we shared a meal at the cozy Lers restaurant where we had thick, hot Polish mushroom-and-barley soup and the savory pierogi--pastry turnovers filled with meat and buckwheat groats or kasha. A native of Bialystok as was his wife, Dr. Leszczynski explained that he saved himself from the Germans by crossing the border and joining the Soviet army. It was a common solution that made Bialystok a busy escape route for many Polish Jews, with two hundred thousand jamming the city early in 1941 as a German victory seemed imminent.
A historian still proud of his native city, Dr. Leszczynski told us briefly of its past, including the facts that it was founded in 1320 by Prince Gedimin of Lithuania and that Jews had begun to settle in the region in the late fifteenth century, establishing a settlement in Bialystok in 1558. He also spoke of the ruling Count Jan Branicki, whose heirs ruled the Bialystok province from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries and gave Jews full citizenship in 1745, building a tower market of eighty-eight shops for them. He also financed the first wooden Great Synagogue, constructed in 1763.
I unwrapped two of my bialy specimens as I explained my mission and saw a slow light of recognition spread across Janina's and Anatol's faces as they recalled them from childhood. But both husband and wife noted that the kuchen had been much larger. "And with lots of mohn," Janina insisted. Neither knew of any being made anywhere in Poland but asked if they could have my two as mementos, however inedible. Most helpfully, Dr. Leszczynski arranged for Janosz Mroczek, a chauffeur and interpreter, to drive us the 75 miles to Bialystok and spend the day guiding us. Without him, we could never have navigated this adventure.
Finally the day of departure arrived and our alarm rang at five thirty on a dull, gray morning as a mixture of rain and snow fell against the strange yellow glow of Warsaw's pollution-smeared sky. Between quick gulps of hot coffee, I packed two more bialys along with a letter to the Bialystok journalist, Roman Powlowski. Wrapped in raincoats, Dick and I huddled in the back of Janosz's Mercedes for the three-hour drive to that remote corner of Poland.
We rode through what seemed like an endless flat countryside, bland and drab on that sleet-drenched day. Here and there were sagging carved wood cottages that must have been antique craft treasures and, every so often, a small, bustling town with a supermarket and brightly dressed children waiting for school buses. The terrain became more interesting as we neared the outskirts of Bialystok with shadowy gray-brown forests streaked with silvery white birches, suggesting a ghostly stage set. The only signs of human life were a few intrepid wild mushroom hunters at the roadsides, selling their finds of the season's boroviks, which are among the world's most esteemed cepes. Janosz explained that this area of Poland was known as the Podlasie, meaning "under the trees," and he described Bialowieza, a larger forest outside of Bialystok that is still home to elk, bison, and the famous "buffalo grass" that flavors the highly prized Zybrowka vodka.
We arrived in Bialystok at about nine in the morning and went to the town center, a rather dreary collection of three- and four-story commercial buildings of the sort we called taxpayers, living quarters over stores, that lined Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, not far from where I grew up.
At the Hotel Cristal, a popular meeting place, Janusz telephoned the newspaper for an appointment with the editor. He was not yet in, and anxious about wasting time, I decided to play show-and-tell with my bialys and took them to the middle-aged hotel desk clerk, asking if she had ever seen bread like that. After contemplating the bialys for a few minutes, she searched through a phone book and indicated a baker whom she thought made similar rolls. Although she got no answer when she called, I was certain that success was imminent, and so we drove to the bakery. Turning off the main streets, we entered what looked like a country backwater, with a few crudely built brick houses and ramshackle wood cabins, and, everywhere, half-paved roads and streets thick with oozing mud.