In a recent d’var Torah, Rabbi Eric Yanoff of Adath Israel in Philadelphia addressed the practice of scapegoating and how Jews throughout history have often had that role thrust upon them.

As Yanoff noted, there are plenty of prominent examples of Jews unfairly being targeted throughout the ages. But Edward Berenson, a history professor at New York University, has uncovered a fascinating case of scapegoating that occurred 90 years ago in an upstate New York hamlet.

A 4-year-old girl named Barbara Griffith wandered into the woods surrounding the town of Massena on Sept. 22, 1928 — two days before Yom Kippur; a search ensued with hundreds of people participating.

It didn’t take long before a rumor spread that Jews in the town had kidnapped and then killed Barbara as part of a ritual murder called a “blood libel.”

Both Mayor W. Gilbert Hawes and state police Corp. H.M. McCann said they believed the rumor, which they indicated came from a “foreigner” in the town. 

According to JTA articles of the time, Rabbi Berel Brennglass of Congregation Adath Israel of Massena was questioned by police, as were many members of the 19 Jewish families living in the town.

All of the town’s Jews were innocent, which became readily apparent when Barbara was found unharmed a mile away. The girl later said she got lost while looking for her older brother, fell asleep and was wandering about again when two searchers found her. 

Even so, it took a while before calm was restored and the suspicions directed at the town’s Jews subsided.

Berenson deftly takes the seemingly minor incident and uses it to explore how blood libels came to be. The well-researched book touches upon dozens of incidents that occurred for centuries across Europe and how they often centered on a supposed ghastly need for blood to make matzah.

Berenson then explores anti-Semitism in the United States, noting that the Ku Klux Klan was in its heyday in the 1920s. Jews weren’t the Klan’s main target, but blacks, Jews, Catholics and other non-Protestants were on edge.

Meantime, while we live in a much more global environment today, the Massena incident itself showed how influences from thousands of miles away could make their way to a small town — that “foreigner” who spread the rumor had probably heard similar rumors back in the Old Country.

 

ADAM REINHERZ | contributing writer

Two Books Are Tasty Treats

 

The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List

Alana Newhouse

Artisan 

 

The Brisket Chronicles

Steven Raichlen

Workman

 

Give the gourmand steak au poivre and the literati Ulysses, but sometimes all you’re craving is familiar meat and a quick read. Those mildly hungry for books dedicated to Jewish cuisine should look no further than The 100 Most Jewish Foods by Tablet’s Alana Newhouse, and The Brisket Chronicles by Steven Raichlen.

Like peanut butter and bananas, the two texts can be paired or enjoyed individually, as each offers beautiful photographs, accessible writing and the ability to allow readers to nibble away at passages without any need of finishing the whole. 

Newhouse’s work is a “highly debatable list,” as she puts it. 

“This is not a list of today’s most popular Jewish foods, or someone’s ideas of the tastiest, or even the most enduring,” she writes. “What’s here, instead, are the foods that contain the deepest Jewish significance — the ones that, through the history of our people (however you date it), have been most profoundly inspired by the rhythms of the Jewish calendar and the contingencies of the Jewish experience.” 

Caveat accepted. Which is perhaps why brisket, horseradish and kichel appear, but falafel and Sunkist Fruit Gems do not.

The book presents each food accompanied by a short vignette and recipe. Occasional information is sprinkled throughout the pages, such as the rise in sesame-related eats and insights into Soviet cuisine, but overall the text is light on history.

Those thirsting for taxonomic entries seasoned with origins and etymologies should read Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food — the comprehensive collection offers more than a mouthful for most Jewish readers.

What Newhouse’s text brings to the table is an array of entertaining writers (or, as she calls them, “an unexpected collection of contributors”), including Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Zac Posen and Shalom Auslander. 

The Brisket Chronicles is less diverse, honing in on what Raichlen calls “the world’s most epic cut of meat.” Apart from explaining how to buy, prepare and serve brisket, Raichlen packs his pages with mouthwatering images and instructions. 

In a passage dedicated to “a real deal Texas-style brisket,” he writes, “Well, here’s the big kahuna: fourteen pounds of pure proteinaceous awesomeness. The brisket that makes reputations — and fortunes ... I suggest serving it unadorned so you can appreciate the complex interplay of salt, spice, smoke, meat and fat.” 

Raichlen’s writing offers a particular flavor that, like its subject, teeters between bravado and subtle sweetness. 

When lionizing his Aunt Annette’s holiday brisket, he writes, “Long before my indoctrination into barbecue, I ate brisket. So did every other Jewish kid in the neighborhood. Brisket was the ultimate holiday dish, and nobody made it better than my aunt, Annette Farber... Lavished with apricots, prunes and other dried fruits, it was the sort of sweet-salty, meaty-fruity mash-up typical of so much Ashkenazi cuisine.” 

Adam Reinherz is a staff writer with the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.

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