When Lyudmila and Yuri Gites first arrived in the Washington area eight months ago from the Soviet Union, they sent a photograph of themselves to their friends to show them the wonders of life in the American capital. However, instead of using the White House or the Lincoln Memorial as background, the Gites planted themselves in front of the produce section at a local Giant supermarket. More than monuments, it was the variety and quantity of food here that amazed the young couple from Kiev.
The Gites are among the 500 Soviet Jews to settle in the Washington area within the last year. This month they will celebrate their first Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest of holidays, in their Gaithersburg apartment with their 4-month-old son, David.
Because Jews in the Soviet Union have been forbidden to practice their faith publicly, many of the religious practices will be new and confusing to the Gites. But the food they eat may help allay some of the confusion. For the preparation of traditional holiday foods continues to be passed on from generation to generation in the Soviet Union and these dishes are some of the most familiar to American Jews: gefilte fish, matzo balls, tzimmes (stewed vegetables with dried fruit), teiglach (a syrup-soaked confection) and many others.
"Foods connect people," explains Yelena Zaslavskaya, who arrived in Rockville shortly before the Gites. Zaslavskaya remembers her first Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner in America at the home of a Silver Spring family. Along with her husband and 12-year-old son, "we didn't know anything about what was going on in a religious sense. I felt very sad -- that we belonged to these people but we didn't know anything. I felt something was wrong with us." But she recalls, at least some of the food was familiar.
She gradually realized that the foods she remembered from her childhood, such as honey cake or potato latkes (pancakes), were connected with specific Jewish holidays. The honey cake, baked in the autumn in the Soviet Union, represents the sweetness of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year; the latkes, served during the winter, were part of Hanukah. In Zaslavskaya's's family, the foods had been served without explanation; still, the traditions continued.
And it was often not easy to prepare some of the family recipes, she recalls. To make matzo balls, for instance, her family couldn't simply buy matzo meal in the local market. First, it had to bake its own matzo from flour and water, then crumble it into meal, and finally prepare the dumplings.
Luda Gites, as she calls herself, remembers her family marking the arrival of Rosh Hashanah by visiting friends and relatives and exchanging honey cakes and other sweets. Her grandfather would go to the synagogue in Kiev -- "a very small, very old synagogue."
And there was always gefilte fish. "You can't have a party without gefilte fish," Gites explains. For dessert there might be a strudel, filled with walnuts, raisins and cinnamon.
Asked their plans for their first Rosh Hashanah in America, Yuri Gites replies jokingly, "We hope some of our new friends will invite us."
"I will make the strudel," Luda adds.
The Gites need not worry. The United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Washington helps ensure that each new Soviet family is invited to a local Jewish family's home for holidays.
One of the hostesses will be Sofia Vitkin who will open her Silver Spring home to seven immigrant families. Vitkin came from the Soviet Union 10 years ago and has developed her own family traditions, celebrating every Jewish holiday with no less than 36 people. (This year she will be feeding 56). An empty seat will be set aside for others still in the Soviet Union who could not join them. And Vitkin makes certain that no one ever leaves her table hungry. "I like it when everything I make disappears. I hate leftovers," she says emphatically. She has even taken to moonlighting as a caterer, after hours from her job in the offices of the UJA Federation of Greater Washington in Rockville.
Vitkin recalls her early days in America when her husband joined her on a trip to the local supermarket. It was his first trip to the grocery store and she promptly lost him; finally, she located him down one of the aisles, completely engrossed in counting the varieties of hot dogs available in the meat case. "Twenty-seven," he told her in utter amazement.
When Luda Gites sees the different cuts of meat in "those beautiful packages, it's hard to choose," she says. In Kiev, she recalls the empty meat counters in stores. Money under the table to the butcher brought the sudden appearance of meat, "whatever the butcher wanted to give me."
The variety of available produce is a particular source of wonderment for the Soviets, especially tropical fruits like bananas and pineapples. They encountered some fruits and vegetables for the first time, such as avocado, zucchini and mango.
"I didn't know what kiwi was for two and a half years," Vitkin recalls with a laugh. Now she includes it in what has become her trademark fruit salad at the end of a holiday meal; an elaborate decorative display of many kinds of fruit.
Despite the plenitude of American food, the Soviets confess two small complaints about it: For one thing, the bread is soft and mushy.
"We like hard, coarse bread. The bread is like cotton here," says Yuri Gites. Recently he and Luda have discovered a Russian pumpernickel and a brand called "Mama's Jewish Rye" that satisfy their hankering for the bread of their homeland.
Then there's the produce, which Zaslavskaya shyly admits is sometimes disappointing. "It looks excellent but it doesn't always taste so good," she says.
On the other hand, Luda Gites enjoys trying all the different brands of a particular foodstuff, like instant coffee. "When one jar is finished, I try another kind," she says.
As Vitkin points out, Russians like to talk, and when she, Luda Gites and Zaslavskaya recently got together, a spirited discussion ensued about the proper preparation of a variety of holiday dishes. Their recipes are largely from memory and not very exact -- because measuring cups were often not available. Everything was measured by spoonfuls.
But with help of some well-known Jewish cookbooks, here are some more detailed instructions on how to prepare some of the dishes the new Americans will be eating this holiday season.
EASY APPLE STRUDEL
(Makes 6 servings)
Luda Gites makes her own dough for her strudel and fills it with raisins and prunes. For the time-pressed American, here is an easier version, made with phyllo dough, and filled with apples, an important High-Holiday symbol, used to signify a fruitful New Year.
2 Granny Smith apples
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup raisins
2 tablespoons chopped nuts
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Rind of 1 lemon
4 sheets phyllo dough
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup fine dry bread crumbs
Peel and core the apples and coarsely chop. Combine with sugar, raisins, nuts, cinnamon and lemon rind.
Take one sheet of the phyllo dough and spread on a dry board, with the long side on the bottom. Brush with the melted butter and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the bread crumbs. Place a second phyllo sheet on top. Brush with butter and sprinkle with another tablespoon of bread crumbs.
Place half of the apple mixture at one of the long ends of the phyllo sheets, making sure to leave a 1-inch border on the sides and bottom. Fold sides in over apples, then bottom. Carefully roll up the phyllo like a jelly roll, leaving the seam on the bottom. Brush the top with more butter and place on a greased jelly-roll pan.
Repeat with remaining phyllo dough and filling.
Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 35 minutes or until golden. Just before serving, sprinkle with confectioners' sugar. Serve warm. It is delicious with rum raisin ice cream.
-- From "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen" by Joan Nathan (Schocken Books, 1988)
Per serving: 269 calories, 2 gm protein, 29 gm carbohydrates, 18 gm fat, 10 gm saturated fat, 41 mg cholesterol, 231 mg sodium.
CLASSIC HONEY CAKE (16 servings)
1 3/4 cups honey
1 cup strong coffee
1/2 cup currants
3 tablespoons brandy
1/4 cup safflower or vegetable oil
1 1/4 cups brown sugar, packed
3 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
In a saucepan, combine the honey and coffee; bring to a boil and cool. Soak the currants in the brandy.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, blend the oil, brown sugar, and eggs. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices. Stir the dry ingredients alternately with the coffee into the egg mixture. Fold in the almonds, currants, and orange zest.
Oil two 9x5-inch loaf pans. Pour the batter in and bake for 1-1 1/2 hours at 300 degrees: the top will be sticky, but a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean.
Per serving: 373 calories, 5 gm protein, 73 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 69 mg cholesterol, 274 mg sodium.
FRUIT-AND-VEGETABLE TZIMMES (AUTUMN CASSEROLE) (10 servings)
The sweet, "mixed-up" stew known as tzimmes is just as popular for Sukkot as it is for Rosh Hashanah. The following version is meatless, and meant to be served as a side dish. It features popular fall vegetables and dried fruits.
3 large sweet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
4 large carrots, thinly sliced
1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and thinly sliced
1/4 cup dark raisins
1/4 cup light raisins
1/4 cup pitted prunes
1/4 cup chopped dates
Grated rind of 1 orange
Juice of 1 orange
2 tablespoons packed dark or light brown sugar
1/4 cup honey or real maple syrup
In a greased or non-stick spray-coated 9- by 13-inch baking pan, layer the sweet potatoes, carrots, squash, and dried fruit.
Sprinkle the top with the orange rind, juice, brown sugar, and honey. Cover the pan with aluminum foil or a lid and bake it in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 1 1/2 hours, or until all vegetables and fruits are very tender.
Per serving: 142 calories, 2 gm protein, 36 gm carbohydrates, .2 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 17 mg sodium.
Lisa Braun-Kenigsberg is a Washington-based freelance writer.