Vegetarianism in Jewish Vilna: A Not So New Practice 

In Judaism there is a long-standing custom stemming from Eastern Europe which associates meat-based meals with celebratory occasions. On Shabbat, Judaism’s weekly day of rest, Jews eat meat. On holidays, Jews eat meat. At Jewish weddings, meat is always served. Dishes without meat are often linked to periods of mourning and sadness. And yet, way before vegetarianism became a popular trend in society, let alone in the Jewish world, a woman named Fania Lewando owned a kosher, vegetarian restaurant in pre-World War II Vilna, Lithuania. As if that wasn’t remarkable enough, in 1938, Lewando became the first woman to publish a vegetarian cookbook in Europe, in the Yiddish language. 

From cutlets to stewed dishes, blintzes to kugels, puddings to porridges and more, this cookbook covers everything you could need to make a vegetarian Jewish meal. Instead of being arranged by breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert, or by appetizers, main courses, side dishes, and desserts, the table of contents groups food together by very specific categories. For instance, there is not simply a desserts section but instead, separate sections for baked goods, turnovers, compotes, and glazes for cake. Although a bit overwhelming at first glance, Lewando’s cookbook is thorough in a way many cookbooks aren’t. 

Originally published as Vegetarish-Dietisher Kokhbukh:400 Shpeizn Gemakht Oysshlislekh fun Grisn (Vegetarian-Dietetic Cookbook:400 Recipes Made Exclusively from Vegetables) this treasure of a book was lost for years after the Holocaust and Lewando’s untimely murder in the Vilna Ghetto. A miracle in 1995 allowed the cookbook to be re-discovered at a book fair in England, translated to English, and re-published as The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook: Garden-Fresh Recipes Rediscovered and Adapted for Today’s Kitchen. 

The change in title is fascinating. In the original version, the cookbook expressed a connection not only to vegetarian food, but specifically to vegetables and healthy eating. The translated version alludes to items grown in a garden but doesn’t limit the recipes to vegetables only. Further, the dietary benefit of vegetarian recipes is left out of the modern adaptation. Although there are plenty of potatoes, mushrooms, peas, and carrots included in the collection, there is also a ton of butter. Butter makes its way into nearly every recipe, and not in small amounts. It is an essential ingredient, representative of the pre-World War II era when butter was seen as nourishing and not yet viewed as a disaster for the health conscious. 

As a vegetarian Jew, I was thrilled to encounter this cookbook. To experience the extensive use of butter for myself, I tested the Rice Stuffed With Mushrooms recipe, which calls for ½ cup of butter, plus onions sauteed in butter, rice dough balls fried in butter, and finally ¼ cup of butter used for a drizzle. So. Much. Butter. The recipe also ventures into the world of dried mushrooms, instead of fresh, since dried mushrooms were an easy ingredient for Eastern-European Jews to collect and store throughout winter. The dish was delicious—albeit extremely complex. It involved many time-consuming steps and made for hours of cooking. 

If you want to understand Eastern-European Jewish food culture from a perspective you have never experienced before, you will want to give Lewando’s cookbook a read. While I would also recommend cooking some of the recipes, it is important to know you will have to work. The recipes are not laid out in the traditional manner which we have become accustomed to with recipes today. 

For example, there is no ingredient list. You must scour the recipe instructions to find what ingredients you need. Sometimes, the recipe follows an unconventional order. There are no preparation or cooking times, no number indicating how many people the recipe serves, no oven temperatures. Because “the coal or wood fired ovens available to homemakers in prewar Vilna did not have adjustable thermostats” the only temperatures given are an occasional “not-too-hot-oven,” “warm oven,” or “hot oven.” Some ingredients (but not all) lack measurements. The process for each recipe is written in one large paragraph. Be prepared for trial and error and for taking your best guess. 

As an old book, there are also no photos of completed dishes. If you are a visual person hoping to be guided by images, this book is not for you. Even so, the book—at least the modern version—is filled with colorful drawings of vegetables and fruit. These illustrations emphasize the aim of the cookbook to bring attention to healthy eating trends. 

Perhaps it is not a cookbook for the beginner level cook. On the other hand, if you are open-minded, this cookbook provides an excellent opportunity for immersion. When it comes to ingredients, Jewish grandparents often say, “you just need a little bit of this, a pinch of that.” That is exactly the method of instruction that this cookbook follows. Further, Jewish cooking is known for its resourcefulness. The Jewish community’s concern over food scarcity and expenses during the 1900’s comes across clearly in Lewando’s warning to readers: “throw nothing out; everything can be made into food.”

Ultimately, the functionality of this cookbook does not matter. Translator Eve Jochnowitz notes that “there are some recipes, such as Preserved Eggs, that are worthy of interest as historical documents, but that most contemporary cooks will not choose to reproduce on their own.” The cookbook is intended to serve as a historical reference, to educate people—vegetarian or not—about a cuisine that nearly disappeared and is often forgotten. 

Today, increasingly, there are other vegetarian Jewish cookbooks. But none stand out in the same way that Lewando’s historic cookbook does. Lewando’s cookbook provides readers with a firsthand glimpse into original Jewish Eastern-European cooking. Beyond that, it offers modern day vegetarians an opportunity to gloat: there are traditional Jewish dishes that don’t involve chicken and brisket. Not everything is about meat.