By Tina Wasserman
For most of my professional life, I have made it my mission to keep our culinary heritage alive so it will be a connection to our ancestors and the lives they lived that allowed us to live the Jewish lives we live today. I often finish my lectures about the history of Jewish cuisine with a quote from Ben Gurion, “We Jews must never live in the past, but the past must always live within us.”
As we approach the High Holidays, when we assess our lives and remember our ancestors, I would like to tell you a true story about uncovering roots and the non-palpable connections that sometimes arise from these roots.
One of the joys of being on the local board of AJC is the opportunity to meet representatives from countries from all over the world. This summer, I had the pleasure of hosting a Shabbat dinner in my home for three delegates from the Adenauer exchange. This is an exchange through which a group of young German leaders visits three U.S. cities for a study trip in a partnership between AJC and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
I thought it would be interesting to describe, course by course, the connection between the foods we were eating and the history surrounding their use. Frankly, I thought it was much better to create this menu rather than give them a classic Shabbat dinner starting with chicken soup and gefilte fish. After all, it was Dallas in July and no one wants to eat hot soup! Needless to say, the conversations often centered on food.
My three guests — Melanie, Matthias and Lucas — were all Catholic. Melanie told us that her college career focused on art history but, for some reason, she said she minored in Yiddish studies because she thought the language was interesting. The discussion then progressed to a story about a recipe for a lemon cake.
Melanie promised to send me the recipe and the story about how the cake impacted her life. The following is the letter she sent me and I would like to share it with you. Perhaps it will move you as it did me.
“I had promised to send you the story of my grandmother and the secret of the ‘lemon cake.’ After my high school graduation, I started to study in Düsseldorf the history of art, antique history and yiddistic. The idea behind it was to work after my magister in a Jewish Museum. In 1990, many Jewish museums were founded in Germany.
“My grandmother lived with us in a small village near Düsseldorf at that time. She had sold her house in Hamburg in 1986 or 1987 to be near to her family. Her husband had already died in the early 1960s. My grandmother carried a closely guarded secret that no one beside her husband knew. Even though she took great interest in my plans, she remained silent.
‘I went for an internship to the Jewish Museum Franken to Fürth (Bavaria) in 2000. The museum is specialized in Jewish cultural heritage of the region. The collection consists of Judaica, items of daily use, Hebrew prints, manuscripts and postcards. The Jewish community in Fürth was once considered the ‘Franconian Jerusalem’ and was one of the spiritual capitals of European Jewry in the 18th century. In the 19th century, Jewish citizens shaped the economic life of the city. After the end of the World War II, nothing was left of the 400-year successful story of the community. In 1933, just under 2,000 Jews lived in Fürth. Only 20 of them survived the Nazi regime.
“The Museum has a small coffee shop where visitors could get beverage, traditional Jewish bakery and kosher sweets. They offered a ‘lemon cake’ according to an old recipe, which was handed down to a handwritten book from the 1890s. The lemon cake has a filling of almonds and lemon juice. It is very tasty. I remembered a cake that my grandmother had baked when I was a small child, which was very similar to this one. So I decided to copy the recipe and showed to my grandmother.
“I can remember very well in the afternoon in 2000 when I showed her the recipe. It was the day she told us her secret. As she held the recipe in her hands and read it, she said: ‘That is the way my mother did.’ It was the first time after 67 years she broke her silence.
“Here is the story: Her mother was born in Thuringia. Her father’s last name was ‘Liebeskind.’ And they were Jewish (I found their names in a register of a small parish near Jena). Her first marriage was with a Protestant. He was a baker of the parish. After his death, she got married again. So she got the name ‘Lieb.’ But he also died after the birth of Alfred, the youngest brother of my grandmother. Because of the death of her husband, and father of her three children, the financial situation of the family was very bad. As I know, her brother migrated to Wisconsin in 1890s. So my great-grandmother decided to follow her brother ‘Liebeskind.’ She took her kids and all her belongings and set off. Her first stop was Hamburg. Here she had to stay for a while, because money was tight. In 1914, shortly before World War I, she had the money for the transfer from Hamburg to New York. She bought the tickets, but the passage did not happen anymore.
“My grandmother, Frida Melanie Lieb, was born in 1906 near the city of Jena. I know that she worked as a nurse. When it became difficult for Jews in Germany to practice their profession, she worked as a nanny for a Jewish family who migrated to the U.S. in the 1930s. They wanted to take her with them, but she remained in Germany — maybe because of love, or more realistic is she was afraid of the dangerous escape over Switzerland and Italy.
“In the meantime, her sister had married an official in the Hamburg Senate Department. This man helped my grandmother to correct her papers. So nothing was in the way for her marriage with Paul Otto Meyer in 1933. She survived under the protection of the Meyers. Her younger brother was less fortunate. He was imprisoned and forced into an ‘Arbeitslager’ (forced labor camp) in the docks of Hamburg harbor. Nobody knows what happened to him. The reason was that the sisters were afraid that someone could expose them as Jews.
“My grandmother died in 2002, two years after her revelation. During my stay in Fürth, I went to the archives of the churches in Jena region to verify the dates and to learn more about my family background. It is a mystery that I was interested in studying Yiddish without the knowledge of the history of my father’s family. The same applies to the recipe of the lemon cake which I have attached.
“Once again, the journey with the AJC was both a privilege and a pleasure. I enjoyed the evening in your house. Many thanks for your help. I am looking forward to seeing you again to continue the dialogue.”
The dialogue continues…
May the New Year be a time to recall the many positive memories of your ancestors and may these be the foundation upon which you build your family’s traditions this holiday and for all the days to come.
The following is the recipe for the lemon cake. I changed the amounts to cups and spoons from grams and added a little bit of water to better hold the dough together. This cake is easily made with commercially ground almond flour. It is like a marzipan but more coarse and lemony rather than having a strong almond taste. In the European tradition, this recipe is not overly sweet and the dough is dense, but I wanted to keep that density for authenticity.
Here is the recipe in its original format:
(Original recipe —
measurements in grams)
160g wheat flour (type 405)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 egg (medium size)
250g ground almonds
4 lemons (peel, juice and pulp)
Butter the springform and sprinkle with matzo meal.
Knead the dough by hand and then keep some of the dough for the rim and the grid. let it cool.
Then, the dough is rolled out and placed in the springform, making sure that the rim is pressed well.
The filling is easy to stir and then spread on the dough.
Then also roll out the remaining dough and cut into strips about 1 centimeter wide with a dough wheel.
Then, give the upper rim a grid over the whole cake surface.
Finally, the grid and the visible rim are painted with egg yolk.
The oven must not be preheated and the baking process takes 30 to 40 minutes.
Important: No baking either with large top or with intensive bottom heat.
Here is the recipe that I created from these ingredients and instructions. It’s a good lesson in how modern recipes are created from heirloom recipes. Enjoy!
German Lemon Tart
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
11/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons water, or more if needed
½ teaspoon vanilla extract (optional-more for Western tastes)
21/3 cups ground almond meal
¾ cup sugar
Zest and juice from 3 large lemons (about ¾ cup juice)
1 egg yolk for glazing the cake
Coconut oil or cooking spray for greasing pan
- Grease a 9-inch springform pan with coconut oil or spray.
- Combine all of the dough ingredients in a 2-quart mixing bowl and gently knead with your fingers until the dough forms a ball. If needed, add a small amount of additional water until dough is moist and holds together.
- Divide the dough into ¾ and ¼. Cover with plastic wrap and then refrigerate for 20 minutes to let the dough rest.
- Roll the larger piece of dough between two sheets of parchment or waxed paper into a circle that is about 1/8 inch thick. Remove one piece of paper and then flip the dough into the pan centering the dough as best you can.
- Gently press the dough into the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Place pan in the refrigerator while you make the filling.
- Combine all of the ingredients for the filling and spread onto the dough in the pan.
- Roll out the remaining dough into a rectangle and cut ½-inch strips of dough with a knife or decorative pastry wheel.
- Place strips of dough criss-crossed across the filling, pressing the ends into the side rim of dough to seal. Brush with some egg yolk to glaze.
- Place the cake pan into a cold oven and then turn the temperature to 350 degrees.
- Bake the cake for 30-40 minutes or until golden brown.
Cake may be served warm or at room temperature.