Nurturing Jewish Culinary Traditions in Lithuania

Photo courtesy Laurina Todesaite
Photo courtesy Laurina Todesaite

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

“What do Japanese people eat?” Laurina Todesaite asked me. “Sushi,” I ventured, having made the mistake of asking her why exactly she thinks Jewish food is so important. “What do Italians eat?” “Pizza.” (Please excuse my simplistic and possibility offensive answers.) “What do French people eat?” “Breads and baguettes.” “And Jews?” she enquired. There, I paused, for this seemed like a much more complicated question. I decided to go with a safe option: bagels and lox.

Perhaps I only said this because Todesaite and I were meeting in a bagel shop. Beigelistai is located next door to the headquarters of the official Jewish community in Vilnius, and is the first Jewish-owned, Jewish-run bagel place in the Lithuanian capital to open since the fall of communism (or, at least the first one making edible bagels, Todesaite said). As it turned out, then, there couldn’t have been a more appropriate place to meet someone so actively concerned with the future of Jewish culinary traditions in Lithuania as Todesaite – I suppose that’s why she chose it.

Todesaite was born in Vilnius into a family of restaurateurs, when Lithuania was still part of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of communism, like many Lithuanian Jews she left and immigrated to Israel, where she studied sociology and education at the University of Haifa and worked in the world of corporate sales and negotiation. Once Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004, however, she returned, where outside of her day job she is an active volunteer in the Lithuanian Jewish community.

Todesaite currently runs two projects. The first is called Eat&Travel, a food and travel blog in English that encompasses the best of both spheres from Israel, Lithuania, and around the world. The other is something called #CookJewishBeJewish, which takes the form of masterclasses in Jewish cooking. “I live from project to project,” she said, “and in between I travel, I meet people. I’m a Limmud activist,” an ambassador from Lithuania to the first European Limmud for Russian-speaking Jewry.

The idea behind #CookJewishBeJewish is that, “in order to bring the Jewish spirit into the home,” Todesaite said, it is vitally important for contemporary Jews to learn the culinary traditions of their grandparents and great-grandparents. Lithuania, she explained, experienced a kind of double erasure: first, the Holocaust; second, the Soviet experience. These two historic periods transformed Lithuanian Jewry into a small, secular community. The traditions and ways of the kitchen, present in the few remaining Holocaust survivors, were neglected under Soviet rule and not passed onto their children. Third-generation Holocaust survivors, then, must learn about Jewish food another way – and Todesaite believes #CookJewishBeJewish can be important in this way.

“The heritage is ours to look after,” she said. She started a little over a year ago, celebrating the holidays with her close friends – Purim, Rosh Hashanah, and so on – and due to demand gradually grew to the point where it was necessary to make the events public and take it outside the home. These events include Jews and Lithuanians “in order to create a dialogue” between the two peoples that isn’t simply about “bad things like the Holocaust. I want people to understand the cultures that we live in, next door to each other,” Todesaite said.

One of their most recent events was a Passover Seder (put on with the support from the Schusterman Foundation). For this, Todesaite created what she supposed was the first Haggadah in Lithuanian (for the lingua franca of the Jewish community in Lithuania is Russian), such that all participants comprehend and follow along. For Shavuot, Todesaite organized a make-it-yourself milky brunch, involving hot cheese or potato burek, a freshly chopped Israeli salad, soft-boiled eggs, and for dessert a creamy strawberry cake served with tea or coffee.

On the side, Todesaite makes her own hummus, as part of wider campaign about tolerance that she quietly runs. “Hummus is an Arabic food” but it’s part of the Israeli palate, she said. “If Israel can use Arabic food as their calling card, to present the country” to the rest of the world, then Todesaite can promote hummus as an Israeli or Jewish food to the wider Lithuanian public in order to increase their understanding of both Judaism and Israeli culture. The same can be said of the bagel place where we met. Previous Jewish- or Israeli-run restaurants in Vilnius advertised themselves as Lebanese or Turkish; “now they have finally opened a Jewish place,” Beigelistai, available to all.