In search of food heritage, finding a Philadelphia connection to Ukraine’s oppressed

    As the Russian bear takes a big bite out of its neighbor, many Philadelphians support the aspirations of the Ukrainians who have taken to the streets. However, in most cases, it’s a knee-jerk response, siding with a pro-Western democratic movement, without awareness of our city’s unique connection. It’s not just that Philly has the second-largest population of Ukrainians in the United States, numbering about 60,000. It’s that a plurality our community’s 215,000 Jews are of Ukrainian descent. And they don’t know it!

    I know what you’re thinking. Your Yiddish-speaking grandparents said they were from Russia. Mine did too. They were wrong. How do I know? It started with Bubba’s recipes.

    My mother was always talking about her mother’s sour-cherry varenikes, also spelled varenyky, tiny dumplings filled with cherries, eaten with sour cream. I had never tasted them myself, because my bubba had stopped cooking when I was a toddler and confined herself to a La-Z-Boy chair from which she watched professional wrestling with disconcerting glee. I had never seen these legendary varenikes on the menu of any Jewish restaurant. Still, they haunted my gastronomic dreams.

    Having found everything from reading glasses to ex-boyfriends on the Internet, I recently decided to google my grandmother’s treasured recipe. To my surprise, I found out that varenikes are a Ukrainian specialty — not Russian or Polish.

    Then my search led me to a YouTube video of an elderly woman pinching dough with her arthritic fingers to make a ruffled edge. She could’ve been my own Bubba. Same Yiddish accent. Same plump face. Just one difference. She was in Ukraine. I didn’t know any Jews were still there. In fact, there are 70,000 Jews in Ukraine, mostly elderly and vulnerable to the current upheaval. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is raising funds to come to their aid, just as they did for Soviet Jews.

    So what does a little old lady in Ukraine have to do with Philadelphia’s Jewish population? Everything. As it turns out, the majority of Eastern European Jews who immigrated to Philadelphia from 1895 through 1910 came from Ukraine. It was a much larger territory at the time than its present borders contain, incorporating parts of Belarus, Poland, Lithuiania and Russia. When the second wave of so-called “Russian” immigration arrived in Philly in the 1990s, guess where the majority came from? Yup. Ukraine.

    When I started looking for Bubba’s recipe, I was hoping to trace the lost cuisine of my heritage. In the process, I discovered a personal connection to the oppressed people of Ukraine that I never suspected. In recipes for varenikes, they say sour cherries have a very special flavor that regular cherries can’t duplicate. Perhaps it’s the taste of freedom.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.