The email arrived a year after I had reviewed “The Holocaust Survivors’ Cookbook” in the Esra magazine. Joanne Caras, the woman behind the book, was in Israel, and would like to meet me. My knowledge of Caras was scant: she had visited Jerusalem’s Carmei Ha’ir soup kitchen, had been hugely impressed and vowed to raise one million dollars for them. Her cookbook – a compilation of testimonies, pictures and recipes – was the backbone of the fundraising drive. I wanted to meet her too.
Now I keep a kosher home with meat plates and dairy plates and plates for more elegant meat dining and ditto for dairy. And I have my share of meat and dairy cutlery and pots and pans. But whether the parents of Jerusalem haredim would breakfast in my kitchen remained to be seen. More delicate emails. And the emphatic reply: “Joanne and husband Harvey would be delighted.”
When they blew into town for our home-made granola, I understood why kashrut would not be a problem. Joanne – slim, in a tight fitting ensemble straight out of Vogue, tanned, willowy, blond, green-eyed and beautiful – did not look Jewish, never mind devoutly so. In fact she was Catholic. Or so she had thought until she was married with three adult children, two of whom started exploring their Judaism, at which point she discovered that she actually was Jewish, although her own mother hadn’t known it.
Confused? … Let’s start at the very beginning.
Caras was born in 1956 in Maryland, USA, to a tall, blond, blue-eyed fifth generation Irish Catholic. Her mother, Betty Lou, was a beauty queen. The family celebrated Christmas and Easter and Joanne almost never encountered a Jew until college. After she graduated in recreation therapy, she met her husband, Harvey Groves, at a work-presentation she was giving to General Electric. “I only made one sale that day,” she recalls, “and he has been my husband for twenty-seven years!”
Neither Joanne’s Catholic family, nor Harvey’s Jewish one, were initially overjoyed at the match. Harvey took his bride to meet his zeide, then in his nineties, who was the sole member of his family to survive the Holocaust. As a child, zeide’s mother had sent him to America to avoid the imminent disaster. “Right then I decided to raise our children as Jews,” explains Joanne, “to honor this mother who gave up her child so that her family would not entirely be wiped out.”
Joanne went on to have two sons and a daughter, and, true to her word raised them as Jews. The family joined a Reform Temple, where Joanne was converted and celebrated her adult Batmitzvah. Meanwhile Joanne had become somewhat of a celebrity, starring in a TV show called “Kidstuff.” Before Pesach she invited the local Lubavitch Rabbi, Hillel Baron, to make matzo on air. Her young son, Jonathan (JJ), was fascinated, and eagerly offered to help. Many years later JJ, now grown up, spent two weeks in Israel on a high school program. He came home wearing a kippa, and eventually returned to study at Aish Hatorah yeshiva in Jerusalem. After two months he asked to be converted, explaining that his mother was Catholic born. “Go home,” the Rabbi advised him, “and convert in America. Then you can come back.”
Back in the States, Rabbi Baron, who recognized his little “matzo-helper,” was enlisted to help. Three years later Jonathan, now calling himself Yonatan and fully converted in the orthodox tradition, made aliya. In Jerusalem he set about finding a Jewish wife. Easier said than done; as a baaltshuvah (not orthodox from birth), local matchmakers considered him a challenge. So Yonatan moved to Tsfat where he met Sara from New Jersey. After their wedding in the States the couple moved back to Jerusalem where they live with their baby today.
Meanwhile Joanne’s second son also decided to have an orthodox conversion. Like his brother he started attending shul on Friday nights, staying with a Jewish couple who lived within walking distance of the synagogue. Joanne and Harvey often joined them for dinner. One week Joanne casually mentioned that she had tested positive for Tay Sachs disease. “Our hostess, Connie Bates, looked me straight in the eyes,” recalls Joanne, “and asked if I knew my family history.” What Joanne didn’t yet realize was that it’s almost unknown for non-Jews to carry the Tay Sachs gene.
So began the investigation. A family connection revealed that Joanne’s mother’s mother’s mother had been born in Austria-Hungary. Unlike everyone else, details of her church wedding were not included in the family tree. A comment inserted by her daughter, Joanne’s grandmother, was instructive: “Mother’s family did not want her to marry my father.” The couple moved to America, and never saw the bride’s family again.
Joanne turned to her mother, who clearly remembered her own granny.
“What did you call her?” asked Harvey.
“Bubby,” was the reply.
“She asked us to, although no-one else used that name. Only us.”
What’s more, recalled Joanne’s mother, Bubby always covered her head, never went to church and spoke a language that no-one understood. And on Fridays she baked a special sweet plaited bread made with yeast. Betty Lou still had the recipe … and yes, it turned out to be a traditional challa.
Joanne went weak at the knees. Her great-grandmother had been Jewish. Her grandmother had been Jewish. Her mother was Jewish. And she was Jewish too. “I can now say with one hundred percent certainty that I have a Jewish soul,” says Joanne. “And that makes me very happy.”
Mickey’s conversion was speeded up as a mere formality, and Joanne’s second son then joined his brother in Israel, where he is presently at yeshiva.
In April 2005 Joanne visited Jerusalem to spend time with her children. She visited the soup kitchen where they volunteered, determined to raise money, and the idea for the cookbook was born. The goal was one hundred stories and two hundred recipes. Initially all calls for stories were met by silence; survivors and their offspring were reluctant to share painful and personal memories with a stranger. But after six months the letters started coming; the published book contains 129 stories from survivors around the world. It is a book of 129 miracles – tales of incredible survival and kindness and courage of Jews and non-Jews alike who risked their own lives to save the lives of others.
The book chronicles stories like that of Lillian Berliner of New York who remembers that she and her mother created “dream meals” in their heads, peeling potatoes in their imagination, and simmering them with meat as they laid ethereal tables for Shabbat to stave off their starvation in Auschwitz. The book contains two “dream” recipes. Ruth Steinfeld from Texas recounts that all she remembers of her mother is the smell of her chicken soup; today she and her sister cook that soup (recipe included) to feel their mother with them in the kitchen. There are tales of terrible loss and wanton destruction, but all include a spirit of defiance and a strong sense of survival. The recipes resonate with a future filled with Jewish children and grandchildren, sitting at Shabbat tables and festive chag meals, eating the food of their ancestors. There are stories of aching separation and longing for family, and stories of miraculous reunions against all odds. And while these stories are the heart of the cookbook, the recipes for Oma Dora Krulik’s gefilte fish and Halina Herman’s mock chopped liver, cholents and chulents, krupnik soup and Omi Suessbach’s pfannkuchen are among the many recipes that make this book one to treasure.
All the recipes are appropriate for kosher kitchens. Some are detailed, some call for “a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” all are flavored with love and fragrant memories. Photos of the survivors and their families accompany each recipe; the introduction to the book requests that when each dish is cooked, the story is read out to the diners to keep the memories alive.
In a little over a year, Joanne and Harvey’s cookbook raised over a quarter of a million dollars for Carmei Ha’ir Soup Kitchen and other Jewish charities. Laura Bush bought a copy of the book, and promised to use it. Programs bringing children into Holocaust survivors’ homes, cooking their favorite meal together and then donating the food to the hungry have been established by Joanne. Yad Vashem has recommended the cookbook in its newsletter to Holocaust educators around the world. In Palm Beach, Florida, educators received a grant to purchase the books for Holocaust studies in every public school.
The “Holocaust Survivor Cookbook” is sold all over the world for 36 dollars (twice Hai – the numerical Gematria with the symbolic value of ‘life’). Every cookbook sold raises money for Jewish charities, helps to feed poor Israelis and honors all survivors and keeps their memories alive.
The green-eyed lady with the Jewish soul has succeeded in feeding countless hungry mouths in Jerusalem, and she is not finished yet. While many other Israeli soup kitchens have been forced to cut back, contributions from the Caras family keep Carmei Ha’ir open for business. Joanne’s goal is to sell 6 million cookbooks. It is easy to help her reach that aim.
The “Holocaust Survivor Cookbook” can be purchased form the website: www.survivorcookbook.org
To order in Israel call Sarah Caras: 050 499 9697