Speak, Taste Buds

Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman ’59
Mike Lovett
Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman ’59

In 1973, 68-year-old Stephen Rossmer visited his birthplace, the Bavarian town of Bamberg, Germany, for the first time since 1939, when he fled the Nazis with his wife, Erna, and baby daughter, Gaby.

At an outdoor farmers market, Rossmer made a beeline for the table selling black radishes. Back at his hotel, he held one of the baseball-sized vegetables in his hand, pared away the black skin, sliced its crisp white flesh into thin rounds and salted them. Then he took a bite.

He’d never been able to find black radishes in the U.S. But he’d never forgotten their taste.

The deep emotion of that moment, witnessed by the family members who were with him, is central to “The German-Jewish Cookbook” (Brandeis University Press, 2017). The book, part of the HBI Series on Jewish Women, is written by Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman ’59 — the baby Rossmer brought to America in 1939 — and her daughter, Sonya Gropman.

Their book has a goal both restorative and gastronomic: “to help preserve and document the cuisine of a nearly vanished culture,” they write.

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Potato Dumplings

Baked Apple Pudding With Pears

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In 1933, approximately 565,000 Jews lived in Germany. According to historian Michael Brenner, years of systematic persecution and extermination reduced that number to 15,000 by 1945. Stephen Rossmer’s parents were among those who perished.

Fortunately, Rossmer managed to get papers that allowed him and his young family to leave for America. They settled in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, home to the largest German-Jewish community outside Germany. More than 20,000 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria moved to the Heights during the 1930s and early ’40s. 

The neighborhood’s kosher shops sold German-style cold cuts (Aufschnitt), sausages (Wurst) and braided loaves made from an eggless dough (Berches). Growing up, Gaby saw how much this food meant to her parents and their neighbors. It kept them connected to their past and to people who were gone.

Still, even in Washington Heights, many German-Jewish immigrants were eager to assimilate into American culture, especially after the U.S. entered World War II and anything German seemed unpatriotic.

The rich traditions of a cuisine began to fade. With the exception of a recipe book put together by a New York City synagogue in 1976, Gaby and Sonya believe theirs is the first German-Jewish cookbook published since the Holocaust began.

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Unlike New York-style delicatessen food, which is rooted in Eastern European cuisine, German-Jewish dishes tended to be German recipes adapted to conform to kosher dietary laws. 

To re-create the more than 100 recipes in their book, the Gropmans cast a wide net. They collected family recipes, friends’ recipes, recipes discovered through interviews, recipes found in German cookbooks — preparing, tasting and revising recipes again and again, until the food looked and tasted like Gaby remembered it.

In “The German-Jewish Cookbook,” greenkern soup (Grünkernsuppe), made with unripe spelt, is flavored with duck meat. Cabbage leaves stuffed with beef, veal or turkey are dressed with a white-wine sauce. Roast goose or a veal roast serve as a holiday meal’s centerpiece. Noodle Schalet is a savory dairy-free version of kugel. Pfannkuchen (pancakes) with preserved lingonberries make for an easy dinner. Duck or goose schmalz is often the recommended fat (though any neutral-flavored oil or chicken schmalz can suffice).

Desserts include plum cake; Kaisertorte, a nut-based sponge cake layered with apples; and knee doughnuts, made from dough balls stretched out over a freshly washed knee.

When they’re not writing recipes, Gaby and Sonya are both artists — Gaby’s a sculptor, her daughter’s a painter and photographer. Gaby, who administered the Harvard Mediation Program for 20 years, lives in Medford, Massachusetts, with husband Don ’56, whom she met at Brandeis. Sonya lives in Queens.

They worked on the cookbook for nine years, a long time for any mother-daughter project — the book’s introduction mentions “laughing fits” and “slammed phones.” But the importance of their task kept them committed, they say.

The flavors preserved in “The German-Jewish Cookbook” are a sensory bridge to the past. The everyday pleasures of sour cherry soup, boiled beef with fresh horseradish, and potato dumplings with gravy entice us to claim bygone food traditions as our own.

As the Yiddish proverb says, a person can forget everything but eating.

Check out the Gropmans’ food blog, at germanjewishcuisine.com, or email them at german.jewish.cuisine@gmail.com to share your own German-Jewish recipes.