Ninel’s Samovar

I first met Ninel in 1991 when I was introduced to Ninel by her son Mati. Mati was a young, charismatic student leader at the forefront of the resurgence of Jewish life in post-Communist Poland. Ninel’s renowned, book-lined apartment, which graced the pages of a 1986 National Geographic, had made her famous five years before I got to Poland. I felt that I knew her already. “Remnants” they had called them, “The Last Jews Of Poland.” Ninel was no remnant.

Ninel was a printer for the Solidarity movement and risked arrest under martial law for distributing hand-printed newsletters and books whose goal was to bring down the Communist regime that her parents helped establish. Her name Ninel, is Lenin spelled backwards.

During the anti-Semitic purges of 1968, when thousands of Jews fled, Ninel remained in Poland to tend to her sick parents. Ninel worked for 25 years at the Jewish Historical Institute, cataloging minute by minute more than 1,000 movies depicting Nazi atrocities during theHolocaust. Each film was like a dagger through her heart, but she felt “she owed it to them because she survived.”

Ninel’s tiny, pre-WWI apartment on Jagiellonska — my refuge in Poland during my first two summers there, and during my first year living in Poland — was a rendezvous point for artists, writers, revolutionaries, musicians, and actors who crowded around her wooden table and its shiny samovar, for strong tea and shots of peppered vodka.

Ninel became an accomplished Jewish writer. She authored Święta i tradycje żydowskie, Jewish Holidays and Traditions, still one of the best selling Jewish books in post-war Poland. Ninel’s respect for Jewish tradition rubbed off on her younger son, who had the first post-war public Bar Mitzvah in 1985. Currently, Rabbi Mati Kos, one of only a handful of post-Communist ordained Polish Rabbis, serves as a Jewish chaplain in Durham, UK.

Ninel’s kind eyes looked upon with compassion on all those who had suffered. In the meantime, she herself endured her own private exile in her own land, surrounded by a civilization that had been obliterated, and determined to keep their memory at the forefront of the world’s conscience. Her epitaph should read, “Died of a broken heart for the victims of the Holocaust and Communism.”

I will always cherish those days around Ninel’s samovar, translating for my mother and Ninel as they carried on great discussions about art and life, laughing till we cried. Ninel was a painter too, and her art hung from every corner of her home in solemn witness to her work.

Ninel passed away on June 4th, after loosing a long battle with illness, on the anniversary of the fall of Communism in Poland that she successfully fought. She is survived by her two sons and five grandchildren, and her samovar.

Hate Crime At The Ghetto Wall

Photo by: Channel 10

Poland continues to be a place where Jews works out deep psychological problems in deplorable ways.

Last week an Israeli vandalized the last major section of the Warsaw Ghetto wall. JPost reports:

Former Israeli Air Force captain and Israel boycott activist Yonatan Shapira spray-painted pro-Palestinian graffiti on the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto last week, Channel 10 reported on Sunday.

Shapira was shown on camera the previous Sunday spraying the slogans “Free all ghettos” and “Free Palestine and Gaza” on the walls of the Jewish ghetto in the Polish city – famed site of Jewish resistance to the Nazis – and then hoisting upon the wall a Palestinian flag on a rope with a bottle attached at the end that he threw over the other side.

Shapira’s vandalism occurred on the eve of some of the highlights for Polish Jews this summer. This past week the Jewish community in Poland, together with tens of thousands of non-Jews celebrated Jewish culture at the Krakow Jewish Cultural Festival. MATISYAHU performed at Poland’s premier OPEN’ER Festival in Gdansk. Poles and Jews are finding more ways towards rapprochement, a move forward with good relations.

Shapira’s vandalism shows his disregard for the inherent dignity of his fellow Jews. By desecrating and violating the Jewish community of Poland’s holy site, a place where tears soak the earth, he has committed a hate crime.

The wall is one of the few places that the Jewish community in Warsaw can mourn the loss of millions of Jews. The ghetto walls were destroyed along with most of Warsaw in WWII. The communists that rebuilt the city attempted to erase any other remnant of the infamous wall.

The ghetto wall section that he desecrated is not just visited by local Jews, but by tens of thousands of visitors to Warsaw every year. The Ghetto is where tens of thousands of Jews died before being shipped to the death camps.

Shapira is not a righteous zealot, but a criminal who deserves to serve time for his hateful acts.

A Dream Realized – The Finest Kosher For Passover Slivovitz Anywhere

It started when we lived in Warsaw and Rabbi Kastenbaum, our shochet, brought community-made slivovitz from Budapest to us for Passover. It was like nothing I had ever tried, was %70+ alcohol, and redefined slivovitz for me. It had no label, was in clear half-liter bottles, and sealed with a tiny cork.

I found myself on a ski trip on the Slovakian side of the Tatry Mountains soon thereafter. When we checked into the large guest home we were renting with a bunch of Polish Jews for our ski trip, and we sealed the deal with his home-brewed slivovitz. Within a day, I had learned to drink the 150 proof mountain dew first thing in the AM like our hosts.

Hand crafted Slivovitz is unlike vodka is every way. It is delightfully aromatic, bathing your mouth in ripe plum essence. It rolls down the back of your throat without a burn. You can drink it at room temp or cold, without a chaser, mixer, or anything else to divert your taste buds from the experience.

Sadly, poor quality slivovitz has flooded the markets from Yugoslavia, Hungary, and other Central European countries. The heavy drinking blue-color, immigrant slivovitz drinkers just want sliv. They drink so quantities that they don’t care really how it tastes. The cheaper the better. I have also seen plum-flavored vodkas being passed off as slivovitz. They are merely taking low quality vodka and adding plum taste – it should be illegal.

When we returned to the States, I looked in vain for a decent Passover Slivovitz. I tried every brand, and was disappointed at every turn. I made a promise to myself that some day I would make a real slivovitz like we used to drink back in the old country. When we moved to California in 2004 it seemed that destiny was edging us closer, and closer to the dream.

In 2008, a beshert meeting between winemakers proved the missing link. Bill Mosby, a highly respected wine and spirits producer had been making eau-de-vie from raspberries, strawberries, plums, and grapes. He had a special equipment from Europe and sources for the highest quality fruits. All he was missing was a rabbi to help him make kosher slivovitz. The winemakers he bumped into were none other than Jewlicious Festival’s own “Wine Guys” – Jonathan Hajdu and Gabriel Weiss. The Wine Guys told Bill – we have the rabbi.

From the moment I met Bill up at his winery, I knew that this was going to work out to be a beautiful partnership. We saw the operation, discussed how to do everything so that the slivovitz would be not only kosher, but kosher for Passover, and meet rigorous kosher standards. We would have to kasher his equipment, buy new storage barrels, be on site during production, and so on. He agreed to everything, and we started making slivovitz.

It took over a year until we were all satisfied that this was the best slivovitz possible. We brought down the alcohol to %43 a bit so that mortals could drink it. Bill’s artist from Europe created a stunning label. It was bottled on Rosh Codesh Adar.

Currently, this much anticipated Cal Kosher Certified, Mosby Plum Brandy Slivovitz, Kosher for Passover is available in LA at two stores – K and L Wine Merchants, with online ordering, and The Duke of Bourbon of Canoga Park. Both stock the slivovitz, and K and L will ship it to you around the country.

Wishing everyone a kosher and joyous Passover!