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PAGE 10A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, JULY 20, 201 ;, Now playing at a museum mah jongg table: Jewish pop culture By Edmon J. Rodman Edmon J. Rodman A friendly mahjongg game last month on the terrace of the SMrball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Kaufman says, pointing to a vintage mah jongg set with an artificial reptile skin case she found on display. "I remember my grandmother playing with that set." Kaufman is visiting the show with members of her Hadassah group--all mah jongg players. Another display attempts to answer whether Chinese food was the Jewish link to mah jongg, or possibly the otherway around. The show's text explains that Jewish Americans of the 1920s were enthusiastic adopters of im- migrant products, including Chinese food. "Cross-ethnic sampling created a sense of adventure, and demonstrated a sophisti- cation that transcended old- world parochialism," it reads. "I am so craving Chinese food right now," says Nancy Eisman, responding to the Asian motif of the tiles, vin- LOS ANGELES (JTA)-- With a Chinese "bam" and "crak," and a Jewish "pop," the real action is happen- ing outside the galleries of the Skirball Cultural Center here. That was by design. Unlike most art shows, where guards may stand watch to ensure that no one gets too close to the artworks, "Project Mah Jongg" is differ- ent: Not only is the central exhibit touchable, it's play- able, too. At the Skirball through Sept. 2, "Project Mah Jongg" next travels to the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach in October and then the William Breman Jew- ish Heritage & Holocaust Museum in Atlanta in April. The exhibit originated at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. On a recent afternoon, the distinctive clinking-clanking sounds of mah jongg tiles fill the air of the Skirball. Although the game table sitting in the middle of the exhibition looks inviting, eight players of the rummy- like game of Chinese origin-- popular with Jewish players since its U.S. introduction in the early 1920s--prefer to take their friendly games to the terrace, where the museum has set up several rnah jongg tables. The players come from several generations, and the barns, craks and dots--the names for the various suits of mah jongg tiles--are flying. Before taking a seat at a table, each player had warmed up by taking in the show: a gallery of memora- bilia illustrating the game's place in Jewish pop culture supplemented by more con- temporary and humorous in- terpretations by artists Maira Kalman and Bruce McCall. One exhibit, titled "Mah Jongg Hostess," features a mah jongg-themed skirt, gelatin mold and a box of Joya chocolate-covered jelly rings. For the mostly groups of women visiting that day, its accompanying text belabors an already internalized point: "In many households, mah jongg was a ritual created by and for women." Jewish women were pio- neers in standardizing the game and writing rulebooks, even becoming authorities of the game, the show's text reminds. "This is my grandmother's set. I have it at home. It's a family heirloom," Teri Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. This 1924 photo of a floating game of mahjongg is part of the "Project Mah Jongg' exhibit now showing at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. tage scorecards and other accouterments of the game. Ronee Kraves, who is Chinese, encountered the original version of the game while growing up in China. She is doing her own "cross- ethnic sampling." "The tiles are the same, and the rules might be different," she says. "My parents played and I learned from them. When we go back to China, we play." Kraves says that until visiting the show, she was not aware that Jews were big players. She points to a large 1924 photo, "Leisure class ladies playing a floating game of mah jongg," depicting a group of bathing-suited Jew- ish women playing the game. "They're just like the Chinese people who play in the water when it gets hot," Kraves says. "The game is a perfect runway to memories," says the traveling show's curator, Melissa Martens, director of Collections & Exhibitions at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. "So many people have mah jongg sets buried in their attics or closets." On the Skirball deck, sev- eral visitors are ready to add to those memories. Assisting them is Lisa Blandford, the Skirball exhibit's mah jongg facilitator. "I try to get people to play," she says. "The tables are usu- ally filled with people who bring their own groups, and sometimes people who have just met each other." Players of one game includ- ed Necia Sukonig, a veteran who sometimes plays twice a week, and her daughter, Ivy Ransom, as well as Kraves, who after watching a game is ready to try her hand. Bland- ford, also a newcomer to the game, makes the fourth. The game, slow at first arrange them on racks, quickly picks up speed. They try to achieve mah jongg by using their tiles to match specific sequences of tiles dictated by a game card published by the National Mah Jongg League, a group founded in 1937 by German Jewish women. "Who has all the jokers?" Sukonig asks as she eyes each player. "You're a good a bluffer," she says to her daughter as they cross looks. The players continue a complicated passing se- quence until Sukonig an- nounces, "Mah jongg," sig- nifying victory. "At home they would all have to pay me money," she says in an aside. Many mah jongg games are played for small amounts of money; it's part of the game's sociology. Martens says that each aspect of the game is meant for sharing and community, and that the exhibit"was de- signed to feature the visitor." As a result of the New York museum's creation and con- tinued involvement with the show, she and some 30 staff members have learned how to play mah jongg, Martens says. "They have become ad- dicts," she said. Exhibit visitor Bonnie Neustein, seated on a couch next to Eisman, observes that mahjongg is about "reaching out to other people, face to face instead of a computer." Eisman adds, "It will be interesting to see if a younger generation can sit still long enough to play." By Josh Lipowsky (Disclaimer: The writer is the also to the pickle category in 19thandearly20thcenturies. the kosher dill - all pickled "If you have a great sand- TEANECK, N.J. (JTA)-- Walk into a kosher dell and a big bowl of pickles is typically waiting at the table. Ever wondered why? "Pickles are vital to the deli experience," says Rabbi Gil Marks, author of "The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food." Deli mavens know that the tastiest cuts of pastrami and corned beef are also the rattiest, but after a few mouth- fuls the fat covers the palate and masks the flavor of the meat, Marks explains. Just as wine does with chicken or meat dishes, he says, a pickle cleanses the palate between bites, so the flavor of the hot pastrami on rye continues to shine, while also interacting with the sandwich, creating new flavors. July marks National Pickle Month, which "originated as away for people to honor and appreciate all types of pickles," says Brian Bursiek, executive vice president of Pickle Pack- ers International, a Washing- ton, D.C.-based organization that represents the worldwide pickled vegetable industry. And honor the pickle we have. Americans put away more than 2.5 billion pounds of pickles each year, and the North American pickle in- dustry is valued at about $1.5 billion annually, according to Pickle Packers. Folks have been chomp- ing on pickles, which take their name from the Ger- man "pokel"--meaning salt and brine--for some 4,000 years in one form or another. 2011 Teaneck Pickle-Eating Champion.) Sours and half-sours are the most popular flavors in the New York area, but not so much with out-of-towners, says Stephen Leibowitz, chief pickle maven (the title on his business card) of United Pickle in the Bronx, N.Y., the largest Jewish-owned pickle plant in the country and also one of the oldest. In the Southwest, for example, spicier pickles tend to tempt palates more, ac- cording to Pickle Packers, and Leibowitz says that hot and spicy pickle chips are gaining popularity nationwide. If there's a consensus choice, it's the dill pickle, followed by sweet pickles, according to Bursiek. Among the most popular dill pickles is the kosher dill. "It's what you call a uni- versal American pickle," Leibowitz says. Universal indeed: From France to Israel to Dubai, the most popular product shipped overseas by United Pickle is the kosher dill. In ad- dition to its flavor, Leibowitz credits the kosher dill's longer shelf life for its attractiveness abroad. Despite its name, the ko- sher dill has nothing to do with the pickle's adherence to kosher laws. "The name 'kosher' was likely carried forward by generations who remember popular TVadvertising during the '70s," Bursiek says, likely referring to the Vlasik com- mercials. "It brought a lot of attention to their brand, but general. "Ipically it is a pickle made in the traditional manner of Jewish New York City pickle makers, with a generous ad- dition of garlic to the brine." Unlike the sours and half- sours, the dill pickles also get a dose of dill seasoning in the brine. As with many other types of food, Jews did not invent the pickle or the pickling pro- cess, but they did popularize it, which is why the Jewish style of preparation became a standard. Sours and half-sours-- prepared in salted water brines--don't include dill, but the common denominator among all three types, and what separates the kosher dill from other dills, is garlic. Its addition, which is credited with why the kosher moniker stuck even after kosher dills became the pickle of choice for mass production, is purely Jewish. "We adapt foods to our taste," Marks says. "One of the things Jews, particularly Ashkenazic Jews, love is put- ting garlic in things." Some 100,000 to 250,000 acres in more than 30 states are devoted to growing pick- ling cucumbers, according to Bursek. Despite the geo- graphic diversity of pickle production, when talking about the kosher dill, the fo- cus always comes back to New York City, the gateway to the United States for the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who brought their pickling prowess with them in the late "When [Jewish immi- grants] came in 1910, they came here with no skills," says Alan Kaufman, owner of The Pickle Guys, the last remaining pickle store on the Lower East Side's famed Essex Street. "They did what they knew how to do: They made pickles. It's an inex- pensive item to make; it's an inexpensive item to buy. And when people buy it, it tastes like home." Kosher dills may be an homage to the glory days of Jewish pickling, but the days when Essex Streetwas known for its assortment of pickle purveyors are long gone, and Kaufman doesn't see them returning. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when travel over New York's bridges was severely curtailed, Guss' Pickles, one of the oldest and most famous Lower East Side pickle estab- lishments, lost the majority of its foot traffic and closed its doors. United Pickle, which had been supplying Guss'with its pickles for decades, bought the name and now the label can be found in stores across America--a far cry from the Lower East Side pickle store- fronts of yore. "You can't pay the rent just standing in the store selling pickles," Leibowitz says. Kaufman, a former em- ployee of the Guss' store, disagrees. He opened his shop shortly after Guss' closed and has more than 30 pickled con- coctions, including pickled pineapple, pickled garlic, pick- led tomatoes and, of course, in house. His customers in- clude a number of regulars, as well as tourists nostalgic for the old Lower East Side experience. Earlier this year, his store was featured on Food Net- work's "Next Food Network Star" as part of a culinary tour of the neighborhood. "Pickles are timeless," Kaufman says. "The neigh- borhood is not always going to be the same, but pickles will always be here." While Jews may have popu- larized pickles in Europe and the U.S., it was the Chinese who more than 2,400 years ago created the modern form of pickling. They used a process called lacto-fermen- tation, Marks explains, that didn't reach Eastern Europe until the 1500s. In this ver- sion, only a little salt is added to water to create the brine, which then produces forms of acid and healthy bacteria-- Lactobacillus. "Pickling was something even the poorest of people could do. All you needed was salt and a little water and a barrel," Marks says. Many of the brands on store shelves today labeled "kosher dills" aren't true kosher dills, Marks says. Historically, kosher dills were prepared in a salted water brine with garlic and dill, but many mass manufacturers began using vinegar-based brines decades ago to save time. Vinegar, he says, throws off the flavor, so to get that authentic kosher dill flavor, it's best to find a pickler using natural brines. wich and a rotten pickle, you're going to say the whole meal stinks," Kaufman as- serts. "But if you have a great sandwich and a great pickle, you've got a great meal." Kaufman says everyone should try pickling. "Like making beer or wine, pickting's a great thing," he says. "It's not too hard; it just takes a lot of practice." How does the process differ for half-sours, full-sours and the kosher dill? It's all about the amount of time the cucumber stays in the brine. At United Pickle, for example, fresh cu- cumbers will sit in saltwater brinewith garlic andspices for at least45 days tobecome full-sour pickles. The Pickle Guys keep half-sours in the brine for two weeks, while the full sours soak foratleastthree months. Kosher dills, meanwhile, include dilland sit in the brine for a minimum of 10 days. Pickling at home Want to make pickles at home? Here are a few guide- lines, courtesy of http://www. howtopickle.com: Pick the firmest cucumbers you can find and make sure they are thoroughly cleaned. Tightly pack your cukes into canning jars. Mix your brine ingredients together and bring them to a boil, then pour the brine into the jars. Depending on the type of pickle you want, your pickles will be ready the next day (new or half-sours) or a few months later (full-sours). The longer the pickle stays in the brine, the sourer it will become. as players draw tiles and Popularized in America by Jews, pickles pack a punch