Sue King’s paternal grandparents, the Gladkes, were founders of the first Jewish house of worship in Elmira, Temple B’Nai Israel, in 1862. Sue was raised in Scarsdale with her mother and stepfather, returning to Elmira every summer to visit her father, and finally settling in Elmira as an adult with her own family in the 1970s.
Sue’s early exposure to food was influenced by her Grandmother, an Austrian woman who came to the United States to study art in the early 1900s.
“My mother was an excellent cook and in large part I learned from her. She learned from her mother and the family’s Hungarian cook, Anna. Anna was the first person I knew who had survived the Holocaust. Though I did understand at age three, I have always remembered seeing “A” and the numbers in pale blue ink tattooed above her wrist. Anna was a survivor of Auschwitz — a wife, a mother and a loved member of my grandparents’ home.
In the late 1940s, my mother, brothers and I lived in New Rochelle with my grandparents. I remember very well all of the delicious food which were part of our daily meals. One of my favorites was wiener schnitzel. How i looked forward to the tender, golden brown pieces with the bone and the marrow within! Heavy cream, sweet butter, fresh fruit, crusty and flaky breads and rolls, vanillekipfel, linzer törtchen, strudel, rolled pastry with nut filling, marzipans… So many delicacies which were once a part of our daily menu. How times have changed.”
In the early 1970s, Susan and family were active in Temple B’Nai Israel in worship, social gatherings, and education. The sense of self-sufficiency in the Jewish community was born partly out of necessity. Elmira was located far from the center of urban Jewish life such as Philadelphia, New York City and Rochester. Jewish families could not simply run to the grocery stores and bakeries particularly if they were kosher, so they made their own. Sue recalls how the simple act of making matzo balls was not so simple.
Shortly after moving from New york to Elmira, I was preparing to make my first Rosh Hashanah dinner on my own. I went to Super Duper, the locally-owned supermarket, to buy the familiar glass jar of chicken fat. Not finding it, I asked the dairy manager, who led me to a little blue and white box… Ah, chicken fat! I thought that if butter was in a box then maybe chicken fat could be as well. So, I called my mother and told her what I found. With a smile on her face that I could “hear” over the phone, she told me that in order to get the smooth pale yellow liquid which I needed for my matzo balls and chopped liver, I had to “render” (fry) the pieces of fat. Not a good smell! It was during this adventure that I had a huge appreciation for the amount of work that Anna, and all who came before us, had to go through to do all of that exquisite cooking and baking in the past.
Originally the Jewish neighborhood was on the lower Eastside of the city. Organizations in Elmira such as the City Club and Elmira Country Club were not open to Jews. So many activities centered around the synagogues, the Jewish community centers and the YMHA (Young Men’s Hebrew Association). The Sisterhood and Brotherhood also fostered camaraderie in Temple life.
The Sisterhood met every month for a luncheon and a program. Eight to ten women each month took turns planning the luncheon menu and a program. Lots of fun we had in the kitchen and beyond! We planned art auctions, antique shows, a yearly consignment shop, a kar klub, a progressive dinner and more. We cooked and held holiday dinners and celebrations for both the youth group and the congregation. As life cycle events came we helped one another in the planning and catering: bar and bat mitzvah, weddings, graduations. Holidays were all important in Jewish life.
Oneg Shabbat happened every Friday night following Sabbath Services. It was the time to gather and observe the end of the week’s end.
One of the unique things about living in Elmira’s Jewish community was that we essentially made almost all the food that we served. The Sabbath, observed Friday night at sundown until Saturday night at sundown, was a special twenty-four hours. The Sabbath dinner at home was observed by lighting candles, challah, wine and lovely dinners. The table was often set with a tablecloth, niceties making it a bit different from the busy week’s activities. Then it was off to the Temple for services and the Oneg Shabbat to follow. Desserts, coffee and tea in the social hall set on a long, white-clothed table, silver urns at each end for hot drinks, and silver trays and bowls for the baked goods and fruit. And, together as a congregation, we chanted the blessings over the wine and the challah (bread).
As Sue says, the chicken fat is a key ingredient of matzo ball soup, which she makes in gigantic quantities for the Jewish Food Festival every year:
Each year the community hosts the Jewish Food Festival. It was conceived about twelve years ago as a way to invite the community-at-large into the building, the Temple, and familiarize the non-Jewish community with ‘all things Jewish.’ It is a huge labor of love, very hectic, hugely organized, and involves most of the congregation. We have hosted the event each spring on a Sunday from 11:00 on until 3:00. In those four hours we serve between 800 – 900 people! Originally while planning our whole menu, I offered to do the chicken soup and have been doing it ever since. Each year the quantity of soup and matzo balls increase. At last count we made about 87 quarts of soup and over 240 matzo ball!
And so it goes, into the future while preserving the recipes from our past… Tradition! L’chayim, to life.