Veggie Burgers in 1930s Vilna – a Jewish Chef Ahead of Her Time

Decades before vegetarianism became trendy, Fania Lewando cooked up a non-meat storm in her restaurant, attracting such diners as Marc Chagall. The Yiddish cookbook she wrote nearly vanished. Now it can be read in English.

Courtesy of the family of Fania Lewando

Several years ago, the director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York offered something to members of a reading group – an offer they couldn’t refuse.

“She took us into the rare book room to show us some treasures,” related group member Barbara Mazur of Brooklyn recently.

There were quite a number of interesting manuscripts there, but Mazur said she was captivated by an old cookbook, drawn to it by the stunning illustrations. She rushed to call Wendy Waxman, the daughter of a good friend of hers. “You have got to come see this book,” she told her. When Waxman arrived she, too, was enchanted. “I saw this amazing book there. I couldn’t believe it.”

The book that thrilled the two women was a vegetarian cookbook written in Yiddish and published in 1938 in Vilna, which was part of Poland at the time and is now the capital of Lithuania. In the book, the author, Fania Lewando, collected 400 recipes from the vegetarian kitchen of the unique – and successful – vegetarian restaurant she ran in the city.

What was a 75-year-old vegetarian cookbook that originated in Vilna doing at the YIVO Institute in New York? In its day, the book was sold in Eastern Europe, England and the United States, but during World War II it was condemned, like may other Jewish books, to extinction.

Then, 20 years ago, in 1995, a couple got their hands on a copy of it at a second-hand book fair in England. They understood its historical value, bought it and donated it to YIVO, where it has been preserved on the shelves ever since.

The YIVO Institute, itself founded in Vilna in 1925, relocated its premises to New York in 1940, in the wake the outbreak of World War II. Today its library contains 385,000 books dating from the 16th century to the present. In its archive are preserved 24 million documents, pictures, films and other items, which together document the rich history of Eastern European Jewry.

Upon rediscovering the book, the two New York women decided to do some preliminary research to find out more about Fania Lewando, its author. They discovered an extraordinary, innovative and ground-breaking person, who understood the importance of vegetarian cuisine decades before the organic revolution that made vegetarianism and veganism a trend, a woman who cooked vegetables in a completely “meaty” environment and time – Eastern Europe in the early 20th century.

“Today we understand the importance of correct nutrition but then there was not much awareness of this, especially among Polish Jews whose cuisine – with its kishke, cholent and gefilte fish – was not the healthiest,” says Prof. Efraim Sicher of the foreign literature and linguistics department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva. 

Sicher is related to Fania Lewando; she was his grandmother’s sister. “In the family they called her Feygeh,” he adds.

The cover of Lewando's original Yiddish 1938 'Vegetarian-Dietetic Cookbook.' (Courtesy of the family of Fania Lewando)

The cover of the new, translated version of Lewando's cookbook. (Courtesy of Schocken Books/Random House)

Meatless but not mourning

Fania Lewando was born at the end of the 1880s in the town of Wloclawek, to Haim Efraim (Hyman) Fiszliewicz (a fishmonger) and his wife Esther-Malka. She was the second of six children – five of them girls. In 1901 the family immigrated to England but Fania remained in Poland, thereby determining her fate. She married Lazar (Eliezer) Lewando, an egg merchant from Belarus and, in the 1920s, moved with him to Vilna. Their application for immigration visas to the United States was refused because of an injury Leizer had suffered to his leg.

In Vilna the couple opened a restaurant at 14 Niemiecka Street. The restaurant’s guest book testified to its importance. Among the signatories are painter Marc Chagall and poet Itzik Manger. They also ran a cooking school and Fania Lewando was appointed the chef of luxury liners that sailed between Poland and New York between 1936 and 1939.

In 1938 she published the vegetarian cookbook in Yiddish with the title “Vegetarian-Dietetic Cookbook: 400 Recipes Made Exclusively from Vegetables (in Yiddish it was called “Vegatairish-Dietscher Kachbuch, 400 Speiser Gemach Oisshlishlech fun Grinsen”) under her Yiddish name, Fanny Levanda.

In the preface, under the heading “To the Housewife,” Fania wrote:

“A FEW WORDS AND PRACTICAL ADVICE: From the prophylactic point of view (that is to protect oneself and family members from various stomach upsets and other illnesses) one must certainly make an effort to avoid meat at least three days a week.

"From the humanitarian principle of TSAR BAALEY KHAYIM (not killing living creatures), the principle behind the vegetarian movement, it would be desirable to replace meat with pure vegetarian cuisine. We Jews think of not eating meat as a hardship, a sign of mourning (as in the case of the nine days in memory of the destruction of the Temple).”

What can be found in the book? Nearly everything, from traditional Jewish dishes like kugel, blintzes, compote and borscht, through vegetarian versions of purely meat dishes like cholent, kishke and schnitzel, to appetizers, first courses, soups and desserts made entirely of vegetables and fruit that were not traditionally a part of the Jewish kitchen’s shopping list.

The approach to cookery was innovative and pioneering, and is quite suited to our day. Thus, the author advises the housewife not to discard leftovers but rather to reinvent them into another dish. When cooking vegetables, she wrote, it is necessary to take care not to turn them into soup.

Lewando visited England twice during the 1930s in an attempt to find work and extricate herself from the threatening anti-Semitic atmosphere in Vilna, but to no avail. The Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941 and entered Vilna on the 24th of that month. Fania and Leizer Lewando were apprehended by Soviet soldiers as they tried to escape from the Nazis; they subsequently disappeared without a trace.

“A few copies of the book remained in the family but I didn’t think it was of any interest,” says Prof. Sicher.

Fania Lewando, right, in the kitchen of her restaurant in Vilna, in the 1930s. (Courtesy of the family of Fania Lewando)

This month, the book was published in an adapted and translated English version by Schocken Press in New York (a division of Penguin-Random House), translated from the Yiddish and annotated by Eve Jochnowitz.

The new book, which in English is called “The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook: Garden-Fresh Recipes Rediscovered and Adapted for Today’s Kitchen,” has a special afterword: a look at the messages left in the guest book at Lewanda’s restaurant. “It was a-a-a mekhaya [delightful, refreshing],” wrote Itzik Manger. “It didn’t destroy my dear little liver,” noted writer Yehoshua Perle. “Perhaps humanity would have a different visage if it were fed without meat,” observed Shmuel Vinter, a public activist and a member of the first Judenrat in the Warsaw Ghetto.

“Your wonderful dishes could turn everyone into a fanatical vegetarian,” raved a visitor from Moscow, while G. Faynerman of New York wrote: “Vegetarian food can also be delicious," while Marc Chagall, visiting from Riga noted: “They say that the food here is delicious, but unfortunately I came with a delicate stomach and was only able to taste a tiny bit, and it was delicious nevertheless.”

Mazur and Waxman, who are not vegetarians, did not simply see to the book’s publication in English. They also tried some of the recipes themselves.

“The schnitzel [Lewando] made from vegetables in 1938 reminds me a bit of today’s ‘veggie burgers,’" says Waxman.

“I also love cholent and I was curious to see how she would make one of the meatiest Jewish recipes in existence in a vegetarian version. It was amazing and tasty," she says. "When you look at the list of juices she suggests – you think you are at a juice bar in Tel Aviv. Without a doubt, she was before her time.”