A new film airing this weekend on PBS television explores the rich history of Jewish food and its cultural impact on the community.
“Hugs and Knishes: A Celebration of Our Jewish Foods and Traditions” visits both Ashkenazy and Sephardic homes to capture anecdotes of Jewish life that represent a diverse cultural experience and demonstrate the universal cultural truth that “we are what we eat.”
The program, produced and directed by David Anton, a Great Neck native and current Old Bethpage resident, will air Sunday, Dec. 4 at 7:30 pm on WLIW21, and Thursday, Dec. 8 at 9 pm on channel 13.
Long Island-affiliated interviewees in the film include Marvin Antosofsky, rabbi emeritus of Temple Or Elohim in Jericho; Rita Trokenheim of Plainview; Filmore Peltz of Massapequa; former Hofstra creative writing professor Sam Toperoff; and Michael Barcham, manager of Ben’s Deli and Restaurant in Carle Place.
Hugs and Knishes delivers great stories and recipes, from the youngest children learning how to participate in the Passover seder to one of today’s last remaining links to the great American Yiddish theater tradition, actor Fyvush Finkel (beloved for his Emmy-winning work on “Picket Fences”), who passed shortly before the film’s distribution. The film also features actress Tovah Feldshuh and former Mayor Ed Koch.
Such memorable highlights as the interaction of elementary school-age children at a senior center’s intergenerational baking event and sisters recalling a grandmother’s approval of their holiday efforts underline what is at the film’s core — food as a link to the past and a hope for the future to maintain tradition when all else may be abandoned. As a young boy interviewed during DOROT’s “Bubbe’s Bakery” hamentashen event laments, “If we don’t know these things like how to make food … they’ll get lost.”
Throughout the program, producer/director David Anton — whose family heritage includes three generations of (Antosofsky) cantors and rabbis — uses cultural snippets of home life, holiday gatherings and history like the ingredients of a favorite grandmother’s Shabbat chicken soup. Like that weekly delicacy prepared in homes around the world, these pieces mixed together reflect a community’s collective memories and perhaps spark new ones as recipes are prepared step-by-step on screen.
Ed Koch talks about his mother’s use of chicken neck meat as a cure for a cold and how rendered chicken fat cured even the worst cook’s mistakes; a young family prepares cholent for Shabbat; a man takes pride in his grandchildren’s delight in his year-round preparation of matzoh brei; and sisters reminisce over the memory of kreplach stuffed with chopped liver.
While the focus of Hugs and Knishes is of course food, when there is talk of Jewish culture and tradition there is usually song, and Finkel and Feldshuh don’t disappoint, sprinkling their interviews with the Yiddish melodies of their childhoods.
If, as Feldshuh comments, modern dietary trends mean we “don’t have to eat half the challah” to appease the classic doting Jewish mother, Hugs and Knishes celebrates what those Shabbat and yom tov tastes still mean for a family’s third or fourth generation in America.