Carly M. Bruski, LMSW, Assistant Director, Holocaust Survivor Support Program
“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”– James Beard
The Holocaust Survivor Support Program offers an array of social programming, but without a doubt one of the favorites is Tasty Travels Club. This exciting program began at JFCS’ Barbara and Harvey Brodsky Enrichment Center in 2018.
The Brodsky Center is a welcoming, inclusive space that offers therapeutic services and community-building programs for diverse populations. JFCS’ Kosher, ADA-compliant teaching kitchen is a space that is at the heart of social programming for our Holocaust Survivors. Tasty Travels is a special program planned by our Holocaust Survivor Support Team with the understanding that food, cooking, and eating are important cornerstones for how our clients think of their homes, cultures, and families. So far, we have “traveled” to Israel, Argentina, France, and Italy through cooking, music, dance, and video. We’ve hosted 50 (unduplicated) clients, spouses, and home health aides. Led by the kitchen’s manager, up to 15 survivors per session eagerly don their aprons and cut vegetables, mix, sauté, and season a variety of foods local to each country all while chatting and sharing their travel experiences and knowledge.
As a trauma and culturally sensitive agency, we understand that food has been a longtime trauma trigger for many of our clients who experienced extreme neglect and starvation during the Holocaust. Food was often severely restricted or rationed. Food – or the lack of food – was a matter of life and death for survivors, and many risked their lives to obtain food during the war years. Due to their horrific experiences during the war, many clients spent years postwar refusing to eat, overeating, hoarding food, and reporting chronic unhappiness with food. Tasty Travels has been a safe space that has cultivated a positive affiliation around food. We’ve supported and empowered clients to see food as a source of happiness, a symbol of their families and togetherness, and fun. We create warm, comforting dishes that fill our bellies. Because of these extreme historical circumstances, we plan Tasty Travels through a trauma-informed lens; our kitchen manager is a whiz at assisting clients with their dietary modifications when necessary. We’re sure to always have an abundance of food on hand, and we present our clients with a predictable schedule of what we’ll be cooking up front and when it will be served.
While our survivors came of age in an older generation with more traditional gender roles present, that is not the case at Tasty Travels. The kitchen is no longer a place just for women. We’ve seen men take an active role in making a slew of dishes. At one of the earliest events, we were amused to watch two Russian men – both scientists – standing at the oven watching kugels cook, arguing about which is the right setting, temperature, and correct cook time. There are many lively debates among survivors about “who makes it best” and “this is how we do it in our house,” but overall they always tell us they are happy to be together doing something as a group.
At our first event – Argentina – the kitchen manager, who had lived in Argentina for many years, played traditional songs on the guitar while we waited for our food to cook. The atmosphere was jovial, and everyone was singing and clapping along. One Holocaust survivor client and his wife had lived in Argentina after the war and taught us a few phrases in Spanish. We watched a video about Argentine tango until mealtime when we dined on steaming hot empanadas.
When we “ventured” to Italy, each survivor rolled and cut their own pasta. We felt like we were in a small restaurant in Rome with Italian flags and flour covering the kitchen’s surfaces and fresh noodles drying everywhere. Each noodle was different, crafted and cut by survivors who know their way around any recipe, and who were helping each other wield the kitchen tools. There were many conversations among clients about trips to Italy with family, famous Italian artists and musicians they enjoy, and how to properly cut vegetables for a salad.
Two married Holocaust Survivor clients, one of whom passed away recently, took turns rolling out dough and stirring the tomato sauce behind the counter. Mrs. M said:
“Oh, when we came to the kitchen…He [Mr. M] looked so funny. He never touched raw meat, raw chicken, nothing. The kitchen was my area. It was so funny to see him in the kitchen with an apron on and see him stirring the pot and making noodles. We had such a nice meal with everyone. It was such a treat to see everyone and talk to everyone. On the way home, he was so happy. We had such a nice visit. I’m glad we were able to go and have that experience. I’ll never forget it.”
Our staff also remembers this moment fondly. Another client, BT, said:
“They [Tasty Travels events] are wonderful every time I go. It’s something to do that’s special because there’s something to learn. And everyone is so nice. For example, because my diet is so limited, Gertrude made me spaghetti without the sauce, just butter and salt. Then everyone wanted that, too!”
This client is also known to bring beautiful home-made knitted hats to Tasty Travels events and give them out as gifts.
On our “journey” to France, we enjoyed sweet and savory crepes. We talked about the booksellers along the Seine in Paris and clients showcased their knowledge of the beautiful French language. Survivors were able to create their own crepe concoctions and clink glasses with communal grape juice in lieu of wine. One client, CC, who has recently passed away, spoke French fluently. She taught us French vocabulary associated with food, and as an avid music lover, danced to the French music we played with a huge smile on her face the whole time.
Not surprisingly, the favorite “trip” was to Israel. Together we made falafel and Israeli salad and watched an emotional video about how Holocaust Remembrance Day is honored in Israel. Many survivors spoke about their time living in Israel or visiting with their families over the years. One client spoke about her fond memories of a kibbutz in Israel after the war and this topic spoke to a lot of attendees – many people then shared their voyages to Israel and their kibbutz experiences. The deep ties to Israel are common across the Western and Eastern European survivors and this “virtual visit” helped create a bond between two groups that are sometimes divided due to culture and language barriers.
The goal of Tasty Travels is to have fun, bring survivors together, and share experiences around food. To help alleviate social isolation and ensure all Holocaust survivors with mobility and transportation challenges are able to participate in programs, such as Tasty Travels, JFCS bought a wheelchair-accessible bus that transports clients from their doors to the Brodsky Center. Our survivors now know the bus driver, Joe, very well and are sure to bring him a plate of our home-made food after each event.
Another client, ET, said:
“I love it! Last year we did pies and we got to take them home. That was wonderful. It’s a nice building, and I like learning something new every time. I try to get to all of them.”
One highlight of Tasty Travels is its inclusivity. Former Soviet Union and Western European survivors that have never interacted previously tend to more easily strike up conversation in this fun, laid-back atmosphere. Our team’s bilingual English/Russian-speaking social workers come to help with language barriers. Clients find commonalities with one another that they never knew existed; and seeing new friendships bud among clients in their 80’s and 90’s, that have been traditionally separated, is amazing to watch. Everyone is looking forward to dancing to the mariachi music and eating tacos for our July trip to Mexico and learning how to roll our own Japanese sushi in August.
The Teaching Kitchen at the Brodsky Center is home to a multitude of other community programs as well. These include:
- Cooking and Nutrition Classes: At no cost to participants, JFCS provides regular weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly classes to help individuals of all backgrounds address their respective social, emotional, physical, and financial challenges. Featuring cooking demonstrations and instruction, opportunities range from classes for adults with disabilities to learn to cook basic meals, so they can live independently; kitchen safety skills for older adults as their mobility decreases; classes for households on limited incomes to learn to eat healthy and stretch their food dollars; and communal meals for those struggling with isolation to share meals together. Popular classes include:
- Helping Heroes: Clients with disabilities share in a lunch and community service project to expand their cooking and social skills while making and packaging meals such as soups and casseroles for those facing food insecurity. Each week, meals are donated to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Mitzvah Food Pantry, located on-site at the Brodsky Center, or to home-bound JFCS clients with limited access to fresh food.
- Baking with a Mission: This inclusive, weekly program brings student volunteers and adults with disabilities together to develop cooking skills as they bake challah and other baked goods. JFCS partners with Repair the World, whose Fellow teaches participants about food insecurity. In turn, participants share what they learn to raise awareness about this issue while selling these food items at bake sales, their schools, and other local organizations. Multiplying impact, funds raised support JFCS’ Food Voucher Program, which provides grocery store gift cards to local families experiencing hunger.
- Cooking Matters: Combining interactive nutrition education, budgeting, cooking demonstrations, and a grocery store field trip, this 10-week program helps individuals with low incomes learn to create healthy meals on a limited budget.
Over the past two years, through a grant from the Jewish Federations of North America, the Holocaust Survivor Support Team at JFCS was trained in trauma and culturally-sensitive care for Holocaust Survivors. As an offshoot of this initiative, the team has been committed to planning social programs for clients through a client-centered, trauma-sensitive lens aimed to bridge cultures and bring all Survivors together. We believe the success of Tasty Travels is due to the therapeutic, enjoyable, and cross-cultural importance of food and gathering around a common table to honor everyone’s life experiences. Being together in the kitchen allows for staff and Survivors from different countries who speak different languages to sit with one another in a non-clinical environment to talk, laugh, and share experiences. Sheilah Graham said, “Food is the most primitive form of comfort,” and we believe that Tasty Travels fosters this feeling among our clients.