For Evelina Swartzman, the eight nights of Hanukkah are a time of lightheartedness and joy to be shared with family, which includes husband, Steve, and their two sons, Harrison, 14, and Zandy, 12.
This “Festival of Lights,” which begins at sundown on Nov. 27, celebrates the more than 2,000-year-old miraculous victory of the Maccabees in reclaiming the Temple in Jerusalem from the Syrians.
Swartzman grew up in the Soviet Union — now Russia — and moved with her parents and sister to New York City in 1977, when she was 10 years old. Her father, 86-year-old Boris Perepelyuk, is a Holocaust survivor who wanted a better life for his family in America. Now, Perepelyuk regularly travels from Brooklyn, N.Y., to visit Swartzman’s family and pass along life lessons he learned while being held as a boy in a Nazi labor camp in Ribnita, Moldova, during World War II.
“Thank God I survived, when many of my friends and family did not,” Perepelyuk says. “It gives me great happiness to see the beauty in my family and to be able to enjoy life now. I am proud to be a Jew and am a happy man.”
Growing up with the stories of his grandfather’s suffering during the Holocaust, grandson Harrison views his heritage with hope for the future.
“I am really lucky to be here and have a responsibility to make the most of my life,” he says. “I do not want my grandfather’s suffering to have been in vain.”
Obstetrician and gynecologist
Special cooking interest:
Traditional Russian and Jewish foods
Is your father open about sharing stories from the Holocaust with you?
I grew up with his stories, and so many of them in the labor camps and ghettos revolve around food, or, more accurately, the lack of it. The essentials of life are so precious — food, clothing and shelter — and now, while it is easier to take these things for granted, I try to always be mindful of the many blessings and to pass these lessons along to my own children. My father shares his stories because he doesn’t want this part of history to repeat itself and he wants to try and spare people the pain of war.
My father is a remarkable man and he recounts the four times he narrowly escaped death. Many Jews died in the Nazi labor camps from hunger, disease and epidemics. As a young teenager, my father suffered from a dysentery epidemic, and for one week he ran a high fever and had nothing to eat or drink. After he woke from his sickness, he realized he would die without food, so he risked his life and snuck into the Nazis’ kitchen to dig scraps of food out of the garbage and brought back what he had found to his family to share.
The ancient story of Hanukkah is also one of bravery, courage and overcoming great odds. How do you celebrate this Jewish holiday?
We really didn’t start openly celebrating Hanukkah until we moved to the United States, since there was no religious freedom in the Soviet Union. We celebrate the story of Hanukkah, which took place in the second century B.C.E., when Judah the Maccabee led a fighting band of Jews to reclaim the Temple in Jerusalem from the Syrians. One of the first tasks of the Jews was to rededicate the Temple. The Jews lit the holy menorah (lamp), but found only enough holy oil to last one day. The flames of the Menorah burned steadily for eight days, by which time purified oil was ready.
We will eat brisket and traditional foods, like potato latkes, that are fried in oil to symbolize the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days instead of one. Of course, each night we light a candle on the menorah, and instead of exchanging gifts every night, for the final evening, my family will detail in what ways we are each giving back to the community.
Family seems to be everything to you. Is this recipe for Mamaliga from your food roots? Family is
everything to me, and Mamaliga is comfort food. My family loves Mamaliga for breakfast, which is a porridge made out of cornmeal and very traditional in Romania and Moldova, from where my father’s family came and where I was born.
In World War II, on March 30, 1944, after Ribnita was liberated, my father was reunited with his surviving family members, and his mother made Mamaliga for everyone. This is similar to Italian polenta, but for protein they would add butter, cheese and sour cream. It is the food of peasants but is made to sustain.
With a demanding career as a doctor, how do you find the time to make foods that sustain your family?
I began cooking when I was about 12 years old, and I think it is important to eat real, unprocessed foods. When I’m able to cook, I will make dishes like Russian chicken stew or homemade pasta sauce and will always serve a green salad on the side.
It’s so important to be able to sit down and talk around the table, and I feel absolutely privileged to be able to have my father’s story as part of who I am. I do feel as though my father has an angel looking over him as we all bring wonderful life experiences to the table.Moldovan Cornmeal Mush or Mamaliga
Makes 4 to 6 servings2 1/2 cups water 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup coarse-ground yellow cornmeal 1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened 3/4 cup sour cream or plain Greek yogurt 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
Whisk water, salt and cornmeal together in a heavy-bottomed pot (or Russian kazan). Stirring occasionally, bring mixture to a boil over medium-high heat.
Reduce heat to low and cook cornmeal mixture, covered, until thickened and cooked through, about 15 to 20 minutes. Take cornmeal off heat and allow to set up for about 5 minutes. Run a knife along the edge of the pot and invert contents onto a serving plate.
Immediately spread butter and sour cream (or Greek yogurt) over the hot cornmeal form. Sprinkle feta cheese over all and serve by spooning into individual bowls. Some prefer to stir the mixture together, while others prefer to keep the layers intact as they eat.Per serving, based on 4: 289 calories (53 percent from fat), 17 grams total fat (11 grams saturated), 50 milligrams cholesterol, 20 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 481 milligrams sodium.