A Greek Immigrant’s Jewish New Year, Smell of Old Home Foods

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It’s been 60 years since Paulette Nehama came to the United States from the Romaniote Greek-Jewish community of Volos, a seaside city northeast of Athens on the way to Thessaloniki but what’s never left her is the smell and taste of the foods of her childhood.

Especially a once-lost-but-then-found recipe for  biscottakia me amygdala, or biscotti with almonds, that she took with her but couldn’t find before writing to her mother back home to send it again.

I was so heartbroken that I cried and cried,” she says. “Losing the recipe felt like I had lost my mother,” she told the Washington Post, in a feature that tracked her journey to America in 1958 as a new bride to the treasured memories and recipes that endure today, to Bethesda, Maryland, where she has lived for 55 years.

The most valuable was that almond cookie recipe her mother send on the thin airmail paper used in those faraway days, and she kept it preserved in a clear plastic sleeve, covered with food stains, rips, and yellowed tape.

Written in Greek, mother’s recipe used glasses, coffee cups and handfuls as measurements. Nehama worked out more-standard measurements and still makes the twice-baked cookie which was a staple to offer visitors, along with strong coffee or tea for the biscottakia, also called paximadakia, made for such Jewish holidays as Rosh Hashanah. The holiday, marking the Jewish New Year, begins this year September 9 at sunset.

Born Paulette Mourtzoukos in 1933, she and her family descended from some of the first Jewish residents in Europe, dating back to the 2nd Century, absorbed by Sephardim, Spanish Jews expelled from Iberia beginning with the Inquisition in 1492. More than 100,000 Sephardim settled in the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Greece for nearly 400 years.

She said she well remembers her early life in Volos where, before the Nazi invasion of World War II, there were some 2,000 Jews living there.  At Rosh Hashanah, neighbors gave each other baskets of pomegranates from their yards with wishes for “chronia polla, kai kali chronia,” or “many years and good years.”

The first taste at the start of the holiday — and to break the fast for Yom Kippur 10 days later — was of honey sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, symbolic of wishes for a sweet year of abundance.

She told The Post’s writer Susan Barocas that her family always had baklava, honey-soaked layers of phyllo and nuts, or kadaifi, or often both, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. Her favorite, “because it’s crunchier,” kadaifi wraps the distinctive shredded phyllo dough around the chopped nut filling and is soaked in sweet syrup while still hot from the oven.

Apple preserves called mylo tou koutaliou – apple spoon sweets – were another traditional Rosh Hashanah dish in Nehama’s childhood home. The preserves were made from seasonal fruits — apples in the fall, grapefruit or orange peel in the winter, strawberries or very small tomatoes in the summer.

The Nazis took over Volos from the Italians when when was seven years old, forcing her family to flee to Athens where they hid out for months. After the war, she attended an American high school outside Athens and earned a degree in social work in 1956.

FATEFUL DAY

The next year, Nehama met her future husband, Isaac, at the wedding of his brother, Sam, in Athens. Her husband-to-be fought as a partisan during the war, and Sam was the only other survivor of the family, the rest dying at the concentration camp in Auschwitz.

Isaac had left Greece in 1948 to study in the United States and became an American citizen. When they married in 1958 they lived in Indiana and had three daughters, Sarah, Maya and Nicole — and five grandchildren. Her husband died in 2014.

While her mother was, she said, a great cook, Nehama said that, “I had no interest in going into the kitchen and learning from her. Even when I was engaged, my mother used to say, ‘What are you going to cook for your husband?’ But I said that everyone in the U.S. opens a can to make dinner.”

It didn’t come easy, and she told the paper she fretted her husband wouldn’t be happy with her in the kitchen because “everything tasted awful,” but she kept up and said it got better after he gave her – a sweet hint, perhaps – two bound volumes of Gourmet magazine.

“One time I made coq au vin and, by mistake, it turned out perfect,” she remembers. “Isaac praised me saying how good it is, tender and so on. That boosted up my morale. So from that time on, I started cooking and decided I liked to do it.”

Now a foodie, she asked her mother and sister for more recipes from Greece where they still lived and began reading cookbooks and tried entertaining at home with parties for a bigger audience for her food, especially Greek dishes.

“I would roll and stuff grape leaves for 30 or 40 people and make spanakopita [spinach pie], tiropita (cheese pie), fassolya (green beans), Greek soups and lentils for a crowd,” she said, and got so confident she taught Greek cooking at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville, a class called From Athens with Love.

Her Jewish side remains strong and she said one of her favorite cookbooks was Jewish Holidays and Traditions, produced in 1993 by the women of the small Jewish community in Volos, featuring recipes from brethren around the world with roots there.

Nehama passed her Greek recipes on to her daughters, who now make the dishes. Every year at Rosh Hashanah, she buys a pomegranate for each daughter, as well as one for herself and in memory of Isaac, an expression of love and of hope for prosperity, and, of course, memories.

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