From the moment I step into Skokie’s Hungarian Kosher Foods, Lynn Kirsche Shapiro is on the move, with words flying from her mouth almost as fast as we’re walking. And for the next two hours, she doesn’t stop.
She leaps from one story to another, telling me about the grocery her parents bought, about the foods on the shelves, about her children. It’s a lot to take in, but not a single word is wasted.
There’s an urgency to what she’s saying.
Even a quick hug upon meeting, and the declaration that I look exactly like my mother feels meaningful. Because everything she’s doing is about preserving her family’s legacy and creating a bright future for her children.
Then away we go.
“This store was founded by my parents, who survived Auschwitz, Buchenwald, my father survived the death march,” Shapiro explains. “And then they were sponsored by my father’s uncle, who lived in Chicago, and they came to the states in 1948 after marrying in 1947.”
From there, Shapiro’s parents, Sandor and Margit Kirsche, got into the food industry. They became the owners of a small Hungarian kosher meat market in Chicago in 1973, eventually expanding the business and moving to a larger space in Skokie in 1985. Today, it’s the largest strictly-kosher market in the Midwest.
As Shapiro walks me through the grocery, she stops in almost every aisle to explain what’s available. Because everything is kosher, “you can really lose your mind in here and just shop,” she says.
We walk through the produce aisle. She shows me unique fruits that are popular in Jewish dishes but unlikely to be found in a typical grocery store. She shows me the pages of her cookbook where I can use each of the produce items.
We walk past pre-made items. But instead of just cakes and cookies, there’s mandel bread. I make a mental note to ask my Aunt Linda if she can show me the recipe I grew up munching on at her house.
We walk through the Kosher wine section. I swear it’s bigger than Trader Joe’s wine section. And I sheepishly admit to her that I, a girl who loves a good wine night with friends, honestly never thought about the wide variety of Kosher wines available before. I mean, sure, I had wine in the Golan Heights in Israel once, but when I think of kosher wine, I just think of Manischewitz. Obviously things will be different going forward.
I’ll admit, I did not grow up in a kosher household. I absolutely love the traditional Jewish recipes my parents and grandparents bring out during the various holidays every year, but I do not separate meats and dairy items. I do not check labels when I shop at a store.
But when I follow Shapiro through her market, I can’t help but feel immense pride for the work that has gone into the market. I feel thrilled that places like this are thriving, accepted and safe in the United States. I know this is not something to take for granted.
And she knows that, too. All too well.
Our tour of the store comes to a pause in the backroom, where boxes are stacked to the ceiling. She goes to one corner, and pulls out an Amazon box filled to the brim with copies of her cookbook, Food, Family and Tradition: Hungarian Kosher Family Recipes and Remembrances.
“It really brings history to life through food,” she says, holding up a copy of her book. “Jewish people are all about food and also about tradition. And traditions are all made through sitting around the table and the food. That really brings out our tradition.”
“My parents survived with almost no family; my father’s sisters survived but they were locked in the Soviet Union and my mother had one brother from her whole huge family but he lived in Florida. So, we grew up with almost no family, but my house was full of family, because my father was a master storyteller. He would tell the stories, which was not common for survivors to talk about in the early years, but these were my bedtime stories.”
The stories involved holidays and holiday meals, such as the charoset Shapiro’s grandfather used to make during Passover to share with the community.
“To this day, my mom, who is 94-years-old and blind, will come in and make the charoset for the market,” Shapiro says. “I would ask her, ‘how do you know how to make that recipe?’ and she would reply, ‘that’s what you can learn when you have a grandfather.’”
But for Shapiro and so many other children of survivors, whose families were decimated by the Holocaust, a morning in the kitchen with a grandparent is an unattainable experience.
But Shapiro is changing that narrative, by telling the stories passed down to her.
Her cookbook is split into two parts; Remembrance and Recipes. Her family history is well-researched, detailed on black and white pages that symbolize the lives lost to anti-Semitism. She shares vibrant stories about these family members, and their recipes come fully to life in the second part, with bold, colorful photos of the plates that defined Hungarian Jewish culture.
Some people have secret ingredients that they swear by. For Shapiro, it’s clearly love.
“You get insight into what life was,” Shapiro says. “I’ve done food demos downtown [Chicago] and people tell me it’s their story. Jewish, not Jewish, it doesn’t matter what you are. Somehow, you can go back to your family.”
It’s an intricate cookbook, with a combination of unique and universal recipes. Shapiro has done demo after demo, won awards and spoken with countless reporters, classes and community members about her book. She’s a gifted storyteller, putting oral and cooking skills passed down by her parents to use for an important cause. But in talking with her, I have to wonder what would have happened if she – or another family member – published this cookbook in the mid-20th century.
“People didn’t want to hear about the survivors’ experiences,” she says. “I grew up as a child of survivors in the American world. And I can tell you that as a child, the survivors were the ‘dumb people from Europe,’ and it’s not like the vast majority of American Jews embraced them and said, ‘Oh, you have no family? Please come and be part of our family.’ That was really not the case in those times.”
But, she acknowledges another factor held survivors back from speaking out in the 1950s and 1960s: they weren’t ready.
I ask her what made her parents choose to talk about their experiences with their children.
“My father was – and my mother will tell you he was – the emotional, romantic one in their life,” she answers. “He would always send her roses; I think that was the only way he could survive… I think it was their way of being able to move forward, to not have lost completely where they came from.”
Shapiro’s father began putting his stories down on paper with Shapiro’s daughter, Rocky. As she describes in her book,
“He wanted not only to tell his life story but also to ‘bear witness’ to all the lives that had touched his and that had been lost in the Holocaust.’”
Sadly, Kirsche died at the age of 81 before he could see his project through to the finish line.
That’s when Shapiro picked up the baton, sharing her father’s tales and her mother’s recipes in “Food, Family and Tradition.”
Shapiro recalls a time that her father spoke about the Holocaust at St. Joan of Arc, a school in Evanston, where a child asked him if he experienced a loss of faith.
She says his answer applies to the stories she’s written down.
“I remember vividly,” she recalls. “He answered, ‘A loss of faith? I did have a loss of faith. You do, when you walk among the dead bodies and you’re 18-years-old and you just keep going. You do have a loss of faith. But then I said to myself, if my parents raised me the way they did, I cannot afford to have a loss of faith. Because then, what will have happened to them? It will be as if they did not exist.’”
I think a lot about this question, and Kirsche’s answer.
As I sort through clip after clip, recording after recording and image after image from my day at the kosher market, I’m in awe of how many personal experiences Shapiro has opened up about to me and countless others through her book. I’m overwhelmed by the words pouring out and I want to write them all down.
Just as her father believed in his mission, she believes in hers to bear witness.
After all, she, too, cannot afford to have a loss of faith.