From our eight favorite books from the year — one for each night of Hanukkah — we present two below. They are all great holiday gifts for the passionate cook in your life or a treat for yourself. Check out the other books on our list from days 1-3.
Oma & Bella: The Cookbook
By Alexa Karolinski
Self published, 120 pages, $36
Alexa Karolinski, a filmmaker and Berlin-native, had the idea and chutzpah to produce this whimsically-illustrated cookbook of traditional Eastern European dishes. But the recipes themselves are all Oma and Bella’s — two feisty women, both Holocaust survivors (one of whom is Karolinski’s grandmother), who live, cook, and kibbitz together in their shared Berlin apartment.
Karolinski created the cookbook as a companion piece to her independent film Oma & Bella — a 76-minute tribute to the women’s lives and history as told in and through their kitchen. Similarly, the recipes, which range from challengingly old-fashioned dishes like jellied calves foot, pickled herring and boiled tongue, to the more universally-appetizing veal brisket, carrot tzimmes and rugelach, serve as an entree into Oma and Bella’s lives. “Having lost both of their families in the Holocaust, Oma and Bella had to teach themselves, often from scratch, how to make the dishes their mothers and grandmothers made for them.” Now, thanks to their generosity and Karolinski’s patience and diligence (she spent three years watching the women cook, translating their “handfuls into half cups, pinches into teaspoons, and platefuls into servings,” 38 classic dishes are now available to the next generation.
For centuries, Jewish food traditions have been passed down from generation to generation. In kitchens around the world, parents and grandparents have guided youngsters as they roll their first matzo balls for soup, taste the batter for a sour cream coffeecake, or learn the sharp, malty scent of baking sourdough bread. But when a young person loses her whole family — as Regina Karolinski and Bella Katz each did during the Holocaust — those secrets of hearth and home get lost along with everything else.
In the new film “Oma & Bella” German filmmaker Alexa Karolinski (Regina’s granddaughter) tells the story of her oma (German for “grandmother”) and her best friend Bella — two elegant and charismatic women, both Holocaust survivors, who now live, kibbitz and cook together in their shared Berlin apartment. Fortified with slowly caramelized onions, generous pinches of sugar, and other ingredients associated with Jewish soul food, Oma and Bella’s cooking — their brisket-filled blintzes, their barley soup, and lusciously-soft baked apples — has become the stuff of family legend. But it was not always this way.
“Having lost both of their families in the Holocaust, [they] had to teach themselves, often from scratch, how to make the dishes their mothers and grandmothers made for them,” writes Karolinski in the introduction to the companion cookbook she self-published along with the film. “In doing so, they built a bridge from their past into the present, drawing on tastes and smells from a vanished world as a gift to their children and grandchildren.”
For anyone who craves one more hug from a grandma long gone, one more of her chocolate turtle cookies or another whiff of her apple strudel baking in the oven, there is “Oma & Bella.”
Scenes from the new documentary about two octogenarian friends living together in Berlin are warm, but the hunger to learn more about their past as Holocaust survivors creates a suspenseful undercurrent throughout the film, which is being released on iTunes and Amazon in the United States on Tuesday.
The sometimes jarring shifts from cozy kitchen scenes of chopping and sauteing to starkly lit interviews in which they reluctantly reveal some of the horrors they survived as Jewish girls in World War Two are purposeful, filmmaker Alexa Karolinski said.
“In the beginning, they basically said, ‘You can do whatever you want as long as you don’t ask us about then,’” Karolinski said of the agreement with her grandmother — or Oma — Regina Karolinski, and her friend Bella Katz, who moved in to help with Oma’s recovery from a hip operation in 2007 and never left.