A soup kitchen changed Joanne Caras’ life, but not because she needed food. She needed to feed the souls of the international Jewish community. She just didn’t know it at the time.
Caras, a Florida resident, is the author of “The Holocaust Survivor’s Cookbook” and will appear next week at three events sponsored by Pittsburgh Chabad organizations to discuss and sign her book.
Her 2005 visit to the Carmei Ha’ir soup kitchen in Jerusalem, which feeds 500 patrons a day, inspired Caras to write the book. Her son and daughter-in-law, who had made aliya to Israel that same year, took her to the soup kitchen where they volunteered. Managed and decorated like an actual restaurant, with place settings and a menu of Israeli-style foods, the only difference was, a collection box at the door. Those who could pay something paid what they could, and those who could not pay, did not; no one knew the difference. The Carmei Ha’ir goal, she said, was to help indigents “dine with dignity.”
Immediately upon entering, Caras knew she would never be the same. She decided to do her own project to “honor” the life her son and daughter-in-law were leading — and to support the soup kitchen.
That idea eventually led to the cookbook. Today, royalties from the project generated a check for $100,000 to Carmei Hai’ir, which the Caras family personally delivered in January. The money saved the kitchen from shutting its doors due to lack of funding.
She hopes the cookbook will benefit other nonprofits as well.
“An organization can use our book as a fundraiser by purchasing it from us wholesale and then sell the book for $36,” Caras said. “We can create two mitzvas: we are able to give back to them, and the profits from every book sold also goes to the soup kitchen.”
Caras spent several years collecting not only recipes from Holocaust survivors and their families, but also their own personal survival stories. It took six months before she even collected one story, but on one day, she received two.
What kept her going was her mother’s advice: “If you get one story, you’ll get two and you’ll finish your book.”
She eventually collected old and current photos from the contributors to further personalize the survivors. The final version of the cookbook features 129 survivors (or 129 “miracles” as Caras refers to them) and contains 250 family recipes.
Caras and her family self-published the book and 5,000 copies were quickly sold. The book is currently in its sixth printing, and a second volume is in the works.
Through mostly word of mouth, the book has made its way around the world, with sales in South Africa, South America, New Zealand, Canada and Iceland.
“When the Jews left Europe, they dispersed around the world,” Caras said, “so that was my goal: to interview and include people from every continent.”
She understands that the book is not only being used as a recipe book, but as a coffee table book and a nightstand book.
“The message I got from this whole project is, though each survivor shares a common thread of suffering,” Caras said, “what they really share with us — and their children and grandchildren — is the gratitude for all the blessings that they had and this love for family that they wanted to teach to their children. That message came through to me and has touched my life.”
Caras, who has a background as a children’s television entertainer, has followed the book’s travels around the world at numerous speaking engagements and book signings.
Shternie Rosenfeld of Chabad of Fox Chapel, one of the three speaking venues, said the events would be uplifting rather than focusing on the sadness of the Holocaust.
“That is the theme of my evening: Jewish food and Judaism and how it brings us all together,” Rosenfeld said. “Everyone has memories of Jewish food, and what a way to honor the survivors in a warm, positive way.”
Marissa Mandell, a former Pittsburgh resident whose mother, Caroline Wilner, is one of the survivor stories featured in the book, said that growing up, her family never talked much about her experiences. The book, however, opened up the subject.
Wilner contributed two recipes: chakchooka, an eggplant dish, and bullanikis, a dish Mandell refers to as “oversized knishes to the tenth power,” of which she has fond memories.
“The recipes are a way to say, ‘We’re still here, our heritage has survived,’” Mandell said.
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at email@example.com.)