An unusual party favor was in store for those who attended the recent Bar Mitzvah of the Wagner family in snowy Irkutsk, Russia – a colorful cookbook in Russian with kosher recipes, the “Kosher Cook. There aren’t many Russian kosher cooking albums, and what made this one even more unique is that almost all the needed ingredients could be found locally. “Ninety-nine percent of the ingredients you can find in a regular Irkutsk supermarket,” said Mrs. Dorit Wagner, the wife of city’s chief rabbi and the initiator of the idea.
The story began two years ago, when a cooking club was opened in Irkutsk’s FJC Jewish community. “I like to cook and invite people for meals, and people would always ask me about kosher food – in their mind it was only gefilte fish, tzimmes or some other traditional Ashkenazi dishes,” says Mrs. Wagner. “So I wanted to show them that kosher cooking could really be much more than that.” The cooking club proved very successful, with about 40 regulars – women, men and even teenagers coming every week.
And so for the Bar-Mitzvah of their eldest son, the Wagner family decided to gather the recipes the club made over the years and publish them as a cookbook. The book is dedicated to the memory of rabbi Wagner’s mother, who was the “real master chief” of the community, Mrs. Wagner said. It includes 60 recipes and was printed in 150 copies. The Wagners hope the book may see a second, larger edition, as demands for the album have started to come in from across the region. One of the copies was presented by the Bar Mitzvah boy to the Irkutsk city mayor.
Located deep in Siberia, Irkutsk has a long Jewish history dating back to the 18th century: some Jews arrived there as traders on the lucrative silk road to China and Mongolia, other were sent as cantonists by the Tzarist army. Later in the 20th century another segment of current Jewish population came from the region’s Gulag camps.The Irkutsk synagogue, built in 1881, was one of a few open in the 1960’s and 70’s, with Matzah bakings taking place on premises, something unheard of in more central Soviet Union. The city and surrounding area still boast a high Jewish population, although a large part of it was assimilated during the Soviet regime. The Wagners hope the cookbook may be one of the small steps that lead the locals on the road to re-discovering their roots and identity.
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