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Question: Did women in shtetls in Eastern Europe have two separate sets of dishes (dairy and meat) for Passover and another two for the rest of the year?
Answer: I know where you’re coming from, Leo. Outside of images from movies like Fiddler on the Roof and Yentl, it can be hard to picture what life was like in the shtetls where many of our ancestors lived before the Holocaust. But we know, or have heard, that shtetls were places of abject poverty, and it seems unlikely that families that could hardly make ends meet would own two, or even four sets of dishes.
To get to the bottom of this issue I consulted with Professor David Kraemer, the Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Librarian and professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Prof. Kraemer wrote Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages, and is a scholar of the evolution of Jewish eating practices through the centuries.
When I asked Prof. Kraemer about the history of two sets of dishes in the home, he reminded me that I was making assumptions about what “sets of dishes” means. The kinds of utensils we use for eating have changed over time, so while now we may be accustomed to having dinner plates, salad plates, bowls, mugs, glasses, plus a knife, a fork, and a spoon at minimum, this wouldn’t necessarily have been the norm in earlier eras. “In order to have separate dishes, you need to have dishes in the first place,” Kraemer said. For hundreds of years, Jews ate from large bowls and platters shared by the whole family, instead of individual plates. This necessitated far fewer objects in the kitchen, and meant that having duplicates of everything for meat and milk was less of a hassle. This lasted until about the 17th century, when eating technologies began to evolve towards individual portions and plates.
According to Prof. Kraemer, by the time shtetl life was in its heyday, in the 18th-19th centuries, personal flatplates, spoons, knives, and often forks had become the convention, much like what we have today. In observant Jewish communities (both shtetls and urban communities) the norm was to have two sets of dishes, one for meat, and one for dairy.
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