Monday, March 26, 2012

A non-Antiques Roadshow treasure -- Paska for Easter

The Antiques Roadshow has brought new awareness of the monetary but also intrinsic value of heirlooms – or anything old. Most people have at least a few things they treasure, not because of their worth in dollars, but because they were an important part of the family at one time. 

          These items are hard to give up when you move to a smaller place. I anguished when I moved to my apartment nearly seven years ago. Could I really part with these treasures?  I let go of some of them but  brought with me those that take up no space on shelves or cupboards, only in our memories of  family traditions and rituals.  But those routines provided a rhythm to our lives. 

          One such rhythm  was changing bed sheets every other Friday.  Clean pajamas lay on our pillows when we went to bed every Friday.  Bathing, however,  was a weekly Saturday ritual.  The first child, usually the  youngest,  bathed in a shallow measure of water in the round tub hauled in for this weekly procedure. The oldest bathed in a tub-sized ocean full of murky soap curds. All my tender  years I longed  for the evening  I would crawl  out of the tub into clean pajamas between clean sheets. No such luck.

          Eating  certain foods at special times of the year was another important ritual in my childhood home. At Easter we ate Paska (Pashka), or Easter bread. My immigrant mother made it, her mother in the Ukraine made it before her, and I don’t know how many generations before her.  I thought this family tradition would die out with me, but it didn’t.  My  daughters still make this cherished family treasure with great joy and pride even though it  will never make it onto the Antiques Roadshow. 

          Paska baking is an annual ritual connected with the celebration of the risen Christ.  Melting Pot of Mennonite Cookery tells me it was borrowed by the Mennonites in the Ukraine from Russian Orthodox women, who baked gigantic mushroom-shaped breads at Easter, iced them colorfully, and brought them to the priest to be blessed as a gift.

          They were baked in large round tins so that as they rose,  each  formed a “dome,” reminding the people of cathedral  onion-shaped domes.   Paska was always made in huge batches. One researcher of Ukrainian Orthodox background writes that recipes sometimes used over sixty  and more eggs per batch, mostly yolks.  The measure of a woman’s generosity, ability and wealth was measured by the number of eggs used in her batch of Paska.  Sometimes the dough took all day to rise and ended up a foot high.

          Before   putting the tins  in the brick oven,  fired with wood and straw, the housewife closed her eyes and prayed out loud, “Bogna  pomotsch” (God help me), then crossed herself in Orthodox fashion as she closed the oven door.  Mennonite women adopted the bread but not the blessing, but I’m sure many of then prayed the big undertaking would be a success.  Ukrainian women placed their iced Paska in the front window for all to admire as they strolled by.  No cars  rushed by in those days.

          When served in the home with company present, the guest of honor was offered the iced top. Otherwise,  the oldest member was so honored.  Folk tradition said how the Paska turned out predicted the future. Good Paska, good times ahead.  Heavy, flat Paska, bad times.  I can recall Mother commenting on whether her Paska had  turned out well  and priding herself if it had.  It was quite an accomplishment to make a large batch of this rich egg, sugar and flour yeast dough achieve lightness of texture. 

          Why do I value this tradition?  What memories bring strength to my spirit?  As a child, in winter and spring,  we attended the Russian Baptist church in our small Slavic village. That we children didn’t understand Russian was never a concern.  We imbibed the flavor of worship.  In the crowded  lobby,  on Easter Sunday, as the people removed their outer garments, they jubilantly greeted each other with  “Vostoss Voskress” (Christ is risen) to hear  “Voistinno Voskress” (Christ is risen indeed).  In  front of the pulpit the women   had placed  the decorated mushroom-shaped  Paska and plates of dyed Easter eggs.  

          But times have changed.  No longer do I save coffee cans and other large tin cans for months before Easter.  Even in the last years when I was still baking Paska, I began making it in angel food tins or loaf pans, or simply made hot cross buns.  Less hassle. 

          Why did women for several centuries make this complicated product with high risk of failure?  To give  children a sense of continuity within families and a stronger recognition of the church calendar.  Easter was special.  Easter required special food.  One woman said she did it  “to build memories.”  That’s why I did it. It wasn’t Easter without it.Families need traditions to steady them.

          Here’s  recipe I’ve  had in my files for decades. It’s not for the intrepid baker or the faint of heart: 
¾ lb. butter
2    c. milk
10 to 12 eggs
4     c. sugar
14 c. flour
5 cakes yeast
Mix as you would for rolls or bread. Dissolve yeast in lukewarm water. Scald milk and add butter. Cool and add to yeast mixture. Separate eggs and beat yolks until light and fully and add sugar. Add to yeast mixture. Beat egg whites until stiff and fold in.  Fold in flour, vanilla, salt.  Optional: almonds, orange peel, dried citrus fruit or raisins. Place in a large bowl and let rise until double in bulk. Knead dough vigorously.
To prepare molds, line with double thickness of heavy brown paper, which has been greased. Allow paper to extend at least one-half depth of can over top of can. Sprinkle inside of cans with bread crumbs.  Fill each can about one-third full, no more [or you’ll be sorry]  Allow dough to rise until double in bulk.
Bake for about one hour in 400-degree oven. To test use long knitting pin or cake tester.  Allow to cool in can.  Turn out on something soft, like a dish towel.  Keeps well for about a week.
Decorate with butter frosting and colored sprinkles. [Week-old Paska tastes wonderful when toasted and spread with butter.]  

Monday, March 19, 2012

Paper-doll theology and political thinking

Some people blog about what they do, where they went,  what they wore, what they ate, what happened at the event and much wore.  I blog about what I am thinking these days when my body isn’t able to move from place to place  as much it used to.  As the poet said, “Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage. Minds innocent and quiet take that for a hermitage.”  

Last week at church I listened to a retired professional,  retired in the sense that he is focusing his  energies in a new direction – advocating  for the mentally ill. He was speaking  about how his mind had changed over the decades from the time he was a young boy in a rural home in a Nebraska. His attitude had changed toward his father, other races,  gays and many other aspects of his life. 

In a sense he was telling us his worldview, or the way he looked at life,  had moved from point A to point B.   He saw that as a good thing, unlike some people who pride themselves that they never waver  from their initial viewpoint. 

I believe it is important to keep revising one’s thinking, but also to reflect about those changes, hopefully a movement towards  growth because growth involves choice. As I survey all the writing I’ve produced  over the decades, I sense that much of it has to do with how my mind has changed as I encountered new truth.  

Our worldview, often  defended  by our theology,  is one of the most difficult things to change because it is so deeply embedded in us. Prejudice  against the African-Americans,  for example, had its roots support strongly rooted in biblical teaching. The Bible was used to put a scaffolding under the need to own slaves. 

We can easily change which direction we brush our teeth or which side of our head we part our hair, if we have hair to part.   But our worldview, the grid through which we sift everything that comes to us from parental teaching, Sunday school instruction, preaching, literature, general reading, and nowadays, from movies and popular music, is harder to change.  It  also comes from coffee chatter and over-the-fence conversation. 

Changing your mind about something as deep-rooted as racial discrimination,  sexism, ageism – or any kind of snobbery – doesn’t  usually happen overnight.  The tentacles of such attitudes are firmly entrenched in our inner being, often supported by our theology if we are people of faith.  They need to be ripped out one by one, sometimes inch by inch. Sometimes they return to dig in deeper, and must be eradicated the same way they entered – by learning, by interaction, by experience. 

An example: I grew up with dispensationalism,  a word some  people wouldn’t even recognize today.  It became part of the warp and woof of my faith life.  In brief,  it holds to the understanding that church  history can be  neatly divided into clear divisions and that we mortals can figure out  what  is going to happen, step by step, especially as it relates to the end-times.  

During my young adult days I indulged myself in the delight of figuring  out the complicated  mammoth puzzle of God’s plan for humanity to the day and hour.  I learned to draw all the charts about the final days  with its many arrows pointing up or down, according to the action.  

My adult life has been a second growing up—sorting, learning to respond differently to old stimuli – to come up with an understanding of God that is mine, not forced on me by old experiences. It has been a matter of choice.  Changing one’s mind and saying so is a freeing experience. 
It took me too long to understand that scouring the daily news for clues to beat God at figuring what is going to happen at the end of the world  meant I was putting too much energy into preconceived human conclusions and not into what is important about the Christian life.  

As I mention in my essay “What? Me? A Fundamentalist” (see CascadiaPublishing Autumn 2006 ), it took too long to say to myself, I do not—I cannot—believe this.  There is some truth somewhere in eschatology, but not when the result is an intricate drawing of lines and arrows.

I come to that same conclusion when I hear people feverishly defending their position on many of today’s political issues  related to human sexuality with Scriptural proof-texts.  I want to say to them that the faith life is much bigger than one single Bible verse.  To put all one’s energies into one area reduces one  to the one-dimensional paper dolls we played with as children.  Thin.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Origins of Mennonite Central Committee -- a story from the underside

I have said that more needs to be written about the origins of Mennonite Central Committee, the relief and development arm of Mennonites churches, from the perspective of those who were helped.  We usually hear about those who did the helping, and that is good. But it isn’t the whole story.

          I grew up with stories of how MCC got started  because my parents, Jacob and Anna Funk, were among the first volunteers of that world-wide organization in the year 1921 in Rosenthal/Chortitza in southern Ukraine. 

          On Sunday I gave  a five-minute talk at the Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church about my parents’ role when MCC was mostly a gleam in the eye of its originators.   I talked about  those stressful times when hunger and disease raged rampant through the Ukraine.  People were dying.  The famine was both politically induced and  due to natural causes. 

          D.M. Hofer in his  book  Die Hungersnot in Russland  (1924) has a section called “Mosaiken oder Bunte Steinchen gesammelt in den Steppen Sued Russland” (Mosaic pieces, or  a variety of  little stones, gathered on the South Russian steppes).  My parents’ copy, which I inherited, shows much reading. The cover is torn and a few pages are missing. I hope some day someone will translate this section because it shows the underside of MCC beginnings. 

          It  is a wonderful collection of poems, anecdotes, vignettes, and  testimonies by people from the Mennonite colonies  helped by Mennonite Central Committee. They are full of emotion, strikingly fresh, written by people, young and old, eager to speak their thanks for the help when food resources were drained. 

          One  account is  of the Sunday morning service during the height of the starvation times (p.320).  After a breakfast quickly eaten because there was nothing to eat, the people dragged themselves off to church. At the end of the service the minister read a list of those who died of typhus the preceding week, followed by those whose death was due to starvation.  No one cried or showed emotion.  They were already deadened to the losses.

          Communion was no longer observed because there was nothing to celebrate it with. 

          In my grandmother’s home  in Rosenthal (she was now a widow because my grandfather had died of typhus),  the pantry was empty that Christmas.  My uncle Abe, about ten or eleven at the time, remembers hoping that Saint Nicholas would still bring him something.  On Christmas morning he came to the table to see two small packages wrapped in newspaper on his plate. Inside each was a dried cube of bread. His mother has saved a slice from her own ration, cut it in four pieces, and given two to each of her youngest sons so they would have a Christmas gift.  

          My father recalled  catching a gopher. Mother cooked it.  “It tasted like pigeon,” he told me decades later.  Mother told about seeing  a commotion in the yard next door and went to investigate.  The people were cooking a cat.  If your dog didn’t come home in the evening you knew it had ended up in someone’s pot.  People ate bark, berries, anything. My sister Frieda, then a toddler, lost the ability to walk because of lack of food.

          And then came the wonderful news that the American Mennonites were going to help their brothers and sisters across the ocean. Food kitchens were going to be set up in various key localities, including Rosenthal/Chortitza. Would the help come before another family member else  died?

          On March 13, 1922 a trainload with box cars filled with flour, rice, beans, canned milk, shortening, and sugar arrived in Chortitza.  The people rushed to the railroad to watch the food  being unloaded. 

          Ration cards were issued for a daily meal consisting of 788 calories.  No one who had a need was turned down regardless of race, creed, nationality or social standing.  People who still had some salt donated it. Young boys split wood.

          Mother and Dad became the head volunteers in this food kitchen, mother as cook because she had about five years experience cooking for large groups in the Bethania Mental Health Hospital, Dad as her helper because he had experience managing a large army field kitchen supply house during the war.  Part of his job was prying open the dozens of cans of condensed milk  used each day, for they had no can opener. In exchange for their services they received free rent and double rations so that they would strength to work.  Two men carried water for the kitchen and three girls assisted with the cooking.  The kitchen fed about 800 to 1000 people each day. 

     Gradually the need for the food kitchen dwindled and  it  was closed down, Mennonites in the area talked about leaving the country that given them a home since the late 1700s.  About  20,000 headed for Canada, my parents among them. 

      As a parting gift MCC gave them $10, a special package of flour, shortening, cocoa, milk and sugar,  and a quilt.  Mother baked Zwieback,  which she roasted.   Zwieback was their staple  food on the long journey to Canada. By the time they arrived in Rosthern, Saskatchewan,  Dad had only 25 cents of that $10 left. He  bought a bar of soap with it – their first luxury in several years.  Living without soap had been one of the hardships during the famine.  Being clean was part of the new beginning.

     They arrived on a Friday evening and spent the night at their sponsors’ home,  Abram and Margaret Schellenberg, Dad’s uncle and aunt.   Monday morning he was already working in a store for his uncle.

     In an account of her experience as a MCC volunteer, Mother wrote: “I thank God for the vision the Mennonites had back in 1922, and that we were able to be part of that vision.”  I am thankful also, for without that vision I might not be alive. 

     Mother’s account of her experiences as an MCC volunteer has been published in various places, including my book The Storekeeper’s Daughter (Herald Press).