Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Hopping down the Zwieback trail -- only in Menno-land

Children learn the alphabet by various ways.  I recall a song I learned ending “Now I know my ABCs, tell me what you think of me.”  When I suddenly have to remember what letter comes after the one I am focused on, I still sing this song to myself. 

Other children learn their ABCs by stating “A is for apple, rosy and red, B is for ball .....” and so on. 

Now children and adults – all of us – have another device to learn the alphabet – the Anabaptist alphabet creatively portrayed in the book On the Zwieback Trail: A Russian Mennonite Alphabet of Stories, Recipes and Historical Events by Lisa Weaver with illustrations and designs by Julie Kauffman and Judith Rempel Smucker.

It is published by Canadian Mennonite University Press in Winnipeg. A truly classy production.  Bold, bright, beautiful. 

Do Methodists have such a treasure? Baptists? Catholics?  I doubt it. 

Only in the Mennonite world. 

This is not a primer in the usual sense, but a wonderfully cheerful illustrated introduction to the Russian Mennonites, beginning with the Anabaptists in Europe in the 1500s. These early radical Christ-believers practiced adult baptism, communion, and shared time, talents and goods.  On the Zwieback Trail, however, is not a “quiet-in-the-land” approach to Mennonite life and thought but a bold, upbeat look.  

So A is for Anabaptism, of course. What else? 

It continues with this novel approach to introducing new readers to the Russian Mennonites  with B is for Borscht.  Anyone familiar with this  Russian Mennonite cabbage  soup can add their own descriptors.  The recipe is illustrated with a photo appetizing enough to make the reader want to dip into the page  and taste it. And for those unfamiliar with it, to make a pot for dinner. 

And so, on through the alphabet:  D is for the Dnieper River basin of the Ukraine, where in the late 1700s Empress Catharine the Great invited Prussian Germans to settle on its fertile steppes.  

F is for Faspa, that  delightful Mennonite  “high tea,” only with Mennonites, it is coffee,  served in the early afternoon, usually consisting of Zwieback, coffee and lots of conversation.  It was looked forward to because it was a time to “neighbor,”  or visit, so important to these Russian Mennonites and their ancestors. 

On the inside front cover is a map of the village of Rosenthal, near the Dnieper River. A small windmill  in the top left-hand corner is identified with the words “Johann Funk Windmill.” That marks the spot where my grandparents and, later on,  my parents lived until 1923.  That year, along with thousands of other immigrants, they headed for Canada, away from the heartache of World War I, the horrors of the Russian Revolution, the desperation of the Hunger Years, and the pestilence that killed my great-grandparents, my grandfather and an uncle in two short weeks. 

On a trip to Russia in 1989 I stood on that spot and tried to imagine what it might have been like working inside that Dutch-style windmill, high on this windy hill—long since gone and replaced with wheat fields.  

The second colony settled by Mennonites in the Ukraine is shown with a map on the back inside cover, pinpointing the dozens of villages established along the Molotschnaer River. 

As I wrote in a blurb on the back cover, “Anyone with Verenike strengthening their muscles and Borscht flowing in their veins knows that Z could only stand for Zwieback.   Join a voyage of discovery down the alphabet trail to celebrate the history, culture and service of this branch of Anabaptist believers. From the early 1500s to the present, it’s all there for young and old to enjoy.” 

Each letter of the alphabet refers to some significant aspect of Russian Mennonite history , faith and culture.
M is for  Menno Simons, 16th century Anabaptist leader after whom the Mennonites were named.  He taught that “True Christians do not know vengeance. They are the children of peace, and they walk in the way of peace.” 

It is a book that brings back memories, introduces new learning to the uninitiated, and tempts  readers to try new traditions and new foods. It is a treasure trove of unexpected pleasures.

I showed it to my son James Wiebe of Belite Airplanes when he came for lunch one day.  He, too, marveled at the professional look of this book.  But he stopped at the page showing a picture of a glider built by three young students about 1901 near Chortitza.  He was amazed.  Aeronautics interested his Russian-born ancestors as it does him, so much so that it led to a career change? He decided to trace that lead to find out some more. 

Other treasures include recipes for peppernuts, pluma mos,  Russian-style pancakes, verenike, and the almost sacred Zwieback, the two-decker bun,  a tradition among Mennonite housewives, made by the huge dishpan-pan full each Saturday.  
So all together: A is for Anabaptism!

To order your copy, go on-line for information about this bold new way of  writing Mennonite history.  You won’t regret it.  

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