Artist displays what’s missing in a ‘Box’

It’s hard to believe that Dwora Fried — a native Austrian with unruly, fiery red hair, a lesbian, world traveler, mother of four and daughter of a Holocaust survivor — is able to create artwork just as complicated, dynamic and vivacious as herself, all within a wooden box that’s only 31 centimeters wide, 21 centimeters high and 8 centimeters deep.

Each box is open on one side, revealing a complex scene within. 

In one, chairs hang from the ceiling and walls, a young boy in a Nazi salute stands in an open door with his pants down, a young girl stands behind a screen, and slippers sit on the floor. 

Fried prefers not to discuss her work because she believes everyone should interpret the art in his or her own way, but every box has a story with meaning to the artist. 

The Hancock Park resident recently had her artwork displayed in the Museo Ebraico di Venezia (the Jewish Museum of Venice) in the New Ghetto of Venice, Italy, as the exhibition “Outsider in a Box.” The show ran from June 2 to Sept. 12. Next, it will move to Vienna, where it will be on display at the Galerie Benedict from Oct. 17 to Dec. 17. 

Born in the Austrian capital, Fried has been creating art for as long as she can remember. After growing up in Vienna, she moved to Israel in 1968, attending Tel Aviv University and Avni Institute of Art and Design, getting married and raising two children. In 1978, Fried moved to Los Angeles and met her current partner. The two celebrated their 32nd anniversary on Aug. 22. 

Fried has always focused on her artwork, but also spent some time working at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. Fried said it has taken her 62 years to finally fully dedicate herself to her art. 

Fried said she gains artistic inspiration from her background. Her recently deceased mother was sent to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz at the age of 11, stripped of any real childhood or innocence. She was later liberated in Bergen-Belsen after walking what was known as a “death march.” Then, weighing close to 70 pounds, she was hospitalized with typhus. 

Fried’s mother moved to Israel after the war with her sister and brother-in-law, eventually meeting Fried’s father and moving to Vienna, where she lived until her death in April 2013. 

Dwora Fried

In honor of her mother’s lost youth, Fried searches flea markets around Europe for kids’ toys from the 1940s and ’50s. Old toys, dolls, miniature figures and other children’s paraphernalia often appear in Fried’s work. 

There are specifically Jewish undertones, too. For Fried, Judaism is connected to the Holocaust — a negative connotation to her religion that creates a certain inner struggle. 

“What I’m trying to express is the dichotomy between growing up Jewish and having Judaism really be muffled by all the stuff that was connected to it,” Fried said.

As a result, Fried said she’s never felt any real sense of belonging anywhere during her life.

“I keep re-creating the feeling of what it was like growing up. That’s pretty much it, even when I do stuff that has nothing to do with my childhood per se, I can recognize that feeling of impending doom, not belonging, a kind of anxiety.” 

Fried said as a child she felt she had to tiptoe around her mother, afraid if she asked the wrong question her mother might keel over from a heart attack and die. 

In part, this anxiety explains Fried’s choice of a box as the vehicle for her art. She said the box can portray a lot but also captures the claustrophobic feeling a painting can’t, as it exceeds two-dimensional limits and has a foreground and background someone can touch.

Having lived in Vienna, Tel Aviv and now Los Angeles, Fried said she still searches for the feeling of home. Her art, she said, reflects this inability to handle a part of her identity.

Despite this struggle, she may have found a temporary solution in her work.

“I always used to see my friends being patriotic or religious or having some kind of thing that they belonged to, and I never had that feeling,” Fried said. “Doing art makes you belong to whatever you’re doing at that moment. I belong to my art.”

A Shabbat meal left for those in need

On a recent Thursday evening, instead of reading a book or watching a movie at home with her children, Stacy Kent brought her daughter, Rayna, 9, and son, Ami, 7, to a warehouse on the corner of Pico Boulevard and Wetherly Drive.

Their mission: Help make Shabbat, well, Shabbat for local families in need of assistance by packing boxes full of food.

That’s what the volunteers of Tomchei Shabbos of Los Angeles ( have been doing for 36 years. Every Thursday at 6 p.m. sharp, dozens of people rush around the group’s small warehouse at 9041 W. Pico Blvd. Some are packing food, some are making boxes, and some are coordinating where filled boxes go. In the hustle and bustle of the Pico-Robertson warehouse, kosher Shabbat staples — challah, grape juice, chicken, rice, fruits, vegetables — are placed into boxes, which are given to families that apply and meet Tomchei Shabbos’ income qualifications to receive Shabbat assistance. Because there are no other organizations that can meet the needs of families that only eat kosher food, Tomchei Shabbos restricts its clientele to families that are strictly kosher, said Steve Berger, who runs the group.

Tomchei Shabbos, literally “supporters of the Sabbath,” was formed in 1977 by three local rabbis. The nonprofit staffed entirely by volunteers now has a $2 million annual budget provided completely through donations and delivers food to about 120 families every week. In a span of 60 to 90 minutes, thanks to an operation fine-tuned over three decades, volunteers pack about 400 chickens, 350 bags of challah and 200 bottles of grape juice.

The group has another location, which operates out of the parking lot of Adat Yeshurun Valley Sephardic Congregation in North Hollywood, to serve families in the San Fernando Valley. 

And there are other offerings, too: Brides worried about breaking the bank can contact Tomchei Shabbos about the dozens of elegant gowns in its warehouse. Families struggling to raise children can purchase diapers at a reduced cost. And the organization provides used furniture and household appliances, among other things, to those in need.

For the weekly Shabbat operation, just who receives the goods is unknown to most involved in the process, as the organization is adamant that the identity of its recipients remains undisclosed. On every box is a sticker with a route number and a family identification number. Only a handful of people involved in the administration of the food know who receives assistance. The volunteers who pack the food have no clue who will benefit from their assistance.

“We leave the food at the front door and we do not introduce ourselves or deal with the recipients,” said Kent, who has been a volunteer for 10 years.

Anyone can come by on a Thursday evening, and Tomchei Shabbos’ staff will immediately put them to work. Stick around long enough and regulars may eventually be coordinating which boxes go where. 

Case in point: Gabriel Sasson, who will be a freshman at UC Irvine this fall. He started with Tomchei Shabbos two years ago packing boxes to the brim with food. He quickly rose through the ranks and now coordinates the section of the warehouse where families (or their friends) come to pick up filled boxes — good managerial experience for a 17-year-old.

After 7 p.m., the warehouse emptied out and the volunteer drivers were on their delivery runs. That’s when Berger, who like an air traffic controller helps direct Tomchei Shabbos’ many moving parts — people and boxes — reflected on the obligation for Jews to help other Jews in need. 

“The world stands, according to Pirkei Avot, on three pillars — study of Torah, worship and acts of kindness.”

Whatever happened to thinking outside the box?

What does it mean to reduce the contemporary Jewish experience to a series of quotes, objects, stereotypes and to conclude an exhibit by placing a live human in a glass box to answer the questions of museum-goers (regardless of merit or cultural sensitivity)? On March 22, Jews gathered across the world to observe the start of the Passover holiday, recalling our central narrative of what it means to move from slavery to liberation. On the same day, the Jewish Museum in Berlin opened an exhibition promising to “showcase Jews,” hoping to create a space for dialogue. The show, entitled “The Whole Truth…everything you always wanted to know about Jews,” runs through September 1, 2013. The timing of this exhibition takes on a new level of irony — liberation seems to have taken holiday this month in Germany!

How is this exhibition at the Jewish Museum Berlin different than all other exhibitions about Jews? Promotion for this exhibition included an illustrated trailer beginning with the moment of conception asking, “What makes someone a Jew?” thus framing the entire exhibition from a biological or racial perspective. A few moments later, a series of changing faces further illuminate the point, asking, “How do you recognize a Jew?” In keeping with centuries of tradition regarding Jewish caricatures, viewers will be astonished to realize the nose is the only thing that does not change with each face and grows larger towards the end of the digital mash-up. View the trailer:

Next up on the list of exploiting stereotypes, as visitors walk though “The Whole Truth” exhibit, a vote is cast using coins to determine if Jews are “good at business,” “smart,” “good looking” or “animal lovers.” The votes are tallied and displayed at the conclusion of the walkthrough. For the finale, you cannot miss the most controversial inclusion of all – a Jew in a box. Yes, that’s right, step on up to an installation in which German Jews sit in a glass box to answer questions posed by curious onlookers.

The museum’s press release explained that the concept of the box was their way of responding to the critique most often levied at them: how can their institution mount artifacts telling the 2,000 year plus story of German Jewish culture in an authentic way, given the complicated reality of a post-Holocaust Germany? Objects in vitrines and museum labels could, in the museum’s words, “unethically use Jews as ‘exhibition objects’ and subject them to voyeuristic curiosity […] Searching for the ‘whole truth,’ visitors now have the opportunity to confront their confused feelings about Jews.” Given the problematic history of Germany, one should be extra careful when considering how to be “provocative.” This was a moment for the Jewish Museum in Berlin to think outside the box, rather, than placing Jews, literally, on display inside of one. Given Germany’s sorted past with the pseudo-scientific practice of physiognomy and racial profiling, we did not need to be reminded of how Jews have been likened to a circus sideshow.

Considering the goal of “The Whole Truth,” is to question Judaism in Germany today. Here are some questions the exhibition causes me to ask: What could the curators, museum administration, and their board hope to accomplish with this show? How does one create an exhibition that serves to make space for a minority group, once victimized, to be asked questions by decedents of the perpetrators that does not perpetuate complicated power dynamics? Most importantly, what, if anything, should the Jewish Museum in Berlin do moving forward? Perhaps the most personal question of all: Why does this exhibition matter to me?

I have dedicated over ten years to creating new approaches to Jewish cultural engagement. Currently, I work as the Co-Director of Shulamit Gallery, which seeks to engage Angelenos through cross-cultural exhibitions and programming focused on the Middle East with a special interest in Israeli, Iranian and Jewish artists. Thus, I want the Jewish Museum in Berlin  as the institution preserving the cultural legacy of Jewish people in Germany  to get this right! They provide an important perspective reflecting a commitment to remembrance. The building’s architecture and core exhibition produce a strong narrative, translating the complicated themes of destruction and survival. The very creation of a Jewish museum in Germany is meant to highlight the Jewish renewal effort and the continuation of Jewish heritage, post the Shoah, in a powerful way.

They do not have the luxury; as the exhibition curator, Miriam Goldmann, herself a Jew, has been quoted saying, “We wanted to provoke, [. . .] and some people may find the show outrageous or objectionable. But that's fine by us.” While Goldmann and others need to be able to respond to trends in popular culture and create opportunities for dialog (between Jewish and non-Jewish residents), they also must be called upon to do so with nuanced sensitivity. Haven’t we been placed under a microscope enough throughout history? It is time: no more barriers, no more walls, no more boxes and no more perpetuating of stereotypes! Raise your voices and ask Goldmann and the Jewish Museum Berlin to remove the box: < >.

Tell them that if they want to be radical, they should think outside the box! Set up couches or a table and chairs and have Jewish volunteers and non-Jewish German’s talk to each other as equals. If you want the whole truth the only way to get it is when you treat everyone with dignity and respect.

ANNE HROMADKA is Co-Director of Shulamit Gallery in Los Angeles, CA. She is also the founder and director of Nu ART Projects [Insert Jew-ish Culture Here], and an independent curator, art consultant, and educator. In addition, she manages the Hebrew Union College Jack H. Skirball Los Angeles campus art collection and exhibition program. 

Thinking Outside the Matzah Ball Box

When the Israelites rushed out of Egypt, Pharaoh’s men on their heels, they hurriedly bundled their belongings, food included, to carry as much as they could on their backs and donkeys. Seeking to nourish themselves throughout their desert journey to the Promised Land, they rolled together unleavened bread crumbs, eggs and oil to create a round, nutritious finger food. They heated these in water jugs, along with chicken bone scraps, to preserve them and give them flavor. And that’s how matzah ball soup was born.

At least that’s how the matzah ball legend should read. The round dumpling traditionally made of matzah meal, eggs, and some kind of fat is so entrenched in Jewish tradition that its history seems to date back to the Torah itself. The icon of Jewish pop culture, the staple of deli menus, the culinary gem of bubbies worldwide, matzah ball soup is the unofficial symbol of Jewish cuisine, the soup of the one God.

But like many dishes generally regarded as “Jewish foods,” like gefilte fish and cholent, matzah ball soup originated in Eastern Europe. The Yiddish word for matzah balls, “knaidelach,” comes from the German word for dumpling, “knödel.” The matzah ball may very well have been the vanguard Jewish food of its time, an adaptation of the gentile dumpling suited to Passover restrictions and pantries, invented by the Martha Stewart of the shtetl, her (or his?) name now lost in obscurity.

Since then few Jewish chefs, professional and amateur, have dared to tamper with the matzah ball. In that sense, the matzah ball is the “ultra-Orthodox” Jewish food. The most popular recipe for many home cooks today may very well be the one on the matzah meal box. But with the growing sophistication and cross-fertilization of many types of cuisines, that’s changing.

“I think traditional cooks are breaking out; they’re more sophisticated,” said Adeena Sussman, a recipe developer, food writer and cooking instructor based in New York. “Everyone is traveling more and interested in ethnic cuisine. There are a lot of kosher Web sites where you can get kosher gourmet products. Actually, I think Jews who keep Passover strictly are those who are seeking the most innovative ideas because they are those who follow the laws for eight days and are trying to keep their families well-fed and interested for eight days.”

One of the most popular maverick matzah ball soup recipes has been Susie Fishbein’s tri-color matzah ball soup, as featured years ago in her popular “Kosher by Design Entertains” cookbook (Mesorah Publications, 2005) and on “The Today Show” with Katie Couric. The recipe calls for a green maztah ball made with pureed spinach, a yellow matzah ball made with turmeric and a red matzah ball made with tomato paste. 

“It was a funky spin on something traditional, and that’s what I do,” said Fishbein from her home in New Jersey. She sought a matzah ball soup that wasn’t only flavorful, but visually appealing and healthful, especially for the children. “I’ve had mothers come up to me in shul and say ‘I only make the green ones, and they’re called ‘Shrek matzah balls,’ and my boys love them.’”

Matzah balls are like a “blank canvas,” ripe with possibilities for adding flavor and color. Last year Sussman developed a “dill-infused chicken soup with herbed matzah ball gnocchi” recipe featuring matzah balls shaped like the Italian potato dumpling and rolled with spinach, parsley and dill. Green herbs are intuitive additives, because they often compliment the flavor of the chicken soup and also reflect the spirit of spring. Sussman recommends ground chicken, ground beef and horseradish as other nontraditional additives.

But not every ingredient works. “There were definitely things that were not winners,” said Fishbein, recalling her own experimentation. “Blueberry matzah balls are hideous. Carrot matzah balls covered with carrot juice were hideous.”

Like the Torah, matzah balls are open to a variety of interpretations and subject to intense debate. Surprisingly, some of Southern California’s top chefs believe the matzah ball is sacred. 

“I don’t want to recreate the matzah ball; I think it tastes fine how it is, as long as it has a light texture,” said Suzanne Tracht, executive chef at LA’s Jar chophouse on Beverly Boulevard. “They shouldn’t be too hard. You shouldn’t use them for weapons….The most important part of the matzah ball, since it’s basically a dumpling, is the broth — that’s where it comes out.”

Every year, Tracht holds a Passover seder at her restaurant, and this year she’s making a consommé with lemongrass, galangal and ginger. “We make it so intense that we clarify the broth, as well, so that it has a more rich and intense flavor.”

Todd Aarons, executive chef at the gourmet kosher restaurant Tierra Sur at the Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard puts his “stock” in the broth, as well. “I’m a purist. I would play around with the broth first, and I’d probably keep the matzah ball intact.” For his own matzah ball soup, Aarons likes to use duck and chicken bones for a deeper flavor. “When I eat it, though, it doesn’t remind me of my mom’s, which is okay.”

He became convinced of the powerful absorption properties of the matzah ball after his Yemenite wife served regular matzah balls with her Yemenite soup, traditionally made with chicken, beef and exotic herbs, including hawaij, a Yemenite spice mix consisting of cumin, coriander, pepper, cardamom, cloves and turmeric. He likens matzah balls to bread used for dipping. “Every culture has a chicken soup. You can explore all different kinds of chicken soup and throw a matzah ball in, and it would work.”

In fact, the matzah ball is the only Ashkenazi food that has been warmly embraced by Sephardic traditions, especially in Israel. “Sephardic cooking is much more popular in Israel now than Ashkenazi cooking — Israel is a warm country, the ingredients are more suitable for Middle Eastern food,” said Janna Gur, editor-in-chief of Israel’s leading gastronomic magazine, Al HaShulchan, and author of “The Book of New Israeli Food” (Schocken, 2008). “Many recipes make the crossover to Ashkenazi households, but not vice versa, except for matzah ball soup.”

Another (chicken or beef?) bone of contention among chefs and cooks relates to texture: dense or light and fluffy?

Cookbook author and food writer Judy Zeidler, also a bubbe of seven, prefers fluffy matzah balls, hands down. “When I got married, my mother-in-law always made sinkers — matzah balls so hard they sink to the bottom of the pot. I grew up with my mother’s matzah balls. Like clouds, they floated to the top of the soup. My husband thought they were ridiculous, but he thought they were so much easier to eat and so much more flavorful.”

To make matzah balls as fluffy as her mother’s, she recommends separating the yolk and whites and then folding the yolk and matzah meal into egg whites beaten into soft peaks. Seltzer is recommended instead of water to increase fluffiness, and chilling matzah balls plays an important part in determining texture.

“Chilling will make it much easier to roll so you can manipulate them,” said Fishbein. “If you can roll them right at the outset you have a lot of matzah meal in them, and they probably won’t be very fluffy.”

Sussman is the only one interviewed for this article who prefers dense matzah balls, or, as she likes to call them, “matzah balls al dente”, an Italian term to describe pasta that is firm but not overcooked.

But home cooks shouldn’t feel discouraged if they can’t think out of the matzah meal box. “My mother used to make matzah balls from scratch,” said Sussman, “but one year we actually tried the mix and found that it worked quite well and started making them from the mix, not because we couldn’t make it from scratch, but because we liked them.”