We are told that, in biblical tradition, barley was primarily animal food, while wheat was thought to be the ideal human food. However true this may be, there is no reason whatsoever that barley should receive such short shrift. After all, ever since the second night of Pesach, which we celebrated seven weeks ago, we have been enjoined to count 49 days of a measurement of barley otherwise referred to as an Omer. Additionally, the Book of Ruth, which is traditionally read on Shavuot, tells us that it was during the barley harvest when the two bereaved widows, Ruth and Naomi, arrived in Bethlehem. Shouldn’t it then behoove us to take a look at what the Yiddish language has to say about barley?
Gehrshtn (barley). In recounting the seven species of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 8:8) only two grains are mentioned, vaitz (wheat) and gehrshtn. The upper crust feasted on food, bread and pastries prepared with vaitz, while the underclass had to content itself with food, bread and pastries made with gehrshtn.
Tzooshpize (side dish). Cancel the kasha varnishkes! Reject the rice! Hold the fries! Isn’t it time to consider shvehmlech mit gehrshtn (mushroom with barely) as a suitable side dish, especially if some tzeebeleh (onion) is tossed in for good measure?
Gehrshtn Koochen (barley cake). The prophet Ezekiel paints an execrable portrait presaging dystopic times that will soon be upon the people. The prophet warns that want and need will be so rampant, people will eat the unthinkable with the same appetite that they once ate freshly baked, delicious gehrshtn koochen (barley cake).
Kroopnik (mushroom barley soup). Contrary to popular belief, chicken soup did not always have an exclusive in Jewish homes. Kroopnik was right up there with chicken soup, attested to by the following Yiddish aphorism: Besser kroopnik in dehr hame ayder gebrotteneh kahtchkheh by frehmdeh (I’d rather have kroopnik at home than roast duck with strangers). Although Polish in origin, many will rightfully argue that kroopnik is so much more. Not only will they argue that no self-respecting kroopnik should be without carrots, onion and even parsley, but there are those who will toss in meat or chicken as well.
Meaning no disrespect to the various dairy dishes that grace our tables during the festival of Shavuot, the time has come to add barley to the menu. Consider serving gehrshtn mit shvehmlech and tzeebeleh as a tzooshpize. Wouldn’t gehrshtn koochen be just the thing to accompany gazpacho? And who can resist a geshmahker kroopnik as part of a Yom Tov meal?
A Fraylechen Shavuos!
Rabbi Shawn Zell has recently returned to New Jersey, after serving at a pulpit in Dallas. He possesses certification in teaching Yiddish. Rabbi Zell is the author of three books.