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One Friday, two Hillel students invited me and two of my friends for Shabbat dinner. I can’t recall why the Hillel students — both heavily made up women in their 20s — picked us, nor why we received a special dispensation to leave the group. What I do remember is the white-walled flat in Kharkov, where we watched these two Ukrainian women pound a mass of dough into a translucent sheet.
Let me be clear: I was no fan of Ukrainian food at that point. It seemed like we were eating dinner and dessert items no matter the meal, mainly stuffed cabbage and frosting-filled chocolate bars. Deep down I knew that my distaste for the food was symptomatic of my general joylessness in Ukraine; I would have never expected that one of my greatest food love affairs would begin in that kitchen in Kharkov.
Once the dough was flattened to paper-thin perfection, my friends and I used metal cookie cutters to slice it into circles. The Ukrainian women produced bowls of macerated cherries and fresh, white cheese, which we dropped from tablespoons into the center of each dough disk. When it came time to pinch the disks into envelopes, our American fingers fumbled. Our varenyky were misshapen lumps that bled streams of cherry juice — a stark contrast to the Ukrainians’ perfectly uniform pouches. We dropped the dumplings into a pot of boiling water, and waited.
That’s when the conversation began in earnest. The cloud of steam that wrapped the apartment felt like a cocoon that kept all the things I hated about Ukraine — the blatant anti-Semitism, the techno music, the showers that had to be squeegeed after each use — at bay. In that Kharkov apartment, the Ukrainian women spoke with us in hesitant English. One of them had a child, and they both had their fair share of romantic woes. They worked secretarial jobs; they loved the Hillel. Every few minutes, they gave off little embarrassed chuckles. We found ourselves laughing, as well.
By the time the varenyky were ready, a warm familiarity had set in among the group. We topped the boiled dumplings with melted butter and sour cream. The varenyky were firm and slippery, and mildly sweet. It was the best meal I had had in weeks.
Varenyky were my gateway to Ukraine as a whole. After that night, my defenses came down. I began to explore the city of Kharkov, and I worked more diligently in the cemetery. I also initiated an oral history project, asking the program participants and the Hillel students to swap stories of Jewish youth identity. I vowed to come back.
When I returned to America, I tried making varenyky but failed miserably, ending up with thick, gummy mounds of boiled dough. Best to leave it to the experts, I decided. But I still seek out varenyky whenever I have the opportunity, whether in Brighton Beach or in Manhattan’s East Village. Digging into a plate of the dumplings reminds me of all that I learned in Ukraine — to suspend my judgment of other people and cultures, to listen rather than speak, to strive for humility.
Varenyky is, put simply, the comfort food that pushed me outside my comfort zone.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Forward’s deputy culture editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org