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Philadelphia Prakas

Philadelphia-born Manhattanite Zelda R. Stern has this inquiry:

“Every current or former Jewish resident of Philadelphia whom I know calls stuffed cabbage ‘prakas.’ My parents, who spoke Yiddish, called them that, but so did all other Jews. I never heard the Yiddish word holiptshes used for stuffed cabbage until the 1960s, when my family came to New York City to eat at Lou Siegel’s and asked for ‘prakas.’ The waiter had no idea what we were talking about, and it took some time to straighten things out.

“No matter where in Europe families came from originally, if they ended up in Philly, they called stuffed cabbage ‘prakas.’ I’ve heard that Jewish residents of Baltimore have the same term, but I’m not certain. What is the origin of this word, and why is it used only in Philadelphia (and possibly, Baltimore)?”

The origin of the Yiddish word prakes (singular, prake), meaning stuffed cabbage, is in Turkish yaprak. Yaprak means leaf in Turkish, while yaprak dolma is a stuffed leaf and yaprak sarma is a wrapped leaf. The Turks have been, in their cuisine, great stuffers of things, mostly of vegetables like pepper, squash and eggplant; when it came to leaves, they largely limited themselves to grape leaves, which — filled with rice, meat or a combination of the two — they bequeathed, along with a bit of Turkish, to the other peoples of the Ottoman Empire. The Greeks, for instance, call stuffed grape leaves dolmas; the Romanians, sarma; the Montenegrins, japraci. And the Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews of Turkey, Greece and the Balkans called them yaprakes or yaprakitos. (The latter are grape leaves stuffed with meat in a sweet-and-sour sauce.) There is even a Ladino song about

Una muchacha en Salanika
Ke la kijeron kastigar,
Por unos negros yaprakitos
Ke no los supo gizar —

which is to say, about a young girl from Salonika who was punished for burning the yaprakitos to a crisp because she did not know how to cook.

Grapes are not grown much in cold climates, whereas cabbages are, so it is not surprising that as one moves north from the Balkans, cabbage leaves replace grape leaves as the prevalent form of leaf wrapping even as the Turkish terms are still used for them. In Bulgaria, for instance, stuffed cabbage is zelevi sarmi; in Romania, it’s sarmale. And in Romania, in Moldova (or Bessarabia, as it was once known) and in southern Ukraine, Yiddish-speaking Jews called stuffed cabbage prakes. Presumably, the word reached them via Sephardic merchants from the Balkans who settled in the area in the 15th and 16th centuries with their yaprakes, which eventually lost their first syllable.

But Turkish-derived prakkes traveled only so far. As can be seen by looking at Volume III of The Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry, in which there is a linguistic map of Yiddish terms for stuffed cabbage, prakes ran into both Slavic and Germanic rivals that kept it from penetrating very far into northern or western Ukraine, or other areas of Eastern Europe. The Slavic term for stuffed cabbage comes from adding a diminutive to various Slavic cognates for “dove” (for example, Polish gołab, Ukrainian holub, Russian golub), probably because a stuffed cabbage leaf was imaginatively taken to resemble a dove breast served up on a plate. Thus, we get Russian golubtzi, Ukrainian holubtsi or holubki, and Polish gołubki and gołumpki, all meaning “little doves” and occurring among Yiddish speakers as goluptshes, holeptshes and golomkes, alongside such variant forms as holeshkes, oleptshes, oleshkes and olefkes. To judge by the atlas, goluptshes was the most widespread of these, stretching as far north as Lithuania and as far west as central Poland, though in no area was it uncontested by other versions.

The main Germanic terms were gefilte kroyt and gevikelte kroyt, “stuffed cabbage” and “wrapped cabbage,” respectively. These, too, had a wide distribution and were found as far east as Belarus, along with such variants as kroytgefilts and gevikelt fleysh or “wrapped meat.” In Polish Galicia one also had tabelakh, a Yiddish translation of “little doves,” and in two places in Western Poland there was the Germanic-Slavic fusion form krautholptshen.

Prakes, as I have said, was limited to the far southeastern corner of Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe, where it was dominant. Why it won out in Philadelphia, and possibly in Baltimore, I don’t know. A logical assumption would be that, during the great Eastern European Jewish immigration to the United States between 1880 and 1920, these cities had a higher percentage of Jewish immigrants from Romania, Bessarabia and southern Ukraine, but one would have to turn to local Jewish historians to find out whether this was actually so. If back in the 1880s there was a Philadelphian Jewish housewife who came from southern Ukraine, was renowned for her stuffed cabbage and called it prakes rather than holiptshes, that might also have set the tone. These things are hard to pin down.

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