This is an oral recipe from one of my several “mothers.” A survivor of Hitler’s death camp, Auschwitz, Dina Jacobson was a part of my life for 54 years. Recipe boxes and 3×5 cards were not something that would have survived a concentration camp even if they existed in some form at that time, so Dina depended on her memory of how her mother taught her to bake. I suspect that she made some adjustments. You might think that if life in the camps could wipe from your memory the exact day of your birth, it would certainly take away memories of cooking. And yet the recipes survived in her memory. That is the power of baking and passing along family traditions.
These are tedious little bites to make because they are small and the recipe makes close to 200, depending on the size of each. Dina made these 100% out of love. She never ate one herself. Turns out she didn’t like cinnamon! Of the thousands she made in her life, all represented her love for others.
This, then, is how you make these precious morsels.
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Dina Rosenberg Jacobson was born in the tiny town of Libuchora, Poland on May 5, 1922. Her parents, five siblings and a brother-in-law were killed during the Holocaust. She met and married Kalman Jacobson in the Displaced Persons camp called Feldafing in Germany. There, her oldest daughter, Connie, was born. They had two other children, Joseph and Sarah, once settled in America. Her obituary in the local paper outlined the course of her life in the city that took her in and through the Holocaust. What it did NOT do, however, was paint the picture of the mother, friend, supporter, baker, and truth-teller that were all so much a part of this woman.
As inconceivable and painful as her internment in Auschwitz, life handed her an abundant share of sorrow and pain beyond the concentration camp. And from that life, she molded something that had deep and intense meaning and was infused with a love that seemed to have no end. This is not a feat that most people could accomplish. Dina rose far above most of us in her 92 years of living. It took its toll on her in too many ways to mention and so, while her death stabbed our hearts painfully, we understand that it was her time to enjoy rest and peace. She died in her home in Elmira, NY, with the family she and Kalman had created there to love her and help her through the process.
I was too young at age 11 to understand anything about Dina’s life other than one simple fact: She welcomed me into her home and fed me. I did not know what it might have meant to her that I was Christian. I did not know why she has numbers tattooed to her forearm. Later, when I was an adult, she told me that she could not fully trust me. Nor did she fully trust my mother who was her friend. But the love that Dina shared did not have to be based in trust. It just needed to be shared and that she did. I don’t remember when I first learned of the tattoo on her arm and what it meant. I don’t know when I was old enough to understand that her middle child, Joseph, was only home on occasion because he lived in a group home in Newark. He had Down’s Syndrome and predeceased Dina by a few years. She said that his death was the hardest thing she had ever experienced. I do remember standing at the top of Scott Ave in Elmira in 1972 with Dina next to me, looking at the waters of the Chemung River overflowing their banks and spilling muddy water into the basement and full first floor of her home. Perhaps it was then that I began to understand her suffering as she quietly said the simple words: “Why me?” I was old enough to know not to try to answer that question.
It took decades more for me to hear more and more stories, and sit with her tears, as many of us did over the years. Thankfully, for all of us blessed to be in her orbit, no amount of tears could keep her for sharing her love with anyone who wanted to be a good person and was open to that love. She became a rock star, of sorts, to the thousands of students of the Vestal School District who her invited her to share her stories with them year after year.
As a child, I sat in her kitchen, year after year, not knowing what I would learn in future years. Kalman would tease me just as he would tease Sarah. I was not a visitor. I was part of the family. I slept in their home, made up stories about clouds with Sarah. I was hugged by Joseph, sharing in his love as unconditionally as his mother did. I sat in the den watching TV with the family, Kalman stretched out on the sofa after a day’s work in his glass shop, yet one more still point in the turning world of so many from Elmira who knew him simply as Jake the Glassman. People gravitated to him for conversation and friendship.
I understand so much more now but sometimes I wish that the innocent memories of my childhood growing up in the Jacobson family and eating rugelach and chicken wings could have somehow been as innocent as they felt and that maybe behind the scenes were not the nightmares and pain that Dina and Kalman bore throughout the years.
I made a promise to Dina that I would never forget and that my daughter and her daughter and any other generations to come would not forget. I will keep that promise and this blog is part of that promise. We will remember. This blog is in honor of Dina.
Recipe for Dina’s Rugelach
Rough Date of Recipe: 1920s and generations before – Place of Origin: Poland – Related Person: Dina Jacobson
Prep time: 90 minutes – Baking time: 12-15 minutes – Makes: approximately 12 dozen
Dina allowed me to capture this recipe in a video. I did not trust my memory nor did I want to focus on writing things down. I wanted to just listen and absorb, and so I did. Here is a link to the video that will show you the process in more detail.
- 2 8-ounce sticks of butter, softened
- 2 8-ounce blocks of cream cheese, softened
- 3 cups flour, as needed
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 1/2 cup sugar, divided
- Cinnamon to your taste (I use about 1/4 cup)
In a large bowl place the butter and cream cheese. It must be a warm room temperature to blend well. Dina would leave it out the night before. Mix well. Put the flour and baking powder and about 1/4 cup of sugar in a bowl and mix. Add the flour mixture to the butter and cream cheese a little at a time and stir it in well. As the dough get stiffer you might want to continue to mix with your hands. The butter will keep it from sticking to your hands too much as you add the remaining flour until you have a soft but not sticky nor dry dough.
“This is how my mother did it,” Dina whispered as she started the mixing, a faint muscle memory emerging in the hands. I felt the presence of her mother.
When the dough is prepared, cut in four pieces and set three to the side, and cover with a cloth, while you roll out the first one to a depth of about 1/8 inch. Don’t worry about the size or shape as you will be cutting this piece into a puzzle of triangles. Spread a quarter of the sugar over the top of the dough, then as much cinnamon as you like, spreading it to the edges.
Then start cutting with a sharp knife. Any which way you go, make long, slim triangles. You will get the hang of it as you go along. It is kind of fun, like cutting out a jigsaw puzzle. Generally the triangles are no longer than about 3 inches.
As you cut each triangle, roll it out from the wide end to the narrow and form a small crescent. You can place them close together on the ungreased pan as they only expand slightly in the baking process. Bake them approximately 12 minutes but check to see if they are slightly brown and crisp. Leave them in the oven a few minutes longer if necessary.
Remove from pan and then place the next pay in the oven. Then prepare your willpower as you will want to eat them all in one sitting!