New Hampshire: Living 1919 again!

Tracing the Tribe loves living museums where people and businesses recreate ordinary life as it was in a particular historical period. Williamsburg (Virginia) is one of those places I could visit every year!

In New Hampshire, the Strawbery Banke restoration is a living museum demonstrating some 350 years of preserved Portsmouth homes, stores, churches and history. It’s located in Puddle Dock, a rundown neighborhood that was supposed to be torn down for urban renewal. Fortunately, a 1950s-60s campaign, led by the town’s librarian, saved 42 houses on 10 acres for the museum.

And there’s a Jewish element to the restoration as actor Barbara Ann Paster plays Shiva Shapiro in 1919.

According to this New York Times article, the area was settled in 1623 by the English and named after the wild strawberries they found there. In the early 20th century, the Italians, Irish, English, French-Canadians and Eastern European Jews came to find work. By 1919, there were some 152 Russian Jews, about 25% of the immigrants of Puddle Dock; 18 of them were Shapiro relatives.

“Shlom Aleichem!” Shiva Shapiro said in a heavy Yiddish accent to her visitors.

As she deftly stuffed cabbage leaves with rice and stewed tomatoes, and displayed other dishes she has made on her 1900 Beauty Hub coal stove, Ms. Shapiro drew her guests into her life.

“This is 1919,” she said. “Last year was the end of the influenza epidemic and the end of the war to end all wars. We’re a Jewish family and we’re keeping kosher in our home. I don’t read English, only Yiddish and Hebrew. My daughter Mollie learned about bananas at school. I think that bananas are mushy, but I take her to buy a hand of bananas for 25 cents.”

In her persona as Shapiro, Paster’s cooking follows the seasons and the Jewish calendar. She makes strawberry jam, pickles cucumbers with dill and puts up peaches with brandy. For Rosh Hashana, she made pasta dough strips into bowtie noodles for her kasha, as well as honey and poppy seed cakes.

Mrs. Paster, 61, has been portraying Mrs. Shapiro since the Shapiro house opened in 1997. “My entire life was made for this job,” Mrs. Paster said with a laugh. “I married an Orthodox man. I’m Jewish from Russia, so I know the rules of kashrut and family purity. I am also a storyteller.”

The first Mrs. Shapiro arrived in 1905 from Anapol, Ukraine to meet her future husband from the same town in Portsmouth where Abraham worked in a shoe factory and later was the Portsmouth synagogue’s president.

As Shapiro, Paster portrays a 34-year-old woman whose time is spent in a kitchen with coal stove and icebox. The museum staff were very careful about the historical accuracy of the foods Shapiro/Paster prepared and what items the family actually would have had available.

“To authenticate the Shapiro house,” said Michelle Moon, director of education for the museum, “the curatorial staff interviewed 30 people from the neighborhood and took pollen and seed analyses to determine what grew and was eaten in their home.”

The immigrants brought seeds of traditional vegetables such as yellow Ukrainian carrots, kale, parsnips, yellow Ukrainian tomatoes and others. Seed catalogs of 1919 included Russian cucumbers and yellow Zubrinski potatoes, which now grow there. Read about Strawbery Banke’s historic gardens and heirloom seeds here, which offers information on the Shapiro Garden:

The Shapiro Garden is a recreated Russian Jewish immigrant family’s garden of 1919. It is representative of the many small urban gardens planted by the different ethnicities that made up the early 20th-century Puddle Dock neighborhood. The Shapiros used their garden to propagate many types of vegetables, such as heirloom cabbage, garlic, breadseed poppy, hyssop and yellow Ukrainian tomatoes, which helped to preserve the diet and culture of their homeland.

In the nearby town of Greenland, Jewish farmers even grew buckwheat (kasha), an immigrant staple.

If you are ever near Portsmouth, take some time to visit Strawbery Banke.

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