Mrs. Joanne, Caras, esteemed authoress of the Holocaust Survivor Cookbook and its sequel Miracles and Meals sharing survivors’ stirring stories paired with a cherished family recipe, and raising incredible funds for the Holy Land’s hungry and impoverished, visited our weekly Voices of Leadership workshop, where she told the girls her story, and inspired.
In 2005 my son Jonathan got married, made Aliyah and moved to Israel with his wife Sarah. Later that spring, I visited Israel for the first time in my life, to see how the newlyweds were doing. Those who have traveled to Israel will always remember the first steps they took on Israeli soil. It is like coming home, yet like no place you have ever been before. My son showed me many of the important sites in Israel, like the Wailing Wall, the Old City, Yad Vashem, and we even floated at the Dead Sea; but it wasn’t until I walked into a little diner in Jerusalem that my life’s purpose would be revealed to me.
We sat down and placed our order. Then my son said, “This is the soup kitchen where Sarah and I volunteer.” I looked around and saw soldiers, families, and others all sitting down and eating.
I said, “People are not standing in line for food. This isn’t a soup kitchen!”
My son said, “This is Carmei Ha’ir, a soup kitchen that feeds over five hundred poor and hungry Israelis every day with dignity.”
I whispered, “Why are we eating here if we have money?” My son said, “We will leave Tzedaka at the door and no one will know who paid and who didn’t.”
But I knew that bit of Tzedaka was not enough to feed all these people. I had too many questions for my son so the Rabbi who ran Carmei Ha’ir came down to answer my questions. He told me that the soup kitchen is totally dependent on contributions. I said to my son and daughter-in-law, “When I get back to America, I want our family to do a project to raise money for this wonderful soup kitchen so they can continue their wonderful mitzvah.” I wanted to honor my children and create a legacy for them to carry forward to the next generations.
When I got home I called my son and daughter-in-law and I asked them “What happened to me in that soup kitchen?” I was really touched, not just on the surface, but at my soul. They suggested I do a cookbook of great Jewish recipes and sell it to benefit the Soup Kitchen and other Jewish charities.
The next day I received a moving letter about Sarah’s grandmother who had recently passed away. I learned that her grandmother was a Holocaust Survivor, and that’s when the idea hit me: Why not combine the stories from Holocaust Survivors with their family recipes? At that moment, the Holocaust Survivor Cookbook was born. Of course, our work had just begun. I asked my family if this was a project they would all like to take part in, and they all agreed. Even to this day, everyone in my family still works on this project.
To start any project, you have to have goals. Our goal was one hundred stories and two hundred recipes collected from every continent. We were living in Maryland so the obvious place to start was the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.. We asked them to helped us publicize our search. My husband sent letters to Jewish publications all over the world, asking for stories and recipes. My daughter-in-law helped us publicize it in Israel.
For six months, every day, I worked on this project, and how many stories do you think I got? Zero, not one story. I remember one day I was frustrated and ready to quit, but my mother said, “Joanne, if you can just get one story, you can get two, and then you will finish the book.” So I asked Hashem if this was something I should pursue, and the stories began to arrive. Over the next two years we were able to collect one hundred and twenty-nine stories from all over the world, including Israel, South Africa, Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, Canada, and over twenty US states.
I remember one day I got a call on my cell phone. The lady said, “Joanne – I’m calling you from New Zealand and I would like to send my husband’s story for your cookery book.” That’s when I knew that our project had reached the other side of the world.
Many times we were invited to the homes of the Survivors as they told us their stories, and we cried together. Some came by email, others by handwritten notes; but they came, and eventually we had to stop collecting because the book was getting so big we were afraid that it would be too heavy to ship out to people!
Once the cookbook was completed I set out on a world tour to publicize and sell it.
My husband and I had no intention of creating a second cookbook, but everywhere I went to speak about the first cookbook, people would come up to me and tell me that they had a relative who was a Survivor, and they hoped we would do a second book and include their story to honor their family.
It wasn’t until three years later that we decided to do the second book. I spoke to a group in Canada and after my speech, I was signing books, when a young woman came up to me, and introduced me to an elderly woman. “This is my Bubbie,” she said. “She is a Holocaust Survivor, but she has never told her story to anyone, not even to our family. I brought her to hear you speak because I was hoping that after she heard you she would tell her story to you.” Bubbie sat down next me as I held her hand and she told me the whole story. Tears streamed down my face, her face, and her granddaughter’s too. Even my husband was crying.
On the way back to the hotel, my husband said to me, “So what’s gonna be the title of the second cookbook?” At that was the moment that our second cookbook, Miracles & Meals, was born. Collecting the new stories, designing and editing the new book took another two years. It contains one hundred and fifteen new stories and over two hundred and fifty more Kosher recipes. The stories in Miracles & Meals are just as powerful as those in the original cookbook. We have stories from Cuba, Iceland, Belgium, Scotland, Venezuela, and other places the first cookbook had not reached.
The stories in our cookbooks are amazing. Each one is a miracle. And while these amazing stories are the heart of our cookbooks, I cannot overlook the wonderful recipes that we received. Most of them are old family recipes, and many would have been lost forever if the Survivor had perished.
We have over two hundred and fifty recipes in each cookbook for appetizers, main dishes, side dishes, soups, kugels, desserts, and even a section for holidays. Each recipe has been reviewed by a Kosher chef to insure that they are appropriate for a Kosher kitchen. Some of the recipes are very detailed in their ingredients and preparation instructions, like gefilte fish (“Put it in the bathtub!”); others not so much. Most are very simple recipes to follow, BUT some tell us to put in “a little of this and a bissel of that.” You may even need another cookbook to make a few of the recipes, but the explanation of where the recipes came from and how they were passed down from generation to generation is priceless!
In the introduction to each cookbook we suggest that each time a recipe is served, someone at the table should also read the story out loud and show the photos that go with it. We have always told our stories through our food and around our tables. We want to make sure that our children and grandchildren hear the stories that come from these Survivors so they will never let this happen to our people again.
We have made our cookbooks into a world mitzvah project; so what does that mean?
My family has donated all of the profits from each cookbook to the soup kitchen and several Jewish groups and charities. I am proud to tell you that the grand total raised by these amazing cookbooks has reached over 1.2 million dollars! This is a milestone we can all be proud of!
My message is when we have passion and it connects to Hashem – and we stay on that path – miracles occur! It may not be an easy journey, but with passion, love, and joy for your connection to Hashem, amazing doors open up!
Here I was, a preschool teacher and mother who had never written a book, and I created the number one best selling hardback in the US Holocaust Museum. My Holocaust Survivor “World Mitzvah Project” took me to over four hundred cities around the world to share my story and my cookbooks. In addition I was able to create, with the Jewish Girls Retreat, a video production of three of our amazing stories performed by the campers. I produced forty-two episodes of the TV show Miracles and Meals with Joanne Caras for JLTV (Jewish Life TV network). In each episode I make a recipe from the cookbooks and tell the Survivor’s story. With the help of the Southwest Holocaust Museum, I was able to make an Educator’s Guide which is being used to teach tolerance and Holocaust studies around the country. Besides raising over a 1.2 million dollars, all of these miracles occurred to keep this legacy alive!