“Pictures From a Brewery” by Asher Barash

In 1929 in the British Mandate of Palestine Asher Barash (1889-1952) was one of an emerging generation of writers. He wrote mainly short stories and novels, including to memorialize Jewish life in the Galicia he had left behind, in 1914 when he emigrated to pre-Mandate, or Ottoman, Palestine.

In this regard he was similar to S.Y. Agnon, a better-known writer and Nobel laureate (1966), who came to Palestine some years before him from the same part of Europe. Barash is considered a highly realistic writer, seeking to portray Galician life and its characters in all their rich variety when the territory was still ruled by Austro-Hungary.

He wrote the novel Pictures From a Brewery in Hebrew starting in 1915. The book was completed and published in its entirety in Palestine in 1929. Many chapters are portrayals of characters in his drama, and can stand on their own. An instance is the sharp portrait of a German-Jewish brewer, always called “Herr Lieber”, or the accountant, “Reb Simha”.

This image is drawn from a page for the book at Biblio.com:

 

 

The book was re-published with his other works in Israel in the 1950s. Only in 1971 did it appear in English (translation by Katie Kaplan), issued by Bobbs-Merrill in New York. The plot concerns a brewery in a town only described as “L.”. This is surely a cipher for Barash’s birthplace of Lopatyn, in the Brody district in eastern Galicia, now in Republic of Ukraine.

Lopatyn was and is a small town, today about 3,200 people, surrounded by fields and forests. Most residents even before World War I were of Ukrainian stock. The town then comprised about 10% Jews, who were mainly Hassidim following either the Husiatyn or Belzer lines (each a particular rabbinical dynasty).

While pious in a life dominated by ritual and learned study, the Jews of (historical) Lopaytn, by my research again, were engaged in normal commercial activities. Some were farmers, some shopkeepers and peddlers, some traded in grain or hops or animal stock. The town also had a brewery and distillery. Similar background appears for the town of L. in the Barash book as well.

The heroine of the book is Hanna Aberdam, called Mrs. Aberdam or in the Polish honorific Pani Aberdam. The period described is not made explicit but seems to be the first years of the 1900s, by which time she has run the brewery for 30 years, under lease from a Polish grandee called Count or Graf (the German form) Stefan Molodetzky.

Molodetzky in turn is described as a scion of the Zamoiski nobility, often spelled today Zamoyski. While based to the west in Poland this undoubted historical family** also held estates in Lopatyn, although Molodetzky himself appears a fictional personage.

Mrs. Aberdam is described as a kindly person, born of a well-to-do merchant family. When her first husband, a pious scholar, dies young, she re-marries a shopkeeper of no great business ability and decides to enter business herself to provide for her family.

She leases the town brewery, which previously had gone bankrupt. It overlooked a body of water called in the book “the lake”, fed by underground springs.  At this she proves a signal success, the result of her good memory, facility with figures, and good knowledge of Polish.

A theme in the book is how the successful Jewish businesses in these small towns were an organic part of their community, helping to support townspeople through employment, and co-religionists with charity. For example, Aberdam would lead a drive to provide a dowry for an indigent bride, or help Jews who lost their homes in a fire.

She is depicted as an ethically motivated employer who charged a reasonable price for her beer. The beer was generally well-regarded including by owners of larger breweries in nearby towns. (Sometimes it was “too bitter” though!).

The town of L. also counted Polish gentry, the local canon certainly, the postmaster, the forester, and others who helped run the town. Its structure was semi-feudal in nature, in a pattern derived from a much older history beyond my scope here.

The Count was represented locally by his agent Pan Grabinski who, with his wife Pani Yuzia and children, are described with great warmth by Barash. He had to know or know of persons similar to them to write the way he does, and similarly of Pan Yashinski, the forester who assisted the Count and Grabinski for that part of estate management.

These officials are described as courteous and fair in their dealings with Mrs. Aberdam and her family. They harbour none of the hostility to Jews which Jewish history in that part of the world amply demonstrates, and which appears in the book in other contexts.

The book focuses on people, explaining their strengths and foibles, both Jews and others. Themes include the varying attitudes to Jews among Poles and Ukrainians as mentioned, the impact of modernity on Jewish piety and ethics, and not least for my purposes, how a small Galician brewery operated in those last years of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.

The brewery was small, similar no doubt to the smallest, or “agricultural” breweries I discussed in my recent series on Jewish-owned or -operated breweries of that period. I’ll summarize some of its salient features as described by Barash, but encourage all interested in beer (or Jewish) history of that period and place to read the book.

The beer is described as “light”, selling to a willing market both in and beyond the town. Usually it was of good quality, due to Herr Lieber’s efforts. It is not called a lager but evidently was one, as the role of ice in production is stressed. The ice was cut in “greenish” blocks from the lake.

The wort was cooled in open vats. The “wirze“, a misspelling of the German word for wort, was sold to people as a beverage and given to the poor for free, so (my take on it) a kind of kvass.* Jews in Lopatyn used a concentrated form to sweeten babies’ food.

A “vintage” version of the beer, not otherwise explained, was donated by Mrs. Aberdam for religious celebrations, in particular an annual event where the two Hassidic sects joined as one in communal celebration.

Barash writes that in Galician breweries the rule was to engage a German brewer. Lieber, while Jewish, is portrayed as Germanized, both in character and deportment. He was known for example to order lunch from a “Christian” restaurant! His religious observance was minimal compared to the others but he was respected for his devotion to his work.

He spoke little of his work except when brewery experts visited, then he would become loquacious, birds of a feather again. An unvarying topic of conversation with him was that “beer is bread”, evidently something he learned early in Germany.

He was a bachelor who made an attempt at marriage but it ended badly, in a tragi-comic episode related by Barash.

Hops were sourced from growers in the area, mainly Jewish at the time according to Barash. This product was also purchased by Czech brewers when hop culture failed in Bohemia, in which case the price climbed, but Mrs. Aberdam bought a full year’s supply in advance, and was vouchsafed this risk.

The beer was evidently all-malt, as apart Lieber’s German brewing background, for which this is a desideratum, the all-important barley is mentioned numerous times. The brewery had its own maltings underground, as existed for some other breweries in Central and East Europe, as I described earlier for the Teitel brewery.

Numerous personalities of the brewery are described colourfully, e.g. the worker Vanka who for years had the job of pulling bungs from returned empty barrels. He dreamed of rising to stoker, to fuel the wood-fired boiler, and finally reached his goal when an assistant’s position opened in the brewery.

Unfortunately he was given to excess in drink especially in the town tavern on Sunday. He would say indiscreet things including of the brewery foreman, Srael (contraction of Israel), but was always forgiven. The foreman, for his part, incurs some disapproval from Barash for his officious behavior, or so I interpreted the book.

The brewery operated year-round except that during Lent it brewed sporadically, and on holidays of both religions and Saturdays, “they lay off work altogether”.***

The story of Mrs. Aberdam and her family doesn’t end well. I’ll let you read the book to understand why, a product of perfidy both Gentile and Jewish as described in the book, but also perhaps fate, and the simple passage of time.

The book was reviewed in 1974 in Commentary magazine and those wishing to know more can start there.

N.B. In Lopatyn today a building described as a distillery appears in this image, by a small body of water. This may be the lake described in the book. The brewery of Lopatyn prior to WW I probably was up or down the waterside from where the distillery still lays.****

Whether that brewery formed the model for the one in the book I cannot say, but given Barash grew up in Lopatyn, I think elements of his story are probably drawn from its history.

Note: For a follow-up to this post, see Hops of Galicia, Beer of Lopatyn.

Note re image: source of image is linked in text. Image is used for educational and research purposes. All intellectual property thereto belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

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*Barash sometimes calls the wort “menthe“, a word whose origins I have not been able to determine.

**The distinguished British historian Adam Zamoyski is a direct descendant.

***The text is not clear whether Sunday was considered such a holiday, but from context in the book, I think it was.

****In my research I found a statement that this distillery was founded in the Austro-Hungarian period, hence why I link it to the one mentioned in the novel.

 

 

 

4 thoughts on ““Pictures From a Brewery” by Asher Barash”

    • Just to confirm, am well aware of the kvass tradition and its varying methods. By stating a type of kvass, I meant a grain-based drink that is not alcohol, like kvass is (very low or no alcohol typically). The author of the book I discussed earlier, Tehran Children, when recounting details of the Teitel Brewery in Poland, also used the term in a general way as I did. The fact that she used it may mean the family memoir she relied on to recount the history used the term, although I am not certain on that point, either it did or it occurred to her as an analogy, as to me. In that case, I can’t recall (I’ll unearth the book again) whether it was actual wort or simply strained mash unboiled with hops, but it shares again this trait of something beer-like without being beer, without getting to that stage. So in both cases using the term is suggestive or as a guide, not that this drink literally was kvass.

      Gary

      Reply
      • Lars I did check Mikhal Dekel’s book (2020) Tehran Children, which I recommend highly as well, partly for the same reasons as the other book, although Tehran Children tells a different story, directly involving the Holocaust and the remarkable survival of her father and aunt from the clutches of Nazism and initially Stalin.

        She states that taken from the brewing process was a hot sticky liquid, sold locally as a non-alcoholic drink and then she states in brackets “kvass”, so it could be her term or from the family papers she is summarizing. Also, it is not clear if she meant strained mash or wort. I think the former, as she talks in that section of the liquid reaching 67 C which as you know is about the ceiling of a typical mash.

        What it does show notably, taken with the Barash reference to something similar, is that some of these small commercial breweries in the Slavic and perhaps Baltic lands sold this to a local population for a sweet restorative drink. I have not heard of this being done elsewhere. Of course kvass proper was a well-established category in all these parts. I have seen references to it in the annals of Jewish history in these regions as well, where someone might deal in kvass as well as beer or manufacture it IIRC.

        The Malta-type drink is probably a close representation of what Barash at least meant, as clearly his “kvass” was a boiled extract of malt and hops.

        Reply

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