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How Picking Mushrooms in America Became a Russian Jewish Tradition.

Every fall, hordes of mysterious visitors descend upon Cape Cod from Boston and Providence and as far away as New Jersey and Philadelphia. They aren't the garden variety of tourists; they are seekers of fungi. Some of them come for the day; others stay for the weekend. The locals refer to these visitors on a mission as "Russians," but in reality, the vast majority of them are ex-Soviet Jews and their descendants. They drive down Route 6 in the direction of Provincetown. Once they reach Wellfleet and Truro, they begin to disperse around the nearby forests and hillocks. Some of the most hard-core mushroom foragers stay on the freeway until the outskirts of P-town, whereupon they veer off to the north, heading for the Municipal Airport and Race Point. There, amid the moss-covered dunes crested with crooked pines, the huntersbaskets in hands, blades of pocket knives glittering in the morning sunfind their mushroom abodes and pick, pick, pick. This is the time of year, starting around the third week of September, when Facebook is abuzz with reports of foraging expeditions and photos of Jewish-Russian children holding gigantic red-capped mushrooms with gray-speckled stems and spongy undersides. Some of the immigrant mushroom lovers deliberately reveal the location (so as to foster competition), while others suppress it (so as not to attract copy-foragers). Depending on how warm and wet the conditions remain in the fall, the mushroom bacchanalia here can last through the beginning of November.

Along Route 6 between Truro and Eastham, the Audubon Society has put up signs saying "Please don't pick up mushrooms," because it apparently disturbs the habitat of the local bird species. The pleas are mainly directed at the mushroom tourists, and they might as well have been printed in Russian, not that it would matter to the ex-Soviet foragers, who are well-versed in the art of dissimulation and the craft of mushroom hunting. For the ex-Soviet immigrants, gathering (and eating) mushrooms is a sport, a pastime, and a passion. The writer Lara Vapnyar told me that mushroom-picking was sviatoe ("sacrosanct"), and her husband, Boris Lokshin, who writes about film, nodded in agreement. Vapnyar and Lokshin visited our family on the Cape three years ago in the summer, two months before the unofficial start of the mushroom season, and they were already planning their annual autumn pilgrimage. The Odessa-born virtuoso clarinetist Julian Milkis, a disciple of Benny Goodman, recently posted a photograph of himself sitting at a long dining room table all covered in mushrooms he had gathered with the emigre historian Yuri Feltishinsky. A few weeks ago, my father's first cousin, a native of Leningrad, said he collected "125 mushrooms" in the dunes of P-town (we take his word for it).

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Author:Shrayer, Maxim D.
Publication:Tablet Magazine
Date:Nov 9, 2016
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