The silence emanating from the street outside the Leyvik House in the heart of Tel Aviv did not offer any hints of the energetic celebration taking place inside on the third floor of the building, which is home to the Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Israel. It was only 6:45 p.m., but the vodka and wine were already flowing freely. A number of seniors vigorously vied for the last few remaining seats in the packed hall. Finally, the audience quieted down and Yoav Rabinovich, a stand-up comedian, called out and waved from the small stage, “Yankele, how are you?” When no one replied, Rabinovich continued, saying, “Surely there’s someone here tonight whose name is Yankele,” which brought out ample laughter from the crowd.
Rabinovich had dressed up for the occasion, with a jacket and tailored slacks, since he was one of the esteemed judges at the very first Cholent Olympics. The other judges, however, were dressed comfortably in casual, loose-fitting clothing as if they knew they’d need extra room for the five different cholent recipes they’d be tasting.
The audience had high expectations for the contest and the tension was reaching the breaking point. But alongside the excitement there was also anxiety. Would a dish that was suitable to be eaten on lazy Shabbat afternoons also be palatable on a Wednesday evening at 7 p.m.? Would the seniors who were packed into the hall succeed in eating all the legumes, beef and potatoes?
“We didn’t think that many people would show up,” says Assaf Galai, the individual behind the idea for the cholent contest, as he tried to push away the TV station microphone that someone had thrust in front of his face. “I guess if we’d held the Cholent Olympics on Shabbat afternoon, we could have filled the entire Tel Aviv Convention Center,” Galai continued. Galai and his colleagues make up the younger contingent of Yiddish aficionados who gather once or twice a week at the Leyvik House to learn Yiddish, which is considered an endangered language.
Recently, they held a lecture series that included discussions about the Golem, the Warsaw Cemetery and Moti Brecher’s puppet theater. They decided to mark the end of the lecture series with a cholent competition, which would not include any prizes. “None of us is a professional chef,” Galai said in an apologetic tone. “I make documentaries.”
Galai wasn’t alone, though. He had help from the energetic and extremely funny stand-up comedian Meital Shapiro. She lifts up a big pot of cholent and then holds it while climbing up three flights of stairs, without experiencing any shortness of breath whatsoever. Next, she launches a quick gefilte fish eating competition, but forgets to keep track of the time. Luckily, two guests who were sitting in the audience were watching the clock and Baruch, one of the contestants, quickly stuffed six entire pieces of gefilte fish in his mouth.
Obviously, he was the winner of the competition. When Baruch was handed the prize – another jar of gefilte fish – he asked if it was okay if he opened it now to have a bite. He was definitely a potential contender for the Guinness Book of World Records, and I suggested that the Yiddish Association consider helping him train for the title.
IN THE MEANTIME, each of the contestants, who didn’t know each other, were waiting patiently for the moment that the lids of the cholent pots would be lifted up. One hopeful is Ilan Angel, 40, who traveled all the way from Ness Ziona with his steaming pot of cholent.
“Whenever I start missing my parents, who l left behind when I made aliyah from Belgium, I make my mom’s cholent recipe, which brings back lots of fond memories from my childhood,” recounts Angel, who moved to Israel eight years ago with his wife and three daughters. When I ask him what ingredients he uses to make his mom’s recipe, he replies with a big smile, “I use the best quality beef, beans, potatoes, marrow bones and lots of flavor and soul.”Is there a prize for first place?
“I was told it’s a book, but I didn’t come here for the prizes. I’m very proud of my cholent, so I’m really just looking for recognition of my family’s special recipe,” Angel explains.When did you prepare the cholent?
“Yesterday. Cholent should never be eaten the same day it’s made. My cholent has been cooking for 20 hours, and has undergone a special secret process that I’m not willing to divulge. No other cholent can compete with mine.”Do you really think you’re going to win?
“If I look at how old the other contestants are, I think I have a pretty good chance. I was just informed that I’m not allowed to spoon out my cholent for the judges, which is a shame, because I have a very special serving technique – I plunge the ladle all the way down to the bottom of the pot and then scoop out all the great stuff, which collects on the way up. I truly hope that the server doesn’t just skim the top. That would be a darn shame to miss out on all that goodness located at the bottom of the pot.”
These young Yiddish lovers received a decent budget for their activities from the Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists.
“This is the first Yiddish Association event in which a prize is not being awarded to Yaakov Budo – but Yaakov, if you do happen to be here in the audience, then by all means, please come up on the stage and we will offer you an award,” to which the audience broke out in great gales of laughter. Unfortunately, we were not able to reach Budo for comment before the print deadline.
“The French might boast of dishes that simmer for seven hours, but we Jews should be proud of our meat that is cooked for over 20 hours and no longer looks like beef,” joked Assaf Abir, another Cholent Olympics judge.
In addition to Rabinovich and Abir, another judge that participated in the contest was Oren Barzilai, a stand-up comedian who admitted that he “knows absolutely nothing about cholent and is there to offer his opinion as the simple guy from off the street, which is important in any taste test contest.”
But the most energetic and likable of all the judges was Shoshka Engelmayer, a social activist who appeared wearing a red apron and proclaimed that she would be the most objective and fair judge. During the tasting session, Engelmayer could be heard murmuring things like, “What do you mean there’s no kishke in this cholent,” “These eggs weren’t cooked inside the cholent and haven’t changed color – this is a shanda!” “Quick, where’s the bathroom?” and “Oy vey, you used the wrong kind of meat here.”
AT ONE POINT, a minor drama ensued when four people arrived at the entrance and were told that the hall had already been filled to capacity, and that they would not be allowed to enter since the municipality had strict rules regarding safety regulations. The visitors then exclaimed that they had traveled all the way from Holon to participate in the Cholent Olympics, and on top of that were exceptionally hungry. With a combination of Jewish ingenuity and a distracted usher, the visitors managed to sneak their way into the hall and enjoy a few bites of what was stuck at the bottom of the cholent pots.
“Everyone came really hungry,” recalls Angel, who didn’t bother to taste any of his competitors’ cholent. He claimed that the crowd was too dense and he wasn’t able to push his way through. But I think he was scared of what he might discover. When he overheard that one of the contestants used to run a catering business, he temporarily considered withdrawing from the competition.
“I jumped at the opportunity to join this competition,” says Ruth Zamir. “I have such fond memories of eating cholent with my parents on Shabbat mornings, and also of my own kids, who would wake up and right away look for the hardboiled eggs. Nowadays, my daughter lives overseas, and my son has become religious, so he won’t eat at my house anymore. It’s terribly depressing. Eating cholent together on Shabbat with the family was such a wonderful social occasion. It’s no fun eating cholent all by myself.”
By the time all the cholent pots had been licked clean, it was hard to gather everyone to hear the judges’ final decisions. It turns out that quite a few people had already snuck out of the room – maybe in fear that their bodies’ reactions to digesting the large quantities of legumes in the cholent might lead to impolite noises, so I guess we should thank them for that small act of kindness.
The joyful atmosphere at the competition freed the judges’ tongues, which brought out some colorful declarations, such as, “These flavors remind me of my grandmother – and I hate my grandmother;” “This cholent doesn’t have much flavor;” “This cholent is nothing but burnt meat.” Two of the contestants were so insulted they left and went home before the winner was announced. Finally, the moment of truth had arrived. Avner Kellner, who was introduced to the audience as a ‘famous violinist and a super hunk,’ came in third place for his innovative cholent recipe that calls for Jerusalem artichokes.
Angel was the runner up, and Moti Schwartz was the recipient of the grand prize. When asked what his secret ingredient was, Schwartz lowered his voice and quietly whispered into the microphone, “Good Polish food is Hungarian food,” for which he got booed off the stage.
Yaffa Shoshka summarized the evening by saying, “Cholent is just like life. Even if you add all the ingredients listed in the recipe, you never know how it’s going to turn out in the end. As the crowd was contemplating this deep thought, someone at the back of the room yelled out, “Hey, we want to hear some stand-up comedy?!” But, wait a minute – what was everything up until now?Translated by Hannah Hochner.
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