On a Thursday night in Jerusalem, the weekend festivities have started. The trendy restaurants in the Mahaneh Yehuda market are packed, and youth are gathering in Zion Square. But to some, the beginning of the weekend means only one thing – a hot, heaping bowl of cholent.
Most people know cholent, or hamin in Hebrew, as the slow-cooked dish of meat, potatoes, beans and barley traditionally served on Shabbat afternoon in Orthodox homes. But in recent years, it has become an institution on Thursday night as well, with thousands of mostly male customers hitting the growing number of restaurants catering to the trend.
On a Thursday night in Geula, one of Jerusalem’s best-known haredi neighborhoods, yeshiva students wearing white shirts and black pants crowd these establishments to wind down after a long week of studying Torah, or to fill their bellies before an all-night learning session to prepare spiritually for Shabbat.
“Thursday night is not a natural time to be eating cholent,” notes Joel Haber, a Jerusalem-based tour guide and Jewish food expert who is currently writing a book about the history of cholent and other Shabbat stews. “It’s not like eating cholent Friday night, sneaking a bowl out of a pot that is already cooking for tomorrow’s meal. This is a Shabbat food being made solely for the purpose of eating before Shabbat. It’s not entirely clear when this trend started. I’d guess that it started as a late-night treat for yeshiva students in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak staying up to learn Torah all night, and evolved from there.”
Cholent is mentioned in Jewish sources as early as the Mishna, written some 1,800 years ago. By preparing it on Friday and cooking it throughout the night, Jews have enjoyed it for centuries as a way to eat hot food on Shabbat day, when actively cooking is prohibited.
“Cholent is one of the few foods we have that is genuinely Jewish,” Haber says. “This is a dish that Jews created and then brought with them as they moved to different places throughout the Diaspora. As Jews moved, they brought their stew with them and adapted the ingredients from place to place. We see that virtually every Jewish community in the world has had its own version.”
Haber notes that nearly all cholents have the same basic elements – a stew of grains, meat and seasoning cooked all night. But in different places, the meat might be beef, lamb or goose, and the grain used could be wheat, barley or rice.
“There are countless variations,” Haber says. “While the Eastern European Ashkenazi version is heavy on meat, beans and potatoes, a Moroccan recipe might include sweet potatoes, carrots, lamb, dates, cinnamon and cumin. In South America they use a local root called pomtajer, which is grated like potatoes, and versions from India and Iraq use local flavors and spices. Hungarian cholent is more watery than Polish cholent, and doesn’t include potatoes. Some communities have versions called dafina, skhina, osavo or haleem, but they are all versions of the same dish.”
Technically, Haber notes, cholent and hamin refer to the same thing, but in modern Israel, cholent usually refers to the Eastern European Ashkenazi version, while hamin generally refers to the Sephardi variety, which often uses chicken instead of meat, contains eggs, and is spiced more exotically.
That being said, for many Jerusalemites, there is only one way to make cholent.
“The restaurants here only serve an Ashkenazi-style cholent,” says Debra Nussbaum Stepen, a tour guide who offers, among other things, cholent and bakery tours through Mea She’arim and Geula. “I’ve never seen anyone serving a Sephardic type of cholent around here.”
Stepen and I met up near Kikar Shabbat, the intersection between Mea She’arim and Geula, to plan my cholent-tasting strategy on a recent Thursday night. My mission: to spend the evening visiting the most important cholent vendors in the area, hearing their stories and, of course, tasting their wares. It’s a heavy job, but I had skipped lunch earlier that day, and I planned to bring home leftovers from every restaurant. With cholent, as with many things in life, it’s best to indulge in moderation.
“How do you judge a cholent?” Stepen asks. “I always tell people to look at the meat-to-bean ratio. Meatier cholents tend to be the best.”
A good helping of kishke, a sort of stuffing made with matzo meal, fat and spices, is also a big plus, she adds.
With that and a list of places, I begin the tour. Full disclosure: At each place, I was served a complimentary meal. In this part of town, the price for a regular serving of cholent ranges from NIS 20 to NIS 30.
All restaurants mentioned are kosher l’mehadrin unless otherwise noted.
5 Ralbach St., (02) 538-0742
My first stop is Koretz, located on a side street next to a yeshiva run by Gur Hassidim. The owner, Gedaliah, founded the restaurant 35 years ago.
“I come from a family of restaurateurs,” Gedaliah says. “My parents ran a restaurant in Tiberias 80 years ago; my grandfather owned a restaurant in his day. Now, my family helps out here. We sell all sorts of classic Jewish foods – gefilte fish, cholent, kugels. We are open all week, and a lot of people come to buy food for Shabbat. We are very well known around here.”
(Haber would note later that the term “Jewish food” is a common, although historically inaccurate, term frequently used to refer to Ashkenazi food.
“Jewish food is so much broader than just cholent and kugels,” he notes. “But I think the way it is used is sort of a mistranslation of the idea of ‘Yiddish food’ eaten by Ashkenazi Jews. Yiddish literally means ‘Jewish,’ and for many, these old-world dishes represent something authentic in our history.”)
Gedaliah serves me the first of many bowls of cholent I would have that evening. Most of the day’s cholent is gone, and my portion is from the bottom of the pot, Gedaliah says apologetically. The dish is heaped with meat and potatoes and a generous serving of kishke.
“We’ve had essentially the same cholent recipe for 35 years,” Gedaliah smiles. “People have been eating cholent on Thursday night for many years. There is a mystical concept, based on the passage “To’ameha hayim zachu” (those who taste the Shabbat will merit life), to taste the Shabbat food before Shabbat.”
The restaurant has an authentic, old-world feel to it, and as with every place I would visit that night, the clientele is strictly haredi. Seating inside has separate areas for men and women, although families are permitted to sit together, Gedaliah notes with a gentle smile.
I want to keep eating, but, remembering that there’s a long night ahead, I ask Gedaliah to pack up my leftovers, and head to the next destination.
Yeshayahu Street, near Kikar Shabbat, 055-923-7771
No official kashrut certification
If Koretz was quiet and staid, my next stop was the opposite. Cholent Olami, just up the street from Kikar Shabbat, is loud and packed with young yeshiva students. More than 1,000 customers will come in over the course of the evening, the manager, Natan, tells me.
Olami has three items on the menu: cholent with meat certified kosher under the supervision of Rav Mahpoud, cholent with meat certified kosher under the supervision of Rav Rubin, and a parve cholent with no meat. This is unusual, and not just because there is nothing else available. I’ve never seen any restaurant in Israel that offers customers a choice between different supervising agencies. Mahpoud is generally preferred by Sephardi customers, and Rubin appeals to Ashkenazim. I ask the server which option is better tonight, and he serves me the Rubin option, which costs a shekel more than the Mahpoud.
The owner of Cholent Olami started serving cholent in his apartment as a yeshiva student 10 years ago, Natan says. When his small business outgrew the flat, he moved to a storefront in the neighborhood, and then moved to its current location three years ago. In the past year, the owner opened two more branches, in the Givat Shaul and Beit Yisrael neighborhoods.
Olami is highly profitable, although it has an unusual business model. The Geula branch is open just one day a week, from 1 p.m. until late Thursday night, and remains closed the rest of the week. (The other branches serve hot meat sandwiches during the week.) The owner, who prefers not to have his name printed, studies Torah in yeshiva all day, and has no interest in managing the business, Natan says.
“People say that our cholent tastes exactly the same every week,” Natan notes. “In most places, it’s always a bit different each time. We sell cholent, rolls, soft drinks, and that’s it.”
As at the other places in the neighborhood, they don’t offer beer. As I’ll notice over the course of the night, alcohol isn’t a thing for all these young men out partying.
“Secular people go out and do different things on a Thursday night,” Natan notes. “For all of these yeshiva students who learn Torah all week, the big thing to do on a Thursday night is to go out for cholent. That’s how they relax.”
Women are welcome at Olami, but things can get complicated, Natan says. “Between the hours of 8 and 11, the place is packed with yeshiva students to the point where you can barely move, so things are simpler if fewer women are around.”
There is an epilogue to the Olami story. About an hour later, as I walk back up the block, I see a crowd protesting outside of Olami. Why? There are complaints that the establishment is immodest and disrupts the neighborhood late into the night, as well as a surprising revelation: this branch of Cholent Olami does not have kosher certification. While it may use strictly kosher ingredients, the restaurant itself is not certified, due to “complicated political reasons I’d rather not go into,” Natan concedes. Perhaps the reason it offers meat with different certifications is to win back some kashrut credibility. Whatever the case, the restaurant’s extremely observant clientele doesn’t seem to mind.
12 Ya’akov Meir St., (02) 502-3807
La Casa is a bit classier than the other restaurants I visited, and I saw several married couples there on dates when I arrived.
The 10-year-old restaurant has built a strong reputation, and is one of the most popular cholent stops for American tourists, says Yosef, the restaurant’s manager.
“The owner bought this place at a high price right before corona started, and it was struggling for a while,” Yosef says. “He’s turned it around, but it has been very difficult.”
Yosef enjoys the opportunity to talk about the challenges of the cholent business.
“It’s very hard to run a restaurant in this area,” he tells me as I eat my third bowl of cholent of the night. “The kashrut companies are very expensive, and the most respected ones have a lot of demands. They’re worried about how late we are open, whether our workers wear kippot. Meanwhile, rent here is high, and it’s hard to find workers.”
That being said, cholent is very profitable.
“We’re talking about a profit margin of about NIS 3,000 for a pot of about 100 liters,” Yosef says. “The cost of the ingredients, including a lot of meat, is about NIS 1,000, and it sells for about NIS 4,000. You have some places selling dozens of pots per week and doing very well.
“Some people think it looks easy, and there are always new cholent spots opening up. But it’s a hard business. We’ve been here a long time, and we are not afraid of competition.”
La Casa, which also sells steaks and Chinese food, gets more than 250 customers on a typical Thursday night, and is seeing good results from food delivery services 10Bis and Wolt, Yosef says. And that’s not counting the tourists.
“Before COVID, tour groups would come here every weekend,” Yosef says. “Tour groups are actually a bit of a headache because they are a lot more work than regular customers. They need to reserve tables, and they take up a lot of room, and they require better service.
“At this point, the owner isn’t actively seeking to attract more groups.”
32 Mea She’arim St., (02) 582-9529
After visiting three places in Geula, I cross Strauss Street at Kikar Shabbat and walk down the skinny main street of Mea She’arim. I usually group the two neighborhoods together in my mind, but Stepen informs me that this is a mistake.
“Geula and Mea She’arim are absolutely not the same thing,” Stepen explained to me before the journey. “But people often confuse them. There is even a scene in the television show Shtisel where the art dealer, Kaufman, asks Akiva Shtisel, ‘Tell me about your life in Mea She’arim,’ and Akiva corrects him, ‘I live in Geula, not Mea She’arim.’”
Residents of Geula tend to be more worldly and open-minded than their neighbors, Stepen explains.
“Geula is more commercial. You have the restaurants, the tefillin stores, the kippa factory – it’s all geared toward tourists, and the attitude is a bit more tolerant.
“Mea She’arim is also commercial on the main road, but once you go off that street, the neighborhood is much more insular. It’s just on the other side of the street, but women visiting there have to be much more careful that the way they are dressed meets the local standard for modesty.”
Also relevant for the adventure, the rabbis of Mea She’arim have imposed a curfew of 11:30 p.m. for restaurants, to help maintain a certain level of decorum in the neighborhood. If you want to go out for cholent after that, you may be out of luck.
The pashkevil-lined main road of Mea She’arim is certainly quieter than the traffic of Geula as I reach the small, unassuming storefront of Deitch. While it may not look like a historic location, Deitch has been open for 44 years, and was the first restaurant in Jerusalem to get Badatz Mehadrin certification, says Yossi, one of the restaurant’s owners.
Most of the tables inside are occupied as I walk in, but the clientele is older and quieter than the others I have visited.
Like Koretz, Deitch sells old-world Ashkenazi “Jewish cuisine” all week long, and then the place fills up Thursday night.
“Until 10 years ago, it was just the yeshiva students,” Yossi says. “Now, everyone comes out for Thursday-night cholent.”
Yossi Deitch, a smiley man whose red beard has long turned gray, tells a joke as he eyeballs my bag of cholent leftovers. “They say that everyone here eats cholent for cholent days. The yeshiva students eat it Thursday night, Friday night, and Shabbat day. The married men, on the other hand, eat it on Shabbat, and then Sunday and Monday as leftovers.”
AFTER FOUR cholents, I’m done for the night. I didn’t make it to the last stop on Stepen’s itinerary, Yoeli’s Restaurant, 2 Beit Yisrael St., (02) 652-9797.
Yoeli’s is located next to the Mir Yeshiva, the largest yeshiva in the world with some 8,500 students, and its cholent is particularly popular with American visitors, Stepen says.
I also skip Hadar Geula, 13 Malchei Yisrael, (02) 538-2832, which is well known for its meatless cholent.
Which cholent is the best? Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was how similar they all tasted. Every dish had a lot of meat and kishke, and three out of four are even the same exact shade of brown. Every one I tried was excellent and met all of Stepen’s requirements.
It’s hard to pick a winner, but I’d say that La Casa and Olami were the best so far.
CHOLENT ISN’T exclusive to haredi neighborhoods on a Thursday night. Dozens of restaurants around the city have adopted the tradition in their own ways. So it was clear that another round of tastings would be needed.
The next offerings of cholent I would try are no less tasty than those around Mea She’arim, but they are pricier. Expect to pay NIS 40 or more for a meal at these places.
5 Mishmar Ha’am St., 077-803-6221, cholentbar.co.il
Robin Goeta launched Cholent Bar in the German Colony neighborhood two years ago, after realizing that there wasn’t anyone selling cholent nearby.
“I loved going out to eat cholent at different places, and I wanted to offer it in our part of the city,” he says. “In the beginning, I bought everything from caterers, but then a group of Belz Hassidim taught me how to make excellent cholent myself.”
Cholent Bar’s clientele is mostly modern Orthodox, so the rules are different than in Geula. Goeta brings in live music and sells beer to create a relaxed environment that fits the mood of the neighborhood.
He also sells prepared Shabbat food Thursday night and Friday, and has become a popular local destination.
Cholent Bar has also seen success selling cholent on food delivery services 10Bis and Wolt, Goeta notes.
Surprisingly, about half of the cholent sold is parve, he adds.
Cholent & Mood
223 Jaffa Rd., 052-600-4087
I heard about Cholent & Mood, located across the street from the central bus station, from a post on Facebook, and I was a bit intrigued. Just four months after opening in the basement of a relatively neglected building, it’s said to be a smash hit. What’s the story?
“I have built up a large following on social media,” explains chef Eli Davis, the founder. “During the week, I cater private events for high-end clients, including politicians, through my catering company Food & Mood. With this place, I wanted to try something different, with a place that’s only open Thursday night. Word about the place spread organically, and now, we are getting about 1,000 customers each week.”
The interior of Cholent & Mood is upscale, and a large team of waiters is busy with orders. The menu has a nice mix of Shabbat-type foods, with an upmarket angle. Soft Shabbat music plays in the background. A regular bowl of cholent is NIS 58, while the special lamb cholent is NIS 70 for a bowl. That’s about twice as much as the going rate in Geula.
Despite the price, the place is full when I visit around 7:30 p.m., and will be even busier in the coming hours, Davis says. The crowd is different from what I saw the previous week. Instead of young Israeli yeshiva boys, the customers are older and more established. About 60% of the clientele is American, says Davis, who grew up in Israel with parents who made aliyah from America.
“We are open to everyone here,” Davis says. “We have plenty of soldiers coming in, and I give them food for free. Women, of course, feel comfortable here. We can seat about 65 people inside, and more outside, so there is plenty of room for everyone.”
I try a small portion of lamb cholent. It’s good, and the lamb gives it a somewhat different flavor, but I can’t say it’s better than any of the others I’ve tasted. Every cholent I’ve had has been delicious.
NEXT, I HEAD toward the shuk to check out another cholent place I had heard about, but it was closed when I got there. I was a bit surprised when Haber, a shuk expert, informed me that there weren’t many cholent options there.
Instead, I wander over to Cafe Barata, several minutes from the shuk.
15 David Avisar St., 054-959-6252, cafebarata.co.il
No kosher certification
Barata is a support center for former haredim who have left their community. The organization recently opened a café and cultural center in the Nahlaot neighborhood, with the goal of helping these (mostly) formerly religious people navigate their challenges together, says the organization’s head, Giti.
Inside the building, a small group of formerly religious twentysomethings laugh and play music together, while Giti tells me her story over cholent on the patio outside.
“The story of this place begins with cholent,” she smiles, as she describes how Barata’s founder would organize Shabbat kiddush for his disenchanted haredi friends, at which they would smoke cigarettes and play music.
“We try to help people embrace the experiences from their past lives and use them to elevate the new lives they are building,” Giti says.
With that, my Jerusalem cholent tasting came to an end, concluding a delicious adventure that spanned generations of Jewish history and countless stories. Perhaps that’s the part of the magical effect that cholent has on people.
“Food is a very important part of how Jews tell stories,” Stepen says. “We experience our world through food, and Jewish holidays integrate food as a tool for passing on lessons and history. Nowadays, we live in a world where so many people are foodies, and everyone is talking about creating interesting culinary experiences. At the same time, people are absolutely fascinated with haredi culture. especially following the success of Shtisel. That makes a tour like this is an incredibly powerful way to experience history through the lens of food.
“It’s a meaningful way to experience the Jewish story in a way that is personal, authentic and delicious.”