Chef Chaim Davids shares his tumultuous journey to the forefront of Israel’s Ashekenazi soul food revival.
It is Friday afternoon and the new Prohibition Pickle deli is bustling with customers hankering for herring. An employee prepares paper-thin slices of pastrami, the deli case is laden with modern twists on Ashkenazi classics like smoky maple bourbon herring and chopped liver with chestnuts, and house-made condiments bear cheeky names like “G’henom” habanero sauce. The specialty of the house is, of course, pickles, and the deli offers a variety, from sweet gin to full sours and even bread and butter pickles made from zucchini, all ready to make mouths pucker in delight.
The deli’s walls look like something out of Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood papered with pashkevilim – posters known for shouting Yiddish proclamations against different prohibited activities – but here they list store hours, playfully warn customers that the herring may have bones, and promise to “Make Pastrami Great Again.”
The deli is tucked into an upper corner of the Kenyon Harim Mall at the Gush Etzion junction, an area hit hard by terrorism in the past. Just outside the mall is where Israel-advocate Ari Fuld was murdered in 2018. Despite the challenges, the area has flourished, and the deli hopes to succeed where a schnitzel joint sputtered. The space was left empty for many months until COVID-19 and its lockdowns conspired to get chef Chaim Davids to reroute his culinary plans from Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market to this busy shopping center in the Judean Hills.
Prohibition Pickle is a dream realized for Davids, 37, a married father of three and resident of Efrat. His entry into the food industry began during his turbulent middle school years in the Orthodox Jewish working-class area of northern Baltimore, Maryland. The youngest of six, Davids moved away from observance as a pre-teen. A self-proclaimed “delinquent kid,” Davids floundered academically and flunked out of middle school.
“Education was not my pursuit... it was really the rigorous schedule of the Litvishe school system which burned me out. I didn’t fit in the box.”
Davids began working in kosher pizza parlors, and by age 16 had moved into an apartment with friends and had saved enough to buy himself a beat-up old Ford Mustang convertible. Davids earned his GED and worked his way up the food chain at a series of local eateries. Thinking about college, Davids’s parents helped him look at trade schools. While he loved sketching and graphic design, Davids pursued a degree in culinary arts at the now-defunct Baltimore International College.
“First semester I had a 3.9 GPA, I was on the dean’s list, and this was after flunking out of middle school and being held back grades, so I just had to find something I was into and apply myself.”
While he had found a passion for food, Davids was struggling spiritually. He took a semester off and came to Israel, where he reconnected with his Judaism and decided that one day he would live in the Holy Land. He just wasn’t sure when.
AFTER DAVIDS graduated, he saw an advertisement from Chef Todd Aarons, then of Mosaica Restaurant in New Jersey, recruiting workers for an upscale restaurant Aarons was opening at the Herzog Winery in Oxnard, California. Davids moved out West to serve as sous chef at Tierra Sur.
“It was a special place. I spent 18 hours a day there. I became 100% dedicated, but it was my first sous chef job and I got my butt kicked.”
Aarons, partner and founding chef of Tel Aviv’s Bodega and Jerusalem’s Crave restaurants, reminisces about hiring Davids: “Chaim reminded me so much of myself as a chef starting his career, a young upstart that didn’t quite fit others’ expectations of him.” Aarons knew that Davids’s “endless energy and curiosity would find a home and direction in the fraternity of chefs. I am proud of Chaim and happy that he was a part of my kitchen brigade.”
After Tierra Sur, Davids immersed himself in California’s kosher wine scene including working at the Herzog wine cellar over the harvest of 2006. He then returned to Baltimore to work at premiere kosher butcher shop Wasserman & Lemberger, where he learned the “dying art” of butchering.
“That’s when I really started getting fascinated by deli meats and curing,” he says.
Yearning to get back in the kitchen, Davids did some soul-searching.
“I was trying to figure out what my tekufah [purpose] was. I had studied under Todd, who was my chef mentor. You study under a chef and you usually adopt their style, and that was California Mediterranean and I did it very well, but I didn’t feel like that was me. But I loved pickling things and I knew that one day I wanted to do pickling and curing.”
Davids was invited to open a new restaurant in Northern California.
“There was a wealthy guy in the Bay Area who... wanted to open up a kosher restaurant, and he ended up recruiting me for the Kitchen Table.” Davids felt the group of owner-investors had conflicting visions for the restaurant, and discovered that running a high end, locally-sourced eatery in an area lacking kosher infrastructure was extremely difficult. Though the restaurant was popular and Davids received some great reviews, for the young chef, “[i]t was a very turbulent year and a half.”
Burned out, Davids immigrated to Israel in 2010 at age 26.
“As a new immigrant, I did house-cleaning, I worked at Angelica [where] I was the line cook, barely making minimum wage. After running my own restaurant in California, I had to learn Hebrew and work on the line, and it was a humbling experience.”
Davids had been prototyping beef jerky products when he connected with entrepreneur Avi Moskowitz, who ended up opening the Beer Bazaar franchise at Mahaneh Yehuda, and Davids joined Moskowitz as consulting chef.
Davids says, “I learned something very valuable about how to build a franchise model. That’s when I started reading books about business, immersing myself in business podcasts, and I started writing a business plan.”
Davids ended up launching a sweet alcoholic ginger ale called Gingit with Avi Levy-Stevenson, his Beer Bazaar sous chef, and the partners went door to door and to festivals peddling their food. Davids was then recruited by the Stone Mill, a company buying boutique Israeli food companies, to do regional sales. Davids successfully grew their sales territory but after about a year they parted ways.
Still dreaming of opening his own place, Davids says, “I got introduced to the folks at Cafe Rimon, including Yahav Rimon, who is a very well-loved figure in the restaurant community in Jerusalem.... We were going to partner together, myself – little Chaim Davids from Baltimore – and Cafe Rimon!” They were about to sign a contract to open a place that they were going to call “Shteibel Market” at Mahaneh Yehuda when corona hit.
“I was in a tremendous amount of debt, I was working every day, writing my business plan, meeting with these guys. All set. And then seger [lockdown]. I was shattered.”
STILL, DAVIDS persevered. His work as a private chef for vacationing families in Jerusalem and Europe showed him that Ashkenazi food was ripe for a comeback.
“These families were like, ‘Make us kugel, make us cholent,’ and that’s when I really fell in love with doing heimishe food. I was doing things like potato kugel with lamb bacon... and that’s when I realized we could really trick out Ashkenazi cuisine.”
With a loan and the encouragement of his wife and a good friend, Davids embraced pickling.
“We dragged the guest beds out of our guest bedroom.... I bought a little dinky refrigerator, plastic barrels... and I opened up a Facebook page. I didn’t know what I was going to call myself. I wanted it to be satirical and to reflect my haredi [ultra-Orthodox] background, where everything seemed taboo. I wanted deli with an edge. And here we were bootlegging pickles.... Suddenly, there are all these restrictions and underground industries rising up, all these cooks with their restaurants barred, they are forced underground, and it just hit me: It’s Prohibition Pickle.”
Davids says, “The pashkevil posters came afterwards. People kept saying the herring had a lot of bones and I needed a way to give over a message, and the pashkevilim became a way to tell the story, playing on ‘assur culture,’ where everything is prohibited.”
Davids began delivering all over Gush Etzion and Jerusalem, branching out to places like Ra’anana and Tel Aviv, quickly building a following. A recent visitor was prime minister-hopeful Naftali Bennett, who raved about Davids’s goods.
Another admirer of Davids’s burgeoning business is Tel Aviv-based celebrity food writer Adeena Sussman, author of the award-winning Sababa Cookbook. A fan of everything Prohibition Pickle, who says the “Not White-fish” smoked mackerel salad has already become a tradition in her home.
Sussman shares, “For all of its darkness, one of the bright spots of COVID has been... the opportunity for small businesses like Chaim’s to flourish.... [F]or the last 20 or 30 years, Mizrahi and North African food has very deservedly been at the front and center of food here, but these traditional Ashkenazi and Eastern European dishes... kind of languished on the sidelines, and Chaim is a part of a small but growing group of people who are looking at these foods and connecting with them and celebrating their heritage while ratcheting them up several notches quality-wise and putting their own creative touches on them.”
His delivery successes gave Davids the confidence to move forward with a storefront, and he saw opportunity in the growing Gush Etzion area. With restaurants finally opening to diners, Davids is now offering some nominal seating inside but plans to keep the deli as more of a “market” experience. He hopes to soon put his beautiful 100-meter deck overlooking the verdant Judean hills to use for events and celebrations.
Through trial and error, the deli has been hitting its stride. The store has been enjoying an influx of customers, and Davids keeps adding to the menu, like a new line of deli sandwiches that showcase his pickles and condiments, and a most recent addition of house-made knishes.
Humbled by and thoughtful about what he calls his “colorful” food journey, Davids is relishing his new role as proprietor of this hot spot where he proudly peddles his down-home fare with a dash of haute cuisine. He often welcomes customers to sample a pickle and offers a shot of whiskey to wash it down.
“I want people to come in and feel like it’s mamash bayit”– really home.
So foodies and kiddush-lovers beware: Missing out on Davids’s delicious and creative take on Ashkenazi soul food is strictly prohibited.
Visit Prohibition Pickle at the Kenyon Harim shopping center at the Gush Etzion junction, and follow @prohibitionpickle on Instagram and Facebook.