An Odessa tzimmes

In Ukraine, Jewish food is the new fad – but it is not necessarily kosher.

At the Golden Rose restaurant in Lviv, which does not publish its prices, and encourages customers to bargain instead. (photo credit: Courtesy)
At the Golden Rose restaurant in Lviv, which does not publish its prices, and encourages customers to bargain instead.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 ON ODESSA’S main street, a restaurant boldly advertises its menu to pedestrians. A big sign lists the “most famous Odessa dishes” – forshmak from herring; tzimmes from beans, and tulechka, or sprat, “cooked the Jewish way” with onions.
Forshmak and tzimmes are not Russian or Ukrainian words – they are the names of the local Jewish dishes. Forshmak is a spread made from herring and sour apple, and tzimmes, depending on who you ask, is either a sweet side dish made from carrots or a bean dish.
Although the majority of Odessa’s Jewish residents immigrated after the fall of the Soviet Union, in recent years, local eateries have begun promoting Jewish dishes as authentic Odessa cuisine that any visitor to this Russian-speaking summer beach resort must sample.
“When you go to India, you have to eat curry. When you come to Odessa, you have to try the Odessa cuisine,” says Aleksey Titik, the owner of the Forshmak restaurant that has all the famous Jewish dishes on its menu.
Odessa cuisine is inseparable from Jewish cuisine, he explains, because “once upon a time there were a lot of Jews in Odessa.”
A hundred years ago, Odessa was the city with the third largest Jewish population in the world – after New York and Warsaw ‒ and the biggest Jewish center in Ukraine, which itself was home to almost two million Jews. It was the hometown of Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, it was here that Haim Bialik and Shaul Tchernichovsky published their first poems, and it was also the city where microbiologist Selman Waksman, who received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the first antibiotic against tuberculosis, and Waldemar Mordechai Wolff Haffkine, who developed the vaccines against cholera and the plague, went to school.
Odessa gave birth to some of the most famous Jews in the Russianspeaking world: comedian and author Mikhail Zhvanetsky, Ilya Ilf, who coauthored the satirical novel “The Twelve Chairs,” violinist David Oistrakh, and gangster Mishka Yaponchik, to name a few. It was also in Odessa that communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky received his schooling.
Odessa’s Jews didn’t just disappear: about half of them were killed in the Holocaust.
Almost all of the city’s Jews who didn’t flee during World War II – or approximately 120,000 local Jews and 100,000 others who flooded into the city – were murdered by the Nazis, according to the Odessa Jewish Museum. Despite this, after the war when people returned to Odessa, 16 percent of the city’s population was Jewish.
Odessa’s Jewish population declined further as a result of emigration (about 15,000 left the city in 1989 and 1990) – and continued falling in recent years due to the poor economic situation and conflict with Russia.
Today, about 30,000 Jews remain in Odessa – or three percent of the population, estimates Berl Kapulkin, the spokesman for Chabad in Odessa.
Titik is not Jewish himself, although he is a bit reluctant to admit it. “I am not circumcised, but I go to synagogue when my friends invite me,” he clarifies to The Jerusalem Report.
He learned all about Jewish food, he says, by soaking in his surroundings as a native Odessite who lived in a communal flat “and had a chance to try everything in the refrigerator. The real Jewish food is what you make from the leftovers in the fridge,” Titik contends. “When you have four days before payday, you look in the fridge and you see what your flatmate has.”
Odessa has two kosher restaurants and two synagogues, but like many Odessa restaurants that have Jewish dishes on their menus, the Forshmak restaurant isn’t kosher. It doesn’t cater to religious Jews – but to people who want to sample Jewish food out of curiosity. The restaurant also offers seafood and pork because, as Titik puts it, “If we only serve fish, we won’t make money, we will only enjoy ourselves.”
Non-Jews also account for the majority of the customers at Odessa’s first kosher restaurant, Rozmarin, which opened 13 years ago, owner Anastasia Itkina, who describes herself as “partly Jewish,” tells The Report. Her husband Dima, who co-owns the restaurant, is an observant Jew.
Itkina estimates that only about a quarter of the restaurant’s customers keep kosher (they have large families and can’t afford to eat out often, she says); a quarter are locals who like Jewish food because it reminds them of what they ate during their childhood; and about half are tourists – especially Russian-speakers from the former Soviet Union.
“Tourists come here for the Jewish taste – maybe they read Sholem Aleichem [the Yiddish-Ukrainian author who wrote stories on which the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” is based] or watched movies with Jewish characters or some grew up in yards with a Jewish aunt or neighbor who fed them something. People come for foods that they remember,” she says. “When people come here, they say, ‘It should be like my grandma made it.’ That’s the hardest part – because everyone thinks their grandma made it the right way.”
Itkina attributes the growing interest in Jewish cuisine to recently released Russian movies about Odessa. One TV series, called “The Life and Adventures of Mishka Yaponchik” (titled internationally as “Once Upon a Time in Odessa”) is based on the true story of Jewish gangster, Moisey Volfovich Vinnitskiy, who robbed only the rich to help the poor before he was assassinated by the communists. Another popular TV movie, “Likvidatsiya” (Liquidation), tells the story of a Jewish detective who fights crime in post-war Odessa.
“These films awakened an interest in Odessa, and because the main characters are Jewish – when people come to Odessa, they want to go to a Jewish restaurant,” says Kapulkin. “For the guests it’s the exotic aspect that people come for.”
Other than Jewish food, walking tours focusing on the city’s Jewish history are popular here, according to tour guide Olga Bokhonovskaya – and there are plans to build two more Jewish museums in the city ‒ one that will focus on the history of Ukrainian Jews and a Jewish cultural museum ‒ Kapulkin says.
One of the regular customers at the Rozmarin restaurant is Vladyslav Vaysman, who works in the industrial machinery trade and often brings his guests from overseas, from as far away as China, India and Korea, to the kosher restaurant.
“Many people don’t know what kosher means and many people are very interested,” he tells The Report.
He likes to suggest they sample the “sandwich plate,” which consists of black bread with pike caviar, forshmak and sandwiches with sprats, a small fish that lives in the Black Sea.
“For me, Odessa cuisine cannot exist without Jewish cuisine,” says Vaysman.
Odessa isn’t the only Ukrainian city that has become intrigued with the culinary aspect of Judaism, however. In recent years, restaurants serving Jewish dishes have opened throughout the country.
The first kosher restaurant in Dnipropetrovsk, Mendy’s, was opened by an Israeli in 2014, and the first Jewish “kosher style” restaurant began welcoming diners in Crimea in 2012.
The Crimean restaurant, located in Yevpatoria and named Yoskin Kot, or Yoska’s Cat, after a famous local feline, caters mostly to tourists who want to try Jewish food, says owner Roman Nenada, who returned to Crimea after living in Israel for two years.
While Yoskin Kot is not really kosher, the cooks do not use pork or seafood, and do not mix dairy and meat dishes, according to Nenada. The restaurant is located on the campus of the local synagogue and opened in honor of the synagogue’s 100th anniversary.
“We don’t even have a rabbi in Yevpatoria, so opening a kosher restaurant is challenging,” he tells The Report. Nenada, who spent a long time collecting recipes from local grandmothers, is planning to open another Jewish restaurant in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, in the near future. The territory was annexed by Russia in March 2014.
There are also kosher and non-kosher Jewish restaurants in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital.
One establishment, called Cimes, or Tzimmes, features a glow-in-the-dark stereotypical face of an Orthodox Jew with a big nose and sidelocks that looks like it was copied from an anti-Semitic pamphlet.
“That’s what Ukrainians associate with Jews,” says the restaurant’s manager Liana Levina. The restaurant has three rooms; one looks like a Jewish street in a small town; another features reproductions of paintings by Marc Chagall, and a third is called “Aunt Sonya’s Apartment,” replicating a Soviet apartment from the 1950s, Levina says.
“We have no seafood or pork, but if the recipe calls for milk or butter, we put that in,” said the restaurant’s manager Natalia Berinskaya. “They say it’s not kosher, but at least it tastes good.”
Perhaps the most controversial of all the Jewish restaurants in Ukraine is At the Golden Rose in Lviv, which made news for allegedly promoting anti-Semitic stereotypes.
The restaurant does not publish its prices, and encourages customers to bargain instead.
It was much criticized in English-language publications for allegedly promoting the stereotype that Jewish people are cheap ‒ but some in the Ukrainian Jewish community say they see nothing anti-Semitic about it.
“They are definitely not anti-Semitic. They just want to offer something exotic,” says Kapulkin. “It’s all about how you look at it.
It’s a joke that the Russians like to drink and the Jews like to bargain. It’s not a big deal.”
There is also nothing wrong with nonkosher restaurants that offer Jewish dishes, Kapulkin says, as long as religious people don’t eat there. “From the point of view of a business model, they have a right to exist.
Not all Italian restaurants are owned by Italians or Japanese restaurants owned by the Japanese,” he says.