The decline of gefilte fish

Searching for authentic East European Jewish food in the swanky restaurants of Tel Aviv can be tough going

Gefilte Fish521 (photo credit: Ouria Tadmor)
Gefilte Fish521
(photo credit: Ouria Tadmor)
Feel like eating pasta in Rome, schnitzel in Vienna, sushi in Tokyo? No problem, just walk a block in those cities.
Gefilte fish in Tel Aviv? In the brash, modern White City you will have better luck finding paté than chopped liver, a crêpe than a blintz, a California roll than a cabbage roll. And as for gefilte fish? You will have to search hard.
Why is it that 65 years after the founding of the Jewish state, Ashkenazi food is such a shlemazel? It can be found in ultra-religious enclaves such as Bnei Brak and certain neighborhoods in Jerusalem, transplants of the Eastern European shtetl where one can even hear Yiddish spoken. But in secular Israel, restaurants that serve Ashkenazi cuisine are scarce and there doesn’t seem to be a way to give this food, born in poverty, a sexy makeover.
“Today there are no cooks, there are only chefs,” says Vita Rosenshtock, who presided with her husband, Itzik, for many years over Café Olga, a Tel Aviv Ashkenazi institution. “A chef cannot express his creativity with gefilte fish. There is no room for improvisation. It needs to be done right, the way our grandmothers made it.”
Long ago, there were many places in Tel Aviv where grandmothers cooked steaming bowls of golden chicken soup with matzo balls. There was herring in onion, kreplach filled with potatoes or meat, borscht served either hot or cold with a dollop of sour cream. You could order Hungarian goulash thick with meat and potatoes, or a plate of sliced tongue with brown gravy. For as the Yiddish saying goes, the best milchig (dairy) dish is meat.
Hardcore fans could order quivering squares of calf’s foot jelly with inclusions of hard-boiled egg, garlic and pepper, like prehistoric bits suspended in amber. (There is general consensus that this dish is an acquired taste.) In the evenings, customers might polish off a meal with a shot because, as the Yiddish saying goes, a man comes from dust and in the dust he will end – and in the meantime it is good to drink vodka.
In the 1940s and 50s, Polish immigrants opened simple mom and pop restaurants in Tel Aviv with homemade eastern European cuisine. An entire generation of grandmothers, transmitters of culinary culture, had been wiped out. The few who had survived the Holocaust made their way to Israel. So did the cuisine, itself a survivor.
In the menus, you could read a subtext of the history of Jewish people; the Sabbath sweetness of tzimmes, carrots simmered with prunes and raisins, the bitter bite of beet-red horseradish, a colorful contrast to gefilte fish gray.
The restaurants were packed with immigrants who found the taste of a lost childhood in a sweet noodle kugel, a fleeting memory of a winter-lit kitchen in a plate of cholent. Artists, whose paintings now hang in museums, bartered their art works for a bowl of borscht, for, as the Yiddish saying goes, a person can forget everything but to eat. Woody Allen once complained, “The food in that restaurant is terrible – and such small portions.” Not in these places. Portions were unstinting and the food authentic without any effort to make it fancy or disguise its unpretentious shtetl roots.
“These restaurants are more than just a place to eat, they are a haimish place to meet,” says Shmil Holland, a chef and author of a recently published Ashkenazi cookbook, “Schmaltz,” named for the rendered chicken of goose fat used in Eastern Europe for frying.
When Café Olga closed its doors in April 2010, after 51 years on Jabotinsky Street, 600 clients came to bid the place farewell.
“I felt like I was betraying them,” says Itzik Rosenshtock, the second-generation proprietor. “In this type of restaurant it’s very personal. The clients become like family.”
Café Olga was founded by Holocaust survivors Aaron and Olga Rosenshtock and, when they passed away, their son, Itzik, who had worked there since childhood, kept the place running until at age 57 he got tired. Among those who showed up was the mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, who ran his first election campaign from Café Olga, which he called his second home in Tel Aviv.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert wrote in the guestbook, “It’s true that you weren’t the best restaurant in town, but surely I can testify that you were the warmest and most indulgent in the city, not just a place that you just come to eat, but a part of life where there is warmth and humanity.”
In many cases the owners of these restaurants grew old and their children didn’t want to be purveyors of pirogi, vendors of varnishkes. In some cases, the children wanted to take over but were discouraged by the parents.
“My daughter wanted to take it over and I said I would burn the place down before I would let her,” says Rosenshtock. “I closed the place quickly so she wouldn’t have the option to do it. I spent my life there and I didn’t want her to be a slave.” Ashkenazi food is very labor intensive and when done right there are no shortcuts, he explains.
Orna Raskin, who is the third generation proprietor of Keton, founded in 1945, has the same response. “Like grandma said to my mother, and my mother said to me, don’t do it. I hope my children will study and do something else.”
Some of the veteran places have closed and none of the myriad of new restaurants that have opened in Tel Aviv in the past few decades list gefilte fish on the menu.
“The thing t hat m ost i nfluenced t he decline of this food was the Zionist movement, which viewed the Eastern European Yiddish culture, including the food, as something broken and belonging to the Diaspora,” says Holland, who wrote his “Schmaltz” cookbook so that the recipes would not be forgotten. “The cuisine of Jews that came from the Arab countries and North Africa was seen as authentic, which is one of the reasons it is far more popular today in Israel. When the Ashkenazi immigrants came, they didn’t have the ceramic pots, which they had used in Europe and some of the ingredients were not available. The cuisine changed for the worse.”
Yonatan Roshfeld, one of Israel’s top celebrity chefs, has some thoughts as to why Ashkenazi food has fared so poorly in the Jewish homeland. “This kind of traditional food is eaten at home and it will take time until it goes out of the home to be consumed outside. And since Jews have so many holidays, people get their fill until the next holiday.”
Not to mention, Roshfeld adds, that the food just didn’t suit the vibe or the climate.
“The Jewish European cuisine is high in calories and updating it will just ruin it,’ says Roshfeld, whose own roots go back to Poland. “It’s also a matter of geography.
This is food that was born in the snow in minus 20 degrees and came to the climate of the Middle East which has not been kind to it.”
It appeals mostly to older people, he says.
“For young people, Jewish food doesn’t have the vibe of a night out.”
It is lunchtime, and Ofer Yehuda and Shahar Boblil, two hip Tel Aviv urbanites in their early 30s, have just polished off plates of chopped liver. Now they are hunkered over bowls of chicken soup at Batya, a Tel Aviv institution since 1941 with a reputation for the best cholent in town, the kind that poet Heinrich Heine described in his 1851 poem as “pure ambrosia” and “nectar of the gods.”
The two also ordered meatballs and Yehuda is going hardcore with a side dish of kasha (buckwheat.) For a while, it looked like Batya, too, was going to be another casualty, when it closed the doors of its strategically located restaurant on the corner of Dizengoff and Arlozorov streets. When the two heard that Batya had reopened in a new location, they hurried to check it out.
The new place, at 95 Hashmonaim Street, is slick and modern, with none of the strata of neglect that had accumulated in the former location. The only hint of its venerable past is the specially designed nostalgic wallpaper, a sepiacolored collage of old photographs, a handwritten cake recipe, a replica of the old menu, an old postcard written in Russian, and photos of Batya herself when she was young.
“My family is third generation in Tel Aviv and we used to get food for the holidays from Batya,” says Yehuda, who works in real estate. “We grew up on this.”
Boblil, a reflexologist, says he ate this type of food at his Polish grandmother’s home and gets a craving every once in a while. “We get this kind of food at least once a month,” he says. “It’s even kind of cool.”
Miri Hahamov, 57, is the daughter of Batya Yom Tov, the founder of the eponymous restaurant. Hahamov’s two daughters, the third generation, work as waitresses, which portents a future for the family enterprise.
“With Jewish food, there were always ups and downs, but it was always on the map,” says Hahamov. “Restaurants open and close, but we have been here in Tel Aviv for 72 years and that’s the proof. In the past few years, there has been a return to Jewish food. For many people, it reminds them of home. Many young people long for this kind of food. The generation of the grandmothers is dying off, the recipes are being forgotten.”
Batya has always had a rival on Dizengoff Street, just a few blocks to the south – Keton, established in 1945. The place exudes nostalgia and history. Names of people who once occupied them are engraved on brass plates and attached to chairs; Arthur Rubinstein, Chaim Topol, actors in Habimah National Theater, poets and artists,. It was Alexander Penn, the poet, who suggested that the restaurant be called Keton, which in Hebrew means a small room.
Orna Raskin, 48, is the granddaughter of Keton’s original Polish founders. She worked as an intensive care nurse, but when her grandfather died and her grandmother was 80, she stepped in to help and has remained ever since, without changing the menu or adding even as much as a pinch of pepper to the original recipes.
She tried to make some changes, but it didn’t work.
“In Jewish food apparently, there is no room for upgrades,” she says, sitting at an outside table during a recent post-Passover lunch.
The restaurant is empty. People have had their fill of gefilte fish during the holiday.
“I tried to make some changes in the menu, but there is no chance. My customers want the original food stamped and notarized as authentic.”
The clientele consists of regulars who come on certain days and always order the same dish, tourists who walk by, families that come on Saturdays, and young people who in winter come for a bowl of “Jewish penicillin” with noodles when they have a cold or flu.
Menashe Kadishman, 80, one of Israel’s foremost artists, still drops by on a regular basis.
“We are all homeless in our soul and a place like Keton reminds us of the home that was lost,” he says. “You can compare this kind of food to a long marriage. After so many years, you may have a fling and stray, but eventually you realize that it’s actually best at home.”