Eastern European Jewish cuisine has been looked down upon for years, described as dull, heavy, extremely fatty and heartburn inducing, among other things. Except for challah, the Jewish traditional braided bread popular among the Israeli public at large, the cuisine had long remained confined to the kitchens of Jews of Eastern European origin. In recent years, however, dozens of street food stalls began offering an Eastern European menu every Thursday in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Bnei Brak, leading to a renaissance in the local culinary scene. The stalls have become quite an attraction, drawing crowds in the thousands and including not only the ultra-Orthodox, but secular Israelis from central Israel as well. It is mainly the ultra-Orthodox of Eastern European origin who have held on to the authentic Jewish cuisine of Eastern Europe, mainly for traditional reasons.
The Bnei Brak food stalls have also become a sensation among those in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area culinary scene, with local press and bloggers having raised considerable interest. The bloggers trumpet the best the cuisine has to offer: galareta (calves foot jelly), cholent (a traditional Jewish stew), horseradish, tzimmes (a sweet stew typically made from carrots), kishke (stuffed intestines), chopped liver, farfel (small pellet- or flake-shaped pasta), all kinds of kugel (e.g., noodle casserole, grated potato casserole) and gefilte fish (stuffed fish). There are also stores that specialize in various kinds of herring, salt-cured and pickled in oil or otherwise done.
The Bnei Brak scene gets going on Thursday afternoon and closes down Friday afternoon, just before the Sabbath begins. The dozens of stalls offer a range of ready-made foods, with cholent being the main attraction. A mere 30 some shekels (about $8) gets one a large dish of cholent with meat, while cholent without meat goes for 15 shekels (roughly $4). A pickled cucumber on the side can be had for another shekel (25 cents). Young ultra-Orthodox men in their 20s, and even some older ones, can generally be seen sitting around the fast-food stalls, smoking, chatting and generally having a good time.
Eastern European Jewish cuisine has also made an unexpected splash elsewhere: an elitist scene of Torah classes being held in the homes of politicos and wealthy businessmen in the ultra-Orthodox community. The classes are mostly devoted to the section of the Torah read on Sabbath at synagogue, and at these gatherings a variety of Eastern European dishes are served. This unprecedented practice runs counter to the accepted norm in Torah classes.
Rabbis and educators in Bnei Brak — alerted to the scene by a trade war between two competing stores selling coffee and fast food in the city center — believe the trend has gotten out of control. The conflict has sparked a public debate about the food movement that's turning the city into a bustling culinary hub, with coffee shops opening on every corner. Idling about, such as sitting in cafes, is evidently something the ultra-Orthodox are unaccustomed to doing. Many of them, above all community leaders, consider it inappropriate and downright harmful behavior.
The so-called committee for preserving the character of the city sharply denounced the trend in a notice published Nov. 6 in the ultra-Orthodox newspaper HaModiah under the heading “As I Have Become a Glutton.” The notice, which has been distributed around the city in the form of “pashkevilim,” the ultra-Orthodox's polemical wall posters, reads, “We have been afflicted with a new and dangerous trend that undermines the character of the city of Torah and Hasidism. A murky wave of fast-food stalls threatens to sweep over our city, Bnei Brak.”
According to the committee, “The spiritual damage to the character of our city wrought by this phenomenon is irreversible. Even now, while the trend is still young, adults and youths alike roam our streets — to our shame and disgrace — eating and drinking, something that our ancestors would never have imagined … The city full of beauty, celebrated all over the world for its refined Jewish character and the gracious manner of its residents … might soon become a glutton's city, in line with the corrupt ideas of Western civilization, God forbid.”
Entrepreneur Yisrael Miller told Al-Monitor. “It's true, sales of prepared food on Thursday nights have flourished in recent years.” This month Miller plans to open a fast-food store of his own in the center of Bnei Brak. “While in the past, buying prepared food was considered a luxury, these days there is hardly a family that doesn't buy at least some ready-made foods.”
According to Miller, culinary tourism to Bnei Brak from Tel Aviv and central Israel has significantly boosted the market. “I estimate that at least 30% of the ready-made foods sold here on Thursdays cater to out-of-town visitors. There is a large national religious community in Givat Shmuel [Bnei Brak], and there are also many in Tel Aviv who miss the food that mom used to prepare, and they regularly come to shop here.”
Miller is convinced that the war the rabbis have declared is doomed to fail. “Look here,” he said, “I agree that sometimes it seems as if this trend has gotten out of control, and that it is incompatible with the character of the city, however, it should be borne in mind that it lasts no more than a day and a half a week, and that over this day and a half, many of the businesses here make a living. The way I see it, there is no chance in fighting it, and the rabbis understand and accept it. I believe that they seek to keep it the way it is, that is, limited to one day a week, rather than letting it grow and expand to the rest of the week.”
Shimon Drabkin, a rabbinical college student studying in Bnei Brak, said that he doesn't want to give up going out with friends on Thursday night. “It has become a habit with us. We are all going out together,” he told Al-Monitor. “There is a place where I regularly buy cholent around 11 at night, and then we all go elsewhere to buy nuts and newspapers. You could say that this fulfills my need to see friends and spend time with them, once a week.”
Drabkin is convinced that the rabbis have no desire to fight the trend, because it has become, he believes, the mainstream and is generally accepted in the community. All they are interested in is to get it under control. “People want to go out to eat. They cannot be stopped. However, at the same time, there is an attempt to curb the trend and not let it get out of control,” Drabkin said.
Buying and selling prepared food and going out and having a good time with friends are no doubt signs of emerging bourgeois tendencies within Israeli ultra-Orthodox society. Prepared food is exponentially more expensive than homemade food. In fact, in the past it was considered a luxury that only the well-to-do could afford. Yet, while Bnei Brak has a high rate of poverty, the standard of living in the city is on the rise. According to data released in April 2014, the number of ultra-Orthodox men who work is the largest since the establishment of the State of Israel, and their employment rate currently stands at 73%. When both ultra-Orthodox spouses work, they do not have as much for cooking on Thursday and Friday for the Sabbath, a situation contributing to a surge in the prepared food market.
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