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Monday, September 9, 2013

Kugel and parve sweets: Bnei Brak's foodie scene

Shloimeleh's kiosk is a world unto itself. “Shloimeleh − Much More Than a Kiosk,” proclaims the large purple neon lettering on the sign in the front, and Shloimeleh is true to his word. There’s hardly any product or food a person could want late at night that isn’t found on the shelves of this kiosk-deli-street food superpower, all under one roof in Bnei Brak: containers of ice cream with chocolate chips and colorful candies, French crepes, slushes, challah for Shabbat, burekas, snacks, nuts, bags of popcorn, gummy candy, rugelach, Chinese-style stir-fry food, cream cakes, individual-size pareve desserts, not to mention flowers, and paper and household products.

In this Las Vegas of kiosks, bright neon signs advertise the goods in different parts of the large store (“Extra-large carrot − Just NIS 10” says the sign by the juice counter). On Thursday nights dozens of people descend upon the place. (It can get so busy and raucous there that some locals have accused it of bringing “wanton culture” to the neighborhood). Housewives and yeshiva students alike stand in wait near the giant cholent pot. As soon as a pot that has been emptied is replaced with another, everyone leaps forward to fish out with a ladle the meager pieces of meat that enrich the flavor of this traditional Shabbat dish.

In the early evening, the participants in a food tour of Bnei Brak assembled at the designated spot on Rashi Street: opposite the men’s mikveh (ritual bath) located on the ground floor of a housing project, near Hamakom Shel Hillel (Hillel’s Place), a little deli-turned-restaurant that stays open until midnight on Thursdays. The guide for this underground tour, rumors of which spread by word of mouth and on Facebook, is a local person who lives an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle but also likes to frequent Tel Aviv restaurants and bars.

The people in the tour group, gastronomes to whom the streets of Bnei Brak are totally foreign and who worship the god of instant gratification, are bursting with questions. Why are the streets bustling with men, women, children, and babies in strollers so late at night? (“In the Haredi school system,” we are told, “classes end at six or seven in the evening. Only after feeding and bathing the kids do parents have time to go out and do shopping and errands to get ready for Shabbat”). Why is every other store on the street selling disposable dishes? (“Let’s see you wash dishes on Friday night after dozens of family members and friends have dined at your table. Charitable societies that provide inflatable mattresses and bed linen for free are additional evidence of the custom of hosting many people every Shabbat”).

And why is the area permeated by the smell of popcorn? (“The prohibition against working on Shabbat leaves you with a lot of free time. Eating snacks, especially popcorn which is cheap, have become a popular way to pass the time, and that’s why you can find popcorn machines working nonstop in so many shops”).

Hillel’s Place, run by a Vizhnitz Hasid who made aliyah from Brooklyn 30 years ago, looks like it came right out of some lost shtetl. In the back, huge pots of cholent simmer on the stove; on the counter aluminum trays filled with kishke and kugel are piled up in no particular order; and crammed in the refrigerators looming behind Rebbetzin Malka, the cook and cashier, are containers of homemade salads and pickles.

We crowd around one of the three tables and order a plate of hot cholent that costs mere pennies. Most of the food emporiums in the city started out as catering operations or delis offering prepared food for take-out. The first table at Hillel’s was originally set up for those who apparently had nowhere else to go, like some students at the adjacent yeshiva, and so it became customary to eat there. The diners come mostly toward the end of the week, eat quickly and make way for the next customers.

“The attitude toward restaurants has been improving over the years,” says our guide, who lives between both worlds, “but going out to a restaurant is still considered a waste of time and not in keeping with a ‘Torah lifestyle.’ You don’t go to a restaurant on a weekday for no special reason: You go to celebrate an anniversary or a birthday. In Bnei Brak there are very few real kosher lemehadrin [strictly kosher] restaurants, and they are located in neighborhoods far from the center. There isn’t even a single cafe, which is an even bigger ‘devil’ than a restaurant. Unlike Jerusalem, tourists with time to kill don’t come to Bnei Brak.

Food was not the only window through which we were able to get a glimpse of daily Haredi life and culture. We also pass a video library (“a relatively new thing in the local landscape”) where we noted the large selection of thrillers and horror films; we pause next to charity collection boxes and advertising billboards; we have a discussion about laws that come directly from the Torah and responsa literature; and we stand captivated by a bulletin board whose messages are devoted to returning lost tefillin (phylacteries) to their owners.

The Shtisel deli on Harav Shach Street and the Muchan Umezuman deli on Ish Hazon Street are the next stops. Both veteran establishments started out like Hillel’s hole-in-the-wall − as a modest little establishment in which a few tables were crammed in, and over the years grew into larger institutions also known to secular folks with cravings for Eastern European Jewish food. We order chopped liver. (In the Old Country, this was traditionally a truly hearty and mouth-watering food; the chicken livers were coarsely chopped by hand and mixed with hard-boiled eggs and onion cooked in goose fat. In the Bnei Brak delis, it’s usually made from less expensive beef liver and ground in a food processor into a grayish paste.)

In addition we order all kinds of kugel including the peppery Jerusalem version, potato kugel, and apple-and-cinnamon kugel; two kinds of calf’s foot jelly (Hungarian- and Polish-style); and cholent (this one has plenty of potatoes and beans, and more meat than the one we saw earlier). To gaze upon the colors of the dishes brought to the table − dark brown, light brown, reddish brown and gray − is to understand why some people don’t see the appeal of the Israeli version of Eastern European Jewish cuisine.

At these delicatessens that have become makeshift restaurants beer is the only alcoholic beverage for sale.

“Shall we fortify ourselves?” one of the participants asks hopefully, not seeking to get closer to God but rather to a pub, or at least to a bottle of vodka. The plates of cholent, slices of kugel, pickled cucumbers and horseradish are just begging to be washed down with a shot of vodka, but that is hardly anywhere to be found.

“Alcohol is only consumed on special occasions,” explains our guide. “A Kiddush atshul, an engagement party, a wedding or bar mitzvah are considered fitting occasions for drinking, but even then you don’t have more than two or three shots. The exceptions are the Purimtisch [a festive holiday event], when it’s a mitzvah for the participants to drink and get drunk ... and the farbrengen, a big joyful gathering. At the farbrengen, Hasidim all gather together in the synagogue. An older or more senior member gives a Torah lecture or tells about the past, and then it’s customary to drink things like vodka, whiskey or brandy.”

We finish up the night at the Vizhnitz bakery. Nothing makes one feel more alive than gobbling up an entire warm and wonderful freshly baked challah in just a few minutes, before returning to Sin City to drink a last shot for the night.

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