Secular Israelis Search for Authentic Kosher Food in Bnei Brak

The challah line in the Haredi town is one place where the political and religious divisions in Israeli society take a back seat.

The table at Zippori Restaurant in Bnei Brak was spread with gefilte fish, chopped liver, matzah-ball soup and Jerusalem kugel last Wednesday but nobody was around to eat it. The diners, who were supposed to have arrived an hour and a half earlier, were still stuck in traffic.

Walking impatiently around the tables were Haredi author Mali Green (also known as Sarah Fechter), a mother of eleven from Beitar Illit, and her husband Yisrael Fechter, a representative of the Tov party, which represents Haredim in the municipality.

The absent guests were members of the Government Publications Office to whom Green had been invited to give a lecture about the Haredi population. What better a place to do so than in a local restaurant that serves up classic Jewish food? After complaining a bit about the challenges of the holiday and the high cost of the meal (NIS 30,000, they said), the Fechters went off to a side table, put some gefilte fish on their plates and began to eat.

Finally, the guests arrived. The group mostly consisted of managers responsible for several prominent public awareness campaigns, such as the one from the Tax Authority about tax violations and a humorous one from the Health Ministry to focus attention on AIDS. Soon everyone was seated, devouring the first course and waiting for the main dishes: Jerusalem kugel, cholent, kishke and more.

While the purpose of the trip was professional — to get to know the Haredi target audience — it reflected a growing phenomenon in Bnei Brak: More and more people are breaching the ghetto walls to enter the Haredi city and are becoming familiar with its alleyways and yeshivas and, most of all, its food.

The quintessentially Jewish food in Bnei Brak’s restaurants, delis and challah bakeries has never been more popular amongst such unlikely patrons from surrounding cities.

“We don’t know as much as we should about the Arabs and the Haredim," said Gadi Margalit, director-general of the Government Publications Office. "The way to get to know a sector is to get to know how it lives, walk its streets and eat its food."

The Government Publications Office hasn't yet come up with the Haredi version of the safe-sex campaign, but Margalit is convinced that this visit will raise awareness among his staff about people “who aren’t exposed to ads on television, don’t see newspapers and don’t listen to the radio. You have to connect with them."

And the best way to connect is over a plate of cholent?

"One learns to understand the Haredis also through their food," Margalit said. "I listened to the people around the table. Some said, 'Wow, it's been such a long time since I ate gefilte fish or real cholent.' This is like reconnecting to one's roots. We say, 'Far from the eye, far from the heart,' but now suddenly you also see that there are people behind these walls."

Chaim Zippori established his restaurant in 1953. His son, Shmuel, recalls that his father arrived from Poland through Russia, with the British army.

"His parents imported meat from Europe and after all his family was murdered in Poland, he settled in Haifa and opened a small kiosk," Shmuel says. "We later moved to Bnei Brak, and this is where he opened the restaurant."

Zippori also used the business to promote his ideological beliefs and encourage community cohesion. "He used to bring some kugel and herring to the synagogue every morning, so people would remain to hear the morning lesson," his son adds. "On Saturdays and holidays lonely people would join us for the festive meals. They became part of the family. Today, too, we try to donate food for the needy."

Chaim Zippori passed away a decade ago, but his family continued to run the restaurant and even enlarged it by purchasing a hotel in Bnei Brak. But Shmuel chose a different path – for more than 30 years now he's worked for Migdal Insurance's computer department.

"I come to the restaurant twice a week. Not for the money, but to keep father's tradition," he says. "The food changed with the years, but we're trying to preserve the original flavor of the cooking."

Shmuel noticed that, lately, more and more secular people, driving down Jabotinsky Street, on their way from Tel Aviv to Petah Tikva, stop in Bnei Brak to sample Jewish food.

"Many parents whose children became religious stop to buy food for the Sabbath," he says. "And there are also many groups who come to get acquainted with Jewish cooking. I never try to convince anyone to become religious, but it's worth showing them that we don't bite."

Zippori's menu has a lot of basic staples, like salmon, schnitzels and meat balls, but also includes traditional foods such as p'tcha, noodle kugel with potatoes, kreplach soup and a huge cholent casserole, set in the middle of the bar. The restaurant's clients, most of them Haredi, line up while Shmuel Zippori fills their plates with loads of beans, meat and dark potatoes.

The Challah Bakery

A decade ago, a restaurant by the simple name, The Jewish Restaurant, opened opposite Zippori. On Thursday nights, half the tables are used to display the restaurant's dishes for those who eschew cooking for the Sabbath and opt for ready-made meals instead. This is one place where the political divisions in Israeli society take a back seat: Yair Lapid's secular voters stand in line with supporters of Habayit Hayehudi's Naftali Bennett, along with older Haredim, probable voters of United Torah Judaism.

Bnei Brak is strewed with fast food delis – from Zahava's deli, focusing on herring to the Schtissel chain, with several branches offering dishes for the Shabbat. Alongside the better known restaurants one can find in Bnei Brak many smaller venues offering home cooked food: Hillel's cholent on Barternura street, where dozens wait on line for a vacant table; the crowded Muchan U'Mezuman restaurant on Hazon Ish street, a preferred hangout for Yeshiva students on Thursday nights; and many others.

Still, the most attractive spot for secular visitors is undoubtedly Viznich's challah bakery on Shimshon Hagibor alley in the center of the city. The way to the bakery, established more than sixty years ago, isn't the most aesthetic or clean - piles of cardboard and waste lend a strong, unpleasant aura of neglect, for example. But the moment one exits the car, the smell of the newly baked challahs might induce a spell of dizziness. The bakery produces hundreds of trays of fresh challahs starting on Thusday night until one hour before the beginning of the Shabbat. Customers come from all over Tel Aviv and surrounding cities , including secular the religious visitors, and the Haredi locals.

Roee Rabinovich, a secular resident of Petah Tikva, who arrived with his two children, explains: "There's nothing like these challahs. It isn't only their taste; it's also the experience, the smell and the way the challahs are pulled out of the oven. It's amazing. Every week I buy two challahs for myself, one for my neighbor as well as ten rolls."

David, a young Haredi local looks at the hullabaloo surrounding the challahs and smiles: "All the secular people who come here probably voted against the Haredis in the election and don't like them, but still find it hard to give up their food. Maybe if religious and secular people share the same flavors, we could also agree on some other issues as well."

"Muslims in Europe eat kosher food"

Israel is no culinary empire, but when it comes to kosher food, it is the leading exporter in the world. According to the Israel Export Institute, Israel is the world's leading producer of kosher food and wine, accounting for more than 60 percent of kosher food sold throughout the planet.

In 2012, there was a decline of 7 percent in sales, but officials in the institute aren't worried: "Israeli kosher food and wines blend well with current culinary trends and enjoy growing demand in the world market," says Michal Ne'eman, director of the foods department in the institute. "Kosher food answers the consumer taste for ethnic foods, as well as the need for healthy, quality food. The international demand for gluten-free food, such as Passover products, or lactose-free products is one of the reasons that Israeli kosher food sales are on the rise."

Ne'eman adds that "even non-Jewish consumers appreciate the quality of kosher food. Moreover, many Muslims in Europe consume kosher food, since it does not include ingredients banned by Islam."

According to the Israel Export Institute's data, Israeli food exports totaled some 952 million dollars in 2012, a level reached in 2011 following a yearly average growth of 7 percent in the past five years. Kosher foods alone brought in some 495 million dollars, accounting for 55 percent of all food exports.

The leading kosher category in 2012 was ground grains (74 million dollars), followed by processed meat (66 million dollars), margarine and oil products, and fruits and vegetables (33 million dollars each), and milk products and ice cream (27 million dollars). 

More articles that might interest you: What is Kosher and Jewish food?

Eyal Toueg
Eyal Toueg