Israelis Who Keep Polish Cuisine in Their Heart

Whether Jewish immigrants from Poland, Israeli Arabs or Polish-born Christians, pierogi-loving gourmands revel in the delights of 'Polish-Polish' cooking.

Rami Chelouche

If you thought Polish food was nothing but gefilte fish, cholent and kishke, you evidently haven’t met Batya Rowszkiewicz from the Haifa area.

In Poland, the homeland with which she has never severed ties, she was called Barbara. But if you call her that with the accent on the first syllable, as in English, she won’t answer. Being a proud Pole, she insists on the proper pronunciation, Bar-BA-ra.

Confused? So is she.

“Here in Israel, people confuse Polish-Polish food with Jewish-Polish food,” she complained Saturday night at a gathering at the Strudel café in Haifa’s German Colony neighborhood. “In a real Polish restaurant, there’s no gefilte fish.”

Rowszkiewicz, who only learned she was Jewish when she was 14, immigrated to Israel in 1957 without any chance to say goodbye to the Polish cuisine she loved so much. “They told me, ‘That’s it, we’re Jews, and we’re immigrating to Israel,’” she said. “But something remained in my heart.”

Her husband Marek has remained Marek; no new Hebrew name for him. “I wouldn’t let them screw it up,” he explained. To this day he hasn’t gotten used to Mediterranean cooking.

“When I go into a store for Russian food and see something ‘Made in Poland’ I buy it immediately,” Barbara said proudly.

So what is real Polish food? On Monday evening, members of the Piast club met at Haifa’s Colony Hotel to answer that question. After all, it’s Polish Culinary Week, organized by the Polish Institute for the second straight year. (The content director and culinary adviser for Polish Culinary Week is Ronit Vered, who writes a food column for Haaretz Magazine.)

The lovers of Poland sat down to a traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner – only 12 courses.

The club, which at its peak numbered 70 families and today ranges from 30 to 40 (depending on whom you ask), was founded in Haifa in 1990, shortly after Poland was liberated from Communism. Its nucleus consisted of Polish women who had married Arab Israelis studying in Warsaw in the 1970s and moved with them to Israel.

Delights at a meeting of the Piast Polish food club, December 1, 2014. Photo by Rami Chelouche

The club – named Piast after Poland’s first ruling dynasty – was eventually joined by other members. Today it contains Jews and Christians, Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Poles. They have in common an uncompromising love for Polish culture, food, language — basically anything to do with Poland.

It’s hard to stem their flood of words after throwing out a question like “What is Polish food?” The list is long and complicated, even without the diacritical marks, which aren’t included here. The roster includes golabki (go-WUMP-ki — cabbage rolls stuffed with mushrooms and rice), pierogi, uszka (OOSH-ka — soup dumplings), kutia (KOOT-ya — a dessert made of poppy seeds, honey, dried fruit and sometimes wheat), barszcz (barshch — borscht) and sledz (shledzh — herring).

“The image that people in Israel, and worldwide, have of Polish food doesn’t arouse great appetite for it; it’s different from the way you portray it,” I suggested to the assembled Poles.

Barbara riposted by comparing Israelis’ reservations about Polish food to modern Polish anti-Semitism.

“Polish food has a stigma in Israel because Israelis don’t know what it is,” she said. “The same thing happens with anti-Semitism in Poland. Young people in Poland can say they don’t like Jews even if they’ve never met a Jew.”

A fish dish at a meeting of the Piast Polish food club, December 1, 2014. Photo by Rami Chelouche

Her friend Ewa Tanus added some fuel to the Polish bonfire. “There was a time when there was Polish food here, but it has passed,” Tanus said. “What’s there today – McDonald’s?”

“Polish food – that’s what I miss most,” chimed in Yoram (Jurek) Lankiewicz, an electrical engineer who was thrown out of the University of Lodz by the Communists. “There’s certainly no such thing here in Israel,” the place where he still speaks Polish with his wife 45 years after immigrating.

When they first came, it was easier to be Polish in the Holy Land. “There was even a Polish school here,” Tanus said.

“We held ceremonies on Independence Day” – the Polish one on November 11 of course – “and celebrated Polish holidays; we sewed Polish national costumes. The children would dance, sing and put on plays in Polish .... But today they’ve already finished university.”

Stanislaw Bajorek agreed. “We miss Polish culture here,” he said. “We don’t have a newspaper in Polish. The Polish library that used to exist in Haifa has closed. That’s why I go to the flea market every Shabbat — to look for old books from Poland.”