5 Stops in Mea She'arim

A neighborhood frozen in time, with cuisine like great-grandma used to make - fresh challah, savory cholent, spicy kugel and sweet blintzes. Jerusalem in a holiday mode.

In one of the alleyways, dozens of children jump on a half-dismantled car whose lights are still working. One of them, his sidecurls blowing in the wind, happily invites us to take a picture "so they'll break your heads." On the corner of another street the children are gaily trilling to their sinning friend: "Oy, oy, oy, you immodest boy," repeating the tune over and over again. "Like a city within a city Mea She'arim is immersed in Jerusalem" wrote S.Y. Agnon, and that is true today more than ever.

For nonbelievers, it is hard not to feel like colonialist tourists on the streets of Mea She'arim. It is also hard to believe the cultural conservatism; for example, sticking to the heavy food of "Jewish" cuisine, which was copied from Eastern-European Polish cuisine, with kashrut laws attached.

It is also hard to understand how people can live in such crowded conditions. At first, the neighborhood houses were built close together in order to protect its residents from robbers and bandits who came from outside the walls. Already in the late 19th century, its residents complained of a lack of air and light, and about the filth in the courtyards. Today the cramped conditions are only increasing. The houses are so close together that the smell of cooking, baking and frying wafts from the porches even today: Sometimes there is a pleasant smell of meat frying in fat and onions, but even if only one woman burns the food, the scorched smell spreads throughout the neighborhood.

Mea She'arim Street is a picture frozen in time, a street from a Jewish shtetl in Poland. On the other hand, on Malkhei Yisrael Street, there are falafel, pizza and juice stands and delicatessens that sell herring and pickled vegetables. A large crowd rushes along, jostling passersby with the many baby carriages. It's worthwhile to wander on both streets, to explore the small alleys and streets of the Geula and Beit Yisrael neighborhoods on foot, preferably on Thursday evening, when the challah bakeries are working all night.

A young student from one of the nearby yeshivas goes down the stairs leading to the eatery and its exposed subterranean hall, reminiscent of a medieval inn. On its thick stone walls hangs a still life, done in oils. He asks how much a portion of cholent (a thick stew containing various types of beans, potatoes, barley and meat) costs if one eats in the restaurant (the answer: NIS 14) and how much for take-away (NIS 12). He deliberates for a long time; for many of the neighborhood residents, two shekels is not a negligible sum. In the end he decides that he can afford the meal and stays. He receives a plate piled high with cholent and eats it hungrily with a sweet roll.

On the table in front of us are five plates: sweetish chopped liver with fried onions, savory brown cholent with a small amount of meat that has cooked for hours on the fire; stuffed kishke, and gefilte fish. Everything is delicious, there's no question about it, especially the greasy kishke, but none of these brownish- grayish dishes would be included on a list of appetizers. The first appearance is definitely liable to depress an eye that is looking for something colorful.

Rabbi Aharon Deitsch once had a shop that sold religious items. Twenty-six years ago, when the business was not doing well, he opened the Deitsch Restaurant. At the time, it was the only restaurant in the poor neighborhood, where there was no tradition of eating outside the home. Today his sons also stand behind the pots and the counter, and the three redheads cook and serve the same food their great-grandmother used to prepare in Poland. Occasionally, passersby from the nearby shtibels, or makeshift synagogues, eat here, and there are even guests from abroad: rabbis who come with a flock of Hasidim. Some come to take food to a shiva in a house of mourning, or to a festive event. Patrons are both religious and secular.

Deitsch, 32 Mea She'arim Street, 02-5829529

Almost every nation has its own famous foods of poverty. Ashkenazim, European Jews who experienced suffering and pogroms, have their dense gray fish balls, accompanied by a quivering gel and a small slice of carrot on top. The kitchens of the Hadar Geula delicatessen are now full of staring fish heads, with preparations for the major Rosh Hashanah gefilte fish operation in full swing. Thousands of fish are sacrificed on the principle of "May we be a head and not a tail." Anyone who until now made do with only the fish head; the pomegranate, which is symbolically full of mitzvot (religious commandments), as numerous as its seeds; or an apple in honey, owes himself the full set of symbols for the holiday, which are sold in the delicatessen together with a sheet with instructions and explanations. In addition to the more familiar foods over which we say a blessing at the Rosh Hashanah table, the set includes leek patties ("so that our enemies will be cut off"); fried beet leaves "so that the evil ones will disappear," and other foods whose Hebrew names hint at blessings or curses.

Anyone who is familiar with this delicatessen, the oldest and most famous in Mea She'arim, will be surprised to hear that only two weeks ago did it receive the strictest and most prevalent Badatz hekhsher, the kosher seal of approval, of the Eda Haredit.

Sixteen years ago, when the Roth family opened the delicatessen, there was no such concept of kashrut. They all relied on one another to fulfill the laws and commandments. Since then, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge of mutual trust, and the bureaucracy of the rabbinate has become more sophisticated as well, so even this delicatessen was forced to surrender to the dictate. This was accompanied by a rumor mill on the street, which reached even the few ultra-Orthodox forums on the Web; it once again reported the story of the quarrel between the descendants of Rabbi Yossel Eichler the Righteous with the hekhsher of the Eda Haredit. The new hekhsher was also accompanied by a massive renovation. The building remained in place: a long room bustling with people, where family members serve those who come to buy in the delicatessen, plus a small room with four or five tables.

There are tasty sweet cheese blintzes, kugel of grated potatoes; huge chunks of noodle kugel - either savory kugel, sweet kugel with raisins, or a winning combination: sweet-and-spicy kugel with black pepper and sugar, which is eaten with a pickled cucumber. There are also huge pots of chickpeas and dozens of types of salads.

13 Malkhei Yisrael Street, 02-5382832

Not far from there is a bakery that has existed for 120 years. It was founded in 1887, and today the third generation of bakers from the Lendner family works there. Challah and feigelach - small sesame rolls - are prepared here by hand with unparalleled skill and beauty, and baked in an old stone oven fixed in the wall; its sooty iron doors still bear the name of Moshe Rogovsky, the metalsmith who built it. Two hours before baking is to begin, they light the oven with a huge flame that emerges from the burner, until the sides of the oven heat up. Baking does not begin without the presence of Rabbi Zisha Gerlitz , the oldest of the bakers.

It is said that Rabbi Zisha is 95 years old, but he himself refuses to reveal his age for fear of the evil eye. His shoulders already slope somewhat, but his hands continue to quickly braid the dough into sweet rolls and challah. To the observer, it seems as though work is the very purpose of his life.

The yeshiva students who are looking at this amazing sight whisper that his challahs are famous far and wide: The huge, carefully braided challahs that are made for special events and the round bridal challahs are flown to glamorous weddings in ultra-Orthodox communities in New York or other destinations abroad.

Into a huge bowl, the bakers put salt, sugar, oil, water, flour and yeast, and turn on the kneading machine, which makes a huge "octopus" of dough. Afterward they recite "In the name of God we will do and we will succeed," set aside and burn a small piece of dough to fulfill the mitzva of "separating challah" and cut the arms of the octopus with a sharp knife. The chunks of dough are carefully weighed on a scale, rolled out and cut with old-fashioned, monstrous-looking, manually-operated machines, and then braided and sprinkled with sesame seeds.

When these challahs, whose flavor and sweetness are unparalleled, emerge hot and fresh from the oven, dozens of trays are arranged in tiers, and each customer can examine them and choose his own challah. Because the oven is not electric and does not provide uniform heat, some of the challahs emerge with a brown, shiny crust, while others look less well-baked. All night long, neighborhood residents stream in to choose a challah for Shabbat. On Rosh Hashanah they bake round challahs, a sign of a long life.

Lendner Bakery, 10 Leib Dayan Street, 02-6787725

This bakery, located in the Bukharan neighborhood, should also be visited in the middle of the night if you want to enjoy fresh challah. It's also worth checking out the hot, flat Bukharan bread, a tasty nomads' bread, and the "dry bread," very thin, crisp strips of dough decorated with nigella and sesame seeds, a pleasure to munch with a glass of tea.

Nehama Bakery, 3 Sonnenfeld Street, 02-5323042

The Americans may have appropriated the bagel, but these pretzels cooked in water before baking originated in Eastern Europe, and the Avihayil family has been baking them for years. On the site where the family bakery is located, the neighborhood oven once stood; it was a local institutions, alongside the synagogue, the mikveh and the water cistern. In 1932 the bakery was established, and family members began to bake kaisereich rolls, sweet rolls carefully hand-shaped to look like flowers. When these sweet rolls are being baked, their scent travels quite a distance; they are still the most famous product of this bakery, even if they are no longer prepared by the same exhausting method. And there are also the good bagels, challahs and a large selection of baked goods that attract many Jerusalemites all night long.

At one time, secular "tisches" (festive "tables") with music and food were held on Thursday nights. The ultra-Orthodox residents raised a hue and cry and these spontaneous events ceased, but there is still a unique nighttime atmosphere here.

Avihayil Bakery, 8 Pri Hadash