It’s a Friday afternoon before the High Holy Days. The lounge of the Abraham Hostel in Tel Aviv is filled with a few hundred people originally from the former Soviet Union celebrating the release of “The Russian-Jewish Cookbook: Recollections and Recipes of Immigrants from the Former Soviet Union,” (in Hebrew, “Hever Hate’amim”), a new recipe book of Soviet-Jewish foods, published by LunchBox Press.
The acclaimed borscht, purple and thick, is poured like water from glass vases. Zakuski (hors d’oeuvres) of salted fish and stuffed eggs are served on a side table, at the center of which stands a pot of smooth yellowish pelmeni (dumplings). After speeches by the excited authors, dressed in their best, the famous Israeli pop singer and emigrant of the former USSR, Marina Maximilian-Blumin, plays the piano and sings “Vo Pole Bereza Stoyala,” an ancient Russian song about a birch tree.
The audience joins in quietly and minutes later the tempo turns into an upbeat, Soviet dance party lead by DJ Evgeni Chertkov.
The book for which the party was called has 271 colorful pages and is the product of hard work by over a dozen people for four years. It opens a window into the kitchens and modern, rich cultural world of Generation 1.5, Russian speakers who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s with their families. After they adapted to Israel, they set themselves a goal to gain acceptance in local culture as a rich and diverse ethnic group, with cultural baggage that they say is about time was recognized and tasted.
The book includes recipes for kharcho, cepelinai, chebureki, medovukha and babka in unblemished Hebrew. Historical stories of the recipes — from the days of the tsars or when the dumplings were transported along the Silk Road, according to the book’s editor Zohara Ron, are interwoven with personal stories about the authors. Their stories are funny, moving and full of self-awareness, as they describe the experience of immigrating to Israel and assimilating, gathering mushrooms as a family, pickling vegetables, holiday feasts, everyday feasts, and — for Vadim Blumin and Rinat Goldberg — visiting the motherland to retrace their routes.
The food photography of Kira Kletsky and styling by Galia Ornan don’t hide the crumbs on the tablecloth, the use of disposable baking trays, nor the loured hands of chef Yan Gitcelter. The design of the book is delicate and elegant, hinting at Soviet conservatism, and free of matryoshka dolls, balalaikas or symbols of used hammers and sickles.
Vadim Blumin, one of the authors, is a 37-year-old historian who lives in Ramat Gan with his partner Roman and their five-year-old daughter Danielle. He is singer Maximilian-Blumin’s brother. A stylish and idealistic redhead who manages the Mandel Center for Leadership Excellence at the Jewish Agency, he “focuses on the effort of Jews around the world to turn Israel into what it could be,” and introduces himself as someone who “immigrated in the previous millennium to a state that doesn’t exist yet.” The goal of the book, Blumin said, is “to take the Iron Mask off our culture and to share its flavors, memories and fragrances to those who weren’t born into them, to those who only got to smell borscht from the stairwells.”
The stories in the book appear light-hearted but it was very hard for you to write them?
“One of the difficulties in writing was to share something so personal with strangers. That place of food, the kitchen — one of the most fascinating expressions of a culture, is very intimate. And despite that, it has reverberated for people and elicited very strong emotions. Instead of saying ‘I love you,’ my grandmother would say, ‘[The food] is getting cold,’ and when she saw the book she suddenly burst out crying. People have been looking up our email addresses and sending us letters. That’s something I didn’t expect. This book, its smiling overtone, the very clear understanding that we are all Israelis who want to influence society via the kitchen table and food, is in large part an incredible achievement despite all the odds our parents faced. They gave up their past and will never fit in as locals. My parents decided at the time that for the sake of our future, they need to leave that place behind, a place that was starting to disappear.”
“Some of my partner’s and my friends placed orders for the book to their homes in Hungary, Canada and the United States. For them, the book presents two opportunities: to preserve their heritage and their Hebrew. In light of everything that’s going on in Israel today, I wonder what I need to do to ensure my daughter grows up in a good place, to ensure she has a sane future, with a spiritual, cultural and material abundance. I’ve stayed here so far in order to keep up the struggle to turn this place into what it can be,” he says.
Blumin was a part of the founding core of Generation 1.5 leading a movement to turn “Novy God,” the Russian New Year’s celebration, into an Israeli holiday.
“The group is part of something broader that is happening in Israel around voices that in the past were not heard as much,” he says. “Voices of religious feminists, Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern descent], Arab Israelis and Israelis of Ethiopian descent, who are unapologetically working to be part of ‘Israeliness’. During the immigration from the USSR, the voice of a very different type of Judaism was heard — certainly on the challenging matters of religion and state — due to the citizens that came here out of national-cultural reasons and not religious reasons. That is a voice that, despite its political representation, is completely absent from public discourse. Very discreetly, from the kitchen, our book joins the struggle of that group to tell its own story.”
Blumin sees food as one of the most complex and rich expressions of culture.
“It takes into account climate, agriculture, myths, beliefs, religion, economy, gender, sounds and smells. After a quarter of a century, with one and a half million Russian-speaking Israelis, this is the first time that a book like this has come out in Hebrew, and that is a move with far-reaching consequences; it might blur the lines between 10 percent of Israeli society, between us and them, ‘their wine’ and ‘their food’. This is not just an invitation to a feast or a beautiful meal served without anyone knowing how much effort was put into preparing it or in obtaining the raw materials for it. This is an invitation to the kitchen,” Blumin says.
“This is not a Russian recipe book, partly because none of us who created the book are Russian. Actually, we only became ‘Russian’ when we immigrated to Israel. In any case, we are all from the former USSR, and as such we called the book ‘Hever Hate’amim’ [which translates literally to ‘League of Flavors’], because during the Soviet period of our lives, we all ate variations of Napoleon cake, borsht and plov.”
Another of the authors is chef Yan Gitcelter, an immigrant from Azerbaijan. Two others are Kira Kletsky, an immigrant from Belarus who also took the photos of the food, and Rinat Goldberg, aged 34 from Be’er Sheva, a school councillor at Eshel Hanasi who was born in Israel to parents who immigrated from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, in the 1970s. She wrote, alongside Blumin, the light-hearted stories that accompany the recipes.
At first, she found it hard to get into the role, “because I was sure that my memories wouldn’t interest anyone.” Later on, she discovered that more than a few readers identified with her stories, like the fact she was very embarrassed to speak Russian outside her family home.
Gitcelter, 49, from Holon, is a great example of Rinat Goldberg’s claim that had he stayed in Baku, Azerbaijan, he probably would have become a doctor. Twenty-five years ago, he immigrated to Israel with an infant of a few months. Despite having studied medicine for five years, he was forced in Israel to start from scratch and provide for his family. After gaining some experience in the textiles industry, he decided to study cooking at Bishulim culinary school.
He worked in the kitchens of Shalvata, Manta Ray, Bugsy Bistro, White Pergola and at the catering company Food Art. He was a partner in the restaurant Dining Hall and then opened KEG in Bat Yam. Now he has plans to open two restaurants in a boutique hotel in Netanya owned by a Russian woman.
Gitcelter, who presented a cooking show on Channel 9, is a familiar name among the Russian-speaking community. As the oldest of the authors, he says, “I came to write this book with the agenda of preserving recipes and flavors for our children, who prefer reading in Hebrew, and at the same time to open new flavors up to the Israeli audience. Just like I learned what Gondi dumplings are, and hummus and falafel, it’s about time the Israelis learned what vareniki and Olivier salad are. They can start with a serving of pelmeni, which will remind them of the Italian ravioli or Chinese dumplings, some vine leaves stuffed with meat from the Caucasus Mountains, and a dish from the Bukharan kitchen — pilaf of rice and meat with spices that suit the Israeli palette with lots of cumin and dried coriander.”
The book is comprised of recipes from his country of origin, most of them coming either from his own or his friends’ homes. It was difficult to select which recipes to include.
“One could base an entire book on the cooking traditions of each and every one of the countries from the former USSR. I focused on the most popular recipes in Jewish households, and on versions that I am familiar with, that I ate at home, that I ate at friends’ houses. I gave some of the recipes Jewish conversions, reduced the fatty content, and suited the ingredients to the Israeli climate. Yet you’ll barely see olive oil in my recipes because we didn’t have it in Russia. Margarine, however, you will find in the book, but only in one or two recipes, because it was a lot more accessible there than butter,” Gitcelter says.
As part of this selection process, gefilte fish didn’t make the cut, but some of the foods included have earned a dubious reputation among Israelis, including some of the authors.
Rinat Goldberg, for example, tells of Olga, her immigrant friend who, as a child in Ukraine, was forced to quit ballroom dancing classes because she was paired with someone whose breath always smelled of the jarred herring and onion spread that he loved.
Goldberg also describes how her brother threatened to summon a witch to go after her for her refusal to eat holodetz (jellied chicken feet), a recipe also included in the book.
"I myself avoid eating this, but when I see jellied feet on the holiday table, I know I’m at home. It’s a food for hard cores,” she said.
Why did you decide to write a book of kosher recipes?
Goldberg: “We’ve gotten fair amount of criticism over that. I suggest to all those critics to look back at what they ate at home — we all ate kosher food. Maybe they weren’t punctilious about separating milk and meat, but pork was never brought into the Jewish kitchen, even when there was nothing to eat. In conversations with the writing team, we discovered that we have the same memories of grandmothers whispering in Yiddish, sneaking home matzot during Passover and salting the meat to make it kosher. People imagine the ‘Russians’ eating pork and drinking vodka all day long. There are people that didn’t do that — in fact, the majority didn’t.”