Watch: Shmil Holland’s lecture on the Jewish kitchen of Jerusalem, which took place at Asif on December 8, 2021, as part of Asif Day — A day of events and activities, exploring the exhibition “A Kitchen of One’s Own: Nechama Rivlin.”
When we come to examine traditions in Jerusalem’s kitchen, we must first clarify two terms: “local kitchen” and “traditional kitchen.” What do we talk about when we talk about a local kitchen? Is it everything the residents of a certain place eat, or ate in the past? Or is it the unique food of a certain place? Does a local kitchen include ingredients that are common to all its diverse local groups, or is it a collection of kitchens that have converged in the same place, maintaining a unique balance of mutual influences?
“Traditional kitchen” is a puzzling term, too, as “tradition” is often perceived as a static cultural component which a certain population group rigorously keeps for generations. This perception, however, is inaccurate: customs may be transmitted over generations, but very few of them remain unchanged in the process. Most customs are subject to changes and transformations, some minor and others dramatic. Culinary traditions are no exception: very few dishes and eating habits, if any, remain fixed. The changes made to some dishes are evolutionary, and to others, revolutionary, that can apply to ingredients, to cooking techniques and to means of production. To conclude: a kitchen is a highly dynamic creature, which stays connected to its roots yet keeps changing according to place and time. So, when we talk about a traditional kitchen, we must ask: traditional in relation to when?
The Jewish Population in Jerusalem in Modern History — Historic Milestones
The turning point, and our point of departure, is the beginning of the 19th century. About 9,000 people lived in Jerusalem at the time, 3,000 of whom were Christians and 4,000 Muslims. The Jewish Yishuv (population before the establishment of Israel) in Jerusalem amounted to less than 2,000 inhabitants, most of them mustarabim (Jews from Arab countries) and a minority were Sephardi; the Ashkenazi population added up to several dozens. The century between 1815 and the outbreak of World War I was a crucial time, profoundly transforming the Jewish Yishuv from a small minority fighting for survival, to the biggest ethnic group in the city and a spearhead of progress.
The event marking the beginning of this era is the aliyah (immigration to Israel) of the disciples of the Vilna Gaon in the early 19th century and the growth of the Ashkenazi Yishuv in Jerusalem. In addition, the fatal earthquake of 1837 in Safed led to the destruction of the Jewish community there, and many of the Hasidic communities moved their headquarters to Jerusalem. At the same time, Jewish immigrants from Western Europe — specifically, Germany and the Netherlands — arrived in the city.
The second decade of the 19th century was also marked by the growth of the Sephardic communities. Small groups, as well as individual immigrants — mostly of Turkish, Syrian, and North African origin and modest social-economic background — settled in Jerusalem. The arrival of merchants and talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars) from Turkey and the Balkan, descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, further strengthened these communities. Many immigrants came from North Africa in the 1840s, especially from Morocco, breathing new life into the local community of Maghreb Jews.
The years 1840-1880 witnessed the triplication of the population of the Jewish Yishuv, alongside a change in balance between the different ethnic groups: a small Ashkenazi majority was forming, growing steadily with time. A pivot also took place in the ethnic balance of the general population. By the early 1880s, a small Jewish majority already lived in Jerusalem, and it kept increasing until it reached two thirds of the city’s population at the end of the century.
The year 1882 marked the beginning of the Yemenite aliyah, which was followed in the 1890s by an aliyah of Persian Jews. A wave of affluent Jewish immigrants from Bukhara (in modern day Uzbekistan) reached the city and tried to keep separate by founding a secluded neighborhood with its own market. At the end of the 19th century, immigrants from Iraqi and Persian Kurdistan (some of whom call themselves Nash Didan) started trickling in. The rate intensified after World War I and following the independence of Iraq in 1932. Another wave followed the foundation of Israel, with most immigrants settling in Jerusalem. A large group of immigrants from Georgia also came to the city after the Russian revolution.
At the same time, by the second half of the 19th century, Jerusalem attracted groups of Christian immigrants from Russia, France, England, Germany and Austria, who didn’t assimilate.
The local Muslim Arab residents turned from a majority to a minority, yet continued to grow in number with the expansion of Jerusalem, whole villages found themselves surrounded by the new settlements, and were joined by fellaheen (Arab farmers and peasants) who immigrated to the city from the neighboring villages.
To conclude, the growth of Jewish Jerusalem dramatically exceeded those of other groups in scope, rhythm, and distribution. Next came immigrants from European superpowers — Russians, French, German, and English — but the neighborhoods they founded were mainly symbolic, for tourism and pilgrimage purposes, apart from the German Moshava with its population of German Templars. The Muslim departure from the walls of the Old City and the development of the new Muslim Jerusalem was the slowest to grow. In addition, the Muslim settlement mostly spread north and east, and later also south, whereas Jewish Jerusalem spread west, so that villages such as Abu Tor, At-Tur, Silwan, Sur Baher and other were surrounded by Arab settlements, while villages such as Sheikh Jarrah and Lifta were surrounded by Jewish settlements.
Culinary Traditions Influencing the Kitchen of Jerusalem
Each ethnic group that arrived in Jerusalem brought along its culinary traditions and its kitchen, and was exposed to new culinary cultures here, some of them similar and intersecting, others different and foreign. In their new home, cooks found an inventory of ingredients that was different, and usually poorer, than in their country of origin.
Some groups proved more dominant than others and influenced the developing kitchen, while the unique kitchens of others remained indoors and secluded, with fewer influence on the local kitchen.
Unlike the Sephardic and Kurdish kitchens, that of the old Ashkenazi Yishuv, and of course the local Palestinian kitchen, great kitchens like those from Persia, Bukhara, Yemen and Georgia ones are not considered part of the kitchen of Jerusalem, and did not produce dishes or culinary institutions identified with the city. Why? What explains the influence of some of these kitchens over others?
Interestingly, all Jewish kitchens identified with Jerusalem belong to communities which reside mainly in Jerusalem and are identified with it almost exclusively, not only in the culinary realm: the Kurds, the people of the Old Yishuv, and Jews whose lineage traces back to Spain before the Inquisition known as “pure Sephardi” or “Samech-Tet.“
The Jerusalem kitchen of the 19th century — Arab and Jewish alike — mostly relied on the agricultural output of the Arab fellaheen. All the city’s residents used the same markets. But by the beginning of the 20th century — with the foundation of the Jewish agricultural settlements and the intensification of the Jewish-Arab conflict — Jewish agricultural and industrial output gradually replaced traditional Palestinian produce. The Machane Yehuda market, originally an unplanned market of fellaheen who came to sell their produce to the residents of the new neighborhoods outside the Old City walls in the late 19th century, became more established and expanded under the British Mandate, becoming the main Jewish market. Its merchants are predominantly Jewish, and it gradually came to rely on Jewish agriculture, while the markets of the Old City served the Muslim population. A long tradition of co-existence made the separation process slower in Jerusalem than in other parts of the country, but here too, the separation of where cooks did their shopping was completed by 1948.
The Metamorphosis of Ingredients in Jerusalem’s Kitchen
Grain, Legumes, and Bread
The most important type of food in 19th century Jerusalem was grains: wheat, sorghum, and barley, which were ground to make flour. There was also freekeh, bulgur and fine bulgur called jareesh. Rice was imported from Egypt and consumed mostly by the rich and white flour was hard to find. Most households prepared their own flour, every night grinding the amount required for the next day by hand, with more affluent families using animal-powered mills (steam mills only appeared in the late 19th century).
The common bread was a local flatbread (pita), while loaves of bread were first introduced to the city in the 1870s by the Berman family, who later opened Berman’s Bakery to meet the demands of Russian pilgrims.
Diverse legumes were common: in season, fava beans and lentils, peas and beans were eaten fresh, cooked in their pods; dried legumes were consumed at other times of the year. The undisputed king of legumes was the chickpea, which was mashed with tahini to make hummus. Hamleh melana, or roasted pods of green chickpeas, were sold as a seasonal snack on Jerusalem’s streets.
The chickpeas also reached the Ashkenazi communities of Jerusalem where it was, and still is, customary to hold a special gathering, called Shalom Zachar, to honor the birth of a baby boy. At this reception, held after the Friday night dinner, chickpeas are customarily served as a symbol of abundance and prosperity, as their Yiddish name, arabes, is similar in alliteration to the Hebrew text of biblical blessing “I will multiply thy seed” (Genesis 22, 17).
Milk and Dairy Products
Sheep and goat milk, supplied by the fellaheen, was consumed almost exclusively. In Jerusalem, customers bought their milk from a shepherd who came to their door daily, milking the animal before their eyes to assure the milk was fresh and undiluted. In general, milk consumption was low, mostly limited to children and the elderly.
In the absence of refrigeration or other means of preservation, most of the milk was processed into dairy products. Goat milk was fermented to make leben, which was further processed into labaneh. The labaneh would be rolled into balls and preserved in olive oil, or for longer preservation, salted and dried in the sun to form stone-hard balls called kishk. Only rich families consumed cream, which was purified and made into butter to prevent it from going bad. Cow’s milk only appeared with the foundation of the German Colony in the 1870s when the Templars built dairy farms and introduced the consumption of soft white cheese to the Jerusalem kitchen.
In the early British Mandate period in the 1920s, cow’s milk was mostly provided by the Templars. It was expensive, double its price in Syria, Egypt, and Europe. A profound shift in the market occurred in 1925, with the foundation of a big, modern dairy farm in Kiryat Anavim (a kibbutz just outside Jerusalem) and additional dairy farms opening in Moshav Atarot and Motza. Together, they founded a collective of dairy farms which operated in the Machane Yehuda market, changing the consumption pattern in both the Jewish and Arab market. Goat and sheep milk disappeared altogether from the Jewish table, became rarer in the urban Arab kitchen, but remained common in rural areas.
Meat consumption in the 19th century was mostly limited to holidays and special events. Most of the meat consumed in Eretz Yisrael, including Jerusalem, was goat, lamb and mutton. Cattle, mostly oxen, were bred for use as draft animals. Jewish agricultural settlements started changing that by introducing cattle breeding for milk and beef to the Jewish population, while the Arab population continued to consume goat and sheep meat. The ethnic rift made lamb and mutton disappear from the Jewish markets of Jerusalem, where they only made a brief appearance before Rosh Hashanah, for the traditional holiday meals of Mizrahi Jews.
The local chicken was a small bird, laying only about 80 eggs a year, making egg prices high — eggs were used frugally. In the absence of refrigeration, eggs were buried in earthenware vases filled with quicklime.
For poultry, people would cook with home-grown chickens and pigeons, or buy them from the fellaheen in the market. Poultry like duck and goose was very rare and expensive, and only began to be used in the early 20th century, when upper middle-class Ashkenazi Jews craved European schmalz (goose fat).
Fruit and Vegetables
The most important vegetable in the Jerusalem kitchen at the time was the onion. Until the late 19th century, cucurbits, which include zucchini and cucumbers, were almost the only seasonal vegetables available and cucumbers were distributed to children as a snack. They were supplemented by an ample use of wild greens and vegetables.
Potatoes only began appearing in the late 19th century, first in the Ashkenazi and European kitchen, then in all of Jerusalem’s kitchens. Tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers also arrived at the end of the century, with Sephardic Jews from the Balkans and Turkey. An interesting anecdote is that Ashkenazi Jews from the Old Yishuv refrained from eating tomatoes, which they called “treifener apfel” (a non-kosher apple), a nickname they brought with them from Lithuania.
The main fruits were grapes, olives, and figs. As the quantity of fresh fruit exceeded local consumption, most of it was used to make raisins, grape syrup, and fig cakes. The Christian and Jewish population also produced a small quantity of wine. In season, fresh vine leaves were stuffed; dried leaves that were soaked in water were used at other times of the year. Pomegranate orchards were also very common. Dates arrived in Jerusalem from Jericho along with citrus, whose production significantly increased in the second half of the 19th century. Deciduous fruits were very rare, a small quantity of apricots and apples — and an even smaller amount of pears and plums was grown in the Judaean Mountains and prices were sky high.
Two types of oils were used in the local Jewish kitchen: olive oil and sesame oil from making tahini. Olive oil was the most common, and sesame oil was considered better and was more expensive. Both were extracted in simple, man or animal-powered oil mills. Among the Jewish population, Sephardic residents relied on olive oil, which they acquired from Arab fellaheen in glass bottles sealed with a piece of newspaper. The savvy used it in food, as well as for medicinal purposes and for the strengthening of body and soul.
A dramatic change occurred under the British Mandate, with the foundation of a modern industrial oil factory that produced distilled oils from various grains, such as soy, sunflower, and corn. The olive oil industry survived only in the Arab community, but there it was also affected by industrialization. The Unilever company, which began to manufacture and market margarine under the Blue Band brand at the end of the 1920s, also turned the tables in all ethnic groups, especially Jews. As a result, purified butter disappeared from the Jewish market, with usage decreasing in the Arab sector as well.
With the city’s division in 1948 separating the Jewish and Arab communities, and the subsidizing of industrial oils, olive oil and the oil from tahini disappeared almost completely from the Jewish kitchen. Only after 1967 did tahini begin to become a staple of the Israeli kitchen.
The Transformations of Some of Jerusalem’s Famous Dishes
In Eastern Europe, kugel was the most common and important Shabbat dish. Like many good things in Judaism, it was a child of necessity: a result of the prohibition on cooking on Shabbat and the wish to serve something hot and doughy. Its history begins in Ashkenazi communities and spread in every direction from there. Originally, kugels were mostly made out of leftover bread and animal fat. They were placed in a special ceramic pot inside a brick oven, where they baked overnight in the residual heat from the baking of challah on Fridays. The pot was sealed with bread dough or a mixture of flour and water, and as the seal itself baked, the pot turned into a pressure cooker, with trapped steam preventing its content from burning during the long hours in the oven.
The dish became more sophisticated and diverse with time, and distinct kinds of kugel appeared on the Shabbat table: noodle kugel, potato kugel, kugel with berries, and others. In Eastern European communities, there was a tradition of matching the number of Torah books read that Saturday with the number of kugels served, so one kugel was prepared for a typical Shabbat, while two kugels were made for Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the Jewish month), and three on Shabbat Hanukkah, which falls on Rosh Chodesh Tevet.
Hasidism viewed kugel as endowed with a certain degree of holiness. Isaac Judah Jehiel Safrin, the Komarno Rebbe, redefined monotheism in his book “Shulchan HaTahor” as “one dish, of one people, to one God!” He added:”If someone does not eat kugel, his Judaism should be looked into…” and, “kugel [was] given to Moses at Sinai.”
The king of kugel was the noodle kugel, made from homemade egg noodles held together with an abundance of eggs. It was sweet, prepared with apples, raisins, and berries when they were in season.
In the beginning of the 19th century, the kugel made aliyah with the Hasidic Immigration and the disciples of the Vilna Gaon. Upon reaching the Hasidic headquarters of the Old Yishuv, it needed to be adapted to the ingredients available in Jerusalem. The delicious egg noodles were replaced by noodles made of cheap, starchy flour mixed with water; some of the hard-to-find eggs were replaced with caramel and oil, to glue the mixture together. The Sephardi and Arab neighbors inspired the addition of spicy black pepper to the sweetness of caramel. Fruit, an important ingredient in the summer kugel of Eastern Europe, was hard to come by in the markets of Eretz Yisrael, and for this reason it’s missing from Jerusalem’s kugel to this very day.
Each family brought its kugel pot to the neighborhood oven and picked it up after the Shabbat morning prayer. With the improvement in economic conditions under the British Mandate, kugels also appeared in synagogues for the Shabbat kiddush (a celebration after services). Until the 1980s, it was common to see baby strollers loaded with hot kugel straight from the oven on Saturday mornings. The kugels were cut with a thin fishing line, an operation that required skill. In the 1980s, frozen pre-baked kugels, which were cut with an electrical saw while frozen, started replacing the traditional kugels; they are baked in the pot, placed on the hot plate and served on Shabbat.
Another food that was served in synagogues during the Shabbat kiddush, and is still served in minyans and batei midrash (prayer gatherings and house of study) in the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Me’a She’arim, is the lekach cake. This dish, too, is originally an Eastern Europe food that made aliyah to Jerusalem in the 19th century. The tall, puffed cake, rich with beaten eggs, testified to the skill of the Eastern European housewife. In Israel, the cake went through a process similar to that of kugel: the quantity of eggs was reduced, and the egg white-rich mixture became a flour-rich dough. The tall cake became a personal cake, distributed sparingly — one per person. When cakes were given to children during the kiddush at the synagogue, they were asked if they already received any — “hast gekriegt” in Yiddish. Eventually, the cake came to be known as “hast gekriegt.”
Home-made pasta, from lokschen to farfallach, was common in the Jewish Eastern European kitchen. And, in every Ashkenazi Jewish kitchen one could find a lokschen bret — a cutting board for noodles and farfallach.
The importance of farfallach in the Ashkenazi kitchen is evident from B. Safrn’s cookbook, “Die Yiddishe Kuch in Alle Lander” (“The Jewish Kitchen in All Countries”) published in Warsaw by Gastranamie in 1930, which includes the line: “Lokshen and farfallach are the criterion for evaluating the cooking skill of the Jewish housewife. A girl prepared herself for this task when still at her mother’s home.”
Whereas lokshen were cooked in abundant water, farfallach were prepared like rice or grains, and served with onions fried in goose fat. There were two methods for preparing farfallach, cutting with a knife or grating. The division was absolute: those who grated did not cut, and vice versa.
When the Jews of the Old Yishuv reached Jerusalem, they brought farfallach with them, but a problem arose. The local home-ground flour was coarse, and eggs were expensive and used sparingly. According to the well-known principle that food is made from what there is (and not what there isn’t), the pasta dough was replaced with barley.
Members of the Jewish Sephardic community, a cornerstone of the Jewish community of Jerusalem, believe themselves to be descendants of the Spanish expulsion who emigrated to Eretz Yisrael. Yet the historical truth is that in the beginning of the 19th century, the community was quite small; its significant growth only began in the 19th century, with the arrival of descendants of Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition who had lived in Turkey and in the Balkans for several centuries. The kitchen they brought with them to Jerusalem was a combination of the Iberian and Ottoman kitchens, a mixture between the culinary traditions Spanish Jews brought to Turkey, and Turkish influences, such as filo dough, that they picked up. Pastries like boyos and borekitas, filled with cheese and spinach, and smeared with melted butter — whose origin is Turkish and whose name is derived from the Turkish borek — became part of the kitchen of Sephardi Jews. They join the Spanish pastelicos, small, crispy pastries, filled with meat and pine nuts, whose name is derived from the Spanish word pastel. All these pastries arrived in Jerusalem from Turkey with Sephardic immigrants, and were adapted to local ingredients, with cooks replacing expensive butter first with oil, and later with margarine during the British Mandate.
Kurdish Kubbeh Soup
In the 19th century, Kurdistan was a rocky and inaccessible land. In spring and in summer it was green and abundant with water, but in winter it became frozen and disconnected. Because of these hard conditions, the local meat supply mostly relied on goat and sheep, and beef was rare. In summer there were plenty of fruit and vegetables, in spring a great variety of herbs, and in autumn bulbs and root vegetables. The abundance of rain made it possible to grow crops without irrigation, but the harsh winter forced residents to preserve some of the summer’s bounty. The harvested wheat was processed into bulgur, cooked in pails and later spread on rooftops for drying, crushed and stored in leather bags. Grains were cooked before storage to avoid long and expensive cooking in winter. To assure a winter’s supply of meat, fat autumn sheep were slaughtered, their meat preserved in their tail’s fat in ceramic vases, which were buried in snow-covered pits. The preserved meat was called kalya.
The meat was pounded with a pebble pestle and used to fill bulgur kibbeh or kubbeh, which were cooked in different sour soups: in winter, a soup of root vegetables such as beets and turnips, as well as dried okra left from autumn; in spring, a soup of herbs with leaf vegetables; and in summer, a soup of seasonal vegetables. The pots were cooked over a coal stove made of four stones.
When the Kurdish immigrants arrived in Jerusalem, the soups and dumplings were adjusted to local ingredients. Under the British Mandate, the goat and sheep meat of the 19th century were replaced with beef from Jewish farms. In the beginning, the immigrants used herbs from the Arab markets and the adjacent uncultivated fields. But with the split from the Arab markets, they replaced them with cultivated herbs. The meat grinder replaced the stone mortar, and the stone and coal stove was replaced by the Primus and kerosene burners, provided by the Jewish Agency. Industrialized ingredients such as bouillon cubes and tomato paste replaced fresh tomatoes and home-made paste, and the selection of soups narrowed down to three or four. The kibbeh soup became identified with Jerusalem’s kitchen, and the German kerosene burner became a symbol of the traditional kitchen.
The Jewish kitchen of Jerusalem is an immigrant kitchen, encompassing a selection of dishes that originated in different countries and were adapted to the ingredients and local tradition of the city at the time. Its most typical dishes, such as kugel Yerushalmi (Jerusalem kugel), Kurdish soup and pastelicos, reached Jerusalem with its better-known ethnic groups: the Kurds, the Pure Sephardis or Samech Tet Jews, and the Ashkenazi Jews of the Old Yishuv. The combination of all of the above with the local Palestinian kitchen led to the creation of a fascinating local kitchen — a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.