Herring. Photography: shutterstock
Herring. Photography: shutterstock
Magazine

Israeli Salad in a Fur Coat

Herring, one of the popular foods from the former Soviet Union, failed to enter the Israeli mainstream. An allegory of the entire Russian aliyah

The following article was written in partnership with The Belarusian-Jewish Cultural Heritage Center.

My name is Hemdat and I am named after my grandfather, Daniel Yanovsky, who “was a cute (chamudot in Hebrew) man”[1]. In 1936, my 17-year-old grandfather immigrated to Israel (which was then under British rule) with his nuclear family from the city of Grodna (Гродна) in western Belarus (now modern day Poland). Despite this, I am Israeli and not “Russian” because our family story recognizes my grandfather as one of the leaders of the “Etzel” underground army, a hero of Israel and a freedom fighter, while relegating his immigrant status to the realm of the forgotten margins.

My grandfather’s story is ultimately the story of the Russian-speaking aliyah in the beginning of the last century, but also the story of my generation, the third generation after aliyah. A story about a forgotten culture, the food we dreamed of and the longing for a shtetl we never knew.

In the 1980s, with Israel’s integration into the global economy, and under the influence of neoliberal economic concepts, Israeli culture began to change and with that change came shifts in the field of gastronomy in daily cooking and eating practices. In fact, as a girl growing up in Jerusalem during these years, the food we ate on a daily basis was “generally Israeli” food, dishes that my mother learned to cook from the popular cookbooks at the time and from cooking classes offered at the WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) or Na’amat association, which were popular during these years. My mother saved the traditional ethnic Ashkenazi food for holidays and festivals. On weekdays, we ate simple food: leftovers from Shabbat, chicken or turkey meatballs with Israeli couscous, rice and potato dishes- the food was at home, waiting for us to return from school, to eat while my mother was at work. On Saturdays the food was more festive and rich, with aromas of recipes from around the world as found in Ruth Sirkis’s[2] cookbooks. This is how we got to know Chinese chicken with pineapple, Italian lasagna with cottage cheese and parsley, and chicken with apricot jam and onion soup powder. We encountered herring, which is closely associated with Russia and Eastern Europe, at the Kiddush on Saturday morning at the synagogue – where bites of cracker were loaded with slices of herring and lots of onions. Once we were older, a small glass of whiskey was served alongside, to complete this Shabbat treat.

Ruth Sirkis, “Cooking With Love”
Herring’s place was taken by Chinese chicken with pineapple and lasagna with ‘cottage’ from “Cooking With Love” by Ruth Sirkis

To understand herring’s position, as a case study for Russian food, I will divide the culinary development of the State of Israel into two main periods during which popular cuisine was largely influenced by Ashkenazis: the first, from the beginning of the state until the mid-1980s, when the states hegemony was dominantly Israeli-Ashkenazi; and the second, from the nineties of the twentieth century to the present day, a period that was affected by the great wave of immigration of Russian speakers after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Denying Roots, Herring in the Synagogue

With the establishment of the State of Israel, new immigrants began to flood the country: immigrants from European countries after the Holocaust arriving alongside immigrants from Arab countries, North Africa and the Balkans. The country’s leadership at the time was mostly made up of individuals from the first wave- immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe who immigrated for national, ideological-socialist motives. They saw great importance in educating the public on Jewish and Israeli national concepts, while blurring (and even erasing) various parts of the culture of their countries of origin, including areas in the realm of ​​food and the local culinary culture. Thus, the cookbooks of the 1950s and 1960s were mainly written by WIZO and were a tool for shaping a society in its infancy – a young, heterogeneous society without a shared tradition. The writers of these cookbooks denounced diasporic concepts of Eastern European Jewish identity and, in a certain way, turned the Ashkenazi culture into a “Western” or “European” culture as they imagined it.

Construction workers from Yugoslavia, Israel, 1950s Photo: Leni Sonnenfeld (Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot, Sonnenfeld Collection)
Diaspora culture was abandoned in the effort to build a heterogeneous Israeli society Construction workers from Yugoslavia, Israel, 1950s Photo: Leni Sonnenfeld (Oster Center for Visual Documentation, Beit Hatfutsot, Sonnenfeld Collection)

Herring, an Eastern European Jewish dish, was seen as a diasporic, dirty and unaesthetic food and was therefore cast out of these cookbooks and thus removed from the canon of Israeli recipes being built at the time. Herring’s exclusion was also for practical reasons: herring was not a local agricultural product to Israel. It was shipped to the shores of Europe and North America, so it was difficult to obtain, certainly fish of good quality. Despite this, and although it is customary to eat fish on Shabbat in Israeli communities- as it is said “he who eats fish on the fish day (Shabbat) is saved from judgment”- herring was pushed away from the local secular culinary mainstream. It remained popular only on the margins: in synagogues and ultra-Orthodox communities such as Bnei Brak and Mea Shearim as a Jewish tradition and a memorial to communities long gone.

Tasting Tour at the Hollander Distillery. Photo: Efrat Raanan
A true Shabbat pleasure Tasting Tour at the Hollander Distillery. Photo: Efrat Raanan

Despite the attempts of the fledgling Israeli cuisine to deny its Ashkenazi origins, herring managed to penetrate one of the strongholds of Israeli cuisine, accompanied by a slew of imported salted and pickled fish – the hotel breakfast. Those rich buffets, referred to by enthusiastic tourists as “Israeli Breakfast”, grew out of the cultural world of the kibbutzim, most of which were established by members of the Ashkenazi community. In the kibbutzim it was customary to serve a second breakfast – a very rich one – after completing the morning’s work in the fields. For kosher reasons, it was necessary to replace the meat and sausages served at breakfast in countries around the world, and that place was taken by pickled fish, which was a familiar dish for kibbutz members of Eastern European background.

Members of the Youth Movement in the dining room of the educational institution, Hadera, Israel, 1946. Photo: Herbert Sonnenfeld (Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot, Sonnenfeld Collection)
Herring entered Israeli cuisine through the back door: the dining room of the kibbutz Members of the Youth Movement in the dining room of the educational institution, Hadera, Israel, 1946. Photo: Herbert Sonnenfeld (Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot, Sonnenfeld Collection)

Culinary Preservation

At the beginning of the nineties, there was another wave of mass immigration from Eastern European countries. This wave, in which about one million men and women arrived in Israel, constituted about twelve percent of the entire Israeli population at the time. The State of Israel had difficulty coping with the incredible number of new citizens leading to a housing crisis in which immigrants were directed to live in the periphery, creating “ghettos” of Russian-speaking immigrants thus making it difficult for them to assimilate into the larger Israeli society. The existing residents of the State of Israel heard a common language in the mouths of the immigrants and recognized it as Russian and so identified all the immigrants as Russian. Because of the perception that Russia, the dominant republic, meant the Soviet Union, Israelis were then unable to differentiate between immigrants from Russia, Ukraine or other countries that were members of the Soviet bloc before its disintegration. Only after the outbreak of the Ukraine-Russia war in February 2022, did this mistaken perception begin to change and immigrants, both new and old, received a more specific moniker according to their country of origin in Eastern Europe.

Unlike the immigrants in the beginning of the twentieth century, this wave was of a different kind – most seeking to immigrate from the Soviet Union came, not for patriotic reasons, but out of a sense of distress, fear and a need to escape from the chaotic reality caused by the collapse of the Soviet bloc. These immigrants sought to hold on to the culture of their homeland in general and the food culture in particular, out of a sense of longing for the Mother Russia they fled. Some members of the first generation opened ethnic restaurants, but these were not intended for the local audience (those who only encountered herring in the synagogue or not at all). They did not seek to make the food they brought with them accessible to the Israeli audience, but created a kind of closed culinary preservation, open only to immigrants like themselves who wanted to eat the food they cherished and missed. On the other hand, earlier immigrants and local Israelis did not open their hearts or minds to the treasures prepared in these culinary havens they saw them as part of a strange, foreign culture.

Pavel Tzmentig a singer from Moscow, after four months in Israel, performs at the Russian restaurant “Samovar” – Netanya, October 1990. Photo: Doron Bacher. (Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfusot)
No Locals Allowed Pavel Tzmentig a singer from Moscow, after four months in Israel, performs at the Russian restaurant “Samovar” – Netanya, October 1990. Photo: Doron Bacher. (Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfusot)

Some of the dishes brought from the Soviet Union to Israel in the 1990s had a Jewish connection – although the immigrants who prepared and ate these dishes did not necessarily know about it. The communist regime, which sought to eliminate any type of religious or national identity that was not Soviet, created generations of Jews who carried no memory of Jewish religious tradition with them. And so certain dishes, for example forshmak– chopped herring salad- received higher status among the Jews in the Soviet Union than among their non-Jewish peers, even if few remembered the reason.

Picture of Vorschmack
He’s ours, he just doesn’t know it Vorschmack-Yelena Vasilyeva’s chopped herring salad. Photo: Ksenia Prints

“Cooking shows have all sectors, all ethnicities and all peoples and there is no Russian food,” Giora Singer, a first generation Israeli comedian from the Soviet immigration of the nineties, points out the missing position of Russian food in the larger Israeli culture. Singer, whose target audience has a similar background to his own, does not miss a single Israeli cliché about Russian culture or Russian ethnic food and illuminates every corner of the difficulties of assimilating into Israeli society as an immigrant. But the very act of looking at what is missing indicates a change in Israeli society – even if this change begins in marginalized populations.

Thus, in 2016, “Commonwealth of Independent Tastes: Recollections and Recipes of Immigrants from the Former Soviet Union“, a Jewish-Russian cookbook was conceived and published in Israel. Like Singer, this book opens a window into the culinary and cultural world largely unseen by the modern Israeli and seeks, according to its authors, to establish their culture within the local culture with a “clear understanding that we are all Israelis first and foremost who want to influence our society through with our customs and food”. The authors, Rinat Goldberg, Vadim Blumin, Jan Gizelter and Kira Kletsky, seek to tell the story of the first and second generation members of the Russian Aliyah through writing traditional recipes with their Russian names, without modern or Israeli alterations and without alterations to the raw materials, or utilizing local adaptations, but translated into Hebrew. This is how the salad “selyodka pod shuboy” (dressed herring) translates to “Fish in a fur coat” and “forshmak ot babushki rosi” is “herring spread in the style of Grandma Rosa”. Herring is also present between the pages of the book, between the recipes and the stories.

“Chaver HaTaimim”, Lunchbox Publishing. Photo: Courtesy of Lunchbox Publishing.
Telling the story of the Russian Aliyah through recipes “Commonwealth of Independent Tastes: Recollections and Recipes of Immigrants from the Former Soviet Union” (Chaver HaTaimim, Lunchbox Publishing. Photo: Courtesy of Lunchbox Publishing.

Herring: The Next Generation

Members of the third generation of Aliyah, who are more assimilated into the local culture, feel comfortable putting forth a new interpretation of the culinary culture from which they came. About a month ago, a couple of friends, Dean Alber and Roni Berlin from Haifa, opened a small restaurant called “Rumka” where they serve post-Soviet food to a “sabra” Israeli audience. The pair of friends, members of the third generation of Aliyah, serve dishes that draw inspiration from the larger Russian cuisine, which they grew up with, but the execution combines the cuisine with the cooking methods and local ingredients. So, for example, the ‘shuva’ salad does not utilize herring, but rather lightly pressed Jack Mackerel, and served with roasted beets, pickled onions, potatoes and a soft-boiled egg. They say that post-Soviet cuisine is nothing new and “in Russia, for example, a metamorphosis of Russian cuisine has already been taking place for two decades”.

Dean Alber and Roni Berlin, Rumka Restaurant. Photo: Noam Frishman courtesy of Israel Sher and Haaretz newspaper
The Post-Soviet culinary movement makes aliyah Dean Alber and Roni Berlin, Rumka Restaurant. Photo: Noam Frishman courtesy of Israel Sher and Haaretz newspaper

Alber and Berlin are not the first to serve Israeli takes on Russian cuisine. Sherry Ansky, a journalist, recipe developer and respected author of cookbooks in Israel, opened Sherry Herring in the Tel Aviv port market back in 2010. Ansky also talks about her childhood memories of synagogue and longing for the fish’s saltiness and softness after she tasted its intoxicating flavors for the first time, but the herring she serves is not the traditional one that features in her own, and so many others’, memories of her childhood synagogue. “Sherry Herring” is a modern version, reflecting the changes that have taken place in Israeli culture and cuisine. Ansky says that she “treats the fish like sushi” – she scrubs the exile context from herring and treats it as a raw material open to creativity and personal interpretation, serving the marinated fish slices on a crispy baguette with sour cream, a little hot pepper and tomato seeds. Thus, despite her use of traditional food, the dish also testifies to her mastery of contemporary Israeli cultural trends.

Sherry Ansky. Photo: PR, courtesy of the Tel Aviv port market
Scrubs the diasporic context from herring and treats it as raw material open to creativity and personal interpretation Sherry Ansky. Photo: PR, courtesy of the Tel Aviv port market

Ansky, unlike Alber and Berlin, does not act out of the trauma of immigration. She produces new food, draws inspiration from the past and tradition, and at the same time allows herself to change it through the contemporary perspective of Israeliness. The herring in this case is an exotic delicacy of a distant, non-Israeli land that we can miss, even though we have never been there. On the other hand, Alber and Berlin draw inspiration from, and challenge, the traditional cuisine they grew up with but maintain the cultural dualities and dichotomies of their childhood homes- where they grew up under a system of rigid Soviet education- and the chaotic melting pot of the Israeli public sphere.

The food that is served at “Rumka” tells the personal story of Alber and Berlin, as well as Ansky’s herring sandwich, but looking at these two cases, you can see that they go beyond a personal story and testify to the collective story of the men and women of the Russian-speaking immigrant population, and it’s the same story regardless of whether one immigrated a hundred years ago or just thirty. This is a story of a foreign culture being assimilated into a new land, a story of language, identity and the search for tradition within the bubbling cauldron of civilization that is the State of Israel. The herring turns from a specific ingredient into a larger symbol that teaches us about Russian-Jewish food which carries with it the hope and promise that the Russian-cultural spirit will be preserved, integrated and used to create a new cultural thought that will influence both Russian food and Israeli food and tradition.

[1] Book of Daniel, chapter 9 verse 23.

[2] Ruth Sirkis – cookbook author and publisher, responsible for a pivotal contribution to the culinary development of Israel. Her first cookbook was written after her return to Israel from a mission in the United States, a book that made ethnic food accessible to many Israeli home cooks.

Hemdat Goldberg is a cook and a Master’s student in Sociology and Anthropology at Ben Gurion University. Her research concerns issues of national identity and food, and native food culture.

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