KIEV, Ukraine (Dec. 26)
When Feliks Indenbaum invited me to join him for dinner at Tsimmes, one of Kiev’s handful of Jewish restaurants, I wasn’t too excited. I remembered my previous unsuccessful eating experience there, when I, a non-Jew, went with another non-Jewish friend. Neither of us had any idea what to order, and, uninformed as we were, our choices were not the best.
But then I realized that going with Indenbaum would be different. The 24-year-old president of Kiev Hillel’s business club, he has been coming here regularly since the restaurant opened a year and a half ago and has literally tried every item on the menu. He’s a big fan, bringing his friends, parents and girlfriends along at times. He even persuaded Hillel to hold its Passover seder here last spring.
Restaurants, Jewish or not, are expensive in a country where the average monthly salary is $200.
But Indenbaum’s well-paying job allows him to frequent the place. “With main dishes going for about $15, it’s not affordable for most young people,” he admits.
“You should definitely try forshmak — it’s my favorite dish here,” he suggests as I open the heavy menu, still unsure if I am up for this. But I can’t resist the enthusiasm in my companion’s eyes.
Indenbaum knows the menu inside and out. Besides forshmak, which is herring fillet with sliced apples, eggs and onions, I also order a traditional liver cake with cranberry sauce and a stuffed carp appetizer, both on his recommendation.
He knows what he’s talking about. The food is good — much better than when I came here with my friend.
I was still curious why this kosher-style restaurant in the old Jewish part of the city would be one of Indenbaum’s favorites.
“I go to different restaurants, but Tsimmes is special. I feel at home here,” he says, leaning back comfortably in his chair.
Tsimmes, indeed, is special. It is one of just four Jewish restaurants in this Ukrainian capital city of 3 million people, where the Jewish population is estimated at 70,000. Two of the restaurants are kosher and two, including Tsimmes, are kosher-style.
Two years ago, when Lena Stolyarova planned to open Tsimmes with her husband, there was only one other Jewish eatery in Kiev, the Haifa restaurant in Podil, the old district of the city where most Jews lived before World War II.
Even though Krakow’s Jewish population is far smaller than Kiev, there are more Jewish restaurants there, says Stolyarova, who says she grew up in a secular Jewish family.
Why, she asked herself, shouldn’t Kiev’s much larger Jewish community support at least a second Jewish restaurant?
Tsimmes looks Jewish in the nostalgic, Old World way of many Jewish restaurants in the former Eastern Bloc. The decor draws heavily on Marc Chagall, there’s live Jewish music on weekends and the menu is sprinkled with Yiddish humor that is impossible to translate.
“We wanted to make a cozy family restaurant that would be about Jewish food and cultural traditions, one that would not be at all pompous,” Stolyarova says.
The restaurant has done well, and local Jewish families celebrate engagements, weddings and other family occasions here.
Tsimmes marks the Jewish holidays with special treats. During Chanukah this year, all guests are receiving free doughnuts, with gifts for the children.
This does not mean that all of Tsimmes’ guests are Jewish. Stolyarova says half her patrons have no Jewish connection at all, and are attracted by the restaurant’s food, friendliness and its Jewish decor.
They do not mix meat and milk, and don’t serve non-kosher meats such as pork or rabbit, but, says Stolyarova, “it’s difficult to be kosher in Ukrainian conditions, where kosher products, especially meat, are not always available or are not of the best quality.”
The best illustration of that is the Haifa restaurant, which was kosher when it opened 10 years ago as the city’s first Jewish restaurant.
Pianist Mariya Portnikova, who’s played in Haifa since its opening, says the restaurant managed to stay kosher for just four years.
The inconsistency of kosher meat supplies, lack of support from local synagogues and few guests were what forced Haifa’s original owners, a group of non-Jewish entrepreneurs, to switch to secular Jewish-style cuisine.
“I remember how back then, in the 1990s, Czech diplomats were told that out of 10 entrees, none were available,” recalls Portnikova of those hard economic times.
But times have changed, say Kiev’s Jewish religious leaders, and today it’s possible to run a successful kosher eatery.
One of the reasons is the growing number of Orthodox Jews passing through Ukraine, says Rabbi Moshe Azman, Chabad-Lubavitch’s chief rabbi in Kiev and the spiritual leader of Kiev’s Central Brodsky Synagogue.
Foreign Jews are less fearful of anti-Semitism in Ukraine today, he maintains. “A lot of people who were previously afraid to come to Ukraine now get on a plane and come here,” he says.
Kiev’s two kosher Jewish restaurants are attached to the Brodsky synagogue.
The first, Makabi, is a small fast-food cafÃ© serving Israeli specialties such as shwarma and falafel in pita. With full meals for less than $10, it is the least expensive of the city’s Jewish eateries, and draws a crowd of local office workers.
On the other side of the synagogue is the King David, an upscale kosher restaurant offering Jewish and European cuisine as well as a selection of Israeli wines. Owner Jacob Zilberman points proudly to the pinkish-white Jerusalem stone, brought from Israel to decorate his establishment. Entrees here go for about $20.
Zilberman, too, says that the increasing number of businessmen traveling back and forth between Israel and Ukraine the last couple of years constitute a large share of his clientele.
“Just two years ago, I remember, there was only one direct flight a week from Kiev to Tel Aviv, and today, planes fly every day and they are always full,” Zilberman says.
The restaurant is also popular with American tourists and Kiev’s political and business elite.
But local Jewish youth are, like at Haifa and Tsimmes, absent.
Zilberman and Stolyarova admit their restaurants serve few young Ukrainian Jews.
Osik Axelrud, the head of the Kiev Hillel, says students would love to be able to patronize local Jewish establishments.
More affordable Jewish eateries, especially kosher ones, would be welcomed by the city’s Jewish youth, says Axelrud.
“If somebody opened a chain of inexpensive kosher restaurants in Kiev,” he says, “that would really be great.”