The clock hit mid-day and the sun was blazing high. I took a left off Jaffa’s main Jerusalem Boulevard and began to lurk for parking. In these rare areas of the city that still haven’t been shaded by two digit floor office buildings, parking is a matter of a quick eye and determination. A bit like the surrounding peddlers – it’s all about attitude.
Once achieved, I notice the people lining up and flowing through the white door across the street, waiting to catch a seat by their favorite plate of Moussaka, as if it wasn’t 40 degrees and sticky like a fat man’s armpit outside. I walk in at mid-day to find the small restaurant bustling. In front of me an old lady is blocking the kitchen door asking for her Tarator to go. She remains standing there with her trolley as the manager passes back and forth through the labyrinth of diners. On his way from the table in the far left corner, after seating the three soldiers and the old Turkish guy, he slips two containers of the soups into her checkered trolley and keeps on the move. “You don’t want money?” she shouts at him and smiles at me with a twinkle in her eye, while waving the 50 NIS bill in the air. He pops out of the kitchen again, 4 plates covering his entire left arm, takes the money and continues on to serve a couple of regulars waiting for their Shkembe. “Of course you want money”, she mumbles with laughter. “Everyone wants money” and they both disappear one into the steaming kitchen, the other into the steaming street.
The Bulgarians arrived with the Balkan immigration wave early in the day and were housed in old abandoned buildings in the Arabic city of Jaffa – which was that place right outside the new and upcoming neighborhood called Tel Aviv. “Monka” then opened, shortly after what the Jews call Independence Day, the Palestinians call Nakba, or simply stated as 1948. It was between that time and the sixties that these small and shady restaurants, romantically referred to as “workers restaurants”, began to appear.
In theory it’s the story of places that opened mainly in industrial areas, aimed at feeding the working class hero, his wide stomach and narrow pockets. “Worker’s restaurants” have been known to sprout around the world, and in Europe in particular they tend to serve very local foods. That is, regional.
In those years those years of the establishment of Israel many of the newcomers arrived, in fact, to build a country. So “The Hebrew worker” as he is called, was of plenty, as was the work to be done. “The food, as it should be in restaurants like these, is so abundant, only rarely can a normal person finish their plate. It was meant to feed for labor: fast, cheap and filling.” So described by Yitzhak Bachar, owner and second generation at ‘Bechor et Shoshi’, one of the best Tripolitan places serving mouthwatering Mafrum and other Jewish Libyan delights.
The restaurant, set in the industrial area of what had become one of Israel’s most religious cities, is one of those few that actually did feed nearby workers for the first two decades of its existence. “But today the market across the street has been closed for years, and everyone comes to eat here”. And by everyone, he means Everyone.
In practice the most famous of what the locals here call “Workers restaurants” have little or nothing to do with feeding workers at all. They are nicked as they are because they play by specific characteristics that have become symbolic of the genre and nowadays these places have turned into a very local, very interesting peephole into the many different social layers of the Israeli society. From youngsters, to soldiers, suited up folks, blue-collar gents and old regulars that have been coming in for years. The simplicity and dedication have a winning charm. They make for what someone described to me as “real food for real people”, a place where the society eats and lives. Every time I came back from my studies in northern Italy to spend summer at home, it was my guiltiest pleasure to go gorging solo between meetings on various afternoons eating in these low key eateries serving homemade dishes from around the world, without needing to drive more than 15 minutes: Yemenite Leg soup, Pelmeni, Kibbeh, Couscous, Borcsht, Goulash, Harira, Mamaliga and the rest of it. Always cheap, always quick, heartwarming with comfort and absolutely delicious. No one cares who you are or what you wear. It just is what it is and it was always as a sign to me that I’m home.
When I started writing this piece I was constantly confronted with the ambiguity of this stand- alone category that flirts with all and commits to no one. Why then not just call them all ethnic restaurants, and give it a rest? I spent one month paying forward the question and many of the people I spoke to said I should. But it boggled me for two reasons: First, because you have loads of ethnic restaurants in every international city in the world, and you have even double the blue collar type of holes, and neither have that special look and feel the ones here have. Second and more convincing is that not all ethnicities qualify for this hardballing category in question: Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Thai or any other Asian food for that matter, as well as American – north or south, and many other won’t hit the jackpot.
I was chucking down a cold beer and a plate of chopped liver at one of the oldest bars in the Lewinski market, conversing with the daily senior drinkers of the highly praised hole-in-the-wall, Thinking about the many conversations and recipes I had over the past weeks. It was then that I could hear the coin hit the steel stubborn casing of my mind and history explained itself.
Between the late 19th century and the early 20th some fleeting eastern Europeans and Yemenite Jews came to the imagined state comprising the first and second rounds of immigration – what my grandma calls “Aliya”, while she reminisces the day and folds a gentle sheet phyllo dough to finish her perfect Borek in the making.
Once the First World War was over and the Brits overthrow the Ottoman Empire off the land many more joined. Jews began arriving by boat into any one of the main ports, mostly from Poland, Russia and the Falling Austro-Hungarian Empire. More years passed, more the word spread, and more they came – from the Soviet Union, the Balkans, Iraq, and a few that ran to America back in the days of the war, now saw reason to come take part in the Zionist project. Then came the ‘Aliya’ during and after Nazi Germany that brought on more people from Romania, Poland, Germany, Austria, the Soviet Union, and Greece. So on and so forth from the late 30’s to the establishment of the country. Alongside the continuous flow from Eastern Europe was a big new arrival of Jews from Morocco, Alger, Syria, Iran and some more from Iraq. And there you have it – These restaurants aren’t about ethnicity in general, but about Jewish ethnicities in particular, as they gathered from all over Europe and half of the Mediterranean into the smallest country in the Middle East.
The diversity of foods in this ingathering of exiles is in fact one of Israel’s strongest cultural symbols and these restaurants make for the human mosaic of flavors and homes brought by Jews from wherever it is they came from serving their foods in a casual, almost ugly setting, made by skilled hands and a nostalgic mind. Unlike the regional touch, here they represent a list of countries abandoned for a new land people knew absolutely nothing about and it is here that they got their new representation. How else do you make it home?
I still wonder if they put up the pots to fill the stomach or the heart, but nowadays it seems these places manage to do both quite well.
All pictures by Natalie Shafrir