Young men dressed in the signature black pants, white shirts, and black hats of ultra-Orthodox Jews fill the tables in the LaCasa Grill and Wok on a recent Thursday night, eating cholent, a slow-cooked stew of meat, beans and potatoes traditionally reserved for the sabbath morning. But even here in Geula, an isolated and conservative Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem, where men study in religious seminaries instead of working; signs instruct women to dress modestly; and tradition is slow to change, cholent is no longer confined to the sabbath feast eaten after the synagogue prayers on Saturday mornings.
Cholent has now emerged as a Thursday night ritual, with many eateries in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods abandoning their regular menus to make sure they have a batch ready by 11 p.m. when men end their evening religious study sessions. “Thursday nights are packed here,” says LaCasa’s owner Israel Kohn, who was born and raised in Geula. “Ours is the best cholent in the city because it has lots of meat, that’s the key, lots of high-quality beef.”
Long viewed as utilitarian because it could be left to stew in an oven or on a covered flame overnight and provide a hot meal on the sabbath morning without breaking the religious prohibition of cooking on the day of rest, cholent is now increasingly seen as gourmet. And it is attracting the attention of outsiders—Jews who don’t observe the sabbath and even of those who are not Jewish.
Around midnight, dozens of secular Israelis file into LaCasa and find a place to sit among the ultra-Orthodox regulars to eat cholent. These newcomers are on a late-night tour of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods that focuses on cholent and the general preparations of sabbath food that begin here a full 24 hours before sunset on Friday ushers in the sacred day of rest when those who observe it refrain from driving, cooking and other forms of work.
“There is today a foodie culture in Israel that wasn’t around even a few years ago, so there is great interest in seeing these ultra-Orthodox places and their food,” said Yosef Spiezer, the guide who brought the group to LaCasa, and one of several in Jerusalem and other ultra-Orthodox enclaves offering such tours. “These neighborhoods are a place that are still seen as very authentic, but because it’s such an unknown world it is hard to go alone, and people want a guide.”
About 40 people follow Spiezer, whose grandmother once lived in this ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, through narrow streets stopping at bakeries selling braided challah bread, and rolled chocolate pastries favored by children on sabbath mornings, and simple restaurants selling cholent. These food items cannot be found earlier in the week; in fact many bakeries are only open on Thursdays and Fridays, making goods for the sabbath.
But while they are seeking out cholent and other authentic sabbath foods, the group is also confronted with a culture often at odds with modern Israeli life.
Tonight the air is also filled with smoke, as hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men have set trash dumpsters on fire and blocked streets in their neighborhoods as a way to protest a recent government decision to allow repair work to be done on the country’s national railway on the sabbath.
In fact, many in the group express ambivalent views of the 12% of Israeli society that is ultra-Orthodox, and carries significant political power, resulting in policies such as ultra-Orthodox men being exempt from the otherwise compulsory military service, laws forbidding public transportation on the sabbath, and laws against secular wedding ceremonies.
“I actually have big problems with the ultra-Orthodox, and a lot of anger about the way they treat women,” said Miri Gidron, a secular woman from Haifa, who had pulled a long skirt pulled on over her slacks to confirm to the neighborhood’s dress code. “But I love to see the Jewish traditions, the sabbath preparation and the cholent.”
These tours are just one sign of the growing interest in cholent. Restaurants outside the ultra-Orthodox sector are adding cholent to their menus. Mainstream newspapers and cookbooks around the world contain recipes for the stew, once something only known from family traditions. In the United States, Purely American Foods offers four flavors of cholent ingredients in a box, ready to throw into a slow cooker, marketing it as a quick, healthy, salt-free meal for “busy health conscious consumers of all faiths.”
“There is an interesting phenomenon now, treating this ancient dish as a comfort food, not a dish specifically tied to Jewish ritual or to Shabbat,” said Jayne Cohen, a New York-based Jewish culinary historian and cookbook author. Cholent’s current spot in the limelight has also resulted in new recipes, alternatives to what Cohen calls “the stodgy beef, beans and barley recipes of the past.” Her cookbook, Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations, contains a recipe for cholent based on goose breast and white beans.
The cholent joints on Spiezer’s tour do not seem ripe for this level of innovation.
When someone on the tour asked the cook on duty at La Casa if one could make cholent in a pressure cooker to speed up the process, rather than letting it simmer overnight, the cook laughed, shook his head. But the staff at LaCasa appreciates the new attention.
“This is great for the business, and it’s fun for me to get to know other people who I would otherwise never meet,” Kohn said. “Also, the food really helps to bring people together, the differences are easier to deal with when the belly is full.”