Warsaw — At a corner table in the Pod Samsonem restaurant, under framed etchings of the Bible’s Samson and of old Warsaw streetscapes, a middle-aged woman cuts up her “Jewish style” trout one recent evening.
At other tables, next to walls lined with framed photographs of rabbis, and menorahs on a small shelf, other customers eat their entrees of “Karp po żydowsku” (Jewish-style carp) and “Kavior żydowski” (Jewish caviar).
Pod Samsonem (the name means “under Samson”) is a prominent example in post-Communist Poland of a growing, but little-noticed part of Poles’ interest in things Jewish: in this case, culinary nostalgia.
In most major (and several minor) cities in the country, ones with negligible Jewish populations, non-Jews have established Jewish-style restaurants, none of them remotely kosher, which in addition to serving traditional Eastern European Jewish fare, display Jewish photos, play klezmer music and sell Israeli wines, Jewish books and other Judaica items.
Their servings are a change from the standard Polish fare, which is characterized by pork and kielbasa, pierogies and sour cucumber soup, and heavy use of cream and eggs in most dishes.
The restaurants typically feature logos with Hebrew-style lettering, and names like Anatewka (in Lodz), Mazel Tov (Kielce), Klezmer Hois (a combination restaurant-inn in Krakow), or Mandragora (Lublin; the word means mandrake, from the Bible’s Song of Songs).
Enter one of these restaurants, and you might think you’ve stepped into a small Jewish art gallery.
Michael Schudrich, originally from the United States and now Poland’s chief rabbi, calls the restaurants another sign of Poles’ attraction to the Jewish life that disappeared in the Holocaust. During nearly five decades of Communist rule, the country’s schools offered “almost no information about the Jews,” he says. “Two generations had no opportunity to learn about the Jewish contributions to Poland.”
Now, Poles are getting a literal taste of Jewish culture.
Remedium, a restaurant established six months ago by a medical association in northern Szczecin, is probably the newest Jewish-style restaurant in Poland; its dessert menu includes “dried tzimmes from Tel Aviv.” Pod Samsonem (named for the sculptures of Samson on the building’s outside walls) is probably the oldest, but no one knows for sure. The restaurants all operate independently of each other, and there is no central Jewish-style-restaurant-that-serves-treif organization.
“How can it not be here?” Maria Ryczywolska, who manages Pod Samsonem and has collected the Jewish artifacts displayed on the walls, says of the restaurant, which is located in a onetime Jewish neighborhood, across the street from St. Jacek Church. “Thirty percent of the population [of prewar Warsaw] was Jewish.”
Ryczywolska is married to one of the men who rented the restaurant — which had offered a few Jewish dishes since 1958 — from the Warsaw government after Communism fell in 1989 and private enterprise became legal. The new owners decided to bring in more Jewish cuisine, asking a Jewish friend to verify the dishes’ authentic Jewish flavor.
A Jewish-style restaurant in Poland carries a message that an Italian or Indian or other ethnic eatery doesn’t — because of the country’s long and sometimes tragic relationship with the Jews who once lived here in large numbers. “It is something more. It’s not good to forget a part of our heritage,” Ryczywolska says. That’s why she, an art historian, searched for the Judaica items that enhance the restaurant’s Jewish atmosphere. “I want our customers to learn something.”
The customers? Mostly non-Jewish Poles, mostly middle-aged. Sometimes Jewish tourists from the U.S. or Israel stop by. “Even a couple of rabbis,” Ryczywolska says.
Jewish-style cuisine usually includes fish, chicken and chicken soup.
In one such restaurant, Konstanty Gebert, a prominent writer and longtime Jewish activist, found “schaboszczak po żydowsku — pork cutlet, Jewish style” on the menu. “What makes it ‘Jewish style’ is that it has a lot of garlic.”
These restaurants are “a bid for understanding, tolerance and expiation,” says Joel Padowitz, author of “Triumph and Tragedy” (Feldheim Books), a new book about Jewish life in Poland. “It’s positive … it’s coming from a good place, even if relatively superficial. [Poles’] fascination …. is rather superficial. They are interested in understanding Jewish culture but not Jewish ideas or ideals. This is all about conjuring up the trappings of Jewishness, and hardly ever an attempt to recreate anything of its essence.”
Ironically, members of Poland’s small Jewish community infrequently patronize these Jewish-style restaurants. Their preference, especially young Polish Jews’, is Sephardic fare, not Ashkenazic — the falafel-pita-hummus served at the growing number of restaurants founded in Poland by Israelis.