Salt Beef in Soho + Channukah in Budapest
Salt Beef in Soho
On a London street nowhere near the Jewish heartland, next to a restaurant specialising in pork and opposite a musical about a green monster, a ‘kind of Jewish deli with cocktails’, has bloomed. In a sense, E. Mishkin has been here a while: the distressed planks coating the walls were once floorboards, and the net curtains and squeezy ketchup bottles are as retro as the ‘On Air’ sign above the booth at the back. In another sense, though, he was never here at all. Ask about Mr Mishkin and you’ll get the story of Ezra, a Ukrainian Jew who fled the 1919 pogrom and opened a café in London where his fellow immigrants could get a taste of home. The pogrom is fact, but Ezra Mishkin, like this joint, is the creation of Russell Norman, owner of those famously Jewish restaurants Polpo, Spuntino, Da Polpo and Polpetto.
Norman wanted a name like the old East London cafés but his own isn’t up to the job: if he had been lurking in the Ukraine when the Cossacks galloped in, they would have swerved past him. So, why does a non-Jew known for hip Italian food open a Jewish deli serving Polish pork hotdogs? Is London en route to New York- style culinary integration? A deli has just opened in Marylebone; there’s even a Jewish pop-up restaurant. But both of those are kosher, in every sense. Mishkins is something else.
‘My starting point,’ Norman tells me over lunch, ‘is always: what do I want to eat?’ He couldn’t find a decent salt-beef sandwich in London, so he opened somewhere that would serve one. Simple. The times cry out for comfort food; and from another perspective (mine), how can secular London Jewry claim to be well integrated if nobody around us knows what a latke is? On the other hand, if Norman serves cholent with oxtail, should I be pleased Jews are at last influencing the thriving British gastronomic scene or worried that an ancient food tradition is drizzling away, one unctuous oxtaily drop at a time?
Eating Jewish food, says Norman, is like getting a big hug; opening a ‘kind of ’ Jewish deli, on the other hand, is probably like moving in with your mother-in-law. Everybody tells head chef Tom Oldroyd that his recipes are wrong: there are herbs in the matzo balls and duck fat in the schmaltz, and that’s before we get to the hot dog. Norman’s attitude to these faux pas is calm. His is not a ghetto mentality: as with northern Italy, he is taking only the bits of Jewish cuisine he likes. It occurs to me that only a very insecure culture would find this threatening. They did blind tastings, he says, and chose their favourite versions. Simple.
All this simplicity is making me uneasy. It’s so… gentile. I turn to the food. The pickled herring on beetroot is plump and subtle, garnished with good dill. Russell is eating a Severn & Wye lox beigel with house schmear. That’s sour cream, naturally. A lunch I won’t be paying for seems the wrong place to point out that it can also mean a bribe.
Mishkins’ menu is the culinary equivalent of Yiddish — a hotpotch that nicks what it needs from the surrounding culture while maintaining flimsy but important links to its roots. There is no reverence here. ‘It’s Jew-ish,’ says Russell. ‘The music is too loud, the lights too low. There may be people who are drunk, or possibly laughing.’ Portion sizes, however, would satisfy the fiercest traditionalist. Interestingly, Russell says that some of the dishes evolved from peasant food into something more delicate — in keeping with the doilies and willow-pattern dishes, perhaps. Or more appropriate to the well-fed West, where no one needs the strength to flee pogroms. This must count as progress. After all, the only people you can’t steal from are those who have nothing.
Chrismukkah in the Ghetto
The 7th district is on fire. At first sight, you think it’s the city getting ready for Christmas. Everywhere, lights and trees are put up at uncharacteristic speed. But in the 7th this year they’re celebrating the season of lights under a different name: Chrismukkah. To ‘achieve everyday miracles’ is what brings together 18 cultural venues in the heart of the former Jewish quarter, from the moment the firstcandle is lit on 20 December. Kristóf Molnár, 24 — black glasses, dreadlocks sits drinking coffee as he juggles his last year at university with organising the Quarter6Quarter7 festival, currently in its 3rd year. “Ours will be the biggest celebration in the city,” he says, “a kind of culture clash.” With the Christian holiday falling in the middle of Hanukkah, Budapest’s progressive Jewish community is set on exploding cultural differences. “The idea is to give each other ‘culture’ as a present this year”, he says, “to ‘buy’ culture instead of going shopping at some big Plaza.”
Kristóf is passionate about his festival (he is one of only two organisers). “When I say the word ‘Jew’ in Hungarian (‘Zsidó’), I lower my voice,” he says. “It should not be that way.” With the Holocaust lingering large over debates about Jewish identity in Hungary (suppressed by decades of communism and gentile guilt), Kristóf feels the urge to “shake off this heavy past. We are ordinary people. Speaking for myself, I feel as much Hungarian as I feel Jewish. We want to bring the word ‘Jew’ back into question. Take the weight off.”
Quarter6Quarter7, taking its name from the inner parts of the two districts that comprised the Jewish ghetto, is mainly self-sponsored. All the venues — bookstores, cafés, eateries, and art galleries — arrange their own programs. Sirály (“Seagull”), a three-storey-café-library-podium on Király u., is hosting an event in support of the homeless, a Budapest community currently facing criminalisation. Klauzál 13 bookstore will host an open forum prompted by last month’s census (“the older generation, in particular, is afraid to declare its Jewish identity,” says Kristóf ). Set against the characteristic run-down beauty of the district’s main artery, Wesselényi u., the festival promises a seasonal feast of music, light, and night walks.
But for Budapest’s religious community it’s business as usual. On Vasváry Pál u., Chabad at the Pesti Yeshiva (the 1885 synagogue, tucked away in a quiet courtyard) await the return of their rabbis from a conference in New York. The owners of the Fröhlich cukrászda (classic kosher pastry shop) on Dob u. are too busy selling flödni at the ‘Judafest’, the Jewish food festival, to think about Hanukkah. And the cashier of the brightly lit kosher supermarket next door says he “knows nothing; I just ordered the latkes and put the candles up for sale.”
“It’s a festival accessible to everyone,” Kristóf says. “It’s the 21st century. We want to show all the ways in which young Jews in Budapest are contributing to their communities.” But even he is unsure whether Hungary is ready for such an approach, noting, “We haven’t cleared our conscience.” With the fires of ’44 still glowing through the cracks, Kristóf is kindling new light. “I am looking forward to its aftermath,” he says. He’s right. Different times, different fires.
Ilse Josepha Maria Lazaroms