Gefilte Fish or White Piano?

By Anna ShternshisFiddler_on_the_roof.jpg

Non-Kosher Jewish restaurants in Eastern Europe have become a widespread phenomenon over the past two decades. These restaurants are notorious for defying the rules of kashrut, for being open on the Sabbath (when they draw their biggest crowds), and even remaining open on Yom Kippur.[i] Sem Sorok, a famous St. Petersburg restaurant, lacks a kosher menu—its signature dish, “chicken a-la Jewish grandmother,” is prepared with butter. However, Sem Sorok has a “Jewish” atmosphere with Israeli wines and pictures of Jewish artifacts.

Among Eastern European Jewish restaurants, Moscow’s Shagal is an atypical example: it’s kosher, the kashrut certificate displayed next to an oversized mezuzah. The owner is Russian-born businessman, who moved to Israel in the early 1990s and returned to Moscow a decade later to open this business. The menu and prices are geared toward foreigners, as no other restaurant would expect a local to pay $40-$60 for a healthy green salad, low-fat fish and asparagus. However, more than half of the restaurant’s clients are Russian Jews—not necessarily religiously observant ones. They come to this restaurant not for the kashrut (rather, despite the kashrut) or the food, but to experience the atmosphere of a Jewish shtetl. Reviews of these two restaurants show differences in North American and post-Soviet Jewish perceptions of the shtetl, and its importance to a secular Jewish cultural identity.

One review, geared toward a foreign readership, describes Shagal as a place with a cozy feel, with chicken that is “a little rubbery, just like your mother would have made it, and it is surely worth paying for the taste of home thousands miles away.”[ii] On the contrary, Shagal’s Russian language website paints a completely different portrait: it claims to recreate the traditional Jewish atmosphere of a shtetl! The website boasts: “Our ‘Living Room’ room features a white concert piano… [and] classical melodies performed by a violinist.”[iii]

While a white piano and a Jewish violinist playing Tchaikovsky were not common images in 19th-century Russian shtetls, these are the images that appeal to Jewish professionals in Moscow today. Like their North American counterparts, Jewish Muscovites are interested in recreating a meaningful connection with their “roots.”

The shtetl of Fiddler on the Roof, with its alleged simplicity, beauty of food and people, and its klezmer-inspired music, appeals to the North American viewers (but it is irrelevant to Russians because of its inaccurate portrayal shtetl life, and more importantly, because of how post-Soviet Jews like to imagine it). Yuri Slezkine, in his discussion of the 1930s Russian Jewish intelligentsia, suggests that the roots of these phenomena lie with the obsession with 19th-century classical Russian literature, which replaced attachments to the traditional Jewish values.[iv]

The origins of the Russian Jewish intelligentsia, the origins of East European Jews, such as their life in small towns of Eastern Europe were not seen as a worthy part of a Jewish legacy. Since the 1920s, the very word for shtetl, “mestechko,” became a derogatory word in Russian; it refers to petty, uneducated, chatty, vulgar, heavy-accented people, who share no common ground with educated, smart, ironic, theater- and conservatory-going, Nietzsche-quoting urban Jews, who have not spoken Yiddish for three generations. Despite the fact that they enjoyed herring, gefilte fish, and some other Jewish dishes during the Soviet period, these Jews were embarrassed by their grandparents’ Yiddish accents. Yet, they took pride in the thousands of Russian Jewish composers, musicians, actors, writers, and scientists, whose achievements are commonly associated with the words “Jewish culture.”[v]

The shtetl in the post-Soviet imagination is a dacha, a country house, filled with classical musicians eating gefilte fish and talking about Boris Pasternak and Leo Tolstoy.  The Shagal restaurant caters specifically to this secular idea of Jewishness, and its kosher food merely supplements, rather than defines the restaurant’s Jewish character.

Producers of Russian Jewish culture essentially try to whitewash the image of the “lowly” and “uncultured” shtetl. One can contrast this phenomenon with what took place in American popular culture in the early 20th century[vi] when Yiddish elements of shtetl culture were romanticized in order to render a beautiful and simple world, a world of mutual help and respect.

Why is it so? Why do North American Jews, who are as highly educated cling to traditional simple images of the shtetl? One possibility is that American Jewish nostalgia represents a variation of the American Dream—one comes to the United States with nothing, and makes a fortune by acculturating and embracing American values. Once this is accomplished, one looks back to the “old country” and savors its simplicity and slow pace of life.

Why do post-Soviet Jews prefer the image of a glorified shtetl, filled with European educated Jews? Why can’t the post-Soviet, Jewish urban imagination incorporate the image of a simple, uneducated yet wise shtetl grandfather?

The answer lies in the Soviet past. The post-war period of widespread popular and state antisemitism, accompanied by the loss of any meaningful content of Jewish identity, created a situation in which Jews strove to find the roots of their culture in “universalism,” rather than the national specificity of their past. Thus, they intellectualize the shtetl in order to prove to themselves, directly and subconsciously, that Jewish culture equals intellect.

Is such a legacy legitimate? Can Jewish culture survive for generations on the premise of Jews as “universalists?” Historically, it does not seem likely. Yet, this is the legacy of over a million and a half of contemporary Russian Jews, who now live across the globe, and who continue to influence the formation of the Jewish identity of the future.

Anna Shternshis is Assistant Professor of Yiddish Language and Literatures at the German Department of the University of Toronto. Shternshis is the author of Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923 – 1939 (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 2006). She is currently working on two book projects. One is devoted to the Jewish Daily Life in the Soviet Union during 1930s- 1980s, and the other one to the Evacuation of Soviet Jews during World War II.

[i] Ruth Ellen Gruber, Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press, c2002, pp. 21-90.

[ii] Ira Iosebashvili, Moscow Times Review of Shagal,, retrieved on January 2, 2008.

[iii] Restaurant Shagal website:, retrieved on January 2, 2008.

[iv] Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004, p. 256.

[v] Incidentally, a Russian-based project on creating a Jewish encyclopedia uses this ideology as its foundation. All notable individuals who are identified as Jews, or whose parent or grandparent was a Jew, are included. Currently, five volumes of this encyclopedia were published. Rossiiskaya Evreiskaia Entsyklopediya. 3 volumes, Moscow: Rossiiskaia Akademiia Estesvennykh Nauk, Nauchnyi Fond “Evreiskaia entsiklopediia” "Epos,"1994-1997.

[vi] Jeffrey Shandler, Adventures in the Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, pp. 31–59.


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