In a way, nothing is more natural than the revival of Jewish café culture that has sprung up in Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish quarter, over the last twenty years or so. Many of the foods characteristic of what we call Jewish cuisine are rooted in Polish gastronomy and originally blossomed among the country’s Jewish communities.
Though essentially no Jews live in Kazimierz anymore, the district is now home to a renaissance of Jewish-themed restaurants, igniting debate over whether the rejuvenation represents a loving ode to a lost population or a crass grab for tourists’ dollars.
In recent decades Jewish visitors have flocked to Poland to explore sites like Auschwitz and the shtetls of their ancestors. On a tour of Poland and Prague, I walked the cobblestone streets of Kazimierz, meandering through the main square with its Jewish heirlooms and tchotchkes in the window shops. Everyone around me seemed to be there for the same purpose: to find a link to a rich, but now gone, past.
The unsubtly named Klezmer Hois (Klezmer House) is one of the dozen or more restaurants paying homage to—or capitalizing on, depending on the telling—the Jewish heritage of Kazimierz through the traditional folk musical tradition of European Jewish musicians. The café offers “Litvak-style herring,” “broth with kreplach” and other traditional dishes to the masses, as well as nightly klezmer concerts. The eatery’s owners also operate the oldest Jewish-style restaurant in town, Ariel, which is among the more blatantly commercial (or charming) of the venues, selling Jewish knickknacks and decorated with paintings of rabbis.
At another of the original eateries in the area, Café Alef, diners can nosh on knishes, cholent and stuffed gooseneck. The well-known Jewish-inspired eatery, Arka Noego (Noah’s Ark), boasts dumplings as well as a large selection of kosher vodkas for the observant imbiber.
Of course, there’s a rich edible heritage for these restaurants to draw upon. Ashkenazi cuisine, largely considered the paragon of Jewish food, is, in many ways, Eastern European first and Jewish second. The first known use of the term “beigel,” (bagel) for example, is from 1610 in the records of the Jewish community of Krakow. The entry notes that the baked goods were given as gifts to women about to give birth and to their midwives.
Babka, too, was a Polish innovation based on the Shabbat challah. Homemakers would prepare extra dough and top it with jam or cinnamon as a treat. Bialys are named after the northern Polish town of Bialystock, where residents ate the oniony, indented pastry. The savory roll was available in bakeries throughout the Jewish section of the town and eaten with nearly every meal.
Still, despite the lineage that these restaurants can lay claim to, some argue that the current situation is unseemly. Is it merely a shtick, a gimmick that relies on cheap sentimentality? Or does it represent a sincere effort to reconnect with a once significant part of Polish history? And, in a recent related development, the Polish government’s bill to allow ritual kosher slaughter was recently defeated in the Parliament.
Whatever the intention, the trend shows no sign of abating. So if you find yourself in Krakow, order a kosher vodka and a knish, and decide for yourself.
Top photo: Plac Wolnica, once the main town square in Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish quarter. All photos courtesy of Creative Commons.