As Hanukkah celebrations get underway, Jewish restaurants across Chicagoland are ushering in this year’s Festival of Lights in ways as resilient as they are delicious.
After all, the holiday is about standing the test of time. In 164 B.C., as the story goes, Judah Maccabee led a band of Jewish soldiers to victory over the Seleucid army and freed Jerusalem from captivity. After nearly 40 years, the city’s Holy Temple was back in the hands of Jews, but they could only find a small crue of oil to light its sacred candelabrum, a menorah, for one day.
Remarkably, it burned just long enough until new consecrated oil was found — eight days — bespeaking a miracle from God.
Over the next week, the Chicago Tribune will embark on a similarly spanned jaunt, surveying how one of the world’s oldest belief systems is channeled into culinary excellence at eight restaurants in Chicago and the suburbs.
Over the years, two types of establishments helped Judaica abound through the city’s food scene: restaurants that adhere to kosher law and those that pay homage to Jewish cultures.
“This is a big debate in the world of Jewish food — what actually makes food Jewish,” says Jewish food writer and chef Jeffrey Yoskowitz. “When I teach Jewish culinary anthropology, I ask my students: ‘If we’re going to define Jewish food as the food that you eat, would you say that Chinese food is Jewish? If that’s what most Jewish people are eating when they celebrate a holiday, is Chinese food not Jewish food?’”
For example, a sushi bar in Rogers Park follows kosher law but has no Judaic grounding. At the same time, a kosher sausage company in Rogers Park that was started by Jews in Romania ticks both the cultural and kosher boxes. Each plays a part in sustaining both a culture and community through food.
“Jewish cuisines are very much connected to the lands where they are from,” Yoskowitz says. “Kosher is just a dietary practice. It is one of those laws that is followed not because it makes any sense, but because it was handed down by God.”
They may not all keep kosher. They may not all be observant. But as The Bagel’s late owner Danny Wolf described himself in his final interview, they are all a “keeper of the flame.”
Read the first stories in the series below, and check back each day for updates.
At this Skokie deli, patience runs as thin as the sliced pastrami. If you encounter any gruffness, think of it as an indoctrination into the playful underbelly of Jewish deli culture. Read about its nearly 50-year history here.
With the exception of a pizza box-sized window sticker and a television-sized sign, Tel-Aviv’s pallid California Avenue storefront is completely naked. Its low profile undersells its significance as one of Chicago’s oldest kosher-certified restaurants.
To find out why Andy Kalish opened the world’s first vegan Jewish deli, look no further than his business partner and wife of 27 years, Gina Kalish.
Her philosophy of putting the planet before the plate didn’t bode well with her husband’s idea to fill the vacant space next door to Kal’ish — their bustling vegan deli and bakery in Uptown — with a schmaltzy, beefy Jewish deli.
So, she wouldn’t join him until her meatless demands were met.
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Despite the legions of Romanian Kosher fans around the world, second-generation owner Arnold Loeb, who died in 2020, never shipped his meats beyond state lines. So instead, diehards came to Rogers Park, stuffed their suitcases and flew back home.
For a family that started the business over 80 years ago in Romania, fled the Nazi regime by way of the Dominican Republic and reestablished themselves in Chicago, the sausage smuggling is just a thin slice of the butchery’s long-standing lore.
Devising the menu at Chicago’s sole kosher-certified sushi restaurant wasn’t easy for the half-Tibetan, half-Nepalese chef Tee Shakya.
“If I have a recipe with 10 ingredients, now I can use only six,” Shakya says. “The challenge was that I had to bring that same flavor, that same taste I used to do before.”
But 11 years later, Hamachi restaurant keeps swimming with success, thanks to an ever-evolving menu and a devotion to finding flavors that appeal to the restaurant’s largely Orthodox Jewish clientele.
Max Abrams is a freelance writer.
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