Jewish history and culture

Jewish history and culture

Paola Gavin
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Published by
Quadrille Publishing
Mowie Kay

Jewish food is closely entwined with the history and culture of the countries Jews settled in before and after the diaspora. There is so much to cover here – throughout the world and through history – but in these pages I give just a brief outline of Jewish history and culinary heritage in a selection of countries of the Old World.


Jews have lived in Austria for the best part of a thousand years. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Vienna had one of the largest and most important Jewish communities in Europe, until they suffered a series of persecutions and expulsions that lasted more than 200 years.

Nevertheless, by the end of the seventeenth century, a small number of wealthy financiers and merchants rose to prominence and were given special status as hofjuden (‘court Jews’), who helped nance the court and the army. Some Jewish families even had their own coat of arms.

Gradually, as the spirit of the Enlightenment spread through Europe, life began to improve for the whole community. In 1781, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II issued an Edict of Toleration, which gave the Jews access to trade and industry. They were no longer required to wear badges or special hats, and their children could attend state schools and universities. They were, however, forced to adopt German names, and the use of Yiddish and Hebrew were restricted, in a vain attempt to assimilate them.

It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that Jews were finally granted full equal rights. For some it was a time of great upheaval and confusion, as they le‡ft their small towns and villages in search of new opportunities in the cities. Although many were poor and working class, a large number of Jews went into business, the transport industry, the liberal professions and the arts. By the turn of the century, Vienna had become a magnet for Jewish cultural and intellectual life – home to Arnold Schonberg, Gustav Mahler, Stefan Zweig, Theodore Herzl (founder of Zionism), Sigmund Freud and Oscar Kokoschka, to name a few. A large number of the city’s bankers, doctors and lawyers were Jewish, as were many publishers, journalists and most of the Austrian Socialist Party. At the same time, anti-Semitism was widespread, and in the inter-war period the situation rapidly deteriorated; so much so that many thousands of Jews le‡ft the country before 1938.

Austrian Jewish cooking is classic Ashkenazi fare, with lots of substantial soups, o‡ften served with noodles (nudeln), fried pasta pušffs (mandeln) or dumplings (knodeln). There is a liking for potatoes, cabbage and sauerkraut. All kinds of sweet and savoury sou›fflés and pancakes (palatchinken) are made, as well as pasta dishes, such as noodles with curd cheese (nudeln mit topfen) or with poppy seeds (mohnnudeln). Fruit puddings and compotes are o‡ften served for the Sabbath. Vienna, of course, is famous for its superb cakes, pastries, strudels and tortes – layered cakes, usually eaten in the middle of the day with a cup of cošffee or hot chocolate. Hazelnut sponge cake (nusstorte) and ginger cookies (ingerlakh) are o‡en served for Passover.

Czech and Slovak republics

Jews first came to the Czech Republic at the time of the first Crusade, fleeing persecution in the Rhineland. Most settled in Prague, where they were restricted to earning a living by moneylending or selling second-hand clothing.

In the second half of the thirteenth century, they were moved into a Judenstadt (Jewish quarter), and shortly after King Ottaker II granted them religious and civil autonomy.

In the centuries that followed, the Jewish community endured persecution and expulsions, but a small number were allowed to remain, as long as they paid special taxes, wore distinctive badges, and complied with trade and business restrictions. By the late sixteenth century, some Jews had risen to positions of great importance: Emperor Rudolf II had a Jewish fi­nance minister, Mordechai Maisel, who became one of the richest men in Bohemia. Maisel not only bought the Jewish quarter, but also fi­nanced the building of the town hall, a bath-house and several synagogues. At the time, Prague had the largest and most important Jewish community in Europe.

However, Jews were not granted equal rights until after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I. In 1935 the Jewish community of Prague numbered more than 350,000, but after World War II many of the surviving Jews emigrated to Israel and America, and by 1947 only 8,000 remained.

The ­first major Jewish settlement in Slovakia was in the sixteenth century, in Pressburg (now called Bratislava), but it was several hundred years before the city became an important centre of Jewish education. A yeshivah (religious teaching institution) was set up in 1808 that was to become one of the most important Orthodox establishments in Europe. By the 1930s Bratislava had nineteen synagogues and almost ten per cent of the population was Jewish, but only a few thousand Jews survived the war.

The Jewish cooking of the Czech and Slovak republics is classic Ashkenazi cooking: beetroot (beet), potato and cucumber salads; sweet and savoury dumplings (galushkas, halusky or knedliky); warming vegetable soups, especially beetroot (borsc) and potato (bramborova polevka); fruit compotes, and a wide variety of fruit cakes, strudels, pancakes (palacinky) and doughnuts. Both Czechs and Slovaks love potatoes, which are made into dumplings, puddings, fritters, pancakes (latkes or preklech), omelettes and rissoles, or simply served boiled or baked with sour cream or goat’s cheese. All kinds of delicious cakes and pastries are made, including chocolate almond cake (caruso); sweet pastries called hamantaschen ­filled with plum povidl (prune jam); and sponge cake topped with cherries (bublanina).


There have been Jewish communities in Egypt since ancient times: after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC many Jews settled in Alexandria and the Nile Valley, and by the ­first century AD there were over a million Jews in Egypt.

Following the Arab conquest in the eighth century, the Jews – considered ‘People of the Book’ – were better treated by the Muslims than they had been by the Christian Romans. Nevertheless, they were still forced to live in ghettos, pay a punitive poll tax, and endure many other restrictions. At this time, most Jews were merchants, cra€ftsmen, artisans, silversmiths, goldsmiths, street traders and money-changers.

The expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth century brought a wave of refugees to Alexandria. Welcomed for their much-needed skills and expertise, they came to be known as the Espagnoli. The nineteenth century brought another in‡flux of Jewish immigrants to Egypt from Syria, Greece, Turkey and the Balkans, especially a€er the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the advent of British colonial rule in 1882. The cosmopolitan cities of Alexandria and Cairo, and the rapidly expanding economy, also attracted European Jews, mainly well-educated professionals, wealthy merchants and fi’nanciers, who were dubbed haute Juiverie, as they moved in the upper echelons of Egyptian society. However, most Jews le€ft the country a€fter the Suez Crisis in 1956.

Egyptian Jewish cooking re‡flects the cultural mix of the Jewish community, with many Sephardic dishes from the Balkans and Syria. The cuisine is based on fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, pulses and grains – especially rice and bulgur – and a small amount of dairy products. There is a liking for stu•ffed vegetables (dolma) and thick frittata-like omelettes called eggah, while the dish of lentils, rice and macaroni known as koshary is enjoyed by Egyptians and Jews alike. Sabbath dishes include stewed broad beans (ful medames), served with boiled eggs simmered overnight with onion skins (beid hamine), and savoury pastries, usually fi’lled with cheese or spinach (sambusak, filas and borekitas). Sweet nut-’filled pastries in syrup – especially baklava and konafa – are traditionally prepared for births, circumcisions and other festive occasions; and a sweet bread called masmousa is generally served to break the fast of Yom Kippur.


There have been Jewish settlements in France since the days of the Roman Empire, when most Jews lived around Masillia (Marseilles), with smaller communities in Tolosa (Toulouse), Burdigalia (Bordeaux) and the north.

Under the reign of Charlemagne, in the eighth century, many Jews settled in the Rhone Valley and Champagne, which was then famous for its trade fairs. At that time, most Jews were merchants, traders, vintners, cheese-makers and bakers. However, the Crusades brought with them increasing persecution, and many Jews fled to Alsace-Lorraine, then part of the German Holy Roman Empire. In 1394 all Jews were forced to leave the country, except for those in the southern enclaves of Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin, which were under Papal rule. These communities were Ashkenazi, but aˆfter the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 many Sephardim settled in Bordeaux, Bayonne and Nantes in the west, and in Toulouse, Montpellier and Marseilles to the south. However, the majority of Jews still lived in Alsace and Lorraine, which became part of France in the seventeenth century. Aˆfter the French Revolution in 1791, Jews were granted full equality under Napoleon’s Declaration of the Rights of Man.

In the early twentieth century another wave of Jewish immigrants arrived, mainly from Eastern Europe, soon outnumbering the old Jewish communities of Alsace and Lorraine. They were followed in the 1960s by an influx of North African Jews from the former French territories of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, who make up the majority of Jews in France today.

The influence of Jewish cooking on the food of Alsace and Lorraine is reflected in the many local dishes prepared à la juive (‘in the Jewish style’). There is also a strong German influence, with a liking for noodles (frimsels) and dumplings, especially potato dumplings served with melted butter and grated cheese (knepfle). The most popular vegetables are potatoes and cabbage, which are oˆften cooked ziss-sauer in the Jewish way – with sugar, cinnamon and vinegar. Rice with prunes and raisins (reizfloimes) is oˆften served for the Sabbath, as is a deep-dish apple pie called apfel shalet or chalet à la juive. Delicious pastries are prepared, especially creamy onion or cheese quiches, and fruit tarts made with cherries, apples, apricots and mirabelle plums.

The Jews of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia have also had an impact on modern French cooking: in the Jewish areas of Paris and Marseilles, you will Ÿfind many North African restaurants and food stores serving couscous, exotic tajines or stews, and numerous sweet pastries Ÿfilled with almond paste and soaked in syrup.


During the eighth-century reign of Charlemagne a large number of Jews settled in Germany, especially in small towns and villages along the Rhine. Because of their strict dietary laws, many of them went into the food trade.

Some became bakers and farmers, raising diary cows and poultry, especially geese; others made cheese or sold pickles and preserves; and a few produced their own wine.

By the time of the Crusades, many Jews had also become traders, importing sugar, spices, nuts and dried fruit from the Orient, and craftsmen, working as spinners, weavers and jewellers. But the Crusades brought persecution and restrictions: Jews were no longer allowed to own land, and many lost the right to trade and so had to resort to earning a living as peddlers in second-hand clothing or becoming moneylenders. With the arrival of the Black Death in 1349, many fell into poverty and flƒed to Poland and Eastern Europe.

By the end of the sixteenth century, many of the Jews who remained were forced into ghettos called Judengasse (‘Jewish quarters’), each with their own synagogue, slaughterhouse, cemetery, communal baths, bakery and a tanzhaus (literally ‘dance hall’) that was also used for weddings and special occasions.

In the seventeenth century, when much of the German Empire was divided into principalities, many Jews rose to prominence as court Jews, since the rulers of most of these territories employed a Jewish auxiliary to administer their ‘finances, equip the army and furnish their court with precious stones and textiles. For the majority of the Jewish population, however, things did not improve until the eighteenth century, when industrialization brought new opportunities for them to use their business acumen – and some families, notably the Rothschilds, accumulated great wealth. In 1871 Jews were emancipated from the ghettoes, and many subsequently became renowned in intellectual, scientific and artistic circles. Nevertheless, a new wave of anti-Semitism in the 1880s prompted thousands to emigrate to America.

German Jewish cooking is heavy and substantial, replete with sweet and savoury puddings and warming soups – often made from lentils, split peas or beans, and served with dumplings, noodles or fried pasta pu›ffs. The predominant vegetables are beetroots (beets), cabbage and especially potatoes, which are made into potato puddings (kartoffel kugeln), potato pancakes (latkes) and potato pu›ffs (bilkas). Cucumbers are often made into dill pickles. Traditional cakes and pastries include honey cake (lekach) for Rosh Hashanah; twice-baked almond bread (mandelbrot), sweet pastries fi‘lled with poppy seeds (hamantaschen), and spicy pepper biscuits (pfeffernuesse) for Purim. Plum cake (pflaumenkuchen) is traditionally served to break the Fast of Yom Kippur.


Jews first came to Hungary in Roman times when the land was part of the province of Pannonia. They were followed by Khazar Jews from the Caucasus, who arrived in the tenth century, and many Ashkenazi Jews from Germany and Czechoslovakia during the Middle Ages.

By the end of the thirteenth century, there was a Jewish quarter in Buda, with its own synagogue – and a cemetery outside the city walls.

In the sixteenth century, much of present-day Hungary came under Ottoman Turkish rule, and Jews were granted more freedoms, including the right to trade, especially with other regions of the Ottoman Empire. Turkish rule lasted until 1668, when the Austrians recaptured Buda, decimating the Jewish community for its loyalty to the Ottoman Turks. The majority of the surviving Jews lived on landowner estates in the country, or in the market town of Obuda (literally ‘old Buda’), just outside the capital. At this time most Jews were shopkeepers or traders in sugar cane, scrap iron, sheep or hare skins, or were involved in the textile industry. Following the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II’s Edict of Toleration in 1782, some Jews moved back to the city, but they were not granted full emancipation until 1868. By 1930 more than a quarter of the population of Budapest was Jewish. Although many Jews lost their lives during the Holocaust, there is still a thriving Jewish community in the city.

Hungarian Jewish cooking is a mix of Central European and Sephardic cuisines. There are many vegetable soups (leves), o“ften enriched with sour cream or served with a variety of dumplings (gomboc, shliskes and galuskas). There is a fondness for caulifl”ower, potatoes, mushrooms, cabbage, and especially sweet peppers – either stuff•ed with rice and tomatoes or made into lecso, a dish of stewed peppers and tomatoes richly ”flavoured with paprika. Noodles (metelt) may be served with curd cheese, or sweetened with sugar or honey and topped with ground walnuts or poppy seeds.

All kinds of strudels (retes) are made with apple, sour cherry, plum, poppy seed, almond, curd cheese or even cabbage. A pastry layered with chopped nuts, apple and poppy seeds (flodni) and rolled cookies —lled with chopped walnuts, raisins and honey (knidli) are traditionally served for Purim. Teiglach (pellets of dough cooked in honey with ginger and nutmeg) are usually made to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.

Iran (Persia)

The Persian Jewish community dates back to the 539 BC, when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. By the third century AD, Jewish communities had sprung up across the Persian Empire in Susa, Isfahan, Shiraz and Hamadan, and as far away as Bukhara and Samarkand.

For more than a thousand years, Jewish merchants travelled and settled along the old silk and spice routes that linked the Middle East with India and China.

Jews fared well under Sunni Muslim rule. Considered ‘People of the Book’, they were free to practise their religious traditions as long as they paid the jeziyeh – a special poll tax imposed on non-Muslim minorities, giving them the right to pursue their faith.

But the Shiite Safavid era in the sixteenth century brought social and economic change; there were persecutions and some Jewish communities were forced to convert – or be expelled. Most Jews eked out a living as money-lenders, artisans, merchants or traders in second-hand goods, while others made and sold herbal medicine, or pursued cultural and artistic endeavours: several well-known Jewish poets were working in Persia during this period, and some fiƒne Judeo-Persian manuscripts were produced. During this time, Jews were not permitted to have a shop in the bazaar or city streets, use public baths or drink from a public well, and so most of them chose to live in a muhalleh (Jewish quarter), where they had their own markets, bakeries and baths.

By the nineteenth century, there were 30,000 Jews living in Iran. Some were bankers, treasurers or court o‹fficials, but most were small businessmen dealing in textiles, antiques, jewellery or spices. There were also a number of Jewish musicians, minstrels and dancers. A’fter the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, Jews were no longer required to pay the jeziyeh and some left’ the muhallehs. Nevertheless, in 1948 more than 40,000 Jews emigrated to the newly formed state of Israel.

Persian cooking has a large repertoire of vegetarian dishes, as traditionally Persians only eat small amounts of meat. In summertime a family meal may simply consist of wholemeal (whole wheat) naan bread, some white goat or cow’s milk cheese similar to feta, a bowl of fresh herbs, and perhaps a yoghurt and vegetable dish called a boorani, followed by fresh fruit for dessert. Warming vegetable soups such as kidney bean, spinach and noodle soup (ash-e-reshteh) or a vegetable omelette (kuku) are popular in winter. Dried limes and pomegranate syrup are widely used for ›flavouring. There is also a fondness for stuœffed vegetables (dolmeh), and rice pilaf (polow) made with spinach, herbs, carrots, broad (fava) beans, lentils, sour cherries, nuts or dried fruit. Sweet saœffron rice with carrots, almonds, pistachios and dried orange peel (shireen polow) is traditionally served for weddings and special occasions.


There have been Jewish communities in Iraq since biblical times. After King Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple in 586 BC, the Jews were exiled to Babylon, not far from present-day Baghdad.

At that time, Babylonia had one of the most developed cultures in the world, and the Babylonians introduced the Jews to new methods of market gardening and fruit growing, as well as to rice and exotic spices such as ginger.

Within fifty years, Babylon was overrun by King Cyrus of Persia and, although he granted permission for Jews to return to their homeland, many chose to stay. New synagogues and academies for studying Jewish Law were established, and by the third century AD Baghdad had overtaken Palestine as the centre of World Jewry. Jews ­flourished for the next 700 years, under Greek, Roman and Arab rule; most were involved in agriculture and trade, especially in precious stones, spices and silks from China.

Over the following centuries, the fortunes of the Jewish community fl­uctuated. When Tamerlane advanced on Baghdad in 1393, many Jews ­fled to Syria and Kurdistan. Then, in the late eighteenth century, a number of Jews emigrated to Persia and India, mainly to escape persecution, but also to seek out new markets and business opportunities in the East.

Nevertheless, when Iraq became a British mandate at the end of World War I, over a third of the population of Baghdad was Jewish.

In 1921, Faisal I was put in place as king, and the Jews of Baghdad were granted ‘freedom of religion, education and employment’. However, after the state of Israel was formed in 1948, the Jews were again subject to persecution, and in 1951 most Iraqi Jews were air-lifted to Israel in a mass exodus known as Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.

The cuisine of Iraqi Jews is greatly in­fluenced by the Persians and the Ottoman Turks. From the Persians they adopted a taste for sweet and sour dishes made with vinegar, tamarind or pomegranate molasses, and fruit in savoury dishes. The Ottoman Turks introduced them to rice dishes, stuffœed vegetables (mahasha), and a variety of sweet and savoury pastries, such as the cheese-filled sambusak, and others filled with spinach or chickpeas. There is a liking for stewed chickpeas (lablabi), okra stew (bamia), and a dish of sweet and sour pumpkin simmered with raisins, almonds and dried apricots (tershana) that is traditionally prepared for Tu Bi-Shevat. Other festival foods include fried pastries soaked in sugar syrup (zlabiya) made for Chanukah, and sweet yeasted pancakes called kahi that are usually served for breakfast on the morning after Passover.


Jews have lived in Italy for more than 2,000 years. In fact, Rome has the oldest Jewish community in western Europe, dating back to the second century BC.

After Emperor Titus destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, thousands of Jews were brought to Rome as slaves, and other Jewish communities soon sprung up across southern Italy, in Naples, Calabria, Apulia, Sardinia – and especially Sicily, which was an important trading centre for the whole of the Mediterranean.

The Jewish population of Sicily thrived for more than 1,500 years, under Arab, Norman, Angevin and Aragonese rule. The Arabs brought new ingredients: rice, aubergine and artichokes – and a penchant for sweet and sour dishes that included raisins and pine nuts. Arabic infl…uence was so pervasive that some Jews wore Moorish dress, and many spoke Arabic and Greek, as well as Italian.

By 1000 AD small Jewish communities had sprung up all over northern Italy, especially in Pavia and Lucca, which were important centres for trade with northern Europe. Most Jews worked as crasmen, artisans, traders or peddlers, but some were peasants and small landowners, mainly tending olive groves and vineyards, so they could produce their own wine.

The Jews of these early communities were known as the Italkim. The Ashkenazim, who came mainly came from France, Germany and the Rhineland, did not arrive in Italy until the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, at the time of the Black Death, and they settled mostly in Piedmont, Venezia-Giulia, Mantua and Ferrara. The Sephardim came later again, …fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, and bringing with them foods from the New World: tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkins, peppers, beans, corn and chocolate.

Around the same time, Jews were expelled from southern Italy, and soon after from the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, all of which were under Spanish rule. Most …fled to Rome, but many went north, especially to Pesaro, Ancona and Venice. The sudden in…flux of people led to severe overcrowding in these cities and, as a result, Jews were segregated in specifi˜c quarters and had to comply with various restrictions. The ˜first ghetto was created in Venice in 1516, and by 1556 Pope Paul IV had set up ghettos all over Italy, where Jews were confi˜ned until Napoleon liberated the ghettos in 1796.

Nevertheless, the Renaissance was a period of prosperity for many Italian Jews. Some became bankers and money-lenders (occupations forbidden to Christians), while others became merchants, doctors, gem-dealers and scholars. There were also many Jewish poets, musicians and composers, who were supported by some of the greatest arts patrons of the day: the Medicis of Tuscany, the Viscontis of Milan and the D’Estes of Ferrara. Others were involved with the theatre, especially in Mantua, which was famous for its Jewish actors.

One of the most flourishing centres of Jewish life was Livorno, which was well known for its social, religious and political tolerance, and was the only city in Italy never to have a ghetto. The forward-looking city attracted so many marranos (Jews who had openly converted to Christianity, but secretly practiced Judaism) from Spain, Portugal and North Africa that it became known as la piccola Gerusalemme. The Jews even had their own dialect, Guidaico Livornese – a mixture of Hebrew and Portuguese. And they got on so well with the people of Livorno that the saying went, ‘If you hurt a Jew, you harm Livorno.’

From the nineteenth century Livorno slid into decline, although many Jews still held high positions in trade and culture, maintaining close links with North Africa. By the end of World War II, however, the Sephardic community had virtually disappeared; today only a small number of Jews live in Livorno, and most are from Tunisia and Libya.

The Jewish cooking of the Italian ghettos diffŠered from community to community. In Trieste, the cooking had a strong German and Central European influence, with a liking for dumplings, potatoes, cabbage and sweet or savoury stuŠffed pancakes called palacincke. Fruit strudels and sweet pastries, such as putizza di noci (chocolate almond roll) and ofelle (sweet crescent-shaped pastries fiŽlled with raisins, almonds and pine nuts) were also much loved.

In the Venice ghetto, the food was more varied and exotic. So much so that the Venetians soon took to the Jewish way of eating rice with all kinds of vegetables – especially artichokes, peas, courgettes, fennel, celery, tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes and spinach. Vegetables were also o“ften cooked alla giudea: simmered with raisins, pine nuts and vinegar. It was the Jews who introduced the Venetians to the aubergine, which they had previously shunned as the ‘mad apple’, and to the delicious Jewish speciality of spinach croquettes with raisins and pine nuts (polpettine di spinaci).

Roman Jewish cooking is simple and robust. There is a liking for fritto misto (mixed fry) and vegetable pies (made with or without pastry) that usually include locally produced pecorino, ricotta or mozzarella; despite its name, pizza ebraica is not in fact a pizza, but a double-crusted pie Žfilled with artichokes, peas and beet greens. One of the main diŠfferences between Roman and Jewish cooking is, of course, the cooking medium: traditional Roman cooking is based on pork fat, rather than olive oil.


Jews have lived in Morocco since ancient times. The earliest Jewish settlements were probably in the Anti-Atlas Mountains and the Dra Valley in southern Morocco in the h century BC.

According to local legends, there were Jewish kingdoms and Berber tribes here long before Islam took hold in the eighth century AD. After the Arab conquest, Jewish communities sprang up all over Morocco, and by the tenth century the city of Fez was a key centre of Talmudic learning, with such a large Jewish population that it was often dubbed ‘a town without people’ since it appeared to have no Muslim inhabitants.

In the fift­eenth century, during the Spanish Inquisition, thousands of Sephardic Jews came to Morocco, mainly settling in Fez, Meknes and Rabat: these arrivals were given the Hebrew name of megorashim (‘the expelled’), as opposed to the native Jews or toshavim (‘the residents’). The Jewish population of Fez became so swollen that tensions grew between Muslims and Jews, leading the sultan to move the Jews into a special quarter or mellah, next to the imperial city, for their own protection. The mellah was virtually a town unto itself, with its own laws and government, souk, gardens, synagogues and cemetery. In due course, every Moroccan city with a Jewish community had its own mellah.

When Morocco was divided between France and Spain in 1912, funds poured in from Europe to provide educational resources, and some Jews moved into newly built French colonial neighbourhoods outside the medina. By the end of World War II, there were more than 250,000 Jews living in Morocco, mainly in Casablanca, Marrakesh, Fez, Meknes, Rabat and Tangier. But after the founding of Israel in 1948, resentment between Muslims and Jews over the issue of Palestine caused many thousands of Jews to leave for Israel. Following Moroccan independence in 1956, a large part of the Jewish community moved to France and Canada.

Moroccan Jewish cuisine is among the best in the country. The Jewish repertoire is a mix of local dishes, Sephardic cooking from Spain, and Berber in—fluences, especially in the south. Spices such as cinnamon, ginger, coriander, turmeric, sa˜ffron, and pepper are used generously; salads and sides accompany most meals, and soups are rich in legumes and vegetables. There is a liking for stu˜ffed vegetables, fritters, and pastries called pastels, which are made with warka, a paperthin dough. All kinds of tajines are enjoyed, and couscous (seksu) is the national dish. Couscous with seven veg (seksu bidawi) is served for Rosh Hashanah.

A variety of pastries is made for weddings, bar mitzvahs, circumcisions and other festive occasions – especially fried ring-shaped pastries in sugar syrup called shebakia, doughnuts (sfenj) and almond nougat (jabane). Beraniya, a kind of conserve made with fried aubergine (eggplant), is served the day after Yom Kippur.

Poland, Lithuania and Russia

From the time of the Crusades, many Ashkenazi Jews fled France and Germany and settled in Poland (‘Ashkenaz’ is the medieval Hebrew word for Germany).

The Jews of Germany also brought with them their Judeo-German dialect, Yiddish, which soon became the common vernacular of Jews across Central and Eastern Europe. In 1264, King Boleshaw of Poland granted protection to the Jewish community, and eventually they were given autonomy of their communal aff€airs.

In the middle of the sixteenth century, Poland and Lithuania were united as one country that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, encompassing much of present-day Ukraine. Many Jews worked with Polish landowners, growing and exporting grain to feed the growing population of western Europe; others imported wine, textiles and luxury goods, or traded in furs.

The Polish nobility owned land in the Ukraine and employed Jews to manage their estates and collect taxes. The Jews fl‰ourished, but soon they came to be resented by the rural population, who saw them as middlemen for unjust, absentee landlords. In 1648 the Cossacks, led by Bohdan Chmielnicki, rebelled against the Polish landlords and their Jewish agents. Over the next eight years, more than 100,000 Jews were massacred, and many of the remaining Jews ‰fled to the Balkans, Bohemia, Germany and Holland.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, much of western Poland was partitioned to Prussia and Austria. At the same time, Russia expanded westwards and swallowed up much of eastern Poland and Lithuania. Suddenly more than a million Jews found themselves living under Russian rule. Most were con”fined to an area called the Pale of Settlement, which stretched roughly from Kovno and Vitebsk in the north down to Yalta on the Black Sea. A hundred years later, ”five million Jews were living in Russia, but a wave of pogroms in the 1880s resulted in mass emigrations: over 60,000 Jews ‰fled to Palestine, and two million went to the Americas.

Jewish food in this region is classic Ashkenazi fare, with soups and fi”lled pastries, especially knishes and piroshki. Crepes like buckwheat blini and ”filled blintzes are popular, as are all kinds of dumplings, such as matzo-meal kneidlach, potato dumplings (kartoffel klishkes), and kreplach, a sort of ravioli usually served in broth. One of the most well known Ashkenazi dishes is kasha varnishkes (buckwheat with bow-tie pasta). Pickles are generally on the table, including sauerkraut, cucumber and tzikel – beetroot (beets). Dairy products are a staple, especially sour cream, buttermilk, curd and cream cheese. Fruit compotes are served for desserts, especially on the Sabbath, and strudels, cheesecakes, honey cakes, apple cakes and poppy seed rolls are made for festivals. Lokschen kugel (sweet noodle pudding), honig leiker (honey cake) and teiglach (pellets of dough cooked in honey syrup) are served during Rosh Hashanah.


Jews first came to Romania in Roman times, followed by Khazar Jews in the tenth century, Ashkenazim expelled from Hungary in 1367, Sephardic exiles from Spain in 1492, and a wave of Polish and Ukrainian Jews a„fter the Chmielnicki massacres in 1648.

Further waves of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia continued into the nineteenth century.

By the 1930s, there were more than 800,000 Jews living in Romania, mostly in Transylvania, Bessarabia and Moldavia – and especially in Bukovina, where they prospered as cra­smen and small traders. Some Jews lived in self-suffƒcient rural communities (Romania was one of the few countries where Jews were allowed to own land), and in Bucharest, a small number of Sephardic Jews played an active role in business and fi†nancial life.

A­fter World War II, Romania became part of the Soviet Union until the Revolution of 1989. During that time, around 300,000 Jews emigrated to Israel. Nevertheless around 20,000 Jews still live in Romania – in Bucharest, Chisinau and in small communities scattered around the country.

Romanian Jewish cuisine is strongly in’fluenced by both Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions, as well as Hungarian, Russian, French and especially Turkish cooking; the Turks brought corn from the New World to Romania, and it is still a staple food today. There is a taste for ciorbe – vegetable soups with a tangy, tart ’flavour designed to whet the appetite. Romanians also enjoy sweet and savoury pancakes (clatite) and dumplings (papanasi, galuste or galushkas), o­ften topped with tomato sauce and grated cheese and baked in the oven. Vegetarian dishes of note include fried peppers stu˜ffed with cheese (pipirushkas reyenados de keso), vegetable rissoles (parjoale de legume) and a mixed vegetable stew called ghiveci.

Romanian desserts such as baklava, konafa and sponge cake (pandispan) re’flect Turkish and Sephardic in’fluences.

Spain and Portugal

After the Destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC, many Jews went to live in Spain, especially around Cordoba in the south. Before the Arab conquest in AD 711, Jews had been subjected to more than a hundred years of persecution by the Visigoths.

However, under Muslim rule many rose to prominence as government administrators, lawyers, doctors, nanciers and philosophers. Jewish merchants, bookbinders and tailors also flourished, and some Jews owned vineyards and olive groves.

Soon Jewish communities sprang up in all the major cities of Al-Andalus, which at its height covered much of modern-day Spain and Portugal. The Jews became an integral part of Muslim society, speaking Arabic and adopting Arab dress; however, things began to change in the eleventh century. This was the time of the Reconquista, the re-conquering of Spain by the Christian states to the north, and by the beginning of the thirteenth century, all of Spain except for Granada was under Christian rule. At this time, what remained of Al-Andalus was still ruled by the Berbers, who tried to force Jews to convert to Islam, prompting many to flee to northern Spain and what is now Portugal. At first they were treated well, but this changed at the end of the fourteenth century when angry Christian mobs destroyed the Jewish quarters of Seville, Barcelona, Cordoba and Toledo. Thousands of Jews were massacred and many more fled; others were forcibly converted to Christianity but practised Judaism in secret, and came to be known as conversos or marranos (literally meaning ‘pork’, as they were forced to eat pork in public to demonstrate their disregard for Jewish dietary laws).

Finally, in 1492, the Spanish Inquisition saw the expulsion of all Jews from Spain, as well as the Spanish colonies in southern Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Provence and the New World. Most fled to Greece and Turkey; some went to Holland, France, Italy and North Africa; and others – mainly conversos – managed to board ships with the Conquistadors. Many ended up in Mexico and Brazil, while others escaped to Peru.

As most Spanish Jews fled to the Ottoman Empire a˜fter the Inquisition, the traditional cooking of the Sephardim is probably more accurately reflected in the Jewish cooking of Greece and Turkey than in that of Spain – with one important diff™erence, the exclusion of foods from the New World, such as tomatoes, potatoes, corn, sweet peppers, hot chillies, pumpkins, beans and chocolate.

Nevertheless, there are some early records of Jewish dishes in Spain – found mainly in Inquisition tribunals and early cookbooks, such as Roberto de Nola’s Libre de Coch, printed in 1477. As in most Mediterranean countries, the diet was based on wheat, olives and wine. In the eighth century, the Moors introduced a wide variety of new foods into Iberia, especially rice, sugar, oranges, capers, artichokes and aubergines, as well as all kinds of spices, including saffron, ginger, cumin, cinnamon and cardamom. Vegetable stews and casseroles (ollas) were made with eggs and cheese, hardboiled eggs were roasted overnight over hot coals (huevos asados or huevos haminados), and stews of chickpeas (olla de garbanzos) or chickpeas with spinach (hamin de berzas) were usually prepared for the Sabbath. Vegetables, especially onions, were often served con almodrote – in a sauce based on cheese, hard-boiled egg yolks, breadcrumbs, garlic, olive oil and vegetable broth, according to de Nola.

Fresh fruit was usually eaten for dessert, but Spanish Jews also had a liking for candied fruit and sweetmeats made with ground nuts, especially dried figs stuffed with almonds or walnuts (empanadas de igos). They also made a variety of sweet fritters and pastries soaked in honey, such as bunuelos and rosquillas.


Jews have lived in Syria for more than 2,000 years. Most were Mizrachim who never le the Middle East, but some were Sephardim who ed the Spanish Inquisition in 1492.

Aleppo had been an important base for the ancient caravan trade between the Middle East and the Orient since the Middle Ages, and it continued to fl„ourish as a centre of international trade right up until the middle of the nineteenth century.

When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the caravan routes lost their importance and many Jewish merchants found themselves without a livelihood. This began the first wave of migrations: some Jews went to Cairo to continue trading from there; others emigrated to England and North America. After the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, many young Jewish men „fled Syria with their families, in order to avoid conscription into the army. Some left for Egypt, some settled in England and the United States, especially New York and along the New Jersey coast; others went to Mexico, Panama, Brazil and Argentina. After the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, many Syrian Jews crossed the border into Israel.

The Jewish cuisine of Aleppo was renowned: a mix of Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Sephardic in„uences, characterized by spices such as cinnamon, allspice and cumin, and the piquant fl„avours of tamarind and pomegranate molasses. Most meals included a variety of delicious mezze, such as hummus, roasted aubergine with tahini (baba ghanouj), and vine leaves stuffed with rice and mint (yebrah hamaud). Bulgur was a staple, although the wealthy Jewish middle classes preferred white rice, which was oftƒen cooked with vermicelli (wa shariyya) – or, for special occasions, with almonds or pistachios (wa loz). Lentils and rice with caramelized onions (mujaddara) was oƒften served for supper on Thursday evenings. All kinds of omelettes and fritters (ejjeh) were made with courgettes (zucchini), leeks, Swiss chard, potatoes, parsley and fresh cheese; and the Sephardim introduced pastels – savoury pastries, usually ˜filled with spinach or cheese. Fresh fruit or dried fruit and nuts were generally served for dessert, with sweet pastries soaked in sugar syrup, such as baklava and konafa, enjoyed by Jews and Syrians alike. Sesame seed candies fl‚avoured with ginger and cinnamon (simsemiyeh) were usually served for Rosh Hashanah.

Tunisia and Algeria

Jews are thought to have arrived in Tunisia and Algeria with Phoenician traders, during the reign of King Solomon. In Roman times, there were scattered Jewish communities along the coast of North Africa, mainly involved in agriculture and trade.

And legend has it that Kahina, a Jewish Berber queen and prophetess, led the last Berber resistance against the Arab invasion of the Maghreb in the seventh century.

One of the earliest Jewish communities in Tunisia settled on the island of Djerba, where locals claim that the synagogue of El Ghriba (‘the miracle’) occupies the site of one of the oldest synagogues in the world, built where a holy stone fell from heaven. The Jews of Djerba have retained their own distinct form of Judaism, virtually untouched by outside infl‚uences.

Aƒfter the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, thousands of Sephardim fl‚ed to North Africa. Some settled in Algeria, while others went on to Tunisia, especially Tunis and Testour, where they built houses in the Andalusian style, with tiled inner courtyards and balconies. By the end of the sixteenth century, Algeria, Tunisia and Tripolitana (present-day Libya) were under Ottoman rule. Soon aƒfter, a large contingent of Jews from Livorno came to Algiers and Tunis to negotiate ransoms for Jews kidnapped by local pirates. The new arrivals were encouraged to stay by local beys (governors), and many Livornese prospered as merchants, bankers and traders because of their close connections with Europe. However, the majority of the Jewish community struggled to earn a living as peddlers, tailors, embroiderers, shoemakers, carpenters, goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewellers and moneychangers. By the end of the eighteenth century, most Jews lived in a hara (Jewish quarter), in exceptionally overcrowded and seriously impoverished conditions.

Life did not improve until the French took over Algeria in 1831, and then Tunisia fift‚ƒy years later. Many Jews thrived under the burgeoning economy of the new French Protectorates, and some were able to leave the hara and move into more comfortable apartments in the French quarter. Most Algerian Jews were given French nationality. Just before Algeria gained independence, in 1962, about 150,000 people (almost the entire Jewish population) emigrated to France. Aftƒer Tunisian independence, in 1956, about 40,000 Jews moved to Israel and France.

Tunisian Jews are very proud of their cuisine, which has French, Italian, Andalusian and Ottoman in‘fluences. Meals usually begin with a kemia: a selection of small cooked vegetable salads, such as roast peppers, tomatoes and garlic (mechouia); spicy carrot salad (mzora); and artichokes with harissa, the ‚fiery North African condiment made with dried chillies, garlic and spices. They are also fond of stu•ffed vegetables, vegetable fritters and deep-fried savoury pastries called briks. Tunisian soups are rich in vegetables and pulses, and oƒften include homemade pasta, such as reuchtas (noodles) or noissars (squares of egg pasta). Traditional dairy dishes include a variety of baked omelettes (makhouda), usually made with potatoes, carrots or aubergines (eggplants), scrambled eggs in a spicy sauce (ojja), and fried vegetables cooked with eggs (chakchouka).

Cakes and pastries, such as manicottis (fried pastry rosettes) and yoyos (little doughnuts), are usually soaked in honey or sugar syrup. And when the Livornese Jews came to Tunisia, they brought scoudilini (a rich almond custard) and boca di dama (almond sponge cake) with them.

Vegetables have always played an important role in Algerian Jewish cooking. All kinds of cooked salads are prepared for the Sabbath: artichokes, fennel, celery, cucumber, roasted aubergines, tomatoes, peppers, carrots and courgettes, usually dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, harissa, ground caraway seeds and coriander. One of the most popular vegetarian dishes is loubia (white beans simmered in a spicy sauce), which is traditionally served for Sukkot, while boketof (a vegetable soup fl‘avoured with mint) is oƒften served for the festival of Tisha Be-Av.

Couscous is a staple and is oƒften served simply with butter, raisins, sugar and a glass of iben (buttermilk). Boureks or bestels, deep-fried sweet or savoury pastries similar to the briks of Tunisia, are usually made for weddings and other special occasions. Some of the better known desserts include cigares aux amandes (fried paper-thin pastries ‚filled with almond paste and soaked in honey syrup), knidlets (almond pastries) and el baghrir (spongy semolina pancakes served with an orange blossom syrup).

Turkey and Greece

It is not known when the first Jews settled in Greece and Turkey, but by the end of the first century BC there were thriving Jewish communities in most of the cities and principalities of Asia Minor, as well as on Crete, Cyprus and some of the Aegean islands.

Under Roman rule, Jews were free to practise their religion, but were not allowed to participate in public life.

After AD 330, when Constantine the Great moved the imperial capital to Byzantium (and renamed it Constantinople), the Eastern Roman Empire came to be known as the Byzantine Empire – but the Jews of Byzantium were proud of Rome and its civilization and thought of themselves as Romans, and so came to be known as Romaniote Jews.

Then, in the early thirteenth century, Crete, the Ionian Islands and some of the Aegean Islands came under Venetian rule, an in†fluence still apparent today – not only in the many Venetian castles and buildings, but also in the cuisine. The fritole (rice fritters) of Corfu and the Cretan sofegada – aubergine, courgette and pepper stew – both have obvious Venetian origins.

In 1453 the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople and, over the next two centuries, most of Greece. Ottoman rule lasted for more than 400 years, with life improving for the Jews, since Christians and Jews were treated alike. After the Spanish Inquisition, Sultan Beyazit II opened the empire’s borders to the Jews †fleeing Spain, and thousands settled in Constantinople, Izmir, Edirne and especially Thessaloniki – which, by the end of the sixteenth century, was predominantly Jewish, so much so that it became known as ‘the Jerusalem of the Balkans’.

The Spanish Jews, or Sephardim (the names derives from sepharad, the Hebrew word for Spain), brought their own sophisticated culture and cuisine with them. Most spoke Castilian Spanish, which gradually developed into Ladino or Judesmo (a mixture of Spanish and loan words from Hebrew, Greek, Turkish, Italian and Arabic), and this soon became the lingua franca of the Jews of Greece and Turkey. Among their number were bankers, doctors, interpreters and printers, and many went into government o–ffice; others became merchants, trading in silks, precious stones, co˜ffee, and spices.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had gone into decline. After Greece entered World War I in 1917, a fiœre swept through Thessaloniki, destroying most of the Jewish quarter. As a result, many of the city’s Jews moved to Athens or emigrated to France, Africa, the United States and South America. When the Nazis invaded Greece in World War II, more than 65,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps. Today there are about 6,000 Jews in Greece – and about 20,000 Jews in Turkey, most of them in Istanbul.

The cuisine of Greek and Turkish Jews has been strongly influenced by Sephardic and Ottoman cooking, with dishes such as empanadas (savoury turnovers) having obvious Spanish origins. There is a liking for pickled vegetables (tursi) and a range of savoury pastries (bourekas, boyos, pastels, tapadas and bulemas) filled with spinach, Swiss chard, aubergine, potato, pumpkin or cheese. Some of the most well known of the vast repertoire of vegetarian dishes include Swiss chard and potato pie (sfongo de pazi), a courgette and white cheese gratin called kalavasutcho, and sweet peppers or tomatoes stuffed with rice, pine nuts and currants. Leek and white cheese fritters (albondigas de prasa), a spinach and matzo gratin called mina de smyrne, and a variety of vegetable omelettes (fritadas) are traditionally served for Passover.

A large number of cakes and pastries are made, many of them soaked in syrup, such as tishpishti (a light walnut cake o€ften prepared for Rosh Hashanah), the rich custard-filled pastry known as galaktoboureko, and baklava. Greek honey puffs (zvingous) and sweet fritters called bimuelos de hanuka are traditionally made for Chanukah.

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