When Itzik Yaacobi was a hungry teenager in the Auschwitz concentration camp, he used to dream about food he didn’t have — a pear, an apple, a watermelon — but he never dreamed that one day he would cook with a dean of Israeli chefs, in this case Shalom Kadosh.
Yaacobi is sitting in Kadosh’s small office in the Leonardo Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem, surrounded by photos of the chef with U.S. presidents, most recently Barack Obama. He has come here to cook with Kadosh as part of a project with the Shorashim Group, an Israeli organization that helps Holocaust survivors and the elderly.
“I was born in Hungary in 1929, and all my childhood was characterized by Hungarian dishes — goulash, csirke paprikash, capostash kotzke,” Yaacobi said nostalgically. “There was also an Austrian-Hungarian dish called gumboats, a ball made of potato, and inside was a plum or an apricot. Then it was wrapped in bread crumbs and fried in butter or oil.”
At 15, Yaacobi was taken to Auschwitz, where he survived eight “selections” by the notorious Joseph Mengele. He also had a cousin who worked in the commandant’s home who managed to get him extra bread rations.
After he was freed by the 761st Armored Brigade, he immigrated to Israel and was seriously wounded while fighting in the 1948 war. He then began working in the office of longtime Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek. He sharply remembers the day that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, called him into his office to tell Yaacobi that Israel had captured one of the main figures in the Holocaust, Adolph Eichmann.
“He was sitting behind a desk; he was very small, you could only see his forehead and white hair,” Yaacobi said. “He said, ‘We caught Eichmann, the man who sent you and your family to Auschwitz.’ Then I got it, and I was trembling.”
But today is about the present, and about food. Yaacobi gives Kadosh careful, precise instructions about how to make chicken paprikash, watching closely to make sure that his instructions are carried out. Kadosh, used to giving the orders rather than following them, takes his job as a sous chef seriously. The two men quickly form a mutual admiration society.
“This is so exciting,” Kadosh said. “I’ve been doing so many state dinners for very important people — presidents, kings, queens — but today I feel so emotional. For me it’s a great day, and I’m happy that Itzik liked his visit in our hotel and our kitchen.”
After making Yaacobi’s chicken paprikash, a dish of chicken legs and thighs simmered in a paprika-heavy sauce, Kadosh offers an updated take on the dish, cooking the chicken sous-vide (vacuum sealed) and garnishing with beautifully cut vegetables.
The two dishes, and their creators, are photographed for an upcoming cookbook. Itzik’s dish is packed up, where it will be sold at the Tel Aviv farmers’ market. He says he wants to donate the proceeds from the sale to Shorashim.
“The idea is to take Holocaust survivors and have them meet the biggest chefs in Israel,” Tami Shachnaey, CEO of the Shorashim Group, said. “Many Holocaust survivors in Israel feel they have to choose between food and medicine.”
Shachnaey said that among the 200,000 Holocaust survivors still alive, about 50,000 live below the poverty line. The Shorashim Group organizes donations of large food packages to 1,150 elderly twice a year before Jewish holidays. The packages, which cost more than $100 to buy and weigh more than 50 pounds, include everything from chicken to fresh fruits and vegetables. Some 1,000 volunteers deliver the packages along with bouquets of flowers.
The organization also invites Holocaust survivors to partake in donated meals in restaurants, often as much for the companionship as for the food.
At another Jerusalem restaurant, the trendy Machneyuda in the outdoor fruit-and-vegetable market, Tzippi Kadosh (no relation to Chef Kadosh), who is 81, has come to show chef Uri Navon how to make stuffed wild artichokes, called harshuf in Hebrew. Kadosh came to Israel from Romania after the Holocaust.
She worked as a telephone operator and raised three children. Today she has six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
“This is really Israeli food, not Romanian,” she said. “I hardly cook any more. My daughter asked me if I would even be able to remember the recipe.”
The wild artichoke stalks are soaked in saltwater to soften them, the thorns peeled off, and the stalks stuffed with a mixture of meat and rice. They are then simmered in a tomato-based sauce.
“It is a great honor for me to cook with her,” Navon, wearing a grey fedora, said with a smile. “Besides being a Holocaust survivor, she made me miss my grandmothers, both passed away. I used to love to cook with them, and she brought it back.”
His restaurant, Machneyuda, has become a hit in Jerusalem’s burgeoning culinary scene. It is booked for the next month for both lunch and dinner.
Navon said the artichoke dish is labor-intensive, but the flavor is worth it, and the dish is going on his menu.
“The minute Tzippi said harshuf, wild artichoke, I knew we’re going to do it, because it’s really old school,” Navon said. “You can’t find it in restaurants — only in homes. It’s something with a fingerprint.”
Navon said he is happy to donate his time and ingredients to Shorashim.
“It’s an amazing project and helps raise awareness that we still have Holocaust survivors in Israel,” he said. “They’re still part of the community, and we need to remember them.”
Linda Gradstein writes for The Media Line.