Eastern Poland might not be an obvious place to go for hummus — or for falafel, or for service by waiters who greet every customer with “shalom.”
But at the Mandragora restaurant in Lublin, visitors will find all that and more, including strictly kosher offerings such as gefilte fish, matza brei and an array of other Jewish specialties. Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, is not the menu, but the identity of the eatery’s owners.
Rather than Israeli immigrants or remnants of prewar Polish Jewry, the restaurant is the creation of Izabela Kozlowska, a 41-year-old Polish Catholic who calls Mandragora the “dream of a lifetime.”
A decade after opening, the restaurant has become a popular destination for tourists and locals alike, a place where workers are instructed to answer even the phone with a Hebrew salutation.
On entering, the first thing most visitors notice is the restaurant’s resemblance to a museum dedicated to Israel and Judaism. Photos of the Western Wall, rabbis and Israeli soldiers adorn the walls, while menorahs and Torah scrolls add additional decorative flair.
Though Kozlowska maintains strong ties to Israel, the owner says the restaurant’s inspiration came from the period she spent in New York after graduating from college. “After I returned,” she says, “I decided to open a restaurant. It was clear to me that it was going to be a Jewish-style restaurant because I always felt very close to Judaism.”
Partly with the help of Jewish friends, Kozlowska found a location for her eatery, renovating it in what she calls an “Israeli and Jewish style.” The restaurant serves as an unlikely echo of prewar Lublin, known before the Holocaust as “the Jerusalem of Poland” because of its 40,000 Jewish residents.
‘The Mandragora,’ the Polish Catholic co-owner says, ‘is not only a restaurant, but also a Jewish cultural institution’
Even with that history in the background, Kozlowska says she’s unable to fully explain her attraction to Judaism and Israel, though she attributes part of her culinary interest to the dishes themselves. “First of all, food has always been something very important for us, especially Jewish food,” she says. “My grandmother and my mother both loved to cook gefilte fish and other kinds of traditional Jewish food. My grandmother once mentioned something about [a family link to] Judaism, but I don’t have anything to prove that my family is Jewish. We grew up as Catholics, and I am Catholic.
“To be honest, I don’t have a very good answer why [this is] a Jewish restaurant, but sometimes you grow up . . . and feel close to a religion, identify with certain beliefs. I have always felt close to Judaism, to the Jewish holidays and Jewish tradition.”
The restaurant takes its name — Polish for “mandrake” — from the Biblical “Song of Songs,” Kozlowska says, pulling a Bible from a nearby shelf to point out the relevant verse. (“There the mandrakes give off their fragrance, and the finest fruits are at our door.”)
During the conversation, we’re joined by Kamil Kozlowska, Izabela’s business partner and husband, who proudly reveals his own “Israeli” background.
“I fell in love with Israel and stayed there for 15 years,” he says in fluent Hebrew, recalling the period he spent working at the country’s stock exchange in Ramat Aviv. “Five years ago, I met Izabela, who came to visit . . . When we decided to get married, it was clear that one of us had to give up their career. Because Izabela invested a lot of effort in opening the restaurant, it became her baby, and I decided to leave the stock exchange and Israel and go back to Lublin.”
Described by Kamil as a “walking encyclopedia” of Judaism, Izabela says Israel felt “so much like home” — enough that she brought Mandragora’s head chef to the country to learn the menu’s Middle Eastern recipes. “For two weeks, she was paired with an Israeli chef, who taught her how to prepare Israeli and Mediterranean food, as well as traditional holiday dishes,” says Kozlowska, who supplements her staff’s education with Israeli cookbooks.
The restaurant’s exotic offerings took a little getting used to for Lublin natives, but have since attracted a following. “At first, people didn’t know what hummus, cholent [a traditional Shabbat stew] and falafel were, but slowly, the number of curious customers increased,” Kozlowska recalls, “and today some of them are simply addicted to this kind of food.”
“The Mandragora,” she continues, “is not only a restaurant, but also a Jewish cultural institution. You come here, and in an instant you feel as if you were in the heart of Judaism. We also have a lot of Israeli tourists who come here, and with some of them we keep in touch . . . We explain the Jewish tradition to the Poles who come to eat here. We tell them the meaning of ‘shalom’ and ‘leila tov’ (good night).”
Friends in Israel, meanwhile, can be relied upon to send hard-to-find ingredients, helping to produce a hummus that one Israeli visitor found perfectly respectable. The wine list is entirely Israeli, although local cuisine takes its place in the form of pierogies — which, unsurprisingly, may be the eatery’s best dish.
Yom Kippur is the only day of the year the restaurant is closed
While the restaurant remains open on Shabbat, it pays tribute to most Jewish holidays, offering apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah and candle lighting on Hanukkah. Even Shavuot inspires special dishes on the menu, and Yom Kippur is the only day of the year the restaurant is closed.
To avoid mistakes and maintain the restaurant’s atmosphere, prospective employees undergo a short “conversion” process, learning the basics of Judaism from the couple. “We teach them about Jewish holidays, Jewish traditions and Jewish food, ” Kamil says, “and then Izabela prepares a short test that they must pass if they want to work here. You can check it out — ask the waiter any question about Jewish holidays, or why you can’t order schnitzel with coffee and milk.”
In 10 years of business, the Kozlowskas say they have never faced anti-Semitism, despite the restaurant’s well-known association with Judaism. “The restaurant has become a very famous place in Lublin… Anyone who comes here does so to enjoy the special atmosphere and discover new foods and new traditions,” Izabela says. “Lublin has a long Jewish history, and we are trying to maintain this tradition.”
With dreams of opening an Israeli-friendly hotel and a second Jewish eatery, the Kozlowskas hope to correct what they see as an understandable but flawed perception of their homeland.
“We know that Poland has a stereotype as a gray and anti-Semitic country,” Izabela says. “We can figure out where it comes from, but we want to tell everyone who reads this article that Poland is not what many people think. It’s a beautiful country. We love Israelis very much, and want them to come here and feel at home.”