To encourage vaccination, Israeli cities serve free food with a side of comfort

From Sabbath stews to Russian fried pies to hummus and pizza, municipalities promise their residents better days through familiar foods

A man receives a slice of Knafe after getting vaccinated against the coronavirus in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, on February 16, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The city of Bnei Brak, Israel’s largest Haredi metropolis, last week began offering a slow-cooked stew of meat, potatoes, beans and barley called cholent to any resident who took part in the city’s coronavirus vaccination campaign.

The jokes came fast and furious. “There’s already an anti-cholent group organizing, the ‘kugelers,’” one observer quipped. “They should be careful. Cholent can have dangerous side effects,” joked another.

But the lampooning didn’t stop the program, which was an unmitigated success from the start. At least 2,000 residents who hadn’t vaccinated — many who hadn’t even looked into setting appointments to do so — showed up to the vaccination center last Thursday for the city’s free bags of cholent, dished out with bread rolls and soda.

Israel’s national vaccination campaign has been a celebrated success. But after getting off to a fast start by inoculating the most eager, the drive has slowed over the past two weeks as it has tried to reach those who still remain unvaccinated: Those skeptical, apathetic or downright opposed to the shot.

The pressure is now on to convince the holdouts, and several municipalities have turned to giveaways to bring people in and get them vaccinated. And not just any food, but comfort food.

In Bnei Brak, which was the first to experiment with freebies, one person joked that it wasn’t a vaccination drive with cholent given out, but a cholent drive with a vaccination giveaway, and the quip holds some truth.

In normal times on Thursday nights in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, many young yeshiva students don’t go to bars or movies, but rather to a handful of restaurants that stay open late and serve steaming servings of cholent, a meal usually home-cooked and eaten on Saturday.

Illustrative: Ultra-orthodox Jews eating cholent in Jerusalem on a Thursday night, December 24, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

A whole social scene has evolved around the Thursday night cholent tradition. By offering cholent on Thursday night at the vaccination center, the city was attempting to tap into that scene and get young people to come for both some beans and a shot.

People hang outside a restaurant serving late-night cholent in Jerusalem, on December 24, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

In Petah Tikva, where skepticism about the vaccine is concentrated among aging immigrant populations, especially Russian speakers, the municipality on Monday began handing out blintzes, the traditional cheese-filled cigar-shaped wraps; and pirozhki, the stuffed, fried pies sold by street vendors throughout Russia and Ukraine that Wikipedia calls “a stereotypical part of Russian culture.” The most familiar and comfortable of comfort food.

The city also hired a musician to play folk tunes to go along with the nosh and bring in passersby.

Tel Aviv has offered free hummus and knafe in Jaffa, which has a large Arab population, and free espresso in northern areas of the city, where people flock to cafes like moths to a light.

Many places not necessarily targeting specific groups have offered free pizza, which is easy, cheap and almost universally loved. Who wouldn’t get a shot for a free pizza?

A person receives a pizza after getting a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine, at Clalit Health Services in the Israeli city of Bnei Brak, on February 15, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The promotions are marketing 101. Everybody likes free. But the decision of many of the cities to offer not only free food, but free comfort food, could be said to tap into something larger: A sense of familiarity and of community that has been decimated by the virus, and which the vaccine promises to bring back.

Each audience is being offered its own “cholent,” its promise of happier days.

Not just meat and potatoes

In Bnei Brak specifically, there appears to be a conscious effort to fight the perceived alienness of the vaccination by bringing it into the home, literally and figuratively.

That includes vaccination drives hosted by yeshivas, including the Mir Yeshiva, the largest in the country, and in some of the most insular Haredi neighborhoods, including the home of the massive Vizhnitz sect, backed by powerful rabbis.

Cholent, the ultimate homemade food, plays a role in this too. Even if most Orthodox Jews have never been to an underground cholent joint on a Thursday night, chances are they have had some at someone’s home.

If chicken soup and knishes are stereotypically Jewish, then cholent is Jewishly Jewish, a comfort food that’s so familiar and so insider that Jews don’t have to worry about anybody culturally appropriating it anytime soon. It’s the kind of food that’s so freighted with tradition that even the thought of removing it from its context –like, say, a vaccine and cholent drive — invites ridicule (as evidenced by the jokes above).

A Haredi man serves cholent on Rosh Hodesh Adar, the beginning of the Jewish month of Adar, in Meron, northern Israel, on February 11, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

And aside from those Thursday night hangouts, cholent is only eaten one time a week, Saturday lunch, when the dish, put together before Shabbat a day earlier and left to slow cook itself, is enjoyed by families, guests, at synagogue post-service repasts — any place where people are not alone.

There’s no such thing as cholent for one. To invoke cholent is to invoke familiarity, a pre-COVID reality.

Nationwide, the ultra-Orthodox community has been the hardest-hit by the virus. Haredi leaders dramatically failed their communities when it came to enforcing social distancing measures. The vaccines, many have come to believe, are the community’s salvation from the terrible predicament of the pandemic.

But a community already skeptical about social-distancing measures has also proven more resistant than most to the vaccination campaign. Rates of vaccination among the Haredi public have been lower than among the general Israeli population. Distrust, misinformation, a sense of the vaccine’s foreignness, and general apathy have all conspired to keep residents away from vaccination centers.

Haredi Jews from the Hasidic sect of Shomrei Emunim attend the funeral of Rabbi Refael Aharon Roth, 72, who died from the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, Israel, August 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The Haredi leadership is responding with a message, a message told through cholent and by inviting vaccination teams into their yeshivas and neighborhoods.

The message might be couched thus: The vaccine isn’t a distant, alien scientific apparatus being imposed on us by outsiders. It is, in the words of Aryeh Erlich of the Haredi weekly Mishpacha, “a gift sent by Heaven through flesh-and-blood messengers to eradicate a plague that threatens humanity.”

Getting vaccinated is, in other words, an act of devotion to all those precious things the virus tried to take away from us.

A year of isolation — or of guilt-ridden, widely excoriated socializing — is ending with a promise. Cholent isn’t just food, it’s Sabbath food, comfort food, social food. It is the restoration of all that has been lost.

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