In November I received an unusual email. Titled “Please Help Olympia WA stand up to boycott of Israeli Goods,” it was a plea for contributions to a rather risky venture: A Jewish deli in Olympia to counter the Olympia Food Co-op’s boycott of Israeli products.
“I have had only two callings in my life,” wrote Olympian Hava Aviv. “To become a mother, and to bring this deli to my town with the intention to heal in the most effective way I know how…through my mother and grandmother and the food they made to nurture my soul, my traditions, my history and my people. I truly believe in the direction that Kitzel’s will take my town, and hope you will join in to support these efforts.”
Aviv’s dream, Kitzel’s Crazy Delicious Delicatessen, opened in December, and as of last week it was thriving.
“We’re profitable already,” Aviv, 32, said over coffee and a bagel. “We’re six weeks in and we’re profitable. Which is really unheard of for a restaurant in its first year.”
Short, sturdy and tattooed, with a head full of curls restrained by a purple bandana, Aviv’s passion for her project is transparent. When we spoke back in November she described how betrayed she felt when the boycott passed in July of 2010. In the wake of negativity, “I have to do something that’s ‘pro,’” she said. “I have to rewire my inner being and stand up for something that is ‘for.’”
She said she had one option: “To take the recipes of women for 4,000 years,” and use them to nourish mind, body and soul. “If a matzoh ball doesn’t nourish the body, mind and soul, I don’t know what does.”
The other personality behind Kitzel’s — which means “tickle” in Yiddish — is Irina Gendelman. More demure than Aviv, Gendelman, 42, emigrated from the Soviet Union during the 1980s. Many of the items on the menu are from her family. Others come from Aviv’s Hungarian mother’s side.
The art on the walls, at least for this month, is from Jewish Olympia native Kathryn Altus, an Israeli painter who now lives in Seattle.
Gendelman and Aviv have been pleasantly surprised by the culinary risk-taking. They weren’t sure Gendelman’s mother’s schi (a sauerkraut and corned beef soup) or whole-smoked mackerel would appeal to Olympians. That’s why they expand the menu slowly, adding daily specials and matriculating them into the regular menu if they go well.
Also, “this was the easiest way for me to train a half-goyishe crew,” said Aviv. With each dish, she trains her staff and customers about Jewish food customs.
Most dishes are taking root, even the schi. And they learn from their mistakes.
“The first round of whitefish we got was entirely too salty for the Olympia palate,” said Aviv. “I’m sure somebody’s grandmother in Florida would have appreciated it.”
Aviv said Kitzel’s tries to use locally sourced and sustainable ingredients, giving the Jewish deli a Pacific Northwest twist. She attributes the early success to the food, the open setting and community seating, and the fact that nothing else like this exists in Olympia.
“Some people are disoriented,” Gendelman said. “It’s supposed to be a new experience. It’s a foreign country almost.”
A community has risen up around Kitzel’s, and as we talked this became obvious. Rabbi Seth Goldstein of Temple Beth Hatfiloh pulled up a chair. Jeff Trinin, a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the co-op, stopped by. And the mayor of Olympia, Stephen Buxbaum, munched on a bagel one table away. Meanwhile, a boisterous late-breakfast crowd seemed to swell.
“It’s just a great place. Hava and Irina did something wonderful for the community,” said Goldstein, who loves the smoked-fish plates. “Their intention around it really comes through. I’ve had conversations with people I wouldn’t have had conversations with, because we’re sitting together…It’s very sweet that way.”
“Yes, we’re a sandwich and soup shop, but who else in town has borscht everyday?” said Aviv. “Who else in town has in-house corned beef just on rye with mustard?”
It’s hard to find a sandwich in the capital city that goes beyond the basic lettuce-tomato-onion-mayonnaise, she said.
Kitzel’s doesn’t have bacon, but it is not kosher, either. However, Aviv said that Rabbi Cheski Edelman of Chabad of Clark County has offered to oversee kosher production for one meal a month.
“We’re introducing this Eastern European Jewish culture to Olympia,” said Gendelman. “They’re going for it.”