Before there was a State of Israel, there was Keton.

Since 1945, this Tel Aviv restaurant has been serving up Ashkenazi culinary staples such as chicken soup with kreplach, cholent, and kugel. Many of Keton’s customers became Israel’s most important artists, painters, sculptors, writers, poets, journalists, musicians, and actors: Keton’s guest book is filled to the brim with drawings, poems, love letters, thoughts, and memories, by everyone from Yigal Tumarkin (known for his Holocaust memorial sculpture in Rabin Square) and Menashe Kadishman, who filled the world with sheep portraits, to Yehezkel Streichman, one of the pioneers of Israeli modernist painting.

These mementos from the guest book are currently on display at the restaurant for the first time, as part of a special art show that opened Nov. 19 commemorating Keton’s 70th anniversary. At the same time—until Dec. 19—Keton is serving a special tasting menu to mark the occasion, offering small portions of their staple dishes, from gefilte fish to matzo-ball soup.

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In 1945, Zvi and Sara Rosenberg opened a small kiosk on Tel Aviv’s busy Dizengoff Street, selling ice cream and watermelons, among other things. Soon thereafter, Sara started cooking hot food there, and the kiosk turned into a restaurant.

Not far from Keton, on the same side of Dizengoff, was Café Kassit—the city’s beloved bohemian haunt, which closed more than a decade ago. “The same people would come here and there,” Orna Raskin, Keton’s current owner and manager—and Zvi and Sara Rosenberg’s granddaughter—told me when we met recently at the restaurant. “They used to get drunk at Kassit and eat here.”

One of the big names that frequented both establishments was poet Alexander Penn, who told Zvi Rosenberg that the place looked like a small room—keton in Hebrew. The name stuck. Penn’s favorite seat in the house is still marked by a small metal plaque bearing his name. The same goes for Penn’s lover Hanna Rovina (known as the “First Lady of Hebrew Theater”), as well as pianist Arthur Rubinstein, violinist and conductor Isaac Stern, songwriter Naomi Shemer, and many others. During Keton’s anniversary celebrations, four new plaques—for poet and songwriter Haim Hefer, theater legend Gary Bilu, and artists Menashe Kadishman and Moshe Bernstein—were affixed above four more chairs by the namesakes’ families. Most of Keton’s famous customers are no longer with us, but some, like journalist, writer, and far-left political activist Uri Avnery or actor Gadi Yagil, are still alive and kicking.

Keton remains family-run. The founders Zvi and Sara told their only daughter Hedva (later Hedva Nashelsky) that the restaurant business was tough and that she needed to learn a profession. Hedva studied to become a teacher but on one of the holidays, when she came to help her folks out at the restaurant, she got sucked into the family business. Later on, Hedva told her daughters the same thing, but 16 years ago, when Hedva died suddenly, her daughter Orna Raskin, an intensive-care nurse, saw it as her responsibility to take over. “My grandmother was still alive when my mother died, and I decided to leave my job and come help Grandma,” Raskin told me. “My grandmother passed away last year at the age of 99, and I’m still here. I have two daughters aged 19 and 22, and I tell them the same thing my grandmother told my mother and my mother told me. I truly hope they won’t feel obligated to take over if it’s not their choice. I generally don’t want them to wait tables here so they don’t get sucked in, but on our birthday celebration [on Nov. 19] they helped out, and it’s nice to see the fourth generation being part of Keton.”

In Israel, the term “Jewish food” still means Eastern European, or Ashkenazi, Jewish food. In today’s politically correct climate, this expression has a problematic ring to it, to say the least, but once upon a time the cultural hegemony in Israel was Ashkenazi, and thus, if you Google Jewish food in Hebrew, to this day you will find gefilte fish. Ashkenazi culture was once dominant in Israel—although today, gefilte fish isn’t particularly popular, and Mediterranean and North African cuisine took over Israeli culinary culture a long time ago. Dishes like ptcha, kishka, or other delicacies of the shtetl wouldn’t win any all-Israeli popularity contest today. Even Raskin herself admits that she can’t eat ptcha—calves foot jelly. But for those who’ve remained loyal to Ashkenazi Jewish food, Keton is a small haven.

Orna Raskin at Keton. (Photo: Ronit Romano)

Keton has faced obstacles beyond shifting culinary tastes, said Raskin: “We have also been through all of Israel’s wars, terrorist attacks, and military operations, which of course influence the restaurant business as well. Since we’ve been open for so many years, nothing scares or worries me.”

Even as trends change and other restaurants open and close, Keton continues to find a clientele. “When I was a little girl we had a steady elderly clientele which would arrive exactly at 12 o’clock and wait for lunch to be served,” Raskin said. “I remember asking my mom what will happen when they all die and if after they’re dead she won’t have a job anymore, and my mom just smiled. I got my answer after my daughters asked me the same question: What will happen after our elderly clientele won’t be here anymore? That’s the thing at Keton—there is always a new generation. We still have older customers and also young ones. Many young Tel Avivians living alone in rented apartments love Keton because it reminds them of home. Whenever they’re sick they come for soup take away—it’s the Jewish penicillin, that’s the way they grew up.”

It’s not only Ashkenazi Jews who keep Keton in business. “Lately more Mizrahis come here, too,” said Raskin. “I know Mizrahis who love gefilte fish! For instance, Izhar Cohen, who’s Yemeni, comes here a lot and eats gefilte fish. These days I keep zhug [a spicy Yemenite sauce] in the refrigerator next to the chazeret”—grated horseradish with beets, a European Jewish condiment.

But except for the zhug in the fridge, very little has changed at Keton over the course of 70 years. “Ten years ago the Ministry of Health demanded I make changes in the infrastructure,” said Raskin. “I was scared to death to renovate, to touch history. I brought all kinds of designers over but I could feel they didn’t understand the place. In the end I Googled Polish design. I found a Polish designer and brought him over. I saw he understood the place, and indeed he replicated it exactly the way it was. On the first day we re-opened after the renovation a frequent customer who didn’t come for a while and didn’t know we were closed said to me: ‘I see you cleaned up a bit!’ That’s when I knew we succeeded.”

The menu didn’t change much either: Keton’s giant schnitzel, which as customary in Israel is made out of chicken breast, is still its signature dish, and its chopped liver is still made of beef liver, the way Sara used to make it, rather than chicken liver. Some dishes were removed, however, when their popularity waned. For instance, back in the day, Keton’s kitchen would make flaczki (tripe) soup three times a week. “Nowadays we only make it once a month and freeze it,” Raskin said with a smile. “The only one who eats it is Uri Avnery. We make it especially for him.”

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Although its bohemian atmosphere and famous clientele make it uniquely historic, Keton wasn’t the first restaurant in Tel Aviv to serve Ashkenazi fare. Shmulik Cohen opened in 1936, and still exists. Café Batia, which opened in 1941, is also still around; it recently relocated from Dizengoff Street to Ha-Hashmonaim Street. Other Tel Aviv restaurants—Elimelech was one notable example—also served similar food decades ago, although they have since closed, and similar eateries operated around the country in its early years.

But today, while Israeli streets are filled with falafel, hummus, and sabich, Eastern European food is hard to come by. “Keton is one of the only Ashkenazi style restaurants left in Israel today,” Danny Sessler, food and wine critic for Kol Israel radio, Ynet, and Channel 10, explained. “It’s almost a symbol of the revolution the country went through.”

The “revolution” came in 1977, when for the first time in Israeli political history, the right wing, led by Likud, won the general election, ending almost 30 years of left-wing rule. This dramatic shift in Israeli politics is felt to this day, not only in politics, but also in Israel’s culture.

“Up until the Yom Kippur War, Keton and the rest of the Ashkenazi restaurants were central to Israel’s culinary scene,” said Sessler, “but this changed after the 1977 political and, later on, social revolution. Most Ashkenazi restaurants closed down. The clients of the few Ashkenazi restaurants that survived are older, probably around 60, and the restaurants’ popularity is at an all-time low. Keton, though, remained a small and elegant restaurant, with traditional Ashkenazi food, retro decoration, and retro waitresses.”

While lines aren’t forming outside, and except for Fridays and Saturdays it’s very easy to find a table with no reservation, many are loyal to the place. On my visit to Keton, I found sitting outside, at one of the sidewalk tables, 91-year-old Israeli businessman and tycoon Meshulam Riklis—who was one of America’s richest men in the 1980s and at 53 married 23-year-old American actress Pia Zadora and financed her movie Butterfly—with his third (and current) wife Tali Sinai, who is 35 years his junior and starred in the reality TV show Me’usharot, the Israeli version of The Real Housewives. “We eat here almost every day,” Sinai told me. “We can eat anywhere, but we choose to come here. Keton is a beautiful place, it’s warm, it’s nostalgic, it’s atmospheric.” Riklis barged in to add: “The atmosphere here is no better and no worse than any other restaurant on this street, but we love the food. We love the food.” Sinai responded by saying that since her husband hasn’t been in the country for so long—he lived in the United States from 1948 until he returned to Israel five years ago—he doesn’t really grasp the importance of the place: “It’s not just the food,” said Sinai. “Keton is a historical landmark!”

Orna Raskin is well aware of the fact that Ashkenazi food isn’t the most popular these days and that in Tel Aviv’s ever-growing culinary scene there isn’t much room for it anymore, but she believes it’s above any passing trend. “Jewish food or any kind of home food can’t be trendy,” she insisted. “This is soul food, nostalgic food, this is the food of longing. It’s not an acquired taste, it’s a taste people grew up with. It’s in their soul and in their DNA, so it can’t go out of fashion or become trendy again. Keton is an institution, and that’s the way it is treated by the authorities as well as our clients. Menashe Kadishman once wrote that we are all a little homeless inside, and Keton reminds us of the home that we’ve lost. I think he was right.”

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