Connecting Jewish community with Middle Eastern food

by | Mar 30, 2023 | Other News

Eitan Altshuler is with the Cardo Café/Humusiya at the Sandler Family Campus, where he has created a popular Israeli menu. Passionate about Jewish community, here he discusses his time in Israel and how he evolved…and the importance food played in his growth.

Jewish News: When and how long did you spend in Israel?

Eitan Altshuler: I made aliyah on Israel’s 60th birthday and stayed until the end of 2015. I went to a foreign country, inexperienced and alone. It was quite a step. I thought that if I could make it a year or even two that would be a “success.”

Fortunately, I was able to make it there for almost eight years. During that time, I got to spend a year on Kibbutz Lotan in the Negev where I worked in permaculture design, but most of my years were spent in Tel Aviv, where I worked in a bakery and then as an English teacher. I ultimately, came back to be closer to family and pursue career plans. Now, I’ve been back as long as I was there.

JN: Why did you go?

EA: I always felt, being Jewish and growing up outside the mainstream of America, somewhat out of place. I grew up religious, but perhaps my cultural grounding was wanting. In America, the wider culture did not reflect to me anything about my Jewishness. I felt that was something I needed to explore and refine, and I’ll be honest, at the time, considering I wasn’t affiliated with a synagogue, nor did I have many Jewish people in my personal life, I really wondered if being Jewish was a side of myself that had much place in my future.

The attraction of moving to Israel was that I could just be a regular guy. I was truly delighted when I checked into my El Al flight, and the attendant could read my name correctly without hesitation. Also, in Israel, I enjoyed how being secular and Jewish was not a contradiction. In the beginning of my time there, I actually hoped that I would become more religious or “da’ti”, but living in Israel I learned it’s not so simple. Instead, I gained a wider perspective of what practicing Judaism means.

JN: How important do you feel Israel is to American Jews?

EA: Great question! To me, it will always be the Jewish people’s true home…a place where the wider culture reflects the personalities, values, and history of our people. I love America, too. This area, in particular, I feel in my veins. However, from Israel, I believe Jews gain a sense of independence and pride. I know my personality changed a lot during my time in Israel. I learned how to be a much stronger, proud Jew as a result.

JN: Do you view Judaism as more than a religion?

EA: Absolutely…well kind-of. It’s complicated. This is my interpretation…. When someone moves to Israel, it is called “making aliyah,” which means to go up, but when you leave Israel, it is called “yo’red ma’aretz” or going down. In America, your primary connection to Judaism is through the Torah, and given that we have a lot of mitzvot (613), one can feel like they are constantly falling short or even a failure. However, in Israel, where the primary connection is with the society, keeping the mitzvot feels like there is only one direction and that is up.

So, I don’t think you can separate the Torah from the land or the people. Without the others, they are out of context.

JN: What was your impetus for bringing Israeli food to the Sandler Family Campus, and therefore to Jewish Tidewater?

EA: Well, first of all, the food is awesome and healthy, and I think Middle Eastern food is much more compatible with a kosher diet. You know, even if kashrut is not the most important thing about Judaism, it’s these little things that bring us closer to who we are.

I also think that when we talk about building a strong Jewish community, we need to think “outside the box,” meaning outside the confines of the synagogue. Hummus is a great meal to commune with. Perhaps, sharing a meal with Jewish and non-Jewish friends at the JCC can be a way of extending our Jewish selves into our day-to-day lives.

Finally, Israel has an amazing culture. It’s very busy, fruitful, and industrial. I know it gets criticized, but they’ve got something going right there. Maybe, some of its attitude might be needed here.

JN: How did you learn to cook Israeli cuisine?

EA: By eating a lot of it. Before you start cooking, you need to know how to aim. It’s a different flavor profile than what we’re accustomed to in the West, and I think my palate developed a lot there.

I’m a self-taught cook, partly out of necessity, but also partly out of encouragement. For a few years in Israel, every Friday, I would work a 15-hour, non-stop shift in my bakery from 9 pm to 1 pm the next day, so I needed to be ready to eat when I got home. So, on Thursdays I went to the shuk and did my cooking in advance. Taking on a different salad/appetizer, main, and dessert every weekenddid a lot to advance my repertoire.

JN: If you could impact Jewish Tidewater in one way, what would that be?

EA: My goal is: 1) bring great, healthy, affordable food to people, 2) bring the Jewish community closer to together and help them develop a stronger connection with their heritage, and 3) raise awareness about the Jewish community within the wider culture, something I feel is very necessary in these times.

To check out the Cardo Café menu, go to

-Terri Denison