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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tallinn's Plateful of Jewish Heritage

TALLINN, Estonia -- Freedom can take many forms, and on the outskirts of Tallinn, at least, one of those forms is gefilte fish.

Opened a year and a half ago, the Shalom restaurant and bar -- the first and only Jewish restaurant in Tallinn since the fall of the Soviet Union -- reflects the new freedom brought about by Estonian independence.

"When the Soviet Union broke up, the Jewish community revived. Prior to 1991, it was impossible to open a Jewish restaurant," said Jefim Shats, 45, owner of the restaurant.

However, the fall of the Soviet Union was also accompanied by a large wave of emigration of Jews from Estonia. "When the opportunity arose, many people left," said Shats.

Today, Jews are a tiny minority in Estonia -- just under 0.2 percent of the total population and 0.5 percent of Tallinn's population, according to the State Statistical Office of Estonia. As of Jan. 1, 1996, there were only 2,695 Jews in Estonia, 2,070 living in Tallinn.

Nevertheless, Tallinn's Jewish community now has a rabbi, a synagogue, its own school for grades one through 11 -- and, most recently, a restaurant.

Shalom serves large, reasonably priced portions for around 60 kronas (about $5) and offers a variety of Jewish cuisine. Specialties include farshmak (chopped herring with nuts), gefilte fish, chicken soup with trifellah (pieces of dough fried with chicken fat) belik with nuts (chicken filet simmered with chopped walnuts served on simmered, diced carrots ), and "Israeli Gentleness" (chicken filet on rice topped with melted cheese and garnished with tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and red peppers).

The restaurant is not kosher because following Jewish law on food preparation and importing kosher products would be too expensive, said Shats, who simply calls his place a restaurant that serves ethnic Jewish cuisine.

However, Shalom celebrates all major Jewish holidays, with leaders from the Jewish community speaking on the holiday's history and significance. The restaurant sells tickets for these occasions that include the cost of food and live music.

Yet the restaurant doesn't cater only to Jews. "That wouldn't be normal," he said. "We want this to be a meeting place, like a club. Chinese restaurants are everywhere, and not only Chinese eat there. Estonians like Jewish food. Many come here."

Aare, an Estonian visiting the restaurant for the first time, liked the food. "A person wants to eat where there is good cuisine," he said. "Ham or no ham, it doesn't matter. The most important thing is for the food to taste good."

Tatyana, an ethnic Russian who is married to a Jew, said she heard about the restaurant from a friend who said Shalom's food was better than food in Israel.

"We come here because of the good food, not because we're patriots." Tatyana said.

Under Soviet occupation, Jewish organizations were disbanded and Jewish cultural life was suppressed. Jews were not allowed to learn their own language, history, or practice their traditions. Parents and grandparents were afraid of telling children of their heritage.

Nevertheless, Jews in Estonia were treated better than in other parts of the Soviet Union. "In its time, the standard of living in Estonia was higher than in other parts of the Soviet Union. The level of culture is also higher. Therefore, it is not surprising that Jews, one way or another, came here," said Shats.

Following Estonia's independence from the Soviet Union, an official Jewish community in Estonia was established to coordinate educational, cultural, and social programs. In 1993, the Estonian government reinstated cultural autonomy, which grants minorities a legal right to preserve their national identities.

Celebrating the Jewish identity through food is currently not very profitable, said Shats, who is also a director of a private, joint-stock construction company and calls the restaurant a hobby. But it's worth it nonetheless.

"All good deeds God sees," he said. "All that is done in good will returns back to you, but not necessarily in material form."

The Shalom Restaurant and Bar is open every day from 11 a.m. to midnight. It is located at Kopli 14 in Tallinn, near the train station. Telephone from Moscow: (014-2) 44-11-95.