13 Jun 2018
Jerusalem, Israel
Sustainable Food and Agriculture

Those who wander a short distance from Jerusalem’s old walled city and down a quiet side street in the Even Yisrael neighborhood will be rewarded with a delicious destination. Nestled inconspicuously across from a synagogue and next to an Ethiopian restaurant, Nagila Vegan Restaurant’s charming location is as much a treat for the soul as it is for the stomach.

Strolling by on a warm Mediterranean evening, you’ll be stopped first by the sight of the restaurant’s menu: propped on a chair tied with a tangled plume of red balloons. On the menu are more than a dozen vegetarian and vegan dishes, all strictly kosher and made with fresh and healthy ingredients bought from local markets.

Going down the stairs and past the outdoor terrace seating, you’ll likely be greeted by Gila Foldes. Foldes, along with her eldest daughter, Hannah Jasmine Maque, are the mother-daughter team who founded Nagila Vegan Restaurant.

The origins of Nagila Vegan Restaurant:

That culinary partnership manages the restaurant today — and is also what inspired its start. It was 2012, and Foldes’ youngest daughter, Meshi, was turning 12-years-old. As is customary in Jewish tradition, Foldes went about organizing a bat mitzvah for Meshi, but soon realized none of the food they found was worth the high price tag. So she, Maque, and another friend, decided to cater the party themselves.

“It was a beautiful and wonderful catering for 80 people,” Foldes recalls. “Afterwards, a girlfriend asked me to do the same for her daughter. So we did it again, and then I knew we had something good.”

At the time, Foldes was working as a kindergarten and exercise teacher, but was in the midst of looking for a career change. Following the success of the bat mitzvahs, food seemed like a logical step.

“I’d never worked in a restaurant in my life. The only thing I knew was how to cook and invite people to my house and let them taste my food,” says Foldes. “I had to learn everything along the way and it was hard work to start and it is still hard work.”

With this mentality of cooking for people as though they’re in her home, Foldes and her family searched for the perfect location. They finally came across this small house in Even Yisrael — a former men’s clothing store full of suits, closets, mirrors, and harsh lighting. But slowly, and with the support of others, Foldes installed a kitchen, terrace, and more. By the end of 2013, Nagila Vegan Restaurant was ready to serve its first customers.

Bringing vegan food to Jerusalem:

The restaurant wasn’t vegan from the start. As one of two vegan restaurants in Jerusalem today, Foldes and Maque were concerned they would isolate customers just as they were trying to build their reputation. “We let the people come over and over again, and then decided little by little to take the milk, cheese, and eggs out,” says Foldes, adding that Maque is vegan and was helping urge the change. “We didn’t want to do it quickly and have people say ‘ah, they’re vegan, there is nothing for us to eat.”

Foldes says there are many reasons why the restaurant has opted for the vegetarian and vegan fare. One is that vegetarian and vegan dishes have a smaller ecological footprint than meat and animal-based ones. Another is the simple fact of market demand: Jerusalem is home to a growing group of people who are thinking about eating healthier, fresher diets, and Nagila caters to that desire.

Not trying to be sustainable solely in the ingredients that go in their dishes, Foldes and her staff also recycle; separate their organic waste to use as compost, and try not to use ingredients that are canned and bottled. In the Nagila kitchen, fresh and from scratch are best.

And when it comes to the food, vegan is by no means synonymous with boring or bland. The culinary team at Nagila has pulled inspiration from around the world: Caribbean sambusac can be served with Greek-style moussaka, while across the table you could have curry stew and various pasta dishes.

A restaurant built on community, cooperation:

One of Nagila Vegan Restaurant’s latest additions has been to introduce various social events, from lectures about veganism and feminism, to open mic nights to spoken word performances. Those initiatives were spearheaded by Ilan Gritsevsky, a waiter and self-proclaimed New Media Organizer who started at the restaurant in March.

Gritsevsky, who had just moved to Jerusalem, was drawn to the restaurant because of its cooperative-style model, and because Foldes and her team seemed focused on more than solely money and being better than everyone else.

“Nagila is also the only place I know where the waiters and the cooks get the same salary,” adds Gritsevsky. “The tips are split between everyone so it’s fair. And I’m a vegan, so serving vegan food doesn’t make my life a living hell. It’s a beautiful place and the environment is all about working together to make it good because everyone believes in this place.”

It is this belief that gets Foldes by, even on the most difficult of days. “All of the people who come here say it’s a very special place, a nice atmosphere, and they enjoy my food,” she expands.

And that is enough motivation so that by the end of the day, the Nagila Vegan Restaurant team can clear the tables in Foldes’ extended home kitchen, and do it all again the following day.




Learn more about Nagila Vegan Restaurant on their website, Facebook page, or Instagram.

Photos: Courtesy of Nagila Vegan Restaurant and Ilan Gritsevsky.

Hilary is a journalist, photographer, and maker of things. She loves working with entrepreneurs to share their stories and has done so around the world.Hilary Duff
This Jerusalem restaurant combines vegan, kosher and cozy in one homely place | The Switchers
Nagila Vegan Restaurant Organic Food & Agriculture