Kafe Jerusalem has been a staple in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, for the last 14 years. The cafe specializes in Jewish cuisines, encompassing dishes from Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities across Europe and the Middle East. Co-founder Lola Landa, who identifies as Galician Jewish, runs the business with her husband Serhii Koniuhov and her sister Lena Mahera. Until recently, Landa spent her days trying to popularize the Ashkenazi family recipes inherited from the couple’s grandmothers, like gefilte fish stewed with beetroot, essig fleisch (sweet-and-sour beef stew) cooked with cherries and honey, and seasonal varieties of vorschmacks (pates). Now though, the cafe mostly functions as a charity kitchen and warehouse for the owners’ volunteering effort, feeding a city at war.
Ever since the early hours of February 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin reignited the Russia-Ukraine war — in progress since Russia illegally occupied the Crimean Peninsula and Russian proxies took parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014 — Lviv has overflowed with people fleeing west from Kyiv and the easternmost parts of Ukraine. It has become both a refugee hub and a stepping-stone to neighboring Poland. The local government reported that the city, where the population officially hovers around 750,000, welcomed 200,000 people in the first two weeks of the full-scale invasion. The influx peaked at 60,000 people daily before dropping to an average of around 10,000 daily by the last estimate on March 24.
The first time I speak to Landa on March 8, the couple is making noodle soup, baked chicken with buckwheat kasha, and fresh salad, which they distribute to groups like All-Ukrainian Jewish Charitable Foundation Hesed-Arieh and Caritas Ukraine. “There was a lot of commotion in the early days but now we know who really needs our food. We started in late February with 20 free meals a day. But the places we delivered 20 meals to were now asking for 40. The ones where we sent 35 now wanted 70,” Landa says, adding their record is 200 meals a day. That’s a decent return for a three-person kitchen, especially since the cafe still serves guests at a few tables and through their healthy meal delivery service, Lviv Smart Food.
“Every day is a new challenge,” Landa says. One week, Landa and Koniuhov slept in the cafe, showering at the neighbor’s place, to make room for refugees staying in their apartment. “It was my brother’s friends. You just couldn’t find a hotel room or an apartment in the city. We advised them to head to the refugee center, which opened at the local stadium. Problem was, they had a dog with them,” Landa explains. “If it wasn’t for that dog, I wouldn’t have let them stay at our place,” she adds, laughing. Landa is also a proud owner of a dog, a boxer named Harvey, who came to stay at the cafe with them.
This sort of comradery is typical for Lviv’s tight-knit Jewish community, and to Landa, it makes Putin’s justification for the war all the more appalling. In a shocking speech at the start of the latest invasion, Putin promised to “denazify” Ukraine, the only country in the world besides Israel to have had both a president (Volodymyr Zelensky) and prime minister (former prime minister Volodymyr Groysman) of Jewish heritage. “That’s mental, I can’t wrap my head around it,” Landa says. “Are they going to ‘denazify’ Kafe Jerusalem? I still can’t believe it. It’s a joke.”
Landa especially curses the Russian invasion for ruining Pesach (Hebrew for Passover), which begins at sundown on April 15. “We’ve got numerous requests for seder,” the feast that marks the start of the holiday and tells the story of the exodus of the Jewish people from oppression in Egypt. “But we have no idea how to organize it. We’re definitely not doing a traditional 200-person dinner with Hesed-Arieh, as we used to cater to in previous years,” she says, adding that they’re organizing a small seder at Kafe Jerusalem instead. Landa and Koniuhov are also trying to make their usual deliveries of seder plates, critical for the ritual meal that starts at sundown at 9 p.m., to elderly residents before the curfew starts at 10.
Ahead of the holiday, they’re also getting some help from the women in the Lviv Jewish community, who will join them to prepare pyrizhki (small meat pies) for refugees at the railway station. “It has to be done in time for seder, because we can’t touch flour and dough on Pesach,” Landa explains, referring to dietary restrictions during the eight days of Passover.
Shortly after the invasion began, Landa and Koniuhov managed to evacuate their kids, Maya and Sonia (who acts as the cafe’s pastry chef), and Landa’s mother, sending them all to stay with extended family in Germany. While this helped the couple concentrate on their work, it also left substantial holes in the menu, including the cafe’s famed Napoleon cake, usually made by Landa’s mother. “We get asked about it every single day, but can’t get it back on the menu,” Landa says.
They continue to serve other specialties, but for charitable donations they focus on simpler dishes, which are easier to produce in volume in the compact, 800-square-foot cafe. Cabbage soup and borsch are mainstays, but the couple try to keep things lively. “Even in wartime you need some variety, so we try to cook something different every day, depending on what ingredients we have in store. Every day is a new garnish.”
When we speak in early April, it’s a bit easier both for the city and the Kafe Jerusalem team. “The city’s not as busy as it was in March. And the family that stayed at our apartment had found another place, so we’ve moved back in. It’s easier now, I guess,” Landa says.
They usually start their day at 7 a.m. walking Harvey before a team meeting at 8. Then they start preparing orders for Lviv Smart Food, followed by free meals for charity causes. Landa handles menu development and business operations, while Koniuhov oversees logistics and delivery, and takes some shifts as a bartender at the cafe.
Volunteers usually pick up meals from the cafe, but sometimes Landa and Koniuhov deliver food themselves. “It’s mostly schools that host refugees now, and we have a school-turned-refugee center in close proximity, so we have a chance to meet the people we feed. You see that the elderly women and children really need the soup and kasha that we cook.” Plus Harvey has fun playing with the kids, she adds.
Landa explains they used to plan menus two weeks in advance for Kafe Jerusalem and Lviv Smart Food. “It’s easy to plan when you have salmon or mozzarella readily available,” she says. Since the war, things have changed. “These products are still there, but you have to plan it on a day-to-day basis now. For instance, I can’t find brown rice now. And the prices continue to rise. I wouldn’t call it food shortages; it’s just taking more time to find stuff.”
Lviv Smart Food, which relies on reusable glass containers that are supposed to be delivered back to the cafe, has been defined by its eco-friendly approach, and Landa worries that food delivery — a system already stretched by the pandemic — is taking a greater toll on the environment. “We’ve worked so hard to be zero waste. It would be a shame to lose all the progress we’ve made,” she says. Since the war, the number of container deliveries has shrunk to a third of what it was before the invasion.
For the first month of the invasion, Landa recalls, there was an overwhelming instinct to help. Everyone was working nonstop. These days, Lviv’s relative safety and the semblance of stability gives the cafe team some time to refocus their efforts and recover, at least for the moment. “We feel very lucky here in Lviv. We haven’t had to spend days in bomb shelters, like people had to in other cities,” she says. “But we do see the immense human loss and all the war crimes of Russian soldiers around the country. So we just try and help in any way we can.”
Like other volunteers, the couple are in it for the long haul now. When we spoke in early March Landa told me she had hopes for a quick resolution to the war, but more recently, her mood has completely changed: “We realized that we have to [save] some energy, because it’s clear that this war is not ending anytime soon. So we have to be ready.”
Yaroslav Druziuk is deputy editor-in-chief at The Village Ukraine. He’s been covering the Kyiv food scene and Ukrainian restaurant business for the last five years.