From Sofia to Jaffa

Cover Photo Credit: Vogue/ Ashraf Tariq

The Enriching Saga of the Bulgarian Community in Israel

 Walking through the streets of the ancient port of Jaffa, one can be excused for thinking one had entered a picturesque portal into the Balkans. Gyuvetch and  Bourekas are just two examples of classic Bulgarian food available at the many restaurants, bakeries, and kiosks.

While the youngsters at the crowded local stadium are typical modern Sabras – native Israelis – one can hardly mistake the accent of some of their parents and grandparents.

Passionate about sport, their culture and their cuisine, footprints of this vibrant Bulgarian community are evident throughout the cobbled streets and picturesque alcoves of Israel’s ancient port.

Football Frenzy

Hristo Stoichkov

“I must have been crazy not to have visited before!” exclaimed the beaming retired iconic Bulgarian footballer Hristo Stoichkov to his hosts in Jaffa on his first visit to Israel at the end of summer in 2011. Nicknamed ‘The Dagger’, Stoichkov, who was honored as European Footballer of the Year in 1994 and named by Pelé as one of the 125 Greatest Living Footballers at a FIFA Awards Ceremony in 2004 was not only enjoying the sights of the Holy Land, but found time to put on his kicking boots and strike some stunning goals.

His visit – partly to support a football club in Jaffa – also highlighted the strong connection of the city to Bulgaria.

With the mass immigration of some 40,000 Bulgarian Jews to Israel following Israel’s independence in 1948, many of them settled in Jaffa.

Hard working and resilient, this was a community – history records – as having arrived “with its feet firmly on the ground”. Actually, in more ways than one! In 1949 these new Bulgarian immigrants founded Maccabi Jaffa, and by 1954, this novice football club was playing in the National League, then the top division.

Hosting the Bulgarian international legend was local legend and Bulgarian-born Moshe (Motsi) Leon who played for Maccabi Jaffa from 1961-1984 and Israel’s national team from 1962-1967. An international player as well, Leon played for Rangers in South Africa for four years. “It was wonderful hosting Hristo and his wife. He loved everything about Israel. We organized a five-a-side match – all seniors who in the past had played in the national team. Hristo had not lost any of the magic that he brought to his national team that came fourth in the 1994 World Cup in the USA. He put away some outstanding goals and the crowd loved it.”

The Great Escape

Leon was five years old when he arrived in Jaffa with his family in 1949 from Bulgaria. His family had escaped the Nazis, and following the end of the war in Europe, was part of the largest mass emigration from a single Europe country to Israel. Due to the heroism and defiance of the Bulgarian people, the entire country’s Jewish community was saved, the majority of which made their way to Israel.

While the story is well known of how the Danes rescued 8000 Jews from the Nazis by smuggling them to freedom in fishing boats, very few are aware of how some 50,000 Bulgarian Jews were saved. The story was buried by the Bulgarian communists until their downfall in 1991. All records had been sealed, since they did not wish to glorify the King or the Church, or the non-Communist Parliamentarians, who at great personal risk, defied the Nazis. A book on this heroic saga, Beyond Hitler’s Grasp by Michael Bar Zohar, a Bulgarian Jew who migrated to Israel and then to the USA, where he is a professor at Emory University, was presented in 1999 to the Bulgarian Prime Minister.


Christian Heroism

Allied with Germany in the Second World War, Bulgaria in 1940 gave in to intensive German pressure to enact Nuremberg-type racism laws but never enforced them. Hitler’s racial doctrine was alien to the vast majority of Bulgarians and in March 1943, when deportation trains were waiting to take Bulgaria’s Jews to concentration camps, Bulgarians ordered the expulsions canceled. As the date for the deportation drew near, newspapers denounced what was about to happen, and forty-three ruling party members of Parliament walked out in protest. In addition, the Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Archbishop Kyrili, threatened to lie down on the railroad tracks to block the deportations.

Finally, King Boris III forbade the deportation. Since Bulgaria was an ally of Germany, and the Germans were stretched militarily, they had to wrestle with the problem of how or what to do about the Jews of Bulgaria.

They decided to let this issue pass.

Bulgarian Jews

Sara Ilan, who arrived in Israel in 1948 with her father from Sofia, offers an explanation. “The Bulgarian Jews were not easily identifiable as Jews as they were elsewhere in Europe. They dressed like everybody else, spoke like everybody else and blended into the society like everyone else. Their best camouflage was that they were no different to anyone in Bulgarian society. We were relatively poor by comparison to Jews in other countries, and we lived in integrated neighborhoods. While we celebrated Jewish holidays and attended synagogue, Bulgarian Jews were not very religious. The Zionist youth movements were more active than the synagogues.”

Also, she adds, “there were many other minorities like the Armenians, Turks, Greeks, and Gypsies. The effect of this was that there was no concept of racism in the Bulgarian culture.”
The bottom line, Ilan says, “Bulgarians saw Bulgarian-Jews as Bulgarians, and not as Jews.”

Most of those in the Bulgarian community today arrived as youngsters like Moshe Leon and Sara Ilan. As their families had not been very religious in Bulgaria so they tended to stay not religious in Israel. “In our home in Sofia, it was acceptable to have pork in the fridge and I remember the late rabbi of the Bulgarian community in Jaffa, while he obviously was at synagogue on the morning of the Sabbath, in the afternoon, he took a cab to the stadium to watch football.”

Although well integrated into Israeli society, and “our children totally Israeli,” those that were born in Bulgaria still love to get together with fellow Bulgarians, eat traditional Bulgarian food and sing together Bulgarian folk ballads. Nowhere is this more evident than on every Wednesday night at the well-known Bulgarian restaurant, Boyana on Jerusalem Street, Jaffa.  The name says it all!

Classic Bulgarian food Photo Credit: In Your Pocket

Boyana is a peaceful and prosperous suburb of Sofia.

On the Wednesday night that I visited, the restaurant was packed as usual with Bulgarians. All the traditional Bulgarian dishes were on offer – a variety of soups, followed by main dishes such as Moussaka, a spicy meat and eggplant dish cooked in the oven, Gyuvetch, an oven-baked beef and vegetable stew, meatballs with large onions and finally an array of tantalizing deserts.  The atmosphere was warm and lively, with people telling stories and ‘Albert the Bulgarian’ playing the piano accordion with everyone joining in singing. His repertoire was all the traditional folk songs, mostly about love – what else?

And as one patron remarked, “I remember my parents singing these same melodies when I was a child.”


If Bulgarians love their food, they love too their music and theatre. This is evidenced by so many from this talented community having gone into the entertainment industry. Very few in Israel are not familiar with the humor of Shlomo”‘Moni” Moshonov who together with Shlomo Baraba, hosted the hilarious satirical TV show Zehu Ze. Moshonov immigrated to Israel with his family at the age of four. His father, Moshe, who studied law in Sofia, sold textiles in the Ramla market. He has appeared as well in numerous movies and TV shows.

Then there is Dimitar Bozakov, the most successful Bulgarian theatrical director in Israel. He returned to Bulgaria in 2010 to produce a play at the National Theater ‘Ivan Vazov’. Accompanying him were popular Israeli actors of Bulgarian heritage. Bozakov teaches at the “Beit Zvi” School of the Performing Arts and the “Haifa” University.

IDF Orchestra Photo Credit: The Times of Israel

In music there is Yizhak Sadai, the Sofia-born Israeli composer of mostly orchestral, chamber, choral, vocal, and electro-acoustic works that have been performed throughout the world and the late Colonel Yitzhak (Ziko) Graziani  (1924-2003) who founded the Israeli Defense Force Orchestra. Born and raised in Bulgaria, Graziani had dreamt of returning to his native land to perform – a dream he was sadly never to fulfill.  In 2007 however, the IDF orchestra was invited to Bulgaria to perform, partly to honor the legendary conductor. Apart from playing before senior members of the Bulgarian government and military, the orchestra played on a particularly special street in Sofia – Why special?

It had been named after Colonel Garziani.

While his name is mostly associated with the IDF orchestra, at one stage or another during his long career, Graziani worked with nearly every musical or dramatic institution in Israel, including Habimah, the Cameri, Bimot, Hamamam, Hagashash Hahiver and the Gesher Hayarkon Trio. He was known as a conductor who “kept his cool”.

Politically in Tune

With USA President Trump and North Korean Kim Jong-un  facing off like proud roosters on the political stage, one can look back to Colonel Graziani as an example of a “cool head” in a touchy, tough situation. In 1964, a group of South Korean soccer players visited Israel as part of the Asian Games, and the IDF orchestra was brought to the national stadium in Ramat Gan to play both countries’ national anthems. At the rehearsal for the visiting team’s anthem, just hours before the match was due to kick off, the South Korean players began to shout angrily in the direction of the orchestra. They had every right to be angry! It transpired that the musicians had inadvertently been given the scores to the North Korean anthem. Graziani, however, did not lose his cool. He asked the Korean players which of them could sing well and the goalkeeper turned out to have an excellent voice. While the player sang his national anthem, Graziani listened, wrote out the score of the music and, within an hour, had prepared an original orchestral arrangement to be played before the matchPresident Trump and Kim Jong-un – take note!

Brothers in Arms

Israel’s strong connection to Bulgaria was brought into the public eye with the 2010 devastating fire in the Carmel mountain range that destroyed some five million trees and took over forty lives. Among the firefighters that came from abroad to help in what was the worst fire in the Israel’s history, was a contingent from Sofia of 92 personnel. They had flown in on the Bulgarian president’s personal plane. The Israeli firefighters described their Bulgarian colleagues as “Brothers in arms.”

Affirming their country’s support for Israel in its hour of need, Bulgaria’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, and former ambassador to Israel Dimiter Tzantchev accompanied his firefighting countrymen, describing the mission “as one of the utmost importance.” It was reported in the local press that when several Israelis went up to Tzantchev who was standing with a group of his Bulgarian officers to shake their hands, one of them spoke of his family’s roots and how his mother was from Sofia. The pleasantries and photo-taking was suddenly cut short when the Bulgarian officers and Tzantchev, were spirited away by an IDF home front officer – also with Bulgarian roots – to take them to supervise their countrymen fighting the flames.

Earlier that year, Bulgaria’s PM Boyko Borisov had met with the late Shimon Peres, where the Israeli President joked “I only have one criticism of you – I am not happy that you are doing so little to reveal to Israelis the beauty of your country and its wonderful people.” Borisov responded to this ‘criticism’ by announcing that Bulgaria would be represented at the tourism forum in Israel the following month.

Peres praised the role of the Bulgarian people in the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from the Nazi death camps during World War II: “Bulgaria and Israel are small in size but that does not mean that they are small in spirit.”

The Israeli President had praised the cooperation between Bulgaria and Israel in all fields including fighting terrorism and for climate change. Little did he know that eleven months later a planeload of Bulgarians would be in Israel, fighting fires!

Taste of Bulgaria

Boyana is only one of many Bulgarian restaurants in Jaffa. Another well known one is Monka on Yehudat HaYemit Street which opened in 1948, right after the founding of the State. Rich in Bulgarian history and tradition, it’s well worth when visiting Jaffa – recognized as the stomping ground of the Bulgarian community in Israel – to enjoy the warm Bulgaria hospitality and its special cuisine at any of the many restaurants.

If you are too busy visiting the many places of interst in Jaffa and don’t have time to sit down at a restaurant, at least while on your feet, try a Bourikas.

In Jaffa, the local Bourikas is unmistakably identified with the Bulgarian community, made with their special phyllo dough.

At ‘Bourikas Leon’ on Oleh Zion Street, the owner Avi Cohen is a third generation Bulgarian in Israel. The bakery is named after his father Leon Cohen who passed away in 2004. ‘Bourikas Leon’ is the oldest Bulgarian bakery in Jaffa, started by Avi’s grandmother who arrived in 1948. “We still refer to her as ‘Grandma Julie’. She was the first to make the phyllo dough and people would come from all over Israel just to buy her dough. This was even before she went into the Bourikas business.” Over the years the bakery became increasingly popular for its Bourikas, which people would enjoy with our special yogurt drink. “It tasty, filling and cheap.”

Leon expanded his mother’s business as Avi is doing today. “In time, my sons will take over from me,” he says.

“Each year we have more new customers. It’s funny; many of the young people who come today for a Bourikas and yogurt are the children my father served and the grandchildren of the customers my ‘Grandma Julie’ served.”

What so special about the Bourikas that one generation after another keeps coming?

“Grandma Julie’s special recipe,” says Avi, “which I’m not revealing. Just enjoy and come again.”

And while trying the Bulgarian Bourikas, why not enjoy a Kamenitza, Zagorka or Shoumensko – all Bulgarian beers, and toast:

Nazdrave.” (‘Cheers’ in Bulgarian)

(Bourikas Photo Credit: