I was lucky enough in the late spring to get the chance to meet Chen Koren. For those of you who aren’t already following her colorful and vibrant Instagram with 31.9K followers, how can I describe her? You most likely will find her around Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda Shuk, where she does culinary tours and workshops. She is a sophisticated cook, mostly with influences from her Tunisian and Libyan background, and also does food tours to Tunisia. Chen writes a weekly blog (in Hebrew) with amazing and beautifully photographed recipes.
As much as I love what she does food wise, and how she brings her Eastern roots into every detail, such as the gorgeous plates and tiles she uses to serve her food on, what really drew me to Chen is her style. She wears these lovely and eccentric Middle Eastern scarves, in which I also own a few similar ones (though shorter). She has a really natural vibe with her neutral tones and the loose cut of her dresses or shirts. A very different style that I am used to seeing on younger women in Jerusalem, but at the same time very “Yerushalmi”.
I was admiring Chen’s style for quite some time and wanted to talk to her more about it. Is it hard to cover her hair? Is it hard to be religious and a “local Instagram star”? Where do you get such gorgeous scarves? Where do you get your inspiration?
Chen lives with her husband Alon and two sons in Mekor Baruch, right across from the Jerusalem shuk. We met in the late spring at the shouk, of course, and had a lovely, insightful conversation which is a bit about style and a lot about, well, life. I hope you enjoy.
Interview with Chen Koren
Chen, it is so great to finally meet you, I know we have been trying to set this up for awhile. I wanted to know more about you, mostly about your style. My first thought that always came to mind when I saw you on Instagram was that many women in Israel that get very successful and well known have a tendency to become less modest or take off their hair covering.
So I feel like what I do on Instagram, and in general, is simply showing my life. A lot of times people say to me, “you can’t believe what you see on Instagram, it’s all a lie” and I feel, at least for me, this is not true. What I currently show, including my clothes and hair covering, is not actually how it started. The first reason I started using Instagram was for my business. I wanted to advertise my shuk tours and cooking seminars, and then all of a sudden it went into another direction, not necessarily bad, but more showcasing my family, my children, my husband. My husband is secular and I am religious and people started asking, “How does that work?” and “How do I cover my hair if my husband isn’t religious?” People are really interested in these personal aspects of my life. And I know it is not from a place of gossip. People are really just curious, how do you do it? I am not a Guru or something. So I started to bring out all the aspects of my life on Instagram, and that is why it has struck a chord with people.
How did you grow up?
I come from a religious home in the south of Israel. My Dad isn’t so religious, but my mom is very religious. It was a very traditional home, with Shabbat and Kashrut. When my parents got married, my mom was without a hair covering, but then later on she started wearing one. She comes from a religious home, and my father comes from a religious home. It wasn’t something out of the ordinary. My parents were born in Israel, but my mother’s side is from Libya, and my father’s side is from Tunisia. They came here religious. It is like they say “Emunat Tam” (which means simple people of innocent faith). My grandmother, for example, was always religious. She didn’t have millions of things, millions of Halachot (Jewish Laws), things were very simple. Shabbat was Shabbat, Kashrut was Kashrut, there wasn’t a million questions, there wasn’t a million of crazy things. That was my home. That is how I grew up.
Your Judaism was in your heart, it sounds?
I had a time in high school and in the army when I wasn’t “religious” because, you know, it was my teenage years. All of a sudden I didn’t find myself at home, so I went to a boarding school and met different kinds of girls that didn’t keep Shabbat. So afterwards it was practical, because I went to the army and all of my unit was secular. It was easier to be secular in those years. But even in those years, I still believed in God, I still kissed the Mezuzah, I still prayed. The secular thing about me in those years was only that I didn’t fully keep Shabbat, and dressed a bit less modest. But I never had those fundamental questions, like who is God?
It seems like you always had the base with you.
Yes, exactly. That is what it feels like even today. It doesn’t threaten me that Alon isn’t religious. I don’t get some sort of bad reflex on myself that if my husband isn’t religious, what does it say about me. It doesn’t say anything. I live my daily life, with my faith. My husband lives his daily life with his faith. And in the evenings we meet and reconnect.
What about Shabbatot?
On Shabbat, if we aren’t hosting guests, if it is just us, me Alon and the kids, we have Kiddush in the evenings, Kiddush in the mornings, we eat together, no TV. The public space in the house is with no electronics. But, for example, if Alon wants to see an important soccer game on Shabbat, instead of him watching on his phone in our bedroom, I will take the kids on a walk while he watches, for example. It doesn’t happen often. It is something that comes from both of us, we really respect each other. It is not a tragedy!
Then sometimes on Shabbat mornings he takes the kids to Gan Sacher. They have a set route. After the park they go to Cafe Bezalel, and then come home. At Cafe Bezalel they order only something to drink. If our son Beri says to Alon I want something to eat, he says no, we will go home now to do Kiddush with Mom, she is waiting for us, and we will all eat together. So these are the small things. Sometimes after Kiddush he takes them to the zoo, the beach, or in the car for a small trip. It is obvious to me that it is complicated for our son Beri, that some Shabbats he keeps, and some he doesn’t. He is only 4 so we haven’t gotten into the deep questions yet.
What kind of Gan (Kindergarten) is he in?
It is a half city sponsored Gan called “Anthropo-dosi”. They keep the basic Halachot. In the Gan they learn a lot of things that are connected to Judaism, such as tradition and holidays. But a lot comes directly from me. For example, because Alon doesn’t go to a synagogue or shake the 4 species on Sukkot, I teach him. People all the time ask me, doesn’t it confuse your son? I am not sure. Even if we both were religious, who promised me that Beri would be religious? I mean I grew up in a religious house, and I had a time where I wasn’t religious, and I came back naturally.
Alon, for example, works with “troubled” youth and there are many Haredim (Ultra-orthodox) where he works whose parents threw them out of their house because they didn’t want to be religious anymore. It is nonsense. Even yesterday I met some who told me a story that she and her husband were both secular when they got married, and not long after they had a baby girl. When the girl was 3 she started asking questions about God and other related questions, and all of a sudden the whole family did tschuva (became religious) from this 3 year old. It is a crazy story! Everything can happen. You try to go in one way and all of a sudden, you end up in the other direction.
Sure, you can never know.
I don’t wake up with questions. It is clear to me that this is my way, so it is not dramatic at all. I don’t bless every nitilat yadaim (hand-washing before food) with so much faith and so loud so that everyone around me says Amen. I just live my life.
Also covering my hair. I have many friends who got married and started out fully covering their hair. Then slowly they just started wearing a small headband and then totally took it off.
And, of course, I respect this. For me, it is not even a question. I don’t wake up every morning and think, should I cover my hair today? Maybe I won’t, it’s not nice on me, what about my hair? Not at all. It isn’t even a question. It is like asking, should I wear a dress today? I can also wake up every morning in the summer and put on a tank top because it is so hot in Jerusalem in the summer, but that also isn’t even an issue. It is clear to me I wouldn’t wear a tank top or stop covering my hair.
My religion, faith, mitzvot, Halachot (Jewish laws), it is all a big sack of things. Not everyone can do everything perfectly. Everyone does the best that they can. For me, covering my hair is really easy, but for example Kashrut is more difficult. It takes a lot more effort, for me.
People sometimes say to me, why do you wear such a head covering, it is the first thing you see on you, you look so religious, etc. Look, everyone knows for themselves what they are really strict about and what they are not. And also, covering your hair isn’t more than Kashrut, and Kashrut isn’t more than Shabbat. Everyone does what they can.
How then would you then define your overall style?
I feel recently that Israeli style has moved towards the direction of loose dresses and tunics, which is always a style I liked. Maybe it comes from a place that is it loose on the body, which is more comfortable because I am all day moving and eating. When you see Shirel Avrahami (an Israeli, Modest Fashion Designer/Blogger who Chen was meeting with right before she met me, and who I also follow on Instagram) she is very polished with heels, nail polish, and a blow out. You will never, ever see me like that. I just can’t go around like that. Because of my work, and my kids are always jumping on me!
It just isn’t you.
Exactly. I like to be really comfortable. I really like dresses. I like the mix between the hair coverings I wear and dresses.
I am also connected to my grandmother’s style a bit.
My mom sometimes asks me why I dress this way? Today she dresses more like Shirel, very “put together”. Also my sisters laugh at me a bit. But slowly, slowly they understand where I am coming from with my style, and actually even like it. They will say about a dress, where did you buy that? Why didn’t you also buy me one?
I always felt that you are slowly starting your own trend.
Recently a lot of people started asking me on Instagram where I buy my scarves, and I regret not bringing back more with me from abroad, because in Israel you can’t find these. You can find small ones in this style, but I really like these big ones. I buy them in Tunisia or Turkey, or every Eastern place I visit. Recently I was in southern Turkey and there was a store I just happened to walk into and there were so many amazing scarfs, I think I bought everything! They were all open and beautiful.
Today in Israel if you go to a wedding or any event, I feel that all the women are tying their hair the same. There are really beautiful hair coverings out there and designers in Israel who are doing amazing things. But somehow everyone looks the same. At the end of the day, everyone is with a Bobo (a cushion put underneath a hair covering to give it body) and ties it the same and everyone just looks the same.
I also had a time where I wore a Bobo. I mean it is nice you can tie the hair covering a bit higher. I can connect to the style and the reasoning, but I just can’t stand that everyone looks exactly the same! They all tie it the same, it is a similar style.
It’s annoying because I see really beautiful scarves and many I really want to buy, but first of all its not relevant because it is a long rectangle, and also because all of Israel has the exact same scarf. They look beautiful in the advertising campaigns, etc, but I just don’t like that everyone looks exactly the same.
I totally know what you are talking about.
So when I changed my style and started going in these types of scarves on Shabbat and to weddings and events, I didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t know what to do. I asked myself, maybe it isn’t fancy enough. But then I would think about my grandmother, and how she used to dress on Shabbat, and for holidays, weddings. And that is how she went. She would maybe put on something a tiny bit more fancy, but not a really big change for events. It took me a really long time to release this pressure on myself. I even have a picture from the Brit of my second son which is less than a year and a half ago where I am with a different type of hair covering because I didn’t feel comfortable to wear one of these “new kinds” that I wear now.
If I see a Bobo now it is really weird for me. I mean just the idea of it, it is very strange. It is just not natural at all, it is not yours. Even though I had a time where I wore a Bobo, not such a long time, and even though how I liked how it gave body to the hair covering, it is crazy to go around with such a thing on your head all day long, in the hot summer or winter. I have many friends who go with Bobos and they look nice, but the unnatural part of it, that it isn’t your hair, it is a bit hard for me these days.
Basically when I have questions and doubts. I think, what would my grandmother do?
I have another example of this. When I first got married to Alon (who has a Moroccan and Greek background, but grew up on a secular kibbutz) his parents invited us for Shabbat, and I thought wait, but the kitchen isn’t kosher, should I go, or not go? But then I thought, would my grandmother have gone? If someone important invited her to eat at their house that wasn’t kosher, would she have gone? Yes she wouldn’t have offended them and gone. So I take this in mind and I go.
I really love this. My husband Rami describes this exactly as being traditional. Asking, what would your grandmother or grandfather do on various issues, and taking this as your lead.
What is the most fun about your work? It is too much on you sometimes to be so public?
If it was too much, I wouldn’t do it anymore. I am very aware of what is happening around me. The moment is stops being fun, I will stop!
Thank you so much Chen, was so wonderful to talk to you.
* This interview was translated from Hebrew to English with the help of my lovely friend and neighbor Maya Ezer, who all you know from this Moroccan Halva Cookie recipe.
All photographs used were taken from Chen’s Instagram.