Halvah: The Journey from Ukraine to Brooklyn

Halvah with pistachios

Halvah is said to have originated in the Middle East as far back as the 13th century. However, Nathan Rudutsky is credited with bringing the recipe for the sesame confection from Kyiv to Brooklyn in 1907.

The History of Joyva Halvah?

The young Ukrainian immigrant arrived in New York through Ellis Island. Living in a tenement building on the Lower East Side, he met his future wife and started a small business selling halvah from a pushcart on Orchard Street. 

Pushcarts on Orchard Street in the late 19th century
Pushcarts on Orchard Street in the late 19th century (credit: NY Public Library)

As the popularity of the confectionery grew among Jewish immigrants, he created Independent Halvah and Candies, Inc. on Meserole Street in Brooklyn. More than 20 years later, the company’s current factory opened on Varick Street, also in Brooklyn.

Joyva—a fourth-generation New York-based family business—is considered the largest and oldest producer of halvah in the U.S. The brand is available widely in supermarkets and delicatessens across the country. 

Although halvah is Joyvah’s flagship product, the company also produces other sweet treats like Jell Rings, Marshmallow Twists, Marshmallow Puffs, and Sesame Crunch, which are especially popular during the Passover holidays. Another popular product is the company’s tahini, a sesame purėe.

Joyva product line
Joyva product line (screenshot)

What is Halvah?

Sold in slices or slabs, halvah is a nutty, sweet confectionery made from tahini (sesame paste) and sugar, sometimes other ingredients and toppings that change the flavor, texture, or both. 

Recipes for halvah and all its variations are enjoyed in many different countries, but Joyva halvah has attained cult status as a Jewish-American food product. 

Halvah is dairy-free (pareve), so those who keep Kosher can consume it with meat or dairy. Tablet (an online Jewish magazine with news and culture) named halvah one of the 100 “Most Jewish Foods.” 

What Does It Taste Like?

Marble halvah offers a hint of chocolate
Marble halvah offers a hint of chocolate

Writing for Tablet, Molly Yeh captured the hard-to-describe sweet taste and one-of-a-kind texture of halvah, whose consistency resembles fudge.

“Halva may look like a bar of soap, but it is, in fact, a heavenly confection that crumbles like the innards of a Butterfinger and shaves like Parmesan.”

Pastry chef and cookbook author David Lebovitz describes the taste of halvah as uniquely chewy, foamy, and chalky.

But asking someone what halvah tastes like is almost like asking someone to describe the taste of a white truffle. People either love or hate it. They have to taste it themselves to determine which camp they fall in.

What’s the Difference between Halvah and Halva?

The two confections could be considered cousins, related, but not the same.

Halva is also popular in Southeast Asia (spelled without the H), especially in India. It is commonly made with ghee, sugar, and flour (often semolina). The mix is more pudding-like and rarely made with tahini because sesame seeds aren’t as plentiful.

Halawa is another spelling for this sweet treat, the one Egyptians use.

How is it Served?

Halvah can be eaten as a snack or as a dessert with tea or coffee. Some people spread it on bread. In hotels in Israel, it is sometimes served at breakfast; it is also one of the most popular snacks in Israel.

It can be served warm, cold, or at room temperature but lasts longest when in the refrigerator (perhaps because it requires opening a door).

The Second Renaissance of Joyvah Halvah

A vintage Joyva halvah add from 1951

A vintage Joyva halvah add from 1951 (credit: Joyva)Besides its yummy taste, Halvah offers a unique bit of culinary nostalgia to Jewish boomers like me. It has also been gaining popularity among vegans.

When researching this story, I realized I must thank the Rudutsky family for preserving this Ukrainian and Jewish-American legacy. I remember my mother bringing home slices of marble halvah from the appetizing store as a “nosh” for family holidays and get-togethers. Joyva chocolate-covered marshmallow twists have become a Passover favorite in my own family.

Where To Find Joyva Halvah

Joyva has a product locator on the company website. 

And after 116 years, Joyva is meeting the demand of a new generation by selling this delicacy on Amazon for the first time!

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Halvah pin


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