On July 11, 1883, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise held a historic gathering in Cincinnati: the ordination of the very first class of rabbis of Reform Judaism, a modernized version of the faith.
But Wise’s lesser known contribution to Jewish American culture lies in the four-course spread served at the banquet afterwards: little-neck clams on the half shell, salade of shrimp, soft-shell crab, and frog legs in cream sauce. Thrilling as it was offensive, the dinner that went down in history as “The Highland House Affair” ushered Judaism into modern American culture—aside from a symbolic omission of pork, everything from the air of gourmet French cuisine to the sweetbreads screamed rejection of Jewish dietary law and Old World culture.
130 years later, some parts of the Jewish community are going through another modernizing shift—but this time, in trendy pop-up restaurants and artisanal craft-food production. With their embrace of sustainable—and slightly hipster—food culture, Millennial Jews are shaping a blossoming culinary movement, and bringing non-Jews along with them.
Jewish dietary restrictions dating back to the Old Testament, known as the laws of kashrut, govern which foods are kosher, or fit to eat. Younger Jews keep kosher at almost double the rate of baby boomers—28 percent for 18- to 49-year-olds to 16 percent for people 50 and up. It probably helps that keeping kosher is considered trendy in certain circles, and some of the growth is perhaps in part due to the growing number of young people in the Hasidic, or ultra-Orthodox, movement.
Rabbi and educator Gilah Kletenik says that the appeal of a kosher diet for young Jews may be ethical. “These things [like kashrut and ethics] are not in isolation, they are a part of a larger system of holiness,” she says, tracing the dietary laws back to the book of Leviticus, which centers on ritual, purity, and morals. “This is someone saying, ‘The earth is not yours to plunder.’”
Anna Hanau, co-founder of Grow and Behold, one of two sustainable, certified kosher-meat producers in the country, agrees that much of the renewed interest in kashrut lies in a desire to find a moral grounding.
Hanau’s husband had originally trained to become a shochet, or ritual slaughterer under kosher law, for their family homestead. They were both influenced by environmentalism and found that the kosher meat available to them didn’t meet sustainability standards. And it seems others thought the same: The couple initially began slaughtering chickens on their property for personal use, but demand in their community was so high for eco-friendly, free-range kosher meat that they expanded their farm into a business.
“People think, ‘If I can make my own pickles, I ought to be able to kill my own chicken,’” says Hanau.
It’s a niche market, but business is still growing.
“I’ve had [Jewish] mothers call me practically in tears, telling me their kid will finally eat a turkey on Thanksgiving,” said Hanau. She and others feel that the billion-dollar kosher food industry has gone the way of the food system at large: highly processed, low-quality, and tainted with scandal.
Similar trends are happening in cities, too. Mason and Mug, a popular restaurant in Brooklyn that caters to a mostly Orthodox Jewish crowd, serves banh mi and craft beer in mason jars. It crowdsources ideas for specials on its Facebook page with posts like, “What sort of #kugel are you making for Shabbos [the holy Sabbath] today?”
Sasha Chack, the former Food and Beverage Director for the 92nd Street Y, and Itta Werdiger Roth, who ran a supper club out of her living room, partnered to open the restaurant in the winter of 2013 after finding the kosher options in Brooklyn plentiful but homogenous. Before opening Mason and Mug, Werdiger Roth made a name for herself running The Hester, an “off-the-grid” supper club where New York Jews would gather to eat food, celebrate rituals, and listen to music and art. The name says it all—“Hester” is a triple nod to a Hebrew word from the Old Testament, a street name on the Lower East Side, and Kate Hester, who coined the term “speakeasy” in the 1880s with her Pittsburgh-area saloon.
To keep in line with kosher law, restaurants must choose to serve either fleishik (meat) or milkhik (milk). Unlike Grow and Behold, which was formed in response to a lack of ethical kosher meat, Chack and Werdiger-Roth were mostly concerned about modern kosher food’s high cost. The pair opted for a relatively affordable vegetarian menu, popular among younger eaters concerned with the environmental impact of meat-eating in an already thriving, diverse restaurant culture in New York. “We didn’t have these preconceived notions of what kosher food can be,” said Chack, challenging the assumption [in the Orthodox community] that a moderately priced, kosher dairy restaurant must revolve around pizza, sushi, or both.
Although two-thirds of products in North American supermarkets are certified as kosher, they are not necessarily good for perceptions of Jewish cuisine. Most Jews will recognize these products—cardboard boxes of sandy matzah meal, rubbery green candies shaped as unconvincing orange slices, whitefish trapped in a gel casing, and bottles of syrupy kosher wine—as mostly unchanged since the 1980s. “You look at the kosher section of the supermarket, and it’s these jars of gelatinous stuff,” says Jeffrey Yoskowitz, referring to the mysterious grey loaves of gefilte fish that are largely uninspiring to Jews and incomprehensible to non-Jews.
“This is what’s representing our culture? It’s embarrassing.”
Yoskowitz and his business partner Liz Alpern have created their own alternative. The Gefilteria produces high-quality versions of a Yiddish grandmother’s beloved dishes, now seeing a resurgence for their comfort food aura, affordability, and usage of home-y techniques already popular among foodies (pickling and canning). Though the products are certified kosher, The Gefilteria is less concerned with dietary laws and more with preserving the Ashkenazi food culture of Jews from Eastern Europe.
“For young people, so much of our meaning of who we are comes out with what we shop for [is found] in the supermarket,” says Yoskowitz, who grew up confused about why “Jewish food” was marketed as falafel and hummus, when his family came from Eastern Europe. “It’s about identity”—an identity that’s inseparable from religion itself.
All the current excitement around Jewish food might mean Jews know how to observe holidays more authentically through familiarized food rituals, or that the culture of oft-ignored non-European Jews from Morocco, Tunisia, or Ethiopia become more widely visible beside their bagel-and-lox eating counterparts. And non-Jews are embracing Jewish cooking, too: There are James Beard-sponsored seders, widely distributed community baskets of produce sourced from Jewish-run farms, and pop-up Shabbat dinners. Through food, non-Jews are becoming more acquainted about who American Jews are, where they come from, and what’s important to them.
“We could have chosen to call it fish paté,” said Yoskowitz. “But we were intent on calling it what it is—at the end of the day, gefilte fish is one of the few really, really Jewish foods."