February 4, 2013
Nice Jewish goys
On a recent Friday night, a group of 20-something foodies gathered to celebrate Shabbat. Well, maybe not 'celebrate' in the traditional sense of prayers and candles, but a Sabbath meal all the same. In the back of a thrift store in downtown Manhattan, two long wooden tables had been erected for a family-style eating experience among the displays of distressed jeans and vintage belts.
Several times a week, the store is turned from a Soho boutique into City Grit, a 'culinary salon' founded in 2011 by Sarah Simmons, an emerging chef recently named one of "America's Greatest New Cooks" by Food & Wine magazine. Ms. Simmons was standing in front of a comfortably packed room, explaining the genesis of her 'Southern Shabbat' dinner, which we'd soon be tucking into.
"Tonight is really special for me, which is funny, considering that I'm a Presbyterian from North Carolina," she told the assembled, who had each paid $55 to attend the dinner (pricey wine assortment not included). "But I've been going over to friends' houses for years for Shabbat, and hopefully soon I'll become an honorary Jew myself."
"Though I'll have to wait till my grandmother dies," she added ruefully. "And I don't want that to happen anytime soon." Ms. Simmons' take on the classic Sabbath meal featured a buttermilk-dressed salad, a thick chickpea stew--or "hummus soup," as Ms. Simmons put it--that included rice grits and kofta meatballs, a barbecued main course from the newly opened BrisketTown and a dessert of chocolate mousse over mini-latkes. "I always loved dunking Wendy's fries into Frosties," Ms. Simmons offered by way of explanation.
Was it traditional? Well, no. Was it kosher? Well, it was kosher-ish, and no one was complaining. "When Shabbat is offered to you, it's hard to say no," said Stephanie Feder, a series producer at ITV Studios. Also in attendance were a New York Post features reporter and a relocated Australian couple who had scoured the Internet to find an inclusive Shabbat meal in the city.
"We try to go to Shabbat dinner every week," said Jordana Shell, a social media consultant who had run the online division of a fashion magazine back in Australia. Her husband, Adam Shell, works in finance. "It's a good excuse not to cook at home," she said.
"It's not like there are a lot of Jewish people in Australia," Mr. Shell grinned.
Shiksa Simmons's concept of a culinary Shabbat--more of a meal than a Sabbath--was something she picked up from the Young Manhattanite Shabbat. So was mine.
The first time I ever heard of lobster kugel was at the home of Andrew Krucoff, web content director of 92Y and founder of New York's most brutal media Tumblr gang, Young Manhattanite (YM). It was 2011, and I was in awe of the individuals who would come over to Mr. Krucoff's cramped Lower East Side apartment and linger in the 7-by-3-foot kitchen. On any given weekend, you could find Sloane Crosley (who did, in fact, bring cake--a flourless chocolate one, to be precise), various Gawker alums and performance artist Nate Hill, infamous for dressing like a dolphin on the subway and offering free lap rides, as well as for putting up posters in Williamsburg for a "crack" delivery service. (The crack was candy, but people seemed to love the novelty of ordering it anyway.)
The whole YM Shabbat scene was as treif as can be, and not just in the kugel sense. Non-Jews frequently outnumbered the Jews, or at least the practicing ones--though you could always count on at least one person to remember the blessing over the wine, if not the theme of his bar mitzvah. One time, I proudly slaved for 20 whole minutes on matzo ball soup mix, only to have it served with a pepperoni pizza that had just been delivered. A Coke cake--the kind that comes from a can, not a Colombian cartel--stands out as a particularly delicious example of the flagrant disregard for tradition, both cultural and culinary.
"I was purposely putting out nonkosher food like shrimp cocktail," said Mr. Krucoff, who began having "YM Seders" in 2006. "But I wouldn't say I was trying to have Shabbat ironically. The parties wouldn't have been fun if [The Forward cartoonist] Eli Valley hadn't been there, doing the hamotzi [blessing over the challah] and reading and interpreting the d'var Torah [Torah portion] of the week."
Of course, what counted as a d'var Torah had a very loose definition; in one notable instance, BlackBook senior editor Tyler Coates just read aloud the climatic scene from Sophie's Choice. One night there was no food, and everyone just sat in a circle and took turns reading their favorite portions from the erotica collection Coming and Crying.
"We weren't that religiously observant, but we liked the idea of this self-created religious ritual," said Mr. Valley. "For me, it's about carving out a space of personal ownership with friends. It's a way of connecting to each other but not abiding by any of the rituals that we don't consider necessarily holy, in and of themselves."
But if YM Shabbat was on the fringe edge of hipster sacrilege--enough to warrant a small piece in The New York Times and a much longer piece on The Awl--it was reflecting a larger movement in millennial culture. After two decades of Wall Street-like ambition, in which having your BlackBerry on-hand during family meals and working through the weekend was en vogue, the events of the early 21st century hit urbanites where it hurt.
We weren't, as Tom Wolfe put it, "Masters of the Universe." The world would keep revolving if we took it easy on a Friday night or, hell, the whole weekend. There was the 'slow' movement in food and lifestyle (the latter adopted by Arianna Huffington and promoted on her 24/7 newsicle website, which always seemed a little suspect). Self-help gurus like Timothy Ferriss urged us to work less and take short cuts. It doesn't take a leap of logic to figure out why the idea of Shabbat--literally, a day of rest--would be appealing, no matter what your religion.
All of which isn't to say that traditionalism has flown out the window, or that every Sabbath dinner is some freaky free-for-all. Take Zachary Thacher. A 39-year-old with his own digital ad agency, Mr. Thacher has spent every Friday for the past 11 years holding his own form of Shabbat dinner in a "traditionalist egalitarian" community he created on Manhattan's Lower East Side, called Kol haKfar.
"It does matter to me that it's all in Hebrew, that people are actually following the traditions," he said. "But it's equally important to be progressive. We have women leading the service, and we have had a long-time member of the minyan who is African-American and converted to Judaism. And we've had other women of color as participants. so we're very open to any kind of people, as long as they are open to learning and being serious."
At first blush, Messrs. Thacher and Krucoff may seem to exist on separate ends of the theological spectrum, yet they are both examples of how the rules of Sabbath can become flexible when adapting to modern times. Yes, even in the Orthodox community. If you don't regularly attend temple, for instance, you can just log on to Shabbat.com, a sort of Airbnb for Jewish dinners. And while inviting total strangers into your home might seem unnatural to New Yorkers--who tend to avert their eyes in the elevator to avoid knowing their neighbors--one member who contacted me over the phone claimed that the honor system works. "You can leave reviews for people, and to join the site you need to have some Jewish references," said the man, who only wished to be identified as a 'practicing Orthodox' individual.
"We open our home to everyone, gay or straight, man or woman," he said, noting, however, that the people would have to be either Jewish or seriously interested in Judaism. Not that he would pass judgment on someone else's version of Shabbat.
"There's a whole Jewish universe, and one of the nice things about Shabbat.com is that it's open to everybody," he stressed. "We don't have someone at the door checking ID."
When asked what kind of people usually sign up to attend, rather than host, meals, our source made Shabbat sound like JDate. "Oh, it's usually young, single people," he said. "And you sound like a nice, young Jewish girl" he trailed off.
And there it was, as brazen as the gefilte fish matzo tacos that once sat as a centerpiece at a YM Shabbat: the implied question that every young person will find herself being asked on a Friday night, no matter what her religious beliefs happen to be.
"You're single, right?"
This article first appeared in the New York Observer, Jan. 23, 2013. Reprinted by permission.