Featured in Alef: The NEXT Conversation
For the Jews, thirteen seems to be a lucky number — especially when we’re talking Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. So to wrap up our 13th issue, we went on the hunt for #13. You’ll never guess what we found: Shmaltz Brewing Company, the producer of He’Brew: The Chosen Beer, recently turned thirteen. So, of course, founder Jeremy Cowan couldn’t let the year pass without a Bar Mitzvah celebration and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to chat with him about his company’s coming-of-age.
Alef: Tell us about your Bar Mitzvah, and how it influenced the way that you’re celebrating Shmaltz Brewing Company’s Bar Mitzvah year.
Jeremy Cowan: My personal bar mitzvah was in a suburban synagogue outside of San Fransisco in a reform community and it was very typical of 80’s northern California reform Judaism. Basically, I started He’Brew because I wanted to find a way to participate in the Jewish community in a meaningful and exciting and contemporary way that was relevant for me. But I also wanted it to be fun and a little bit outrageous, for other people to get a kick out of it so that they might also dig deeper into their own identities. So the Bar Mitzvah celebration this year had elements of text and tradition, but we didn’t have too many sacred elements. We got yarmulkes that everybody wore at the Great American Beer Festival and then at our parties throughout the last six months. Inviting people to share their Bar and Bat Mitzvah photos was hilarious, I don’t know if you guys checked out the website.
Alef: We did!
JC: It’s pretty amazing I mean, [laughs] everything from the very traditional and sincere to just ridiculous and silly, bizarre entries. Also, the band that was at my Bar Mitzvah was called “Hot Borscht.” I think I put together my set list for them to play. It was Led Zeppelin and Rush, and then they played the exact same set list from every other Bar Mitzvah and even threw in My Sharona. So when we had bands this year we wanted to make sure that they were kind of riffing off the absurdity of certain traditions — the set list was made up of hassidic surf bands, which was really cool.
Alef: You mentioned that you included a few more sacred elements in the celebration. How did those go over?
JC: Oh, it was awesome. I couldn’t believe how big a hit those yarmulkes were. I did a beer dinner and people were just loving them. I included a little line of instruction on it so that my non-jewish friends wouldn’t use it as a dog chew toy; it said “Happy 13th Anniversary.” Everybody got a kick out of it.
Alef: How would you describe your Judaism growing up? Was your family invested in some sort of specific Jewish community or were you secular, for instance?
JC: Like I said, I grew up in the suburbs of northern California in a reform synagogue. We were Jewish by self identity, not really by knowledge or practice, but I was Bar Mitzvah’d and confirmed and went to Israel on my teen tour when I was 16 so I did everything you’re supposed to do and a lot of things that you’re not. It wasn’t until I went back to Israel when I was about 25 and got a chance to work with an observant community for 3 or 4 months – and eat kebab and celebrate the holidays and learn about Torah – that I began to understand some of the more traditional elements of Judaism and started to argue about some of the more unusual parts of our culture. The experience allowed me to have a better, more multi-layered understanding of Judaism than I’d had in the past.
Alef: So, how would you define your Judaism now?
JC: Eh, personal. I mean, I’m not much more observant than I used to be. I have a deeper appreciation of my own ability to struggle with interpretation and to celebrate holidays and participate in the community. Working on the marketing and sales of the beer, I have no shortage of opportunities to be involved with the community from everybody who’s totally unaffiliated, just some random Jewish kid at a bar, to Orthodox communities that are celebrating Shavuot or Sukkot or doing events with Young Adult Division or Hillel. It’s been a wonderful way to participate and create my own path.
Alef: So we had to ask this question – would you say that after 13 years your beer has finally become a man?
JC: I was thinking that our punchline could be “Today I Am A Man” but, there are so many fun women home brewers so I stayed away from it. Also, half my staff is female and I want them to feel ownership in the company…but yeah, I think we have.