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I'm constantly encouraging my students to seek out new experiences, test their mettle and stretch. I don't often have an opportunity to practice what I preach -- things at my end have settled into a pretty predictable groove -- but last week, I was treated to a hefty dose of my own medicine. I found myself in a brand new setting -- a recording studio the size of a shoebox -- and staring down a set of equally new interpretive challenges. I was to pretend that I was standing in front of a series of museum objects and to chat away freely, as if in the company of good friends.

 In the Recording Studio
In the Recording Studio. Flickr/Carol VanHook

I have no trouble filling the air with the sound of my voice nor am I averse to my imagination going full tilt. All the same, in the course of the taping, which the Jewish Museum of New York had commissioned in order to add another voice, another layer of interpretation, to its exhibition, "Scenes from the Collection," I felt a little like Jimmy Stewart and his imaginary rabbit, Harvey.

It wasn't that I was pulling rabbits out of a hat, conjuring up things that didn't exist. The objects I had elected to talk about -- among them, a fanciful wooden pastry stamp, a lead Hanukkah lamp in the shape of miniature chairs, a chubby aluminum charity box with an ill-fitting lid -- were real enough: each one came with a history, a back story.

That was the easy part. The hard part was to hold forth convincingly on their appeal when all I had at my disposal -- and the listener's patience -- was a minute or two. Accustomed in the classroom and in print to the luxury of elaboration, I had now to work within the constraints of concision: to speak fast, but not too fast; to sound conversational and animated rather than didactic and flat; to induce in my audience a sense of connection and, above all, to do right by the objects.

As the taping wore on, I got better at it, more confident in my pacing and in my content, too, but before I knew it, my time in the studio was up. Already?! I hope I'll have another opportunity sometime soon to reprise my maiden sonic adventure.

In the meantime, here's to new challenges, be they acoustic, visual or somewhere in between.

Long before gefilte shrimp appeared on the menu of an upscale Manhattan eatery and bagels were studded with bacon bits, there was Manischewitz, a sweet, kosher wine with a wide appeal in postwar America. Hailed as the nation's very first cross-over product, it was as likely to be found in African-American homes as in American Jewish ones. Drawing on a peppy radio jingle -- “Man-O- Manischewitz, what a wine!” -- as well as on advertisements in Ebony magazine, its manufacturers celebrated the virtues of “wine like mother used to make.”

Manischewitz
Click on image to enlarge

The relationship between the palate and the pocketbook, between culinary preferences and consumer practices, lies at the heart of a fascinating new book: Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food. Its author, Roger Horowitz, director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library, brings to bear a wealth of sources and a lively historical imagination as he uncovers what earlier generations of Americans ate and drank.

The book is a must-read for anyone interested in America’s culinary history. But you don’t just have to read all about it, for Mr. Horowitz is coming to town. Thanks to the generosity of GW’s Food Institute and the Program in Judaic Studies, he’ll be on hand to deliver a talk titled “Man-O- Manischewitz: How A Kosher Wine Became Big with the American Public.”

The date: November 9, 2016
The time: 7 p.m – 8 p.m.
The place: The Edlavitch DC-JCC, 1529 16 th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C.

Be there for what promises to be a lively and spirited presentation.

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, one of the things that strikes me is how each generation of Jews, drawing on tradition as well as on the latest technology and the most current protocol, has developed its own way of wishing one another well for the new year. Here, as with other elements of Jewish life and culture, constancy and novelty go hand in hand.

Rosh Hashanah card from the Rosenthall collection
Rosh Hashanah card from the Rosenthall collection

These days, cleverly animated digital greetings rule the roost, one more amusing than the next. Your inbox, like mine, is probably full of them.

When I was growing up, my parents and their friends opted for a more restrained form of exchange, one that placed a premium on good paper stock and just a few lines of handsomely embossed text: “Mr. and Mrs. Irving Weissman and family wish you a healthy and a happy New Year.” Emily Post would have approved.

My grandparents, in turn, were likely to avail themselves of a colorful array of Jewish New Year’s cards, the more bedecked and ornamented, the better. Taking their cue from Christmas and Easter holiday cards, which they often repurposed, shana tovas, as they were known, fancied accordion pleats, paper hinges and other movable parts. In the New World, tradition, they seemed to suggest, was not static, but on the go. That so many coreligionists were also on the go, migrating from one part of the globe to another, was surely not lost on those who purchased and posted these greeting cards.

Earlier generations of Jews, after all, made do with a handshake and a verbal greeting. When communities were intact and intimately sized, there was simply no need for anything more elaborate.

No matter their form, or, for that matter, their language, Jewish New Year greetings are to be treasured. A holiday salute as well as a reflection of circumstance, they speak to a shared sense of community.

Shana tova, a zisn yahr, anyada buena, and a happy new year to one and all.

Marisa Scheinfeld, Indoor Pool, Grossinger's Catskill Resort and Hotel, 2012
Marisa Scheinfeld, Indoor Pool, Grossinger's Catskill Resort and Hotel, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Gallery talks are nice. So, too, are lectures and other forms of cultural outreach and engagement. But when it comes to eliciting a response, there’s nothing quite like the Q&A that follows on the heels of a public program about American Jewish culture, especially if its destination is that of the Catskills. Talk about audience participation!

The recipe is simple: Take a group whose members make up what the French call a “certain age,” leaven with memories of that former “kingdom of outdoor happiness,” as Grossinger’s, the eminent Catskills hotel, once put it, and mix it up with contemporary observations about Jewish history and humor, food and frolic -- and you’re off and running.

Echoes of the Borscht Belt: The Contemporary Photography of Marisa Scheinfeld” is now on view at Yeshiva University Museum. An evocative and witty meditation on place, on the tussle between History and Mother Nature, the exhibition doesn’t just document what happened to the Catskills when its fortunes ran dry. Here, subject matter and visual artistry collude, compelling the viewer to reckon with absence and loss.

The exhibition, which will be closing on April 12th, after which it’ll be headed for the Yiddish Book Center, was accompanied the other evening by a conversation among Ms. Scheinfeld, Jacob Wisse, the museum’s imaginative director, and myself. Although we didn’t lack for what to say -- our conversation encompassed a wide range of topics, from creative land use to Jewish history -- it was the audience that made the evening a success.

Some attendees reminisced about their days as a band leader or as a guest at a bungalow colony. Others told a slightly naughty joke. Still others speculated on why the Catskills declined. Nearly everyone had something to say -- and said it. At one memorable point in the proceedings, some audience members even started speaking directly to other audience members, bypassing the moderator entirely.

One extremely animated participant had been a former tumler at a Catskills establishment. His job was to get the guests, their bellies filled with food, up and about, exercising, swimming, walking, moving and interacting with one another. He would have had an easy time of it with this crowd.

Zeitgeist is one of those words that historians like to toss around a lot. When called on by our students to explain, we’re apt to say that it’s a German word that means ‘spirit of the age,’ and that they’ll know one zeitgeist from another when they see it.

Russ & Daughters
Russ & Daughters. Flickr/Jeffrey Bary

We’re smack in the middle of a zeitgeist right now, one in which culinary matters have taken center stage, all the more when leavened by a heavy dose of nostalgia. Everywhere you turn, there’s a feature story, a full-length book, a documentary or a new restaurant that traffics in the foods of yesteryear.

From Sturgeon Queens and Deli Man to Welcome to Kutsher’s, the silver screen, or its digital equivalent, is awash in films that chronicle and celebrate a trio of institutions beloved by a much earlier generation of American Jews: the appetizing store, the deli and the Catskill resort where smoked fishes and smoked meat were had in abundance.

Heartwarming, endearing and often laugh-out-loud funny, these films are heavy on sentiment and light on commentary. We’re not meant to ponder so much as embrace. And eat.

Russ & Daughters Café, in the heart of the Lower East Side, is both a beneficiary of this newfound nostalgia as well as its conveyor. Created by two members of the fourth generation of the 100-year-old-family-run business, it purveys all manner of traditional fare -- lox, sable, bagels, bialys, seeded rye bread, halvah -- but with a twist. The restaurant’s handsomely produced booklet of available potables -- of egg creams, flavored sodas and caraway-infused Bloody Marys -- calls it the “old standards and the newly invented.”

Dining at Russ & Daughters Café manages to be simultaneously reverential and sly: a cheeky homage to food, drink and history. Where else would a wooden cutting board be prominently displayed and hung just-so, or an old paper shopping bag be handsomely framed as if it were a fine print? Judging from the size of the crowds, the formula is a winning one. That the food is really, really good helps, too.

A group effort, making sense of culinary nostalgia calls on the talents of historians, folklorists, journalists and foodies. A number of them will gather together this coming Thursday, March 5th, at 6:30 p.m. at the Museum of the City of New York to discuss “A Taste of the Old World: Jewish Food and Memory.”

Anyone with a hankering for history and an appetite for conversation should be on hand.

To keep healthy and limber, we've been encouraged to drink lots of water. But what do you do if you don't enjoy the taste of H2O, especially when it's been heavily treated with fluoride and who knows what else, leaving a chemical residue on your tongue?

Brooklyn Seltzer
Brooklyn Seltzer. Flickr/Julie

Our solution: We drink seltzer. And not just any seltzer, but the old-fashioned, resolutely fizzy kind which comes in hard-to-lift glass bottles and is delivered to our door in a wooden crate by Brooklyn Seltzer Boys.

Much of the pleasure we derive from this potable is, admittedly, gastronomic. With its sturdy bubbles and clean finish, the seltzer produced by Brooklyn Seltzer Boys tastes real good. And it’s fun to drink, too. Pressing the siphon, waiting for the release of noise and liquid, is so much more absorbing than unscrewing the cap of a bottle.

Then again, in a household where the study of history and of material culture rules the roost, the joy we take from our daily doses of seltzer has as much to do with its physicality as its tastiness. Not only do the bottles themselves come in a range of colors, from clear and frosty white to marine blue and forest green, but, so, too, does their lettering. It runs the gamut from stark black to feisty red.

More fascinating still are the names of the companies that once manufactured the stuff. Their ranks include High Rock Seltzer, American Beverage Co., Celia’s Bottling Company, S.G. Seltzer (the initials stood for Sam Ginsburg), and, this week’s favorite, Dov Shraga.

Largely an East Coast phenomenon, seltzer, the “poor man’s champagne,” was produced all over the United States, even as far away as Wyoming. Its manufacturers went to some lengths to tout the beverage’s virtues. Some spoke of it as “sparkling,” others as “carbonated,” and still others of it being both “siphonated” and “ozonized.”

One way or another, seltzer was -- and continues to be -- good for you. Drink up!

This past week brought word of the closing of two American Jewish institutions: Entenmann’s, the producer of all kinds of baked goods, and KlezKamp, the producer of yidishkayt in all of its varied manifestations. After more than 100 years on Long Island, the Entenmann’s plant will shut its doors and, if company press releases are to be believed, relocate elsewhere. KlezKamp, a much younger phenomenon -- it will have been around for 30 years -- will be calling it a day at the conclusion of its final session, in late December.

Entenmann's truck, Totowa, NJ
Entenmann's Delivery Truck, NJ. Flickr/erlyrizrjr

Thanks to its kosher certification, Entenmann’s went on to become a staple in many traditional American Jewish households, its doughnuts and crumb cakes a fixture of the synagogue kiddush as well. I never cared much for them. To me, they tasted too much of the chemical preservatives whose names (thiamine mononitrate and riboflavin) were dutifully listed on the outside of the blue and white box with the cellophane window. But I know hundreds of people, including the members of my extended family, who not only relished their Entenmann’s, but also made a point of incorporating its consumption into their Shabbat morning ritual: a source of fortification before heading out for shuel.

In other American Jewish households, most famously that of Shalom Auslander’s, the Entenmann box served as a distraction. In his celebrated memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, Auslander writes of having run through all of the reading material he had assembled for Shabbat. “By Saturday afternoon I was slumped over the kitchen table, reading the side of the Entenmann’s doughnut box for the ten thousandth time. The history of Entenmann’s, the price per pound of Entenmann’s, the ingredients of Entenmann’s; I knew more about Entenmann’s doughnuts than most of the Entenmanns themselves.”

KlezKamp, too, deserves to be celebrated and chronicled in print. The brainchild of Henry Sapoznik, one of the founding fathers of the klezmer revival movement, it brought together for one week and under the roof of a down-at-its-heels Catskills hotel the most widely variegated community of Jews I’ve ever encountered. What bound everyone together was a shared fidelity to Yiddish and the cultural milieu from which it emerged.

The accommodations left a lot to be desired and the food was nothing to write home about -- a box of Entenmann’s doughnuts would have been like manna -- but these physical limitations were more than offset by the sheer, unadulterated exuberance of the experience. I’ve yet to find anything else like it. Teaching in the morning, attending someone else’s classes on language, song or cooking in the afternoon, jamming at night and dancing, dancing, dancing until the very wee hours of the morning -- KlezKamp epitomized Jewish experiential education at its very best.

I, along with hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of its fans, will greatly mourn its passing. I know I speak for the community of KlezKampers when I say that we are exceedingly grateful to Henry and his dedicated team for nourishing our spirits, fortifying our souls and enabling us to experience firsthand the joys of Yiddish.

In our age of digitized this, that and the other thing, I often wonder -- and worry -- about the kinds of sources that will be available to future generations. What will become of history, as we know it? Will the chroniclers of the 21st century have materials to draw on as they take the measure of American Jewish life?

Cel-ray
Cel-ray. Flickr/jojomelons

If this week was any indication, there’s little cause for concern. American Jewish history is kept alive and well and nourished by those in the food business, from Russ & Daughters in New York to DGS Delicatessen in D.C.

To set the bar high (yes, bad pun intended), consider the New Yorker, which just published a piece about the debut of Russ & Daughters Cafe, whose décor as well as bill of fare celebrates the Lower East Side of yesteryear. "The Café is a master class in how to court both the old and the new, imbued with a hard-earned air of authority and gorgeously designed to pay detailed homage to Russ & Daughters’ history,” the magazine noted admiringly.

And then, on the heels of the New Yorker article, came word, courtesy of a former student, of the latest offering from DGS Delicatessen in D.C.: Delicatessen After Dark, which this past week paid its own version of homage to the summer resorts of the Catskills, or more to the point, to the steady round of alcoholic libations its Jewish patrons reportedly imbibed while around the pool, in the dining room and late at night while laughing away at the comic antics of aspiring performers. “Delicatessen After Dark,” its website explains, “is a celebration of the new delicatessen drinking culture inspired by our grandparents’ long nights in Lower East Side taverns, getaways to Florida and jazzy escapades to the Catskills.”

Drinking culture? I was under the impression that our ancestors were more inclined towards quaffing seltzer and variously flavored sodas, among them black cherry, cream and Cel-Ray tonic than spirits.

But no matter. Future generations, curious about the everyday lives of their forbears, can now look to restaurants and their proprietors for the details. They’re the ones, after all, who are most zealously tending to the flame of history.

The Jewish holiday of Shavuoth, which just took place, is associated with many things: Harvest fruits or bikkurim; Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah and, on a more quotidian note, the eating of cheese cake and other dairy comestibles. These associations keep the age-old yontef in circulation. But now and again, modern-day life intrudes, adding a grace note to the proceedings.

Cheese cake
Cheese cake. Flickr/Alper Çuğun

Like many of my coreligionists, I had planned on eating a slice or two of cheese cake in the course of the holiday. In search of New York’s finest version, I made a beeline for William Greenberg Jr. Desserts on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a bakery known far and wide for its pastries. By the time I had arrived on the scene, on the Tuesday afternoon preceding the start of the holiday, none was to be had. “We’re all sold out,” glumly explained the woman behind the counter, one of a handful of longstanding employees who hailed originally from the Philippines. She then added that she was caught off-guard by the pent-up demand for a product which usually doesn’t sell out. “What’s going on?”

I volunteered that a holiday was in the offing. “What kind of holiday?” she asked. “Shavuoth,” I replied. “Spell it,” she commanded. Which I dutifully did, not that it clarified anything. On the contrary. Even more puzzled than before -- what kind of American holiday was Shavuoth? -- but undaunted, the Greenberg Desserts employee then turned to one of her co-workers and told her to order more cheese cakes for the morrow. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that by then, it would probably be too late: Those customers who were apt to mark the holiday with a cheese cake were not too likely to be purchasing one on Shavuoth itself. I hope that wiser heads prevailed. Otherwise, William Greenberg Jr. Desserts was going to have a surfeit of cheese cakes on its shelves -- and it would be all my fault.

The other sweet little holiday-related moment I experienced this year took place not in a bakery but at shul, where, at the conclusion of the service, the congregation’s children placed fruits and flowers at the foot of the Ark. One of their number, a boy of about 7 or 8, had made a poster in honor of the occasion, the details of which he was rather keen on sharing publicly. Drawing himself up tall, he proceeded to explain in the preternaturally mature manner of a smart Upper West Side kid that his artwork contained “approximately” 10 petals, which symbolized the “approximately” Ten Commandments. The congregation, fittingly enough, erupted in laughter.

These two incidents are not going to supplant Mount Sinai in our collective imagination, of that I’m sure. All the same, they put me in mind of the ways in which the unanticipated encounter sustains tradition. You never know what’s going to happen.

Lionized and lampooned, widely consumed and just as widely eschewed, gefilte fish looms large on the American Jewish landscape. Many years ago, the making of gefilte fish was the stuff of a rather humorous episode of The Goldbergs, introducing television audiences across the country to what was then a decidedly unfamiliar, even risible concoction of fish, eggs and matzoh meal. Its name alone seemed funny.

Gefilte fish and horseradish
Gefilte fish and horseradish/Flickr: Karen

The other day, meanwhile, the New York Times featured a story about gefilte fish on its front page -- yes, on page one! -- noting how a dwindling supply of whitefish, an essential ingredient, made it difficult for a goodly number of American Jews to serve the fishy dish at this year’s Seder. No laughing matter, that.

The article touched a nerve, inspiring fans and foes alike to weigh in. So numerous and varied were readers’ responses that the Times actually published a handful of them a few days later. “Scarcity of gefilte fish! This is the best news since the Red Sea parted,” cleverly opined one member of the public. Another grudgingly allowed that “Passover without gefilte fish is like Christmas without fruitcake.” Several more positively disposed readers couched their seasonal affinity for gefilte fish in terms of nostalgia, evoking warm memories of grandma.

What is it about gefilte fish that occasions such strong feelings, one way or another? Surely, it’s not only a matter of taste. After all, you don’t find too many people whinging publicly about schav or chopped liver. If you happen to find these two other staples of the East European Jewish diet objectionable, as many do, you simply don’t eat ‘em. No hue and cry, no public debate, accompanies that decision. But gefilte fish is another matter entirely.

I wish I knew why. Perhaps it has to do with the way in which earlier generations fulsomely celebrated this maychel. Way back in the 1940s, The Jewish Home Beautiful had this to say:

If there is any one particular food that might lay claim to being the Jewish national dish, gefilte fish is that food. This may be due to the fact that since it is associated with the Shabbat, it appears on our menus more frequently than do most of the other distinctly Jewish dishes. But the greatest factors making for its popularity are its intrinsically delectable qualities.

Could it be that taking a dim view of gefilte fish is all tangled up with identity politics, with an embrace of the universal at the expense of the particular? And conversely, that championing, or, at the very least, tolerating gefilte fish is an expression of Jewish pride?

Surely these are questions well worth pondering. In the meantime, as Pesach 5774 draws to a close, you can be certain of one thing: whitefish might come and go, but gefilte fish endures, generation after generation.

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