Reinvigorating Tradition, One Bowl of Borscht at a Time

Photo credit: Benson @ UPenn

By Liz Alpern

[This is the second article in a series about the connection between Jewish identity, food, and the natural environment, written by grantees and partners of The Covenant Foundation.]

From my perspective as a culinary professional in 2011, the future of Eastern European Jewish Cuisine looked grim. Jewish delis were closing by the dozen, TV food stars rarely acknowledged the existence of babka or tsimmes, and few of my peers or friends had ever made – or even tasted – homemade gefilte fish. Ashkenazi Jews still occasionally braised a brisket and baked rugelach on the major Jewish holidays, but didn’t cook much else, winnowing this robust cuisine down to its greatest hits. My generation was inheriting only a small taste of this glorious tradition.

I felt this potential loss in my kishkes. What would a Jewish holiday be without the smell of chicken soup pervading every corner of my home? But when I met Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a passionate pickler and food entrepreneur and the grandson of a remarkable Jewish woman from Poland who cooked like a real balabusta, my path grew clear. We were going to turn the tides by reinvigorating our tradition, bringing together our present day values and culinary skills with the wisdom of the past. A year later, we put out a manifesto with our stated mission and launched The Gefilteria.

Eight years and a cookbook later and we’re still at it: manufacturing artisanal gefilte fish, teaching and lecturing all over the world, consulting on projects, and hosting dinners and special events. And we are joined on our mission by dozens of new delis and bagel shops that have since opened up across the globe, not to mention chefs incorporating Jewish foods on their menus and exciting new initiatives like A Seat at the Table: A Journey of Jewish Food, a unique forthcoming course run by YIVO on the history of Jewish food (and which The Gefilteria is privileged to be a part of, thanks to the support of The Covenant Foundation).

It turns out that we weren’t the only ones who answered the call.

Over and over again, we hear the same refrain from the people we meet through our classes and workshops, and from readers of our cookbook, The Gefilte Manifesto: “When I eat these foods, I feel Jewish!” or “When I cook these foods I feel connected to my grandmother!” or “When I put my own spin on these recipes, they become staples at my table.”

At a few recent events, the power of Jewish food in connecting to Judaism and Jewish identity was made especially clear.

At a cooking demonstration in Columbia, South Carolina, for example, I asked for helpers to come on stage and four children jumped for the chance. They peeled turnips and parsnips and marveled when we all grated those same vegetables into latkes, a food they had only associated with potatoes. These kids pooled their quarters and dimes to purchase The Gefilte Manifesto (at a special discount just for the next generation of cooks). They promised me they’d keep cooking, even after Hanukkah was over.

At the University of Pennsylvania, we prepared gallons of borscht to serve in cafeterias all over campus. For some students, it was their first taste of the sweet-sour beet soup so deeply rooted in Eastern Europe. For others, this soup provided a taste of home, and many students proudly told me how their family prepared the dish, each style unique.

Just as The Gefilteria promotes the future of Ashkenazi Cuisine, I am proud and honored to stand by my food world colleagues who work to promote their own Jewish ethnic cuisines, like cookbook author Jennifer Abadi whose books highlight her Sephardic Jewish heritage, or NY Shuk, a product line started by Moroccan Jewish Israelis to feature the robust flavors of their tradition (like harissa and preserved lemon!). I love to learn from the many Jewish cuisines that have developed all over the globe across millennia, and I love to surprise folks with how fun, unique, and surprising Ashkenazi cooking can be (ever tried pickled lettuce tonic?).

Cooking Jewish food is much more than a gateway to the deeper parts of Jewish identity; the product is the process. The sensory experience of cooking and eating unlocks stories and memories while simultaneously creating new ones.

Liz Alpern is co-author of The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods (Flatiron Books, 2016) and co-owner of The Gefilteria, a food venture that’s been reimagining Old World Jewish Foods since 2012. She is also the creator of Queer Soup Night, a global event series highlighting the talent of queer chefs and raising funds for locally-based social justice organizations. 

Liz received her MBA from Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business and is on the faculty of the International Culinary Center’s Entrepreneurship Program. Her passion for food extends to the world of food systems, and she serves as a consultant for the national nonprofit organization Fair Food Network. Liz has been featured on the Forbes 30 Under 30 List, The Forward 50, and The Cherry Bombe 100.