Forward-thinking chefs turn Friday night meals edgy and artisanal.
A group of 20-somethings meeting on a Friday night for a gourmet meal and drinks at a posh New York locale is nothing out of the ordinary. That is, until they start singing Kiddush and Hamotzi, the blessings over wine and challah.
Welcome to Pop-Up Shabbat, a project launched last month in order to “make Shabbat cool.”
Danya Cheskis-Gold, 28, came up with the idea soon after leaving her job at a tech startup a few months ago. While planning a potluck dinner with her friends, she got the idea that her highly anticipated feasts might be attractive to people beyond her immediate group of friends.
While a number of outreach programs, such as Moishe House and Manhattan Jewish Experience, host Shabbat meals for Jews in their 20s and 30s, Cheskis-Gold, who now works at a venture capital firm, is part of a new crop of grass-roots activists putting a fresh, and sophisticated spin on the Friday-night meal.
These dinners are stylish, and they offer excellent food with artisanal and locavore bona fides, a compelling theme and a subtle spirituality that aims to be different from what you might find at an established Jewish institution.
Robert J. Saferstein’s Friday Night Lights, which began a year and a half ago and is holding its third dinner, on Simchat Torah in late September, puts Shabbat into edgy, unconventional settings around New York City. It’s designed with gay Jewish professionals in their 30s and early 40s in mind. Saferstein’s first dinner took place at the swanky Jewish National Fund house on the Upper East Side, and the second one at a Chelsea gallery overlooking the High Line.
“I take advantage of all of the interesting venues that no other city has, and transform these dinners and places into a fabulous dinner, an experiential event,” Saferstein, who works at Sh’ma Journal, said, noting that he models Friday Night Lights on the art gallery events and fancy dinner parties that he claims are popular in the gay community. Unlike those events, his are kosher, though future ones are likely to be kosher-style.
San Francisco’s The Kitchen, an indie-Shabbat community, hosts more casual pop-up event through its Kitchen 24/7 program, bringing Jews in their 20s and early 30s together for meals, hikes and anything that’s entertaining. The Kitchen helps members of the community organize these laid-back get-togethers, so it’s a community-led pop-up program. Its next meet-up will be at Urban Adamah farm in Berkeley in October.
“We are trying to be active and social, and do whatever, whenever fits your lifestyle,” Erin Schnair, a community member who participates in Kitchen 24/7, said. “It’s just a fun hip way to reinvent the 20s and 30s Jewish experience.”
The dinners with The Kitchen, while not as dressy as Friday Night Lights, are foodie-first, explained Noa Kushner, the organization’s founding rabbi. This year’s Yom Kippur break-the-fast will be, for a second consecutive year, at The Wise Sons Deli, California’s popular Jewish deli with a modern vibe that is often compared to Brooklyn’s Mile End Deli.
Raymond Colletti, 26, attended Cheskis-Gold’s inaugural pop-up Shabbat dinner, called “ShaBubbe” in July — his first Shabbat dinner in more than five years.
“The quality of the food was really, really top notch,” he said. “Definitely better than the average New York City restaurant, and the dishes themselves were creative, inspired even.”
Colletti, who was raised Conservative but now is a non-practicing Jew, was one of about 30 guests invited to the July dinner, along with others who ranged in religious observance from highly observant Conservative to gentile.
Jeffrey Yoskowitz, co-owner and chief pickler at The Gefilteria, an old-world Jewish food purveyor in Brooklyn, supplied the appetizers to the dinner, which included pickled watermelon rinds, pickled green beans and his signature borscht.
“We were being playful while still incorporating these old world recipes,” Yoskowitz said.
Cheskis-Gold plans to change the theme each time, and expand the food offerings beyond Jewish cuisine. The next dinner, scheduled for October, will be outdoors, weather permitting, and will spotlight the soul food scene with a 1990s block party theme.
But what’s the point to all of this lavish Gatsby-esque Shabbat festivity?
“People who might never come to a Jewish event are coming,” Friday Night Lights’ Saferstein explained. “The demographic spans the gamut from the most religious Orthodox individual who is shomer Shabbat and will walk [because riding in a car or train is prohibited on Shabbat], to people who have never been to a Jewish event. These are people who would never get into the same room together.”
Cheskis-Gold’s and Saferstein’s dinners, publicized through word of mouth, don’t come cheap. Tickets for ShaBubbe were $75, and the last Friday Night Lights dinner cost $100 per person.
To be sure, it’s not just the stylishness of the dinners that’s bringing the non-practicing Jews to the meals. For some, it’s the fact that they have a Jewish feel and content that doesn’t dominate the evening.
Colletti characterized July’s ShaBubbe, set at a townhouse on the banks of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal as “lively,” and a “reinterpretation” of Shabbat that, while less ritualistic, was still Jewish-focused. For instance, Colletti participated in conversations about Israel and Judaism, but said he also talked about lots of other things.
At ShaBubbe, Cheskis-Gold expected the ritual prayers for Kiddush and Hamotzi might make the less-observant guests uncomfortable, so as a compromise, she offered a symbolic “Kiddush moment” for any guest to share a story they found relevant to Shabbat.
“People asked me, are we going to do any blessings?” Cheskis-Gold said, noting that the next dinner will include the blessings over the challah and wine.
Those who don’t observe Shabbat often or at all “feel like they are getting back to their roots,” Cheskis-Gold said. “And for those who haven’t observed Shabbat at all are in for “an experience.”