“They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.”
It’s one of the Jewish people’s signature mantras, not to mention a felicitous inspiration for Schmaltzy, a series of food-focused storytelling sessions hosted by the Jewish Food Society.
In partnership with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the most recent event featured local luminaries such as Ed Schoenfeld (RedFarm), Zohar Zohar (Zucker Bakery), Marissa Lippert (Nourish Kitchen + Table), Nir Mesika (Timna) and Stacey Harwood-Lehman (Best American Poetry), who traded their kitchens for a stage at the Salmagundi Club to explain how their Jewish heritage has directly informed their careers.
“In Jewish households, almost everything is celebrated, mourned or dealt with over a meal,” explained Mimi Sheraton, who made a special guest appearance. “When my mother was faced with either good news or bad, her first reaction would be, ‘I better call the butcher. At least, let there be something to eat.’”
It was a sentiment echoed by host Mitchell Davis, who emphasized the importance of storytelling to keep those defining culinary traditions alive.
In the spirit of Schmaltzy, here’s a small sampling of narratives that helped shape and inspire the participating chef’s dishes.
Nir Mesika: The loss of his grandmother meant saying good-bye to an entire childhood filled with food memories. “I remember being surrounded by boiling pots in her kitchen, full of clay tagines and shiny tools hanging from the wall. Her sitting there, saying ‘mashallah; god will bless and protect you.'” Saying good-bye to her precipitated Mesika’s pilgrimage from Israel to the East Village, where he eventually opened Timna, a love letter to his grandmother. “I passed by a shop on Avenue B one day, where I spotted a tagine with Arabic symbols—the same one my grandmother had in her house. There were shiny tools on the wall, and an older lady inside who greeted me with mashallah, the same blessing my grandmother used. From that day on, she became my second family and helps supply me with ingredients for the restaurant that keep my grandmother’s spirit alive.”
Marissa Lippert: Lippert has long equated food with love, thanks to her own grandma’s kitchen, brimming with dark chocolate walnut brownies, coconut macaroons and Hungarian-style apple kuchen. In fact, those memories led to the inception of Nourish, which she wanted the community to view as their own kitchen away from home. Like most business owners, however, her dream often seemed more of a nightmare, thanks to burst pipes that filled the basement with raw sewage and a line cook who stole from her and the staff. “It was so overwhelming, that one morning, I could barely get out of bed. But just as I was pulling covers over my head, I noticed a white butterfly on my window. I knew it was my grandma, telling me to get my butt out of bed and get to work.”
Ed Schoenfeld: Many people are already familiar with Ed Schoenfeld’s unlikely story, about how a Jewish boy became an expert on Chinese cuisine (to the dismay of his parents, who’d predictably pulled for a career as doctor or lawyer). But it turns out, he can track his left-field trajectory to a more common source: his “nanny,” Goldie. “She was one of nine siblings, and a mother of three who lost her husband, mother and son in the influenza epidemic of 1918,” he shared. “She also lost her aunt, who had eight kids of her own, so by necessity, she married her uncle, and everyone came to live in the same household. She was an incredible cook, and, in retrospect, I realized I had followed in my family’s footsteps after all. Technically, Goldie had been in the restaurant business, too, since she was tasked with feeding so many people three meals a day.”
Stacey Harwood-Lehman: Harwood-Lehman was also charged with cooking for her family from a young age, when her mom declared she was done with the job. Armed with a canon of perfected Jewish classics, her consummate challah even helped woo her husband-to-be. When he was tragically diagnosed with cancer, she figured if she couldn’t cure him, she could at least comfort him with her cooking. Yet when it was eventually discovered he had celiac’s as well, the only option left was to change his diet completely. “I embraced the challenge of cooking for my husband with the same enthusiasm with which I cooked for my family all those years ago. No more challah, of course, but I learned an entirely new playlist of meals with the exception of kasha varnishkes; a wonderful (gluten-free) dish from my childhood.”
Zohar Zohar: Having grown up on a kibbutz in Israel, Zohar Zohar never really forged a connection with food, being that all meals were cooked in a central, commissary kitchen and eaten in a shared dining room. The exception was on Fridays, when families baked together in their homes, and those rare shared memories made a lasting impression on her. Upon moving to New York City, she was struck by the endless stream of stories from people of various cultures, and upon opening her bakery, made that shared interchange a hallmark of her business. “There are no signs in the display case, because it starts a conversation,” she said. “I wanted people to ask me about my cookies so I can tell the stories behind them, and have them tell me why those are the cookies they chose.”