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Food for thought

Finding community in the kitchen

Jewish Food Society’s weekend solidarity potluck brought together celebrated chefs, international cuisine and some much-needed healing

Dan Perez

Jewish Food Society founder Naama Shefi

They were dishing out a helping of togetherness.

In a show of solidarity and unity in the wake of Oct. 7, the Jewish Food Society, a nonprofit focused on preserving the wide breadth of recipes and culinary identity that make up the Jewish people, hosted a Potluck Shabbat Brunch on Saturday for 250 attendees.

Thirty-five chefs, including a handful of whom are not Jewish, came prepared with a total of 40 dishes ranging from bagels and schmear and babka to savory white fish-filled cannolis and kosher-style turkey “pulled pork” sliders.

“Many of us feel sad and lonely these days. We feel it in the streets, we feel it in our personal and professional lives, and we feel it most on social media, where emotions are high,” Naama Shefi, founder and executive director of Jewish Food Society told Jewish Insider. “We really wanted to gather our incredible community — to remind us that we are not alone. And that the food community of this city is supporting us with the best way they know — showing up with a dish.”

Attendees at the exclusive event were given an address to UNTITLED, a trendy boutique hotel on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, only after purchasing a ticket. 

“Some days are OK, some days aren’t. It’s really hard to kind of focus on the day-to-day of your life when you know that sort of up in the macro universe there was so much suffering and sadness,” Celebrity food writer, TV personality and longtime “Top Chef” judge Gail Simmons said.  “You feel personally attacked, you feel very misunderstood. I feel like the world is out to get us no matter what, we can’t win, we are forever the scapegoat, and it’s one thing to have known that about history, it’s another thing to all of a sudden feel like it is in the present and more vicious than ever.”

Simmons, who is Jewish, shared emotional remarks during the event, tearing up as she spoke about the gratitude she felt at being in a room of people who could relate to her pain.  

“Coming here today, having a place where we can all gather, where I know everybody in the room is on the same page, feels the same, has the best intention, wants to care for each other, wants to lift each other up, it’s been a long time since I have felt that feeling,” she told JI.

Israeli chef and restaurateur Michael Solomonov, the founder of CookNSolo restaurant group known for his popular ventures including Zahav, Federal Donuts, Laser Wolf and the former Dizengoff, mirrored Simmons’ sentiment, telling JI there was no way he would have missed the Saturday’s brunch.

“It’s therapeutic to be here,” he said. “This is like the only control we have. Whatever pain I’m feeling, I know I can share with people that have felt exactly the same here.” Solomonov brought his famous Yeminite beef stew to the potluck. A day after the event, Solomonov’s Goldie restaurant in Philadelphia was targeted by hundreds of anti-Israel protestors who demonstrated outside the venue.

Participating chefs were first chosen from those who had collaborated with Jewish Food Society in the past, and then expanded to those whom Shefi and her team admire — chefs who would help showcase not only the “global diversity of Jewish food,” but also highlight the dishes ingrained in the DNA of New York City. 

Beehjy Barhany, chef and owner of Tsion Cafe, an Ethiopian restaurant in Harlem, said she was glad for the opportunity to share her food, and in doing so, herself, with the gathered crowd.

“As a Jewish-Ethiopian-Israeli, I am very proud to showcase and honor my heritage via food and have a discussion and understanding with fellow Jews throughout the diaspora, so I wanted to showcase my flavorful delicious food — gluten-free [and] vegan, before it became trendy — here, and share it with my brothers and sisters,” she told JI. Barhany brought a traditional stewed lentil dish served with injera rolls.

“[Food] is a very powerful tool that can demolish walls and barriers to have a better dialogue and understanding. Once you’re willing to sit at a table and have a meal together, you are ready to accept and celebrate whomever you are dining with,” she added.

Each participating chef was on site to present their dish during the buffet-style meal. An outside patio housed the bar, an arts and crafts activity for children and additional seating. At the end of afternoon, guests were given complimentary tote bags on their way out the door. 

“Because we are a small community, far away from Israel, an event like this can remind us who we are, show us how we can be together and strong, and I feel like this is why it’s important to have events like [this], even past Oct. 7,” Israeli chef Eli Buliskeria, known as Chef Eli Buli, told JI. 

Buli, the executive chef at Mesiba in Williamsburg and Tamam Falafel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, said that being away from his friends and family in Israel, whose day-to-day lives are being personally affected, has been extremely difficult, but that events like Saturday’s “make me happy and give me the hope that I need to continue living my life out of Israel.” Buli’s potluck contribution was his own take on an elevated baba ganoush.

“[Food is] in our tradition. The Jewish agricultural calendar marks all the Jewish holidays around the year, and I think that it’s such a beautiful way to practice Judaism in the most central, intimate way. I truly feel that when you cook for someone, whether if you’re on the receiving side or if you are the cook, it’s one of the most fundamental acts of care and kindness and love,” Shefi said. “I think that we as Jews, we are very much experienced in practicing that. And I think it’s something that is very beautiful, and oftentimes the food really carries stories. So it’s not just, ‘oh, this is really delicious,’ it has so much meaning that oftentimes was passed from generation to generation, l’dor v’dor.”

For what felt like the first time in a long time, the atmosphere was joyous. Friends laughed, families sat together around the table and strangers broke bread just as Jews have been doing for centuries; happy in a way many hadn’t been in nearly two months.

“Food is a universal connector. It is nourishing, it allows people respite and rest, and it feeds you both, obviously physically, but emotionally, and I think the act of sitting down with people, of feeding people, of caring for people is just exactly what we all need in our most difficult moments,” Simmons said.

“It’s just a natural reaction to when people are hurting, when people are sick, when people need solace, and that’s what food does. That’s what I think Jewish people have just been conditioned to do for thousands of years.”

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