Next Stop: Yiddishland ✡️
Join me in the creative kitchens of Ashkenazi Jews
I'm a food and travel writer from the shores of Lake Erie, now based in Berlin. I attempt to send out weekly essays on my latest mishaps and travels around the globe and in the kitchen. If you would like to support my work, please consider sharing this newsletter with a friend or acquaintance (I’m not picky).
My new podcast Yiddishland is out. Here’s what it’s about and essentially a transcript from the introductory episode.
Yiddishland is a project I’ve been working on for a while now where I take people into the creative kitchens of Jews all across Yiddishland, which I’m roughly defining as anywhere the descendants of Yiddish-speaking Jews have ended up in the world.
Throughout history, Jewish food has evolved through a mirepoix of persecution, forced relocation, and assimilation. These days, we’re seeing something different. The idea I’ve been running with is that Jewish cuisine is evolving on its own terms for the first time since, well, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE that created the diaspora.
So who’s at the forefront of this evolution? Well, that’s what this project is about. Each episode will take you into the kitchen of someone who’s evolving Jewish cuisine on their own terms. That means a Mexican churro turned into a babka; Japanese-style, koji-fermented veggies and meats on your favorite deli sandwiches; and a menu that blends Jewish and African flavors to educate palates and encourage cultural exchange and appreciation through food. And that’s just the tip of the pastrami, if you will.
Now before I hand the mic over to my guests for the rest of the podcast, I figured I ought to answer the obvious question: Why me? Why am I hosting this thing?
Truth is, I don’t really know what right I have to host this podcast. Most people probably wouldn’t even consider me a Jew because my mother wasn’t Jewish and I wasn’t raised with any religion, let alone Judaism. My mother’s father, Ruth, was Ashkenazi Jewish, but as far as I can tell, was very secretive about her side of the family.
At best, someone might consider me “someone with Jewish heritage,” which is a phrase that’s always sounded wildly clunky and vaguely antisemitic to me, like I’m preemptively apologizing for what’s in my blood.
Growing up, I didn’t know much about my people on either side of the family. But we were much closer with my father’s parents, who lived a little less than two miles away. As a kid, you don’t ask too many questions about who your grandparents are or where they came from. All I knew was that my father’s mother was Jewish and that my grandparents got married at a synagogue in Cleveland. And for reasons I’ll never fully understand, my grandmother didn’t consciously pass down any of her Jewish heritage.
So no, I don’t know if I have the right to this culture or the right to host this podcast. But after digging deeper into this aspect of my family history over the past six years, going on heritage trips, studying the history, religion, culture, and cuisine, I feel compelled nonetheless.
Flash-forward from my days in Cleveland and I’m on the couch in our Düsseldorf, Germany apartment. My wife Melanie is in the kitchen cooking dinner. Probably burritos. We eat and I clean the dishes. That’s how it’s been since we started dating.
Eventually, I started to feel embarrassed. Like a real schmendrik. I had become the husband in a CBS sitcom who couldn’t feed himself without an out-of-his-league wife doing the work for him.
So, I started small. I chopped the veggies. Turns out, I like chopping veggies. I like it a lot. So much of what intimidated me about the kitchen was not knowing what to do. But taking the sharp thing and slicing through the food stuff came easily––and it was fun.
Before long, I’m making the veggie burritos for dinner by myself. Melanie and I start to take turns cooking. I feel less worthless, which counts as progress when you’re saddled with my neurotic, self-deprecating brain.
There are dishes Melanie knows rather instinctively thanks to her Greek-American mother who made a point to pass down things like pastitsio, spanakopita, and baklava. This is what we eat when it’s not just a weekday dinner in front of the television.
So I started to want something like that––a culinary heritage I could adapt for myself. But what culinary tradition do I have a right to as an unremarkable guy who grew up in a copy/paste suburb of Cleveland? An Applebees-American, if you will.
I thought of the foods Grandma Ruth used to make. I could picture different dishes but couldn’t remember what she called them. So I started researching classic Ashkenazi Jewish dishes, pouring through recipes on potato kugel, matzo ball soup, and all kinds of baked goods. I decided to dive into Ashkenazi Jewish cooking with the eagerness of a newborn buck struggling to lift itself off of the ground. Fast-forward again and I’m baking challah almost every Friday, kasha varnishkes is a regular weekday dinner, and I’m re-creating the resurfaced recipes of my grandmother and great-grandmother.
As I’m immersing myself in the world of Ashkenazi Jewish cooking, I learn that Grandma Ruth’s father, my great-grandfather Maurice Leonard Stern, owned a horseradish business back in Cleveland. Turns out the culinary gene flowed through me all along.
I also learn that Jewish cooking isn’t just Ashkenazi. It’s Sephardic, Mizrahi, Israeli with strong influences from Palestinians and other immigrant or refugee cultures, and a combination of all the above.
Rabbis might question my Jewishness, I get that. But I am wholeheartedly a Jew in the kitchen. My mikvah is the space between my spices, pots, pans, and oven. Food and the stories behind these dishes, is what best connect me to Yiddishland and my Yiddishkeit. It’s my pintele yid.
So over time, I grew dismayed to see that my euphoria for all things Jewish cooking is rarely reflected in food media. In fact, I find that Jews in general don’t get a whole lot of credit for their contributions to global cuisine, let alone American cuisine. Is it because Yiddishland doesn’t have a flag to hang outside of their restaurants like so many Italian trattorias and Mexican taquerías?
Jewish food tends to be relegated to obligatory holiday coverage––though that does occasionally lead to some gloriously hilarious faux pas, like a recipe for Passover Challah. Then, outside of the holidays, Jewish food goes the way of Monty Python’s parrot––it ceases to be.
Of course that’s nonsense. In reality, Jewish cooking exists every day of the week, whether it’s a traditional deli serving up strips of pastrami or an inventive restaurant in Brooklyn pouring bowls of Matzo Ball Ramen Soup. I decided that the cuisine of Yiddishland needs to be celebrated. This is a cuisine that’s adapted and evolved over centuries with Jews serving as culinary transmitters across national borders. Now that Jews have been able to take control of their own culinary narrative, the sky truly is the limit.
This podcast is a celebration of what Jewish cuisine has endured, what it’s become, and where it’s heading. It’s the celebration of a cuisine that’s given me a sense of purpose in the kitchen. It’s also a call to action for those who, like the me of yesteryear, think they’re too incompetent to cook a meal––the ones who pour a bowl of cereal after work and call it brinner. It’s cliché-adjacent, but I cannot stress this enough––if I can do it, my God, you can, too. Consider this a challenge to explore your own heritage in the kitchen.
Still, the question looms. Why me?
In Judaism there’s the concept of l’dor v dor––Hebrew for “from generation to generation.” It can be a tradition, a story, or a recipe passed down to the next generation. Consider this my contribution.
That’s it from me! Now we begin our journey into the kitchens of Yiddishland with a trip to my hometown of Cleveland where the macher of Jewish koji, Jeremy Umansky, uses East Asian fermentation techniques in everything at his Larder Delicatessen & Bakery from rye bread and pastrami to pickles and apple pie. Listen here.
And coming up, Tamar Fasja Unikel takes us to her Mexican-Jewish bakery, Masa Madre, in Chicago; Jamie Wei of Chopsticks Meet Fork talks about her blend of Tawainese and Jewish flavors, Aaron Augenbaum joins from JewFro to talk about how they’re educating palates, Katianna Hong brings us to her LA-based Korean-Jewish deli, and that’s just the beginning.
The first episode is out now, so go listen and ess gezunterheyt!
Yiddishland is a podcast that explores the evolution of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. Join us in the kitchens of the chefs, writers, recipe developers, and home cooks who are expanding upon the possibilities of Jewish food on their own terms.
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