A Bite in the Apple: Breaking Bread with Naama Shefi
When I contacted Naama Shefi, the founder of Jewish Food Society, to interview her for a profile in The Jewish Week, I asked her where she would like to meet. Uptown? Downtown? In her office near Union Square? “Breads Bakery,” she said, “on sixteenth Street in Manhattan.”
Figures. Breads Bakery is a New York bakery with roots, like Shefi’s, in Israel. You can find baked goods there that are a trip around the Jewish world: all manner of challah, chocolate and cinnamon babka, Jerusalem baguette thickly coated in white sesame seeds, strudels, and borekas. It made sense that the woman who founded Jewish Food Society, an organization with a mission to “preserve, celebrate and revitalize Jewish culinary heritage,” wouldn’t want to meet or eat just anywhere. Breads Bakery felt just right.
Over a tuna sandwich on a sesame crusted roll, the 39-year old Shefi describes herself as being “obsessed with food from an early age” but as a child of the kibbutz – Shefi was raised on Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha near Petach Tikvah – she only had access to interesting food when she convinced her parents to take her out of the communal settlement to eat masabacha in the nearby Arab village Kfar Kasam or to ethnic restaurants in Tel Aviv.
She got to know the big city of Tel Aviv when she opted to attend high school there, where she studied film and dance. Following high school, she was assigned to a filmmaking unit in the army in which she taught other soldiers about filmmaking, and then, following the army, she studied literature at Tel Aviv University. But New York – Scorsese! Hip hop! – was always on her mind. “New York,” she said, “was a character in my life. I needed to get there.”
She came to New York to study film at The New School. It was on a visit back to Israel that she met Ilan Ben Atar, the man who would become her husband, and where she circled back to her original love of food.
Shortly after she met Ben Atar, he took her home to his Nona’s (grandmother) apartment in Givataiim, outside Tel Aviv, for Shabbat dinner. The home was tiny, and he told Shefi that she would meet 30 of his family members that night. She was incredulous. How could his Nona Ketty Ben Atar, advanced in years, fit so many in such a small space and feed them all?
Soon the many family members arrived. The food came, too: zucchini skins dressed with lemon and garlic; platters of Turkish style tomatoes and onions stuffed with ground beef and rice; eggplant with parsley and tomato.
“I was blown away by Nona. She put so many people around the table and so many incredible and delicious dishes on the table. I wasn’t just amazed by the food. I was amazed by the stories behind each dish. Every little plate on that table carried a piece of Nona’s journey – from Izmir, Turkey, where she was born, to the island of Rhodes where she was raised, and then to Rhodesia where she lived until she moved to her final home in Israel. I saw the food on that table as cultural DNA.”
Shefi realized that once her boyfriend’s grandmother was gone, so would be these recipes and their stories, too. Neither had ever been documented. “Without knowing it,” said Shefi, “Nona Ketty planted the seeds for Jewish Food Society.”
In the 14 years in which she has been living in New York, Shefi has found several ways to be involved in the Jewish food world. She promoted food-centric events for the Israeli Consulate and for The Center for Jewish History. In 2014, she opened an Iraqi-Jewish pop up restaurant that she called The Kubbeh Project, one attempt to save Jewish recipes from far flung Jewish communities. She was hoping 20 people would come each night to eat. Instead, 120 people showed up nightly for kubbeh. “There was a Shakespeare-in-the-Park length line. A crazy line.” It was, she said, “…probably the most inspiring thing I had ever done in my life.”
She joined “Eat With,” an Israeli start up platform for home restaurants. She began as a “community manager” launching the product in the United States and then moved on to oversee public relations and communications for the brand. She grew with the company, but the Israeli/Jewish food bug stayed with her.
Three years ago, Terry Kassel of The Singer Foundation met with Naama for lunch. She knew Naama through her husband, Ilan, a documentary filmmaker. At the lunch, Naama told Terry her dream of founding a new home for Jewish food – one that included an archive for Jewish family recipes and the stories behind them. She would then bring the archive to life by hosting public, food-centric programs. She wanted to inspire reconnections through Jewish food.
Kassel said, “Let’s do it.” In reflecting on that meeting, Kassel says, “Food can be a way to people’s hearts and minds. Food is history. You don’t have to be political. And everybody has to eat!” Kassel and The Singer Foundation were the initial funders for this home, which came to be known as Jewish Food Society (JFS). Eventually the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, The David S. and Karen A. Shapira Foundation, The Jeffrey H. and Shari L. Aronson Family Foundation and Areivim Philanthropic Group joined in. JFS was founded in 2017 and in less than three years, Shefi and her team have documented more than 250 recipes. The recipes circle the globe, from Poland to Mexico, Bulgaria to Morocco to the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
The JFS team is made up of writers, photographers, food stylists, and designers who are creating a digital archive of Jewish food recipes from around the world. “We care equally about how delicious is the dish and how interesting is the story behind it,” says Shefi.
Once Shefi and her team are contacted about a dish and decide that it should be included in the archive, a culinary manager will spend a day in the submitter’s home, preparing the food with her or him. The JFS team then translates the dish to an actual recipe which they then test again and again until they are confident that it is properly documented. They interview the home cook and bring the story of the dish to life via a photo shoot. They have two people in Israel who are doing this, as well. Shefi approves every recipe and story that they publish.
The team at JFS respects the past and infuses the story with a modern sensibility. The style is nostalgic and vintage, but it is designed to appeal to young audiences. When the materials – recipe, story, photos – are completed, they are posted online.
To support the archive, JFS holds food events. In December, members of the JFS team participated in a latke festival at the Brooklyn Museum, hosted a holiday party at The Wing headquarters in Soho and held a Chanukah cooking class at the Essex Street Market. This month, they are holding a chic French shabbat dinner at a design studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
The JFS also plans “Schmaltzy” events four times a year. Every time the organizers announce a new one, which generally are capped at 200 attendees, the event is sold out within a few hours. The concept of Schmaltzy is: Five dishes, five stories, so Jewish. Five personalities take the stage. Each one shares a story and cooks a dish. The speakers can be tech entrepreneurs, Jewish grandmothers, celebrity chefs, poets – anyone who can tell a good story and is talented in the kitchen.
“Storytelling and food are the core of what we do,” says Shefi.
Shefi is now working on scaling Schmaltzy. She wants to take it to the road and launch it in other cities. She plans to launch a podcast, too. And a book one day? Perhaps. Her long-term goal? To expand and thus reach an ever greater number of people.
Shefi is also involved as an advisor for the restaurant L28 in Tel Aviv in which she is leading the effort to define the vision, practices and programs of this new venture. The restaurant self-describes as: “an accelerator for innovative chef entrepreneurs, and an incubator for new and creative interpretations of Israeli cuisine.” Shefi sees this place, in which chefs change every six months, as a place for conversation about food as culture. The chefs are mentored and encouraged to be creative when planning dishes. The restaurant is akin to a food laboratory. Shefi likens it to the James Beard Foundation in New York.
The JFS archive, which can be accessed at jewishfoodsociety.org, is kosher friendly. The site does not include recipes for shellfish or pork. Some of the most popular stories and dishes on the archive include the entry on sabich, the Iraqi sandwich; kreplach dumplings from a 96-year old woman from Israel; Klops, a meat loaf with egg inside; challah (including a sourdough recipe); Ethiopian Shabbat spread; Moroccan fish.
“Food highlights our history in a meaningful way,” says Shefi. The Jewish Food Society, via its archives and food events, is documenting that piece of Jewish history before it is lost and re-invigorating it for the here and now.