It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I attended my first Friday night shabbat (sabbath) dinner. It was at the apartment of my Modern Orthodox neighbors, Chavie and Simone, who encouraged me as I made a pan of jam bars in their kosher oven, tried patiently to teach me what could and could not touch or be eaten together, set the table with a tall stack of paper plates and handed me a prayer book. We sang together, ate together and then they asked me — the only dinner guest not keeping shabbat and therefore allowed to use technology — to turn out the lights on my way out.
It was a dinner similar to the ones that Danya Cheskis-Gold, cofounder of Pop-Up Shabbat, hosts every few months: Friday-night, Jewish-derived dinner-party-supper-club hybrids for everyone, whether shabbat dinners were a weekly part of your childhood, as they were for Cheskis-Gold, or you’ve never before been to so much as a bat mitzvah.
“I think it played the same purpose that any other family dinner works,” said Cheskis-Gold of her family’s weekly shabbat dinners. “You don’t have any other place to be. You go, you eat, and I did take it into my social life. It was like the one Jewish thing that I brought with me after college. I sort of thought, ‘Oh, shit, what am I doing to be Jewish?’ But these are the things that matter most to me: the food, the social aspect, the dinner.”
She felt similarly as her relationship with her boyfriend, Andrew Shults, who is not-Jewish, became increasingly serious: she wanted to share the shabbat dinner experience with him, and do “something Jewish-y — not a synagogue membership, but something that felt right for both of us.” And then, seeking a creative outlet and feeling tuckered out by her consulting job, the correct moment seemed to present itself and she, along with Shults and friend Melissa Dain, also not Jewish, hosted the very first Pop-Up Shabbat dinner in July 2013. Cheskis-Gold ran the front of the house, Shults played chef and Dain served as mixologist (they’ve since started to enlist trained chefs, often from Kitchensurfing, to run the back of the house).
“Ben Leventhal, the co-founder of Eater, was working at Kitchensurfing at the time,” said Cheskis-Gold, “and he’s totally responsible for the name of that first one: ShaBubbe,” a play on both “shabbat” and “bubbe,” the Yiddish word for “grandmother.” The names of the meals (there have been five thus far, including “M.O.T.’s in Marrakech,” heavily influenced by North African cuisine, and “Collards & Kugel,” which paid homage to Southern-style cooking) and are reflective not only of the menus but of the spirit of the dinners: lighthearted, inclusive, educational and Jewish, emphasis on the “ish.”
The meals are “rooted in both Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions,” said Cheskis-Gold, referring to two of the major ethnic distinctions within Judaism, and are “definitely Jewish — but not so much that they exclude anyone.”
Cheskis-Gold estimates that about 85 percent of the dinner guests are Jewish, and 15 percent not, and no one is particularly religious, especially since the meals are not kosher (“It’s really hard to do a foodie event that’s kosher,” she said). But dinner guests, Jewish or not, seem most interested by a new experience, a good meal and friendly company — not the religious inclinations of their tablemates. “They’re coming for the community,” said Cheskis-Gold, “and they don’t care whether the people they meet are not Jewish; the Jewish folks who are there give a little talk about the [dinner’s] theme and make sure everyone knows what it’s about.”
For example, in addition to traditional shabbat rituals that are incorporated into every dinner (like the blessing of the wine, the candles and the challah bread, baked by local food blogger, Shannon Sarna), the dinner’s themes always address some facet of Jewish culture. The last dinner, “M.O.T.’s [Members of the Tribe] in Marrakech” was the Friday before Passover; it was a nod to the Passover story but also, in Cheskis-Gold’s words, “the opposite of a seder.” “So we thought, ‘Oh! Egypt!’ It ended up being more of a North African or Moroccan vibe. We had these rugs that a Berber store lent us and we hung them on the walls. The challahs were cardamom-spiced with raisins and nuts.”
For the Jewish attendees, the shabbat rituals offer a taste of home. “And for the non-Jewish folks, it’s educational,” said Cheskis-Gold. “Not in a proselytizing way, but in an, ‘Oh, we live in New York and there are a ton of different cultures here and this is one of them,’ sort of way.”
And though she was nervous at first to include too much ritual in the dinners, “People came up to me — Jewish and not Jewish, which was crazy to me — that said, ‘I thought there was going to be more Jewish stuff! Do more of that next time!’”
The next dinner, June 20, will be held at the Red Hook warehouse space shared by Mile End and Fleisher’s, and will continue to give equal weight to both Jewish elements and food elements. Called “The Oyganic Table,” it will acknowledge the Hebrew phrase “tikkun olum,” which translates to “healing the world.” The dinner will attempt to honor it by limiting food and paper waste and sourcing ingredients as locally as possible.
“According to a Pew survey, something like more than 60 percent of Jews in that 20-40 range are not connecting to Judaism through traditional means — synagogue, keeping kosher, they’re marrying outside of Judaism,” said Cheskis-Gold. “But 96 percent of Jews said that it’s important to them to be Jewish. And I just felt like the future of my generation is going to be different than [that of] the generations past. We’re seeking it out in a different way.”
Feature photo: Facebook/Pop-Up Shabbat