This article is featured in the June edition of The Slice, a monthly digest created in partnership with Tablet Magazine that offers a thought-provoking take on Jewish ideas and stories.
Once you become New York City’s de facto king of gefilte fish, what do you for an encore? If you’re Jeffrey Yoskowitz, you undertake extremely unexpected and extraordinarily fruitful partnerships.
The co-founder—with Liz Alpern and Jackie Lilinshtein—of The Gefilteria, a Brooklyn-based project devoted to reinventing the delicacies of the Ashkenazic world, Yoskowitz has also created Pork Memoirs, an online story sharing site where Jews can delve into their sometimes complicated relationships with pork (for the record, he has never eaten it ). The mild-mannered Yoskowitz was included both in Forbes’s list of 30 under 30 last year and, when he was a mere 28, in the Forward’s list of 50 influencers.
All of which suggests, rightfully, that he possesses both a long list of contacts and a highly entrepreneurial spirit. So too does Rebecca Guber, the founder and director of Asylum Arts, a Schusterman-funded international project supporting young Jewish artists, and the founding director of the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, an initiative that ran from 2006 to 2013.
The two first met several years ago through a mutual friend, and got better acquainted in 2011 when they both went to Jerusalem to attend the Schusterman-sponsored ROI Summit, which brings together young Jewish activists and leaders from around the world.
Then, last spring, Yoskowitz and his team, which had put together pop-up dinners before, started batting around the idea of hosting public Shabbat meals.
“I had heard through the grapevine that Rebecca through Asylum Art was going to do a Shabbat dinner in summer 2014, to bring together artists through her artist’s community,” he said recently. “Why try to make a competing dinner?”
“He came to me,” Guber explained, “and said we’re interested in doing some events … How can we infuse them with art?”
Their collaborative answer: delicious food, exquisite keepsakes, musical performance, poetry recitation and art. Specifically, Yoskowitz and Guber convened two dinners. The first, last summer, took place in the backyard garden at Peck’s, a specialty food market in Brooklyn. Roughly 45 people attended. The second collaborative meal was a Sukkot feast at the Invisible Dog art gallery, also in Brooklyn. That welcomed some 70 participants, some of whom were foreign artists Guber reached out to through her Asylum Arts network.
There was chilled leek soup, for instance, buckwheat blini with whitefish caviar, and roasted beet and dark chocolate ice cream prepared by superlative local vendors Peck’s, Shelsky’s, and Yoskowitz’s own Gefilteria. Artists created curios, like mini-flasks and gorgeous menus, for attendees to take as souvenirs of a unique and memorable evening and made large-scale installations. Jazz musicians played and a poet shared his thoughts, helping conjure magical, multi-dimensional experiences that nourished both body and spirit.
These were, according to Yoskowitz, “sophisticated dinners. It was a full body experience. It was something that went to a deeper level.” Yoskowitz explained that in his partnerships with other food entrepreneurs, he typically becomes engrossed in questions of “logistics like sourcing food, procuring equipment, planning out timing of dishes, plating, etc. Working with Rebecca was very different. Rebecca was so focused on content and making sure the event was thoughtful and intentional … Rebecca wanted to talk about blessings, ritual and integrating artwork.”
The evening had vitality and synergy. “We just had so much fun bringing our communities together,” Guber said. “It was creative. It was frictionless. It allowed us both to do something we could never have done on our own … Food and art are natural partners. ”
“Occasionally you have a Jewish event that really reflects what you think the Jewish community should feel like, and this was it for me,” she added. “It was meaningful, it had the elements that would be recognizable to everyone, but it didn’t feel stuffy. It was friendly and social and had serious art content.”
Zhenya Plechkina and Misha Sklar, Ukraine-born artists who now live and work in Brooklyn and who view Guber as a mentor, helped make that a reality. Guber had invited them to build a sukkah for the fall dinner. Having held a long-time fascination with nomadic structures, Plechkina and Sklar enthusiastically accepted, making a sukkah installation out of Russian and English language newspapers, which Plechkina says “have always been part of our artistic vocabulary” and which “emphasized the fragileness of the structure.”
“The food aspect was treated as an art project itself,” Plechkina added, echoing the idea that undergirds the work of the Gefiliteria, Shelsky’s and Peck’s—namely that food offers a canvas for creativity.
Alexander Nemser, a 31-year-old poet whom Guber had invited to read at that Sukkot dinner, said the artistic contributions from Plechkina and Sklar, from drummer David K. Freeman and others resulted in a “very fresh way to make the holiday living and present.” His reading—more a parable than a poem—came between the soup and spaetzle courses. It told the tale of a ritual slaughterer “in this sort of slightly mystical but also urban setting” who “sacrifices a peacock and divides the meat among the community to mark the occasion of really descending into autumn.”
“I appreciated that there was a group working together to make something ancient, new,” said Nemser. “Just when the world was getting colder and darker, there was something poignant about coming together at that particular time to be kind of out of the wilderness but doing the wilderness together.”