This year’s LABA fellowship is only tangentially about food, just as last year’s LABA fellowship was only tangentially about space and the previous year’s fellowship only tangentially about Eros.
A program of Manhattan’s14th Street Y, LABA brings together artists, writers, dancers and — this food year — a baker, to study classical Jewish texts and to work on independent artistic or culinary projects influenced by what they’ve learned.
But the real subject of the LABA fellowship — no matter the theme — is the idea of re-engagement with the Jewish tradition. The fellowship is always about the vision that all Jews, whatever their religious beliefs, can find meaning in intensively studying classical Jewish sources. And, on another level, the fellowship is also about the somewhat utopian ideal that by pushing artists to study Jewish texts, you can create a more emphatically Jewish body of art.
To say that LABA’s theme is secondary, however, is not to say that it’s insignificant. The engaging and charismatic LABA faculty member Ruby Namdar describes it as the “organizing metaphor for the year”: It determines what texts are studied and shapes the public programming. This is the third official year of LABA, and the first year that the organizers have held regular public events (called “LABAlive”). Because the fellowship’s theme is food, LABA based their Sukkot event around manna, the mysterious foodstuff that sustained the Israelites in the desert. Attendees were blindfolded and fed a Persian cotton candy (an “ephemeral food,” said Elissa Strauss, LABA’s co-artistic director — “you’re not even sure if it’s in your mouth”) while LABA educators taught texts about manna. The idea was to immerse everyone in the stories by engaging multiple senses.
Namdar brings a theatricality to LABA’s monthly study sessions. When the subject of the lesson was the taboo around eating blood, Namdar cooked steaks that were “a little rare for comfort” to simulate the sense of eating blood. Several fellows told me that this session was the high point of the program so far, both for Namdar’s theatricality and for the underlying discussion of kashrut. With food ethics now commonly debated, the discussion was immediate and intense in a way that they had not been expecting; kashrut seemed newly relevant. That day, Namdar felt the group “managed to go through some kind of a curtain” and reached a higher level of intimacy and sharing.
But it’s clear that the most tangible effect of the theme is in the selection of participants. Nicole Krauss, the author of “The Great House,” was a “visiting fellow” during LABA’s year on space, and this year’s 10 fellows are all people who care deeply about food as an expression of what it means to be Jewish. Many are food writers working to move past the obvious aspects of Jewish culinary history, or writers who understand food as part of a cumulative experience. “Food is like ideas,” Strauss wrote in the LABA journal. “You can have the best of the best, but if you don’t prepare and deliver it at the right moment then it is all for naught.”
Arguably the person most directly affected by the fellowship this year is Erin Patinkin, “Thinker and CEO” at Ovenly, a creative bakery in Brooklyn. A descendant of bakers on both sides of her family, Patinkin wonders if there is a kind of “genetic memory” drawing her back to these fields her family left behind. She regularly plays with her family’s traditions in her baking.