Modern Day Manna

Fellows at LABA Blend Jewish Texts With a Passion for Food

Under the Sukkah: Guests and fellows at the LABAlive Sukkot event were blindfolded and given a Persian cotton candy to eat. The idea was to immerse everyone in the stories by engaging multiple senses, explained LABA co-artistic director Elissa Strauss.
Courtesy of LABA/Elissa Struass
Under the Sukkah: Guests and fellows at the LABAlive Sukkot event were blindfolded and given a Persian cotton candy to eat. The idea was to immerse everyone in the stories by engaging multiple senses, explained LABA co-artistic director Elissa Strauss.

By Eitan Kensky

Published March 13, 2013, issue of March 22, 2013.
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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.

LABA allows her to engage with food and flavors in a more cerebral way. It “brings a level of intellectualism into my baking that is otherwise missing,” she explained. Asked to bring in something based on a text that inspired her, Patinkin blended multiple lessons into one dessert. She noticed that the numbers 3, 5 and 7 kept reappearing in their sources and combined this insight with the talmudic opinion that the fig — and not the apple — was Adam and Eve’s forbidden fruit to make poppy fig hamantaschen, a three-pointed desserts. As Namdar says, “If… we manage to get to a place where she says ‘I’ll bake a fig dessert,’ that is for me a huge success.” It shows that she has managed to forget what she thought she knew about the biblical story, and instead to approach it as a new, careful reader.

Despite the clear signs of artistic influence so far, it’s too early to tell what final projects — which will be displayed in a festival early this summer — the fellowship will inspire.

Eli Valley, who is artist in residence at the Forward as well as a LABA fellow, is in the middle of the creative process. He’s decided to work on the Akkedah (the binding of Isaac) and the animal imagery that follows Jacob throughout his life; it is an extension of a provocative comparison of the idea of birthright in Genesis and The Black Cat Mystery comic “THE WEREWOLF MUST KILL!” he wrote for the LABA Journal.

But he hasn’t decided on the form of his final project. Will it be a comic, like his other work? A presentation? A combination? He is far from conclusions, and if his past creative process says anything about his present one, whatever sources his mind ultimately blends into his final project will come from accidentally finding “nuances/variations” of the theme repeated in other media. “Once you notice things,” he says, “it’s hard to dislodge them from your consciousness.”

Yet, even telling the story of the fellowship based on the final projects seems premature. LABA’s mission is to “use classic Jewish texts to inspire the creation of new art.” The hope, and vision, is that the year at LABA will spark an enduring interest in Jewish sources and influence Jewish culture makers to engage significantly with Judaism in their future work.

Krauss, for example, recently published a story in The New Yorker, “Zusya on the Roof,” that included an arresting house purification ritual from Leviticus, which calls for taking two birds, sacrificing one and letting the other go free. “He never read the passage without crying. But he shall let go the living bird out of the city into the open fields, and make atonement for the house: and it shall be clean.” It was a text she read at LABA.

But does this story, coming so soon after her participation in LABA, show an enduring engagement or a temporary fascination? In 30 years, will Krauss still look back to Leviticus for inspiration?

Or, to return to this year’s fellows: Will Patinkin again look to the Bible for recipe inspiration? Will the midrash be a normal part of finding unexpected flavor combinations? It will be years before we know how the story of this year’s LABA fellowship ends, how, precisely, it inspires its creators.

Eitan Kensky writes about Jewish American literature and popular culture.


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