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Nouveau Jewish Food Hits Streets of Manhattan

Workmen’s Circle poster advertising the Taste of Jewish Culture street fair // Facebook

New York’s got so many hip new delis that it may be as easy to find gefilte fish and borscht as it was in 1892, when The Workmen’s Circle held its first meeting on the Lower East Side.

So it’s no small irony that the social-justice organization is hosting the city’s first street fair aimed at showcasing smart new iterations of traditional Jewish cuisine.

The Workmen’s Circle Taste of Jewish Culture, set for July 27 on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue, is actually the organization’s sixth outdoor festival, but the first focused on food.

The slate of exhibitors reads like a nouveau-deli who’s who, including Mile End, Shelsky’s of Brooklyn, Peck’s, Baz Bagel, and Gefilteria.

“The fair has always featured klezmer and social-justice-themed music,” executive director Ann Toback told the Forward by e-mail from a tour bus in Poland, where she’s researching Ashkenazi culture. “But we’ve also been experimenting with it as a chance to connect with larger audiences.”

Sharing Jewish food “is about as authentic a Jewish experience as you can get,” she said. “And selling Jewish-inspired foods via a street experience is quintessentially Jewish. It’s a perfect place to share our cultural heritage with a wide swath of New Yorkers.”

To corral the right mix of vendors, Toback tapped Noah Arenstein, the peripatetic lawyer-cum-foodie whose most recent venture, pop-up eatery Scharf & Zoyer, offered over-the-top novelties like kugel sandwiches.

His mandate: “Populate our fair with purveyors whose menus would harken back to the days of pushcarts on the Lower East Side with twenty-first century innovations,” Toback said. “Think old-world foods reconfigured for new world audiences. We want to create a unique space to celebrate Jewish foods crafted for today’s foodies.”

Arenstein agreed. ““It makes sense to reach younger Jews through food. That’s my own connection to Judaism these days,” he said.

Among the offerings for Taste of Jewish Culture: Mile End’s smoked meat on rye with mustard; Shelsky’s potato latke and sweet potato latke boats with toppings of pastrami salmon, whitefish salad, and chopped liver; charred eggplant miso dip from Dassara Ramen; Arenstein’s own kugel sandwiches via Scharf & Zoyer; bagel chips and blintzes from Baz Bagels; and jarred halvah from Brooklyn Sesame.

“We wanted this to be the opposite of those chintzy street fairs with cel phone cases, sausage, and gyros,” he said.
For Noah Bernamoff, owner of uber-deli Mile End and bagel emporium Black Seed, the fair offers a rare chance “to gather as ‘Jewish’ street vendors,” he told the Forward by e-mail.

“There are many great outdoor food markets around NYC but this one is special because it promotes and celebrates, without nostalgia, this historic transition in Jewish food,” he said. “It’s also a great way to communicate to patrons that the days of inter-establishment competition are behind us and that new Jewish food purveyors intend to work together to see the tradition flourish and pluralize once more.”

Bari Musaccio, the owner of Little Italy’s Baz Bagel, agreed. “We love events like this that bridge the generational gap,” she said. “And we’re excited to be part of a community that’s promoting a new generation of restaurants alongside the restaurants and recipes that were our inspiration.”

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