Last December, Julia Braun found herself teaching a workshop at a Jewish food conference on how to use shmaltz — how to use it in a knish, how to make chopped liver with shmaltz and gribenes — when she had her aha moment. “I had this sense of ‘Yes, this is it.’ It came over me in a way that I’ve never felt it before, that finally that’s what I’ve been looking for.”
The Berkeley-based Braun — who showed up for an interview bearing a gift of homemade lacto-fermented watermelon rind pickles — is the force behind Noshland, a project she launched to offer three things: catering, workshops and pop-up events featuring her take on Jewish food.
She recently catered the Jewish Studio Project’s launch party with appetizers such as bite-sized gluten-free corn kugel; buckwheat blini with homemade crème fraiche topped with tobiko and chive; and a borscht-like bite of diced beets in a buttermilk dill dressing, a bit of soft-boiled egg, shaved beet and peppercress sprouts all in an endive leaf.
She also taught how to make challah, babka and rugelach in a series of workshops at Urban Adamah in the spring and has another three-part series slated for the fall. Dreaming up Bay Area variations of Ashkenazi cuisine — meaning vegan and gluten-free — is her particular specialty.
Braun grew up on the Oregon coast in Bandon, a town of about 3,000 people. Her father, a Jew from Chicago, ended up there as part of the back-to-the-land movement after living on communes in Northern California. Her mother is a native of Queens, New York.
Braun’s parents helped organize a Jewish Renewal havurah for the few Jewish families scattered around them, since the nearest communities were three hours away in Ashland and Eugene. A rabbi would come from Eugene to lead services once a month, and Braun’s mother taught Sunday school.
“It was grounding, and it gave me a real sense of identity,” Braun said. “And every Friday night we’d do Shabbat and we’d make challah and chicken soup with matzah balls.” But as she got older, she got tired of being the one who was different. By the time she attended Lewis and Clark College in Portland, she wanted nothing to do with Judaism.
After college, she moved around, teaching nutrition in northern Wisconsin on an Indian reservation and special education in New Orleans. Searching for her next step, she found her answer on Google: She stumbled upon Urban Adamah. In the fall of 2012, she moved to Berkeley to join the second cohort of the urban farming program with a Jewish social justice slant.
She was 29 at the time, and it was the first time she was around so many young Jews. She instantly felt “this is my tribe,” she recalled.
At the same time, she was the second oldest in her cohort. “It was interesting to be one of the older ones and have nothing figured out about my life,” she said. At the end of the program, as part of a closing ritual, Urban Adamah founder Adam Berman gave each fellow five minutes to “speak their truth.”
Braun was stumped both as to what that meant, and what she could say. Instead, she opted to cook something, coming up with a deconstructed vegan reuben sandwich. Based on that sandwich, Berman asked her to cater an Urban Adamah Tu B’Shevat seder, an event that she has now catered for the past three years.
While recipe testing for the event, she fell in love with making knishes. “I love the idea of this stuffed, savory pocket of loveliness,” she said.
That passion turned into the founding of “Hugs and Knishes,” where she initially sold knishes from a bicycle cart. She soon expanded the menu to include pierogi and cabbage rolls — all of which she described as “bite-size street food with an Eastern European influence.”
What she ultimately learned from the experience, she said, was that “I needed more training if I was going to do this.”
While waiting tables to pay the bills, Braun found her next stop: the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts in Brooklyn. Little did she know that she would be the only non-Orthodox student there. Moreover, she was the only female student who felt comfortable exposing her elbows and wearing pants.
Braun wore skirts and long-sleeve shirts when helping her classmates cater functions in the Hassidic community, but she said she always felt like an outsider. Her instructor quickly gave her the nickname “Berkeley,” and called upon her whenever he discussed anything organic or vegetable-related.
Braun was fascinated by the fact that she felt such culture shock among her fellow Jews. “Yet I’m glad that I was exposed to that side of Judaism, as it was crucial to understanding my relationship to it,” she said. “While it was challenging and pushed against everything I believe in, I also treasure the experience.”
While in New York, Braun also interned with the Gefilteria, a Brooklyn-based enterprise founded by two young Jews who started by making sustainable artisanal gefilte fish and have since branched out. Their product is at Zabar’s and specialty stores and is sold online. She helped them test recipes for a forthcoming cookbook on new interpretations of Jewish classics.
Braun returned to the Bay Area with the idea for Noshland, and has hit the ground running.
“There are Jewish young adults in the Bay Area that don’t identify with any Jewish community that exists right now,” said Braun, who is currently working as a line cook in a restaurant to pay the bills but spends all her free time on Noshland. “There’s this wonderful potential to include them in the community through food, art and fun events, and I want to be a part of that.”
Julia Braun’s next classes at Urban Adamah: “Making a Divine Challah” (11 a.m. Aug. 30); “Fermenting Deli Pickles and Sauerkraut” (11 a.m. Oct. 25); and “Latkes! Latkes! Latkes!” (1 p.m. Nov. 15). For details and tickets, visit http://www.urbanadamah.org/programs.