This is one of seven profiles of American Jews who fascinated us in 2021. Click here to see all seven and read an explanation of our Forward Shortlist.
Editor’s note: On Jan. 5, about two weeks after this column was published, The Washington Post reported that Jake Cohen has been named in a lawsuit alleging racism and sexism at a food-media company where he worked from 2018 to 2020.
You can cook a big, sloppy cheeseburger on TikTok and grab thousands of fans — it’s the wide open frontier of food porn. But Jake Cohen’s 1.4 million TikTok followers — and 597,000 on Instagram — do not explain what makes him so special.
There’s a clue in the cookbook he published in March, “Jew-ish: Reinvented Recipes for the Modern Mensch,” which spent a week on The New York Times’ bestseller list.
“Growing up, I didn’t really have a strong connection with my Jewish identity,” wrote Cohen, who turned 27 this year. “I felt as I think most young Jews in America do: indifferent.”
That indifference melted away when Cohen discovered OneTable, a nonprofit that helps 20- and 30-somethings experience Shabbat dinner. (He has since joined the group’s board.)
Cohen, who studied at the Culinary Institute of America, made traditional foods with his own twists. He added lemon zest, dill and wild mushrooms to kasha varnishkes; slapped pastrami between biscuits and gravy; and added pepper and salt to sufganiyot stuffed with Manischewitz-flavored jam.
When he met the man he would eventually marry, he bonded with his future mother-in-law over the family’s Iraqi and Persian recipes, celebrating tahdig, crispy rice, and modernizing the breakfast staple sabich by stuffing it into everything bagel dough.
Traditional? Sometimes. Kosher? Not always. Authentic? The preparations might not be, but the stories behind them are.
The recipes are pretty wonderful, but what sets Cohen apart is his joy. His is a kind of Full Acceptance Judaism that puts welcoming first.
“We are the first generation of American Jews that get to look at Jewish identity and how we want to own it, celebrate it and modernize it,” he said on Dan Pashman’s podcast, Sporkful. “Through the lens of Jewish joy and not Jewish trauma.”
In his own words
We asked the seven fascinating people on our Forward Shortlist to answer a few questions unrelated to the work they do.
What do you eat for breakfast? Cold brew with protein powder.
What app on your Smartphone can you not live without? Instagram.
What’s your earliest Jewish memory? Frying latkes with my mother.
What’s your favorite holiday? Definitely Passover! It’s a truly meaningful opportunity to gather loved ones and discuss systems of oppression and the value of freedom.
Who is your hero? Rachael Ray, I’ve looked up to her my whole career. She’s even part of the reason I pursued culinary school. To have her support me and my book this year has just been the cherry on top.
Tell us about a book you read, movie you watched, TV show you streamed or podcast you listened to in 2021 — or one of each! I’m currently reading Katie Couric’s memoir “Going There,” which is a fascinating look at her rise as a media personality.
For podcasts, Raviv Ullman’s “The Study” is my favorite, holding fascinating conversations about the week’s Torah portion.
For television, it has to be “Veneno,” a miniseries on HBO Max about La Veneno, an iconic trans sex worker-turned-television-personality in Spain.
What’s one thing you always do (or try to) on Friday night or Saturday? Bake fresh challah.
What’s your New Year’s Resolution? Create structure on what tikkun olam means for my husband and myself and how we can take action.
To view the full Forward Shortlist, click here.
Jake Cohen: Jew-ish Food Guru