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What it means now to be a ‘Jewish’ restaurant

A sandwich of chickpea schnitzel, kale, Israeli lettuce and garlic aioli from Edith’s in Williamsburg.
Photo: Janice Chung

Elyssa Heller opened last March Ediths in Wilhelmsburg. Three weeks ago while sitting at the sandwich counter, I had a revelation that forced me to rethink my long-held belief that bagel sandwiches are terrible. bagels are wonderful, of course, but they’re too much – too chewy, too thick – for sandwiches. At Edith’s, the homemade bagels are smaller, lighter. Eating the store’s smoked amberjack with green onions, radishes, labneh, and trout roe was one of the most pleasant experiences I’ve ever had while baking two halves of a poppy seed bagel together. The revelation wasn’t necessarily that bagels can make good sandwiches; rather, it was because someone had taken the time to rethink what a bagel might be and, in turn, had made me rethink some aspect of my culture’s eating.

I value my Judaism more than anything else through food. As a writer, I sometimes have the opportunity to explore topics like the how bialys helps me calm my nerves or the sadness that I and every person who ever stepped into Sammy’s Romanian felt upon hearing the news that the beloved place would no longer clog the arteries of locals and tourists. But I am not writing about „Jewish” food. To say that I write about „Jewish food” would put me in a drawer where I don’t want to be. It would also contradict my opinion that Jewish food can be anything a Jewish person wants to cook or eat.

The only thing I know for sure is that “Jewish food” isn’t a thing – it’s not just bagels or bialys or pastrami – but I’ve been seeing that too often lately when a new Jewish restaurant opens. It felt like all you need is an account with Acme Smoked Fish, someone with a brisket recipe and a couple of vintage Seltzer glass bottles to decorate, and really anyone can start a „Jewish restaurant”. It’s the goleming of my culture, soullessness clad in white subway tiles. And it is a problem that other cultures face when their food enters the American diet. They are Indian spices selected by wellness influencers. It is „Clean” Chinese food and „Improved” congee. It is the frustration immigrant communities feel when their ancestors’ food is „discovered” and „updated” for a largely white American-born audience.

I thought about all of this as I finished the bagel sandwich at Edith’s and then headed home. My wife texted me to remind me that we had food deliveries en route. It was Friday, and while we’re not paying attention, we want our Friday evenings to be filled with great food. This week we ordered the little upstart from Chef Erez Blanks, parchment. The menu was challah, a couple of oriental sides, and a harissa-smoked chicken that we would devour before freezing the leftover bones to make broth.

If there is such a thing as Jewish cuisine it has to take into account the entire Jewish experience, but as a people we are scattered all over the world. Recently, however, I have noticed that more and more people are trying to explore this lineage in meaningful ways. It is reading Michael W. Twitty Connecting the histories of blacks and the Jewish diaspora through food; It’s the people behind it Gefilteria looking obsessively for the lost history of shtetl eating; it’s Einat Admony at Balaboosta back to the Persian and Yemeni backgrounds of their family or Trina and Jessica Quinn, the married duo behind them Dacha 46, a tribute to Jessica’s Russian-Jewish background with pelmeni and new interpretations of whitefish.

And it’s Heller with Edith trying to expand the definition of “Jewish” food beyond what she’s eaten in the suburbs of Chicago or in Montreal and New York. „I know that there are other people who have had my experience where they grew up, went to a Hebrew school and got a bat mitzvah, but they didn’t really know that Jewish history, culture and stories are telling”, she says. „All of these colorful things that I believe were totally missed.”

Smoked amberjack with labneh, radishes and trout roe.

Edith’s makes labneh and cream cheese itself.

Edith’s also has a collection of grocery items.

Prepare the chicken schnitzel.

Elyssa Heller opened Edith’s in March after first serving as a pop-up at Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint.

Photographers Janice Chung

Eating at Edith’s admittedly begins with the type of cuisine that Yiddish-speaking people brought to America at the turn of the century. Bagels are at the heart of the company, but the rings close with a twist, like bagels Second hand be done. This is shtetl stuff. It is also a sign that everything has been thought through and considered with Edith.

Edith got his start right before the pandemic when Heller decided to bet the house and start her own business with $ 10,000 after a tough divorce. She found cook Christina Jackson, they started fooling around, and Heller, who decided to try her idea out as a pop-up, called pizzerias because she knew they would have the oven she needed and probably not be using it would be early in the morning when her team was baking. Nobody answered their calls except Paulie Gee, the slice king from Greenpoint.

Paulie Gee has a good reputation, and the connection to his house, Heller admits, probably helped at first: word of mouth spread, and Ediths became one of the few bright spots of a terrible time for many. In March they moved to the old Meat Hook Space in Williamsburg on Lorimer. From there, Heller and her team began putting together a menu based on a lot of research. Heller cites books by David Sax and Leah Koenig as inspiration, but also found an attraction on the Persian menu Sofreh in prospectus heights. That opened something up for her.

Heller admits that she grew up in the Midwest and wasn’t exposed to much of the Persian Jewish community, but she also never had twisted bagels. She knew there could be room for all of that on her menu. „I’m like, Why aren’t these flavors celebrated? ” She says.

So Edith has brisket, but it is served on a Challah Kaiser roll with labneh. There is a Portuguese Alheira sausage that has a connection to the time of the Sephardic Jews in Spain before the Spanish Inquisition. There are flavors from different countries and continents blending together in a dazzling, pleasant way. Edith’s is certainly not kosher – they serve bacon, egg, and cheese with a latke – and there are purists who would resent some of the menu choices, but purists are boring.

Ediths is out of one place, and it certainly isn’t a single flavor. Right now, that’s exactly what I want to eat.