Young Jews find new ways to celebrate old traditions
By Sasha Rogelberg
In Judaism, welcoming strangers into one’s home is considered a commandment and virtue. For Shosh Lovett-Graff and Rel Bogom-Shanon, two Jewish food justice activists, it means an opportunity to create the Jewish community they have yet to find as recent college graduates living in Philadelphia.
On a Friday night in early December, the intersection of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, and the fifth night of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, Lovett-Graff and Bogom-Shanon decide to host a “Shabbanukkah” dinner. Each would invite a few people over who did not already know each other. Everyone would bring something over and break bread together.
Bogom-Shanon expected guests to arrive at “around seven,” which really, to her, meant before 8:00 p.m. Over the course of an hour, about seven people file into her kitchen. They drop off the side dishes they brought onto the wooden island and pour themselves a mug of cider warmed in a Crock Pot that has seen better days. Most pour a glug of brown liquor into their mugs too. It’s cold and rainy out, after all.
Bogom-Shanon is trying her best to make small talk, but mostly she’s incessantly checking her small challah in the oven.
“About an hour ago, I realized it’s Shabbat and we don’t have a challah, so I just decided to make one!” she explains.
She just started watching The Great British Bake-Off, a British baking competition that has gained popularity in the United States, thanks to Netflix, and feels inspired. Despite her admiration of the show, Bogom-Shanon knows her challah needs some help. It didn’t have enough time to proof, for the yeast to absorb the sugars and expand the bread into the fluffy and eggy loaf she is familiar with. She keeps opening the oven door, then closing it, then opening it again. The challah looks the same every time she checks on it: a small braided log, pale, with a crack running right through it.
Scraps of fried beet, potato, and sweet potato are piled on top of the stove above the oven. It’s the latke graveyard, the remnants of the fried pancakes cooling on a tray on the kitchen island. Bogom-Shanon picks at the crispy fried bits every time she checks the bread.
Meanwhile, Lovett-Graff is coolly leaning against the counter by the cider and booze. She’s trying to facilitate conversation, insisting everyone goes around and introduces each other. It seems likes she’s the only person in the room who knows everyone else.
Lovett-Graff seemed like the only person who knew all the guests because in reality, she was. Though Bogom-Shanon had invited a few folks, only one or two people were able to make it, so Lovett-Graff took over the guest list. For her, inviting strangers was intentional.
“I just like the experience of being forced to spend time with people who you don’t know, but have been vetted,” she joked.
Lovett-Graff moved to Philadelphia after graduating from the New College of Florida two years ago. Living in Sarasota, she said that she wasn’t really around people with whom she could express her identities as a Jewish person, queer person, and activist. According to Lovett-Graff, in Sarasota “the average age is 63, and there’s no progressive Jewish communities of any sort.”
After moving to Philadelphia, Lovett-Graff knew she needed to come to terms with what it meant to be an independent adult who also wanted to have a Jewish community. Though she was a member of a local synagogue, attended events at the Jewish Farm School—a Jewish organization working towards greater environmental justice and education—and participated in protests and rallies for various causes, she was not fulfilled.
“Those are things I am a part of, but not necessarily things I have a clear part in, or in the creation of,” she said.
She realized that in order to have feelings of community, one needs to create community. She sought to do this, even if she was only creating a community for a few hours.
Lovett-Graff began to celebrate Jewish holidays by inviting people to her home and feeding them.
“I do think there’s a lot of value in sharing holidays with people who aren’t Jewish or with people who are maybe—their parents were Jewish, but they haven’t practiced ever—and working to make that a welcoming, inclusive experience for people,” she said.
One Hanukkah, Lovett-Graff recalls, she threw a party and invited mostly non-Jewish people. She wrote out the story of Hanukkah on piece after piece of construction paper and asked her guests to illustrate the text, page by page. At the end of the night, she read the illustrated pages to her guests, like a storybook. “Everyone has a place within the telling and retelling,” said Lovett-Graff.
Bogom-Shanon’s search for Jewish community began before she graduated, in a completely different part of the country than Lovett-Graff.
After participating in a fellowship at Urban Adamah, a farm in Berkeley, Ca. that integrates Jewish values and agricultural sustainability, Bogom-Shanon returned to Skidmore College in New York. For her thesis, she wanted to see if this Jewish food movement from the last 15 years in the United States could be made accessible to people who didn’t have the means or desire to have a fellowship at larger non-profit organizations.
Also feeling isolated and without a Jewish community at a mostly secular school, Bogom-Shanon hosted weekly Shabbat dinners. These dinners culminated into one larger dinner that she discussed and analyzed as a case study in her thesis.
Using some grant money from Skidmore, she bought a locally-sourced chicken to prepare, and invited others to bring over a dish as well. Bogom-Shanon said inviting people over “elevated the Shabbat atmosphere in a new way.” Able to escape their “dehumanizing” dorm rooms, guests, all college students, were able to go to someone’s home for a homemade meal. Having a potluck also gave everyone the opportunity to have ownership over the meal, hoped Bogom-Shannon.
In her thesis, Bogom-Shanon concluded that the Jewish food justice movement could indeed be accessible to all. She was able to hold a more ethically-sourced Jewish communal meal, combining the teachings and values of her summer-long fellowship. While Bogom-Shanon believes that building community is “as easy as having friends over on a Friday night,” community-building must still be conscious.
“Just having a dinner on Friday night doesn’t feel like Shabbat to me,” said Bogom-Shanon. “At a Shabbat table there really needs to be some intention in conversation and connection to each other.”
Everyone meanders to Bogom-Shanon’s living room, as one of her housemates starts shoving candles into the wells inside of the Chanukkiah, the traditional Hanukkah candelabrum. Lovett-Graff looks for something to hold the Shabbat candles, which are substantially bigger than the thin Hanukkah candles.
She settles on a pair of thrifted champagne flutes on the bookshelf, bedazzled with little rhinestones. They are ugly, but they will do. As Lovett-Graff finally balances the Shabbat candles upright in the makeshift candle holders, the small talk finally stops.
Bogom-Shanon’s housemate begins to light the Shabbat candles. Everyone shifts uncomfortably in their seats, waiting for someone to begin the prayers. Lovett-Graff takes the lead, and everyone follows. All but one of the guests are Jewish, but all the Jewish guests know how the prayers go, and they sing, shyly, under their breaths, slowly becoming louder when they realize they finally all have something in common.
In between each prayer, no one talks. Tiana, the housecat, gregarious but polite, paws at her stuffed dreidel toy and mews. Everyone else is looking intently at the glowing Chanukkiah.
Another guest pours the wine she brought, says a prayer, takes a sip, and then passes around the glass for everyone else to take a sip. Bogom-Shanon leaves the room and comes back with her now-finished challah. She makes some excuses for how it didn’t turn out the way she wanted, but almost immediately after the prayers are finished, people begin to unceremoniously break off some pieces, all grateful to chew on something warm and doughy.
Everyone sufficiently hungry, Bogom-Shanon insists people begin to help themselves to latkes and more wine.
Both Bogom-Shanon and Lovett-Graff came from homes that practiced Judaism and where food was at the forefront of that practice. (Bogom-Shanon joked that she and Lovett-Graff’s hyphenated last names are a result of having hippy Jewish parents.)
“A big part of my Jewish identity was formed in the kitchen,” said Bogom-Shanon.
Bogom-Shanon’s family would roast chicken for Shabbat dinner, and many of the cookbooks in her home were Jewish holiday cookbooks.
She remembers, “A lot of how I marked Jewish holidays and cycles were in the kitchen.”
Moreover, for Bogom-Shanon, food was what held her American and Jewish identities together. “Food is such a good touchstone for identity because there’s so many ways to interact with it,” she began. “In the context of Torah, so much can be found on food.”
Lovett-Graff grew up in a kosher kitchen, and her mother grew up keeping kosher as well. In some kosher homes, families have separate plates, silverware, and appliances for meat and dairy foods, and will only consume animal products that have been prepared a certain way.
One Shabbat, Lovett-Graff’s mother decided that she would buy meat that was not explicitly kosher, but rather one that was bought from a local farmer, who treated the animal with respect, but didn’t necessarily follow Jewish kosher laws. From that moment on, Lovett-Graff’s family no longer kept kosher and symbolically got rid of a traditional Jewish ritual in favor own their own personal one.
This was the turning point in Lovett-Graff’s experience with Jewish food and ritual.
“Creating your own tradition, creating your own sense of grounded Jewish family ethics in your home, even if it means breaking from tradition, that’s what I want to do somehow or another.”
The bottle of wine is nearly finished. Conversation has shifted from the obligatory “so, what does everybody do?” to one guest showing a video on his phone of the 1986 Cleveland “Balloonfest,” where citizens broke the world record for biggest simultaneous balloon release, then causing a local environmental crisis after all the balloons soon popped over Cleveland’s small bodies of water.
Lovett-Graff is snacking on some gelt, festive Hanukkah chocolate coins, that were scattered across the table. They are certified fair trade, of course. Others are munching on some gingerbread men (ironically brought by the only non-Jew invited). The Hanukkah candles have long gone out, but the Shabbat candles in the champagne flutes are still flickering in their pools of melted wax. They have left sooty residue all over the flutes, but Bogom-Shanon doesn’t seem bothered.
Someone gets up to leave for the night. In typical West-Philly fashion, she has left her bike in Center City and has to take the trolley to retrieve it and bike back home.
Lovett-Graff feels a buzz in her pocket; another acquaintance of her’s texts her, saying he wants to stop by. Lovett-Graff looks up at Bogom-Shanon, who nods and gives her speechless approval.
Lovett-Graff’s and Bogom-Shanon’s views on Jewish food and ritual have permeated into their professional lives.
Lovett-Graff works for Reconstructing Judaism, which is the home of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical School and the newest sect of Judaism, Reconstructionism, focused on spirituality and progressivism in a Jewish context, and less on traditional Jewish laws and theological beliefs. She is currently thinking about the Jewish need to create ritual around food and how it intersects with worker’s rights, animal welfare, and environmental justice.
Because of her family’s adoption of new ethical, but not kosher, eating practices, Lovett-Graff wants to create “ethical kosher” standards for some Jewish sects to adopt.
Lovett-Graff recently led a workshop on creating ritual around food at Shamayim V’aretz, a Jewish organization focused on animal welfare and Jewish values.
Bogom-Shanon is a fellow for Repair the World, a national Jewish organization in partnership with the Jewish Farm School and the Philly Farm Crew, which works with urban farms and gardens in the city to bring volunteers to help farmers maintain their land.
Repair the World works with 11 different food organization in Philadelphia, including the Mitzvah Food Program, which has five different food pantries around the city.
She is still on her mission to create a community based around Judaism and food justice and plans on hosting more Shabbat dinners in the near future.
The new guest arrives at 10:30 p.m., three hours after the party started. He pulls up a chair and sits down with a pile of latkes already beginning to sully the flimsy napkin they are being held on with oil. He pours himself what’s left in the bottle of wine and joins in the conversation. The Shabbat candles are still fluttering.