Na’ama Shefi: Telling the stories behind Jewish, Israeli food

Na’ama Shefi brings forward the stories behind our cuisine, at the Jewish Food Society in New York and the Asif: Culinary Institute of Israel in Tel Aviv.

 NA’AMA SHEFI: Connecting to her heritage. (photo credit: DAN PEREZ)
NA’AMA SHEFI: Connecting to her heritage.
(photo credit: DAN PEREZ)

“Israel is my home, and I am still a kibbutz member,” says Na’ama Shefi, the founder and force behind the Jewish Food Society in New York and the Asif: Culinary Institute of Israel in Tel Aviv.

“I am a storyteller through and through. As a student in Israel, I was always attracted to stories in literature and cinema. I went to New York to do my MA degree in film, but food is now my preferred storytelling medium.”

In 2005, Shefi moved to New York, and it was there that she felt the need to connect to her Jewish heritage. “New York is a very Jewish city, but it is a different kind of Jewish than what we are used to in Israel,” she says. 

“New York is a very Jewish city, but it is a different kind of Jewish than what we are used to in Israel.”

Na’ama Shefi

“I remember once shopping at Trader Joe’s, filling the shopping cart to the brim. At the checkout, the friendly cashier said, ‘Ah… you are hosting a dinner party tonight,’ and I said, ‘No, it’s for a Jewish holiday dinner’” she replied, referring to the traditional pre-Yom Kippur meal that precedes the solemn fast.

“That was the first time I realized I must make an effort to maintain my Jewish identity, which is something that had never crossed my mind when living in Israel. And since I don’t go to shul on a regular basis, food became the way I ‘practice’ my Jewish identity.”

 SCHMALTZY APRONS modeled by food heroes: (L to R) Zoe Kanan, Jake Cohen and Arielle Nir Mamiye. (credit: PENNY DE LOS SANTOS) SCHMALTZY APRONS modeled by food heroes: (L to R) Zoe Kanan, Jake Cohen and Arielle Nir Mamiye. (credit: PENNY DE LOS SANTOS)

This turned out to be even more urgent when Shefi became a young mother, and connecting to her heritage became very important for her. Rather than finding her Jewish values in a synagogue, she decided to process them through food and storytelling. 

“This is something we offer our community at the Jewish Food Society – a way to connect to Jewish life through the cultural and historical perspective of food traditions. The Jewish calendar offers so many opportunities to celebrate our heritage, and this filled the void I felt coming to New York.

“In the Jewish American culture, Ashkenazi food, like gefilte fish and matzah balls, is synonymous with Jewish food. But Jews lived around the globe, and the Jewish cuisine is much more diverse,” she says.

In 2013, after curating a few culinary programs at the Center for Jewish History and at the Jewish Museum, and also participating in numerous panels on the subject, Shefi had the urge to get her hands dirty. “I told my husband that I’m going to take some money from our modest savings account to open a pop-up restaurant of Jewish Iraqi food,” she says. “He was very skeptical, but he wished me luck and rolled up his sleeves to help.”

That kicked off the Kubbeh Project, which, to this day, Shefi says, was the one that was most satisfying, despite being involved in countless projects. It was 2013, and Jewish or Israeli cuisine were not as popular as they are now, and it was a big risk. Shefi says that she chose kubbeh because she cherished the craft and knowledge that went into preparing this dish. 

“It represents the values of the old world, and I wanted to shine a spotlight on this dish and on the people who cooked it for generations,” she says. 

“Renting a restaurant in Manhattan is very expensive, so I looked for a different solution, and I ended up finding the perfect venue – an Israeli bakery in the East Village called Zucker Bakery, which unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore. Since they close every day at 5 p.m., I reckoned that I could take over and serve dinner after hours. And that’s what I did.”

It was a tiny space, enough to seat 22 customers at a time, but according to Shefi’s business plan, if she could serve 20 people each evening for an entire month, she could break even. “On the day of the opening, a frigid 20-degree day in March, I came to the bakery a little early to get things started in the downstairs kitchen. As I approached the bakery, I saw a long line of people snaking around the block. You know, like the lines for Shakespeare in the Park, but in the snow. I didn’t understand what was happening, but the offering seemed to have tapped into something unexpected.”

The lines continued through the entire month of the pop-up restaurant. “I think that people were very curious about the idea of ‘Jewish Iraqi comfort food.’ The concept was strange to many of them. It sounded like an oxymoron, especially during the aftermath of the Iraq war. 

“At the end of the first night, we ran out of a month-long supply of ingredients, and I had to recruit all my friends and family to come help. It was a blockbuster success, and the project got a lot of attention and media exposure – from The New York Times to The New Yorker and Time Out – a real media blitz.”

Shefi is set on showing how diverse Jewish cuisine is. “It represents Jewish life all around the world. With the restrictions, kashrut, Shabbat, the holidays and the history of each diaspora, Jews created their own micro-cuisines everywhere they lived. They kept the Jewish rules, but they also embraced the food traditions of the countries they lived in. This reframing of the story evoked many questions and discussions about Jewish culture and Jewish food.

“Like the Kubbeh Project, the Jewish Food Society provides an opportunity to engage with Jewish life and rituals in a different nontraditional way,” she says. “We engage with tradition through memories. I grew up on a kibbutz; my first culinary memories are from the community dining room, and not all are delicious memories. But maybe that was why I became fascinated with the culinary world outside the kibbutz as a child. 

“I remember begging my parents to get a car and look for new culinary destinations – like the Yemenite Quarter in Tel Aviv, the neighboring Arab village of Kfar Kasem, anywhere really… I just wanted to taste different foods. Food became an obsession for me.”

WHILE STUDYING cinema in New York, she met an Israeli filmmaker who later became her husband. “On a trip we took to Israel, he invited me to his grandma’s home one Shabbat to meet his extended family. What I found was a woman who was full of generosity and joie de vivre. It was a tiny ​400-square-foot apartment, and I wondered how she was going to fit her large family in there. But sure enough, she somehow managed to do her magic and found a place for every family member. 

“Then she started to bring out the food, and it was mind-blowing. I didn’t recognize many of the delicious dishes she was constantly serving. So when I started asking her questions about the different dishes, she began telling me these unbelievable stories. That was when I understood that behind every appetizer, every salad and every dish, a fascinating story was hiding in plain sight. 

“Her entire biography was laid out on the table. She was born in Izmir, Turkey, but like many Jews during that time, she and her family fled the war to​ the Greek island of​ Rhodes​​. Later, they immigrated to Zimbabwe, and finally a couple of decades later to Israel. There was a lot of history and many stories packed into those dishes. 

“Being the film student that I was, I thought to myself. ‘We must document these stories; we must preserve them.’ In hindsight, she really planted the seed for the Jewish Food Society.”

Shefi went back to New York with the idea to create a video archive of Jewish recipes. “I wanted to film the cooks, capture the recipes and the stories behind them.” But it was only in 2015, when Shefi met Jewish philanthropist Terry Kassel, that this dream became a reality. “Terry is a visionary. I saw this project as a personal mission, but Terry saw a much bigger picture.

“She read an article about the Kubbeh Project in the New York Times,” Shefi says. “She immediately understood the power of Jewish engagement through the medium of food.” Kassel thought that this could offer a way for many young Jews in America, who ask themselves: “How do I manifest my Jewish identity in a way that is culturally liberal? How do I connect to my history and to my roots on a daily basis?”

 MEDIEVAL SPANISH recipes for Purim by Stella Hanan Cohen, The Jewish Food Society. (credit: Armando Rafael) MEDIEVAL SPANISH recipes for Purim by Stella Hanan Cohen, The Jewish Food Society. (credit: Armando Rafael)

Founding the Jewish Food Society

In 2017, backed by the Singer Foundation, Shefi founded the Jewish Food Society as a nonprofit organization. “Our mission is to preserve, celebrate and revitalize Jewish culinary heritage from all around the world.”

At the heart of the Jewish Food Society is the online recipe archive – and the stories that are behind each recipe. “We try to bring stories from Jewish communities around the world and the aesthetics of each community. When possible, we ask the family to send photographs of their kitchens. 

“There are stories from near and far, like the story of a Jewish family from a village in the Brazilian Amazon that most people don’t even know existed. Our site is dedicated to all the grandmothers who were here before us and have laid the path forward.”

THE NEXT stage was to engage with the public. “We wanted to bring the archive to life by hosting creative public programs, such as pop-up dinners, educational panels, cooking workshops and our signatory event – Schmaltzy – a storytelling event that we’ve held more than 20 times in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and last October in Tel Aviv.

“The concept of Schmaltzy is five speakers, five dishes. So each speaker gets seven minutes to tell a story related to a dish, then later we taste all the dishes. It can be a celebrity chef, a poet, a journalist or a home cook. The concept is simple but very powerful. People literally laugh and cry with the storyteller, and they love tasting the dishes at the end. 

“The response has been quite overwhelming. We wanted the stories to be diverse and to come from different cuisines. At the first event, we had a Moroccan artisanal food maker who spoke about his grandmother’s couscous; we had a young social activist telling a gefilte fish story; an Israeli hi-tech entrepreneur who told the story of his German grandparents and their rich cake tradition; a woman from Latvia who brought her chicken soup with kreplach; and award-winning chef Einat Admony, who made kubaneh [a traditional Yemenite Jewish bread] and got everyone laughing and crying at the same time when she told stories about her dad. 

“The events are very emotional and open. There is no room for cynicism. It is all about the stories, tradition and love.”

Shefi believes that there must always be a story behind the food. “Mitchel Davis, formerly of the James Beard Foundation and a senior strategy adviser for Asif, once said that food without a story is just calories. Today, that is the very essence of our organization,” she declares.

“During the COVID closures, we moved all of the Schmaltzy stories to podcast format, and now we are producing our fourth season. The podcast, hosted by JFS’s director of programming, Amanda Dell, features stories from the live events and an intimate interview that dives deeper into the stories.

“The Jewish Food Society website is divided into recipes and stories. Some visitors are just interested in the recipes, some come for the stories, but many – for both. I am proud to see how engaged the community that formed around our society is. 

“It is so heartwarming to see how people suddenly feel a strong urge to tell their family’s story, to etch it in stone so it doesn’t disappear. There are many young people in our society, people who seek to connect with their heritage and find something here that they can relate to.​”

Unexpected aliyah and the birth of Asif

During COVID, the JFS made an unexpected “aliyah” to Israel, Shefi says. Kassel, who chairs Israel’s Startup Nation Central nonprofit organization, wanted to add a food and innovation arm to the Tel Aviv-based organization. Her first phone call was to Shefi. “It started off as a small add-on to Startup Nation Central, but at some point, Terry said, ‘dream big,’ and so we decided to dream up Israel’s first culinary institute.” 

Asif: Culinary Institute of Israel, located at the heart of Tel Aviv, is home to a cafe-restaurant, a first-of-its-kind culinary library, exhibition area, test kitchen and a rooftop educational farm. Asif conducts talks, food panels, workshops and more. 

“The menu at Cafe Asif is very simple, but it shows our commitment to local ingredients and cooking traditions that we research here at the Asif center,” Shefi says.

“Recipe development doesn’t really exist here in Israel,” Shefi observes. “It is important to us that if someone wants to prepare, say, beet kubbeh, we help them come very close to the desired result.

“Of course, there are many variables that we cannot control – the weather, humidity, the different ingredients or even water, to name a few, but we try to get as close as possible so people will be able to reach a good result at home. 

“Many of the old recipes are less suitable to our modern times because they require long processes and knowledge,” Shefi says. “But we try to bring them closer to people who miss the flavors of dishes made by their elders or foods from our history.

One of the most popular projects at Cafe Asif is the Tuesday Home Pot. “Every Tuesday, a chef or home cook is invited to be a guest in our kitchen and cook a personal pot – and we serve it at lunch. We want to shine a light on home-cooked traditions. 

“We won’t necessarily add this special dish to our regular menu, but it will seep into the DNA of Asif. Of course, the recipe will appear on our website, which offers content in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Previous guests included Rinat Tzadok, Barak Aharoni and singer Shai Tzabari.” 

Asif is a full-fledged cultural institution, not just another restaurant or café. “Our mission is to nurture and develop the creative and diverse Israeli food culture. If you think of other food nations – like Italy, France or Japan whose food traditions go back centuries – most people know a fair amount about the origins, ingredients and making of their food staples. 

“Israel, especially in the first decades, was poor and mostly focused on building itself and ensuring its survival. Food culture was just not on anyone’s priority list, therefore it was mostly undocumented. 

“At the same time, the boom in Israeli cuisine we see today didn’t come out of nowhere – it was just simmering inside Israel’s homes for 50 years… brewing, thickening, evolving. In the 2000s, when Israel was transformed into a tech-driven capitalist economy, the doors flew wide open for a rich dining culture to develop. Now with Asif, we have a unique opportunity to capture this knowledge and make it accessible to all.” 

Asif recently won the Israeli Kitchen 2022 Award for the promotion of Israeli cuisine.,