Sometimes entirely competing ideas can seem to be true at the same time.
Judaism can seem to be all head; analytic, logical, text-based. Or it’s all stomach; families gathered around meals, memories made of tastes and aromas.
But really it’s both, and more; head, stomach, heart, soul.
Blair Nosanwisch, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary who is the rabbinic intern at Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack, is drawn to all of those things. She’s spent her post-college life going between studying food and Judaism; increasingly, she’s working on combining them.
She’ll be teaching a course called “The Oy of Cooking: A Tour of the Jewish Calendar Through Food” at CSI starting on January 23. (See box.)
Ms. Nosanwisch is from West Bloomfield, Michigan — that’s suburban Detroit — and she graduated from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where she majored in English, French, and women’s studies. So far, so conventional.
Then she went to Connecticut, where she became an Adamah Fellow, part of its leadership and farming program. At Adamah, based at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, “I was the pickle apprentice,” she said. You — what? “I grew cucumbers and preserved sauerkraut, kimchee, and a whole bunch of value-added products,” she said. “We were selling them, trying to get them into local stores in Connecticut and New York.
“We went to some pickle fairs, and we sold them on the Lower East Side, trying to create a market for them.” That didn’t work — Adamah decided that “having a business and educational model didn’t work, so they went in the direction of the educational model.
“But I was really inspired by that,” so when she made her next move — back to Detroit, but, unconventionally, the actual city, not its suburbs — “I had this weird specialization in food preservation — which is so necessary in the upper Midwest, with its wintertime — and I was wondering if you could make an income from this kind of work, and what it would look like to have a farm business.”
She was working for a secular nonprofit then, “which was not Jewishly affiliated at all, and simultaneously I got very involved in my community synagogue, which was the last freestanding synagogue in Detroit.” It was called the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, and “I became very involved as a lay leader there,” Ms. Nosanwisch said.
So “I had interests in food and Judaism, and they were happening simultaneously, but on entirely different tracks,” seemingly stretching off in parallel into the far distance, never to cross.
But then they did cross, entirely naturally. “Some of the programming I did at the nonprofit overlapped with my interest in food, and when I was in the food world, I was exposed on a more broadly interfaith level to people connecting to food and nourishment through a spiritual lens — but not necessarily a Jewish one.” And anyway, “Jews at that point were just a small community in the city.”
Over time, Ms. Nosanwisch felt more and more strongly pulled toward Judaism. “I eventually decided that I really wanted more Jewish knowledge,” she said. “So I went to Davidson,” JTS’s education school, “to get a degree in Jewish education. But I still wasn’t satisfied, because I wanted more Jewish learning, so I decided to go to rabbinical school.”
She also got married; her husband, Phreddy (a spelling he made up; “It was a fun thing that he did in his 20s, and it stuck,” she said), is at Davidson and is a Jewish educator. They are the parents of Honi, who is 20 months old, and two-month-old Erez.
Ms. Nosanwisch continued her interest in food, and increasingly connected it to her understanding of Jewishness. “In Detroit, I did a series of classes called Pickle Torah,” she said. “In general, as a rabbinical student, my core interest is in learning kashrut and the halacha of kashrut. I see it as an area where our values and identity get expressed. I think of halacha in general as a value system, although it is not always about morality. And everybody wants to talk about food, because it is such an integral part of any culture or identity.”
Food, in other words, is where our values can be translated into tangible, sensory identity. Sometimes it is about morality, and sometimes it is about the cultural identity that marks us as a specific people, and as part of the culture that surrounds us as well, in ways that can be teased apart. “Jewish foods come out of that intersection,” Ms. Nosanwisch said.
Also, she added, “food is not threatening.
“When people would come to a Pickle Torah workshop, I used to ask, ‘Are you here for the pickles or the Torah?’ People would come for the pickles, and then realize how very rich the Torah is.”
The Torah of food also is gender-based, Ms. Nosanwisch added. “My interest is lifting up the domestic sphere. I think that the work of the hands is sacred in Judaism but we bifurcate it, and when we do that both sides” — the domestic and the analytic — “are poorer.”
In the classes she offers in Nyack — the first one will be about cooking for Shabbat, but the ones after that will focus on the holidays each will precede — “it will be entry level, so people don’t have to have deep Torah learning, but they can hope to do some serious learning,” she said. And she will too; she always learns from her students, she says; it’s not just a thing to say, but it is a true thing.
She will teach the class with CSI member Tamara Duker Freeman, a noted nutritionist.
“The idea of this class is to do a holiday food series,” Ms. Nosanwisch said. “We are going to actually cook foods together, and then do some learning in conjunction with it.” It’s for adults; she welcomes preteens, 11 and older, with their parents.
Who: Rabbinic intern Blair Nosanwisch
What: Will teach “The Oy of Cooking: A Tour of the Jewish Calendar Through Food”
When: On Thursdays evenings, January 23 (Shabbat), February 26 (Tu B’Shvat), March 5 (Purim), April 2 (Pesach), and May 7 (Shavuot).
Where: At the kitchen of CSI Nyack, 300 North Broadway
Why: To “explore the reasons why Jews eat the foods we eat throughout the year, as we prepare dishes both familiar and unfamiliar.”
How much: CSI members, $10; non-members, $15; the fees are to cover the cost of the ingredients.
For reservations: for (845) 358-3767; note that space is limited so reservations are necessary.