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Don’t throw out bubbie with the bathwater

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Fletchers’ Katherine Romanow preparing the Syrian-Jewish dessert, atayef LAUREN KOLYN PHOTO
Fletchers’ Katherine Romanow preparing the Syrian-Jewish dessert, atayef LAUREN KOLYN PHOTO

I have noticed how regularly messaging for Jewish events, articles and recipes enthusiastically proclaims that what’s on offer is decidedly “Not Your Bubbie’s…”  – Not Your Bubbie’s Brisket (in Boston), Not Your Bubbie’s Federation (in San Diego), Not Your Bubbie’s Seder (in Detroit), Not Your Bubbie’s Youth Group, declared a 2015 CJN cover story.

With a knowing wink to this absurd trend, a St. Louis queer Jewish group runs the annual “Not Your Bubbie’s Drag Show.” This marketing strategy implies that all activities, foods and customs associated with bubbies are outmoded and provincial, consequently requiring rebranding in order to be experienced, especially by “young people.” Reality, however, does not match the perception.

The inclination to repackage the past to maintain it in the present is understandable, informed by anxieties that one’s event, restaurant or organization will be deemed passé and unfit to be sampled by the scrutinizing “next generation.”

I’m guilty of this impulse myself. The tagline for a group I started in Philadelphia called Youngish and Yiddish, was (for shame): “Not Your Bubbie’s Yiddish.” In retrospect, I understood that, of course, it is my bubbie’s Yiddish! I didn’t need to sell Yiddish to youths through gimmicky PR. In fact, they flocked to our events looking for connection and Yiddishkeit, sharing my interest in Yiddish language and culture, which is profoundly fuelled by my bubbie.

What’s more, my bubbie’s Yiddish culture was anything but old-fashioned. It was replete with radicalism and left-wing ideals. My bubbie’s Bundist youth group gathered in the postwar Polish mountains, united by their socialist dreams for a more just world despite the horrors they had just survived.

My bubbie was re-inventing the seder long before today’s 20-somethings. Entirely non-traditional, her seders were filled with Workman’s Circle tunes rallying around the struggle of the labourer. Sure, my bubbie crochets and makes blintzes. She also refuses to cross a picket line, although it means walking to the farther supermarket because, even as a senior citizen, she still supports workers’ rights above her own needs. My bubbies and zaides were not small-minded or conservative. Rather than distance myself from their example, I should move toward it into a more risk-taking, ideal-laden life.

I think, in fact, the rising interest in Jewish food traditions, learning Yiddish and return-to-your-roots trips, reflects a yearning to tangibly access a past that even so-called young people are nostalgic for and desire a more meaningful connection to – as is revealed by scratching beneath the surface of “Not Your Bubbie’s…” marketing.

A 2013 cover of the magazine Pakn Treger announced: “Not your Bubbie’s Latkes” only to feature the story “Everything Old is New Again,” where author Julie Michaels concludes: “Today, a new generation of chefs, restaurateurs and purveyors are keeping with – or building upon – Jewish culinary tradition. Some are reinterpreting their own childhood memories, often skipping their parents’ American shortcuts and returning to the cooking styles of their bubbies… They are finding a through-line of culture that links the food they eat to the history of their people.”

Embracing, not dodging, the connection to ancestors and to the past is central to Fletchers, a new Jewish food space run out of the Museum of Jewish Montreal. Founder Katherine Romanow is a Jewish food historian who is passionate about “teaching people about the long history and personal stories behind all the dishes we cook.” She is also committed to documenting and preserving little-known Jewish food traditions. Diners at Fletchers will be served a card with their meal detailing the history of their dish.

Fascination with the lives our bubbies built after their arrival in Canada, with Toronto’s Jewish yesteryear, informs an installation that opens Aug. 14 at Fentster, a new exhibition space that I curate featuring art that connects to Jewish experience. Through a creative re-imagining of the past, Mandel’s Dreamery celebrates the food history of one of Toronto’s first Jewish neighbourhoods. This is your bubbie’s story and we’re proud to tell it.

(And happy 92nd birthday Bubbie aka Ruchla Ferdman!) 


Mandel’s Dreamery is on view 24/7 at the window gallery Fentster (402 College St. in Toronto), presented together with Ashkenaz Festival and Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre. Details at fentster.org