Noshing on the Farm
Jewish Food Pros Gather at Urban Adamah
By Rachel Trachten | Photos by Lydia Daniller
I’m here at Berkeley farm Urban Adamah, watching a cluster of fellow visitors making what appear to be mudballs, patting them into shape, then dropping them onto the ground. Nearby, another group is plunging their hands into bowls of sliced cabbage, enthusiastically mixing the vegetable with salt.
These curious crafters are members of the Illuminoshi, a collection of Jewish food professionals—chefs, business owners, food writers, and more—who gather every few months to learn, shmooze, network, and eat. Today’s event is a late-summer affair, which starts with a farm tour: a walk through the garden, a look around the aquaponics greenhouse, and a visit to the chickens and goats.
After the tour, the 40 or so Illuminoshi split up, and one group goes off to help build a cob house in the children’s area. That’s what the mudballs are about: Made of soil, hay, and water, they should be neither too dry nor too wet, and dropping them is the way to check. The second group is in the farm’s temporary outdoor kitchen making sauerkraut with food journalist and Illuminoshi founder Alix Wall.
With the cabbage now packed into glass jars to ferment, Wall gathers the two groups back together for chatting and noshing.
“It’s a fun organization with great events,” says attendee Sandy Sonnenfelt of Market Hall Foods. “I’m culturally Jewish, and it’s a nice way to rub shoulders with people from your heritage.”
Today’s enticing spread was provided by Illuminoshi members: vegetable summer rolls, smoked salmon tartine, and deviled eggs from Hugh Groman Catering; cheese from Bohemian Creamery; and kosher red and white from Covenant Winery.
“How Come No One Has Done this Before?”
The idea for the Illuminoshi emerged in late 2015 after Wall took part in a national gathering of Jewish food professionals in Colorado sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. The foundation was offering grants to people interested in creating a food experience for peers. Wall partnered with Ezra Malmuth of Atlas Edibles and Bay Leaf Kitchen’s Elianna Friedman to put on a Shabbat dinner at her home. She invited 14 Jews who work in the food industry. Everyone shared their personal food stories, and by the end of the evening, Wall was convinced that the Bay Area needed a group like this.
The very next morning she started a Facebook group called the Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals. (The name “Illuminoshi” came later, courtesy of member and writer Jim Gladstone.) Chuck Siegel of Charles Chocolates responded to the Facebook group, saying, “How come no one’s done this before?” He volunteered to host the next gathering. Edible Excursions founder Lisa Rogovin showed up at the event, and Wall says Rogovin’s appreciation for this easy way to be part of a Jewish community bolstered her belief that this endeavor was a good idea.
“I believe that even the most secular Jew does feel this sense of tribal-ness,” says Wall. “They want to be connected to a community, but it’s hard because so many have inherited this baggage or had negative experiences in synagogue.” She’s keeping the focus on food rather than religion. “I’m not a rabbi,” she says. As for joining the group: “If you identify as Jewish, that’s good enough for me.”
Wall grew up as a Reform Jew, and her mother and grandparents are Holocaust survivors. As a child she lived in Riverside, California, where her teachers were sometimes ignorant about the Jewish holidays she took off from school. “It’s important to me to live in a place where you don’t have to make those explanations,” she says.
Latkes and Urban Ag
After the get-together at Charles Chocolates, Wall decided it was time for an official launch. This happened in April 2016 at Covenant Winery, where seven chefs prepared dishes from Joyce Goldstein’s (then) newly released book The New Mediterranean Jewish Table. Goldstein spoke about the book, and the Schusterman Foundation provided funding. Since then, the Illuminoshi have tasted cheese in Sebastopol and beer in Bernal Heights, gathered at Oakland restaurant Ba-Bite to enjoy Middle Eastern dishes prepared by Israeli member chefs, and judged latkes at the San Francisco Ferry Building. The foundation funded some additional events, including the one at Urban Adamah.
Today’s farm gathering is the first at a Jewish venue, and it’s one that shares the Illuminoshi’s passion for food. Urban Adamah (adamah means “earth” in Hebrew) brings together sustainable agriculture, Jewish tradition, and social action. Its public programs (open to all) feature farming opportunities, food and music workshops, holiday celebrations, and children’s camps. In September 2016 the farm moved to a new permanent location on 2.2 acres at Sixth and Harrison streets, where a kitchen is under construction and fundraising is in progress for an on-site residential retreat center.
Almost all of the food grown at Urban Adamah (about 12,000 pounds per year, grown organically though without a certification) is given away at a weekly free farm stand and through other community outreach programs. In addition, about 40 young adults rotate through the farm’s fellowship program each year, with many going on to careers in gardening, farming, food, or environmental work.
Linking Newcomers to Seasoned Pros
As Wall ponders the next Illuminoshi event, she continues her work as a food journalist, penning a monthly column for J. Weekly and contributing to several other publications including this one. She’s always expanding her network within the food world and is eager to introduce newcomers to more established folks who might serve as mentors. At Urban Adamah, she made sure that Emily Winston, who is starting up Boichik Bagels in Alameda, met bagel maven Jennie Schacht. Wall hopes that more people involved in food justice will join the Illuminoshi, and she sees the possibility of partnerships where restaurants raise funds for
Wall is also proud that member Emilie Zanger got a job as a corporate food program manager through an Illuminoshi contact, and she encourages members to network and help one another out. There’s even been talk of a singles event, but that’s on ice for the moment.
“I see myself as a connector,” says Wall. “So given that Judaism and food are two such dominant forces in my life, it only makes sense that I would want to connect others in that space as well.” ♦
For more info, search “Illuminoshi” on Facebook.
Edible East Bay’s associate editor Rachel Trachten writes about food, cooking, and gardens as tools for education and social change. She takes time out from magazine work for choral singing. View her stories at racheltrachten.contently.com and get in touch at rachel(at)edibleeastbay.com.
Lydia Daniller is a portrait and editorial photographer based in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, SF Weekly, the Awl, and countless wedding albums. lydiadaniller.com