November 20, 2007
Lessons in Essen
Kosher food tour introduces a Brookline neighborhood and its culture
By Katie Liesener
BROOKLINE – The nine-member group on the Ahla Brookline Food Tour stamped and shivered as they narrow doorway of The Butcherie from blustery Harvard Street on Sunday morning.
One of the last tours they found some warmth inside, if not exactly comfort.
Shoppers struggled to U-turn their carts in the cramped aisles as the group followed its guide, Julia Goldberg, through the rows of Israeli specialty foods.
In a back corner, over the beeps and bustle of checkout, Goldberg told the story of the Gelerman brothers, who escaped Poland during World War II to found The Butcherie, now the lone remaining kosher butcher’s shop on Harvard Street.
Shortly afterward, the subject of her story materialized in the flesh. A stout man in a full suit and yarmulke Max Gelerman emerged bearing a tray of latkes — traditional fried potato pancakes — gleaming golden and crispy. The tourists’ eyes widened.“Oooh, are those warm?” asked one woman, removing her gloves for one.
The Ahla Brookline Food Tour is hardly a polished parade of Jewish cuisine. But those who appreciate the matzo ball soup is best when you’re sick and sniffly, will understand that the comfort of a latke is in tramping Harvard Street in search of it.
Since June, husband-and-wife team Julia Goldberg and Leonid Naimark have led weekly groups on this ground-level exploration of the stories and traditions underlying Brookline’s Jewish culinary culture. It is an encomium to the people and places behind this food, just as they are.
At The Butcherie’s deli counter, a man prepared an arrangement of chopped liver on crackers, gefilte fish with horseradish, and more latkes with applesauce. “Eat, eat!” he boomed, smiling. Goldberg mirrored his hospitality,explaining the constellation of kosher symbols in the store and the Israeli use of different items. (Feta cheese, for example, is mixed with watermelon for a sweet-salty treat).
She pointed to the chopped liver: “If you were poor, you wanted to use every part of the chicken. For many Jews of my generation, this is a nostalgia food.”
For Goldberg and Naimark, food has defined their journey from Russia to Israel to the United States, and the variations on Jewish community they have discovered in each place.
In communist Russia, they could not buy matzo at their supermarket. The KGB even took IDs at the synagogue doors.
When she and Naimark moved to Israel, “it was like a food shop,” Goldberg said. “Suddenly, I could buy everything.”
In 2000, the couple moved from Israel to Brookline. Goldberg spent her first few months exploring different places in the neighborhood for coffee and soon found friendly, recognizable faces in the storeowners.
“When you see them, you start to recognize your place here; you start to feel at home in your own town,” she said.
The couple got the idea to turn that love of neighborhood into a tour after taking a culinary tour of Boston’s North End.
“Culinary tourism is really taking off,” said Beth White, a spokesperson for the state Travel and Tourism Department.“It’s an opportunity not only to learn about a particular food or culture, but about a community.”
The Ahla Jewish Food Tour recounts the preservation of tradition since the first large influx of Jewish immigrants arrived in Brookline in the early 20th century.
Wulf’s Fish Market, for example, has occupied the same site for 80 years. Because the market keeps records of long-ago purchases, Goldberg said, third-generation neighborhood Jews can request the same ingredients their grandmothers bought to make their gefilte fish.
Far older still is the tradition of kosher eating itself, which permeates many of these establishments.
“Many Jews believe it was God’s intention to make it difficult to socialize with those who do not keep kosher”, explained Goldberg. “Friendships are, after all, formed over food and wine.”
But in Brookline, that friendship through food has extended to all who have made this place home. Taam China provides kosher Chinese food; Café Eilat, kosher Italian. Ruth’s Kitchen is run by an Orthodox Jew and his converted Korean wife. And JP Licks has extended its flavor list to include sweet noodle kugel ice cream.
Particularly excited about the ice cream was Daphne Schatzberg, 23, who grew up clamoring for sweet noodle kugel.
“It’s just fun to walk around and eat,” said Schatzberg, who attended the tour with her brother and mother, an Israeli native. “Because we would never come out and go to 15 different places in the same day.”
Before she left The Butcherie, Schatzberg popped her head into Gelerman’s office: “The latkes were sooo good. Thanks!”