Gourmet Ghettos at Magnes explores diverse culinary cultures

Long before 1971, when Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse on Shattuck Avenue, or even 1966, when Alfred Peet opened his first coffee shop in the North Berkeley neighborhood, gourmet ghettos existed throughout the world. Just as Saul’s, the lone Jewish deli on Shattuck, gives more than lip service to the California palate, the gourmet ghettos of Europe, Asia and North Africa were influenced by the customs, cuisines and agriculture of their surroundings. The result is an incredible diversity — from the kreplach and cabbage soup of Eastern Europe to the couscous and chickpea mélanges of the Mediterranean.

Polish Purim wall decoration, 20th century photos/courtesy magnes collection of jewish art and life

Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life reflects that diversity in “Gourmet Ghettos: Modern Food Rituals,” a 150-piece collection of food-related Judaica from throughout the world. Presented in conjunction with U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Jewish Studies and the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, the exhibit explores “eating, identity and activism in Jewish life and beyond,” according to the Magnes program. It runs through Dec. 19. An opening night party took place earlier this week.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is the “ritual table,” set for a seder. In addition to the seder plate, it includes an assortment of plates, glasses, cookware and tools used for preparing food. Large pillows are placed to one side, encouraging participants to recline during the festivities. Engraved silver and colorful porcelain give the hosts an opportunity to display their wealth.

Other notable pieces in the collection include a brightly polished silver Havdallah cup and plate set made by a silversmith factory in Berlin that was shut down by the Nazis in the 1930s and images of Orthodox entrepreneurs in their food-related workplaces by Oakland photographer Yves Mozelsio. Also, mid-century Israeli posters display the culinary wealth of Zion, promoting the nation’s production of citrus, avocados, dates and watermelon.

The title of the exhibition, like that of the Berkeley neighborhood, is “a pun,” says Magnes curator Francesco Spagnolo. “A play with culture and history. A hybrid, two notions that don’t necessarily go together but somehow work.”

Early 20th century pop-up New Year’s card

The first “ghetto,” instituted in 1516 Venice, was an area where Jews were compelled to live. Over the years, the word came to be synonymous with downtrodden neighborhoods marked by segregation, classism and anti-Semitism.

However, the word is now undergoing a complete rebranding by foodies who enjoy high-end, usually locally sourced, restaurants in a compact space within a particular neighborhood.

That said, Jewish food culture and the modern “gourmet ghetto” find commonality in several ideas, according to exhibit co-curator India Mandelkern: An awareness of where food comes from and a push for     quality control are aspects shared by both communities.

“What is interesting about this exhibition is that it looks at a lot of those relationships,” Mandelkern says. “This is not something that just came out of a reaction in the past fifty, sixty years, but it is something that is very engrained in human culture. We all cook. It’s something that connects us as a culture and creates an identity.”

If rituals are the core of Jewish life, according to Spagnolo, then the act of dining is the mantle. It’s a layer that couldn’t exist without its center. It can be messy, arduous to comprehend, but incredibly deep and magnetic. The exhibit is intended to exemplify that relationship, according to Spagnolo.

“It is meant for us to address culture,” he says. Primarily, culture is understood through text, Spagnolo explains, yet to explore culture and identity through materials opens avenues to greater understanding and appreciation.

At times, it can be a daunting task, as Jewish food rituals include complex systems of rules that change with time and place. Spagnolo illustrates the point with a joke. Coming from an Italian community of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, he quips, “If someone were to eat a fish, it would be argued it was kosher if it was caught on one bank, but it wasn’t on the other.”

Spagnolo said the “Gourmet Ghettos” exhibit offers just a glimpse of the vast array of Jewish art that could be interpreted as food-related. The entire collection at the Magnes exceeds 15,000 pieces, many donated by Bay Area residents. It’s one of the largest collections in the world that is solely dedicated to Jewish art.

“By leveraging the global mind of the U.C. Berkeley campus, framed specifically at food rituals in broader context,” he says, “we hope that it will engage all communities, whether they be religious, food or historian.”

“Gourmet Ghettos: Modern Food Rituals” 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, through Dec. 19, Magnes Collection of Art and Jewish Life, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. Free,

Carly Nairn
Carly Nairn

Carly Nairn is a journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Mongabay, Guernica, SF Weekly and KQED, among others. She lives in San Francisco.