Wise Sons co-foudners Evan Bloom (left) and Leo Beckerman at the original location on 24th Street in the Mission in 2013 (Photo/Alanna Hale)
Wise Sons co-foudners Evan Bloom (left) and Leo Beckerman at the original location on 24th Street in the Mission in 2013 (Photo/Alanna Hale)

Awful bagels, bad poppyseed cake… What’s a Jewish mother to do?

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When we first moved to San Francisco in the early ’90s, I was worried. How, I wondered, would our future kids know they were Jewish? There was only one decent bagel shop in town. Rye bread — the real kind, the kind my grandma bought at the Jewish bakery in Lakewood, New Jersey — was nowhere to be found.

The poppyseed cake she served us was dense and dark, not too sweet but rich and full of depth — sort of what I imagined the shtetl, where she was born and raised, to be like. In San Francisco, all I could find was poppyseed cake that was light and lemony and lacked substance. How would our kids know what the shtetl tasted like? The suffering? The pogroms? The joys of celebrating Jewish holidays in America?

When I moved here, I was lost. Where were the bustling lines outside the Jewish bakeries on Fridays, on Sunday mornings, before the High Holy Days? I couldn’t find the in place to buy chopped liver and whitefish salad, because such a place didn’t exist. Where were the third-generation Jewish owned shops selling herring, lox and rugelach?

Fortunately, Ashkenazi Jewish food in San Francisco has evolved. There are now a handful of impressive new bagel options. We’ve now got a standout Jewish deli in multiple locations where I regularly buy babka and bialys. At least a dozen trendy bakeries bake and sell challah on Fridays for Shabbat. Chopped liver I buy year-round, homemade by our local organic grocer; the kids loves it. And the lox and herring? I’ve got that covered, too. Same goes for pickles. I’ve also discovered the most wonderful cafe that makes apple strudel that rivals any I had growing up. I buy it every Rosh Hashanah just like my grandparents did when I was younger.

The Hayes Valley location of Artís Coffee at 537 Octavia Street will close July 23 and will be replaced with a new location of Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen.
The Hayes Valley location of Artís Coffee is set be replaced with a new location of Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen.

I’ve stopped kvetching that New York has got this Jewish food thing covered better than we do. The Jewish foodie entrepreneurs here have a cooler, hipper, smarter, startup vibe that sits well with my kids. They’ve been raised in a city with a spirit for innovation, and they love that some of this spirit has spilled over into their Jewish life.

Our kids have found a relevancy to Jewish food amongst a new generation that’s fermenting and farming, pickling and making cholent. I was naive to think I needed to be faithful to the exact Jewish food of my childhood, that this would be the only thread linking my ancestors to our children.

While I grew up eating jelly doughnuts during Hanukkah, our kids look forward to (and devour) Meyer lemon and quince sufganiyot from one of their favorite newish bakeries.

They turn up their noses at the jarred gefilte fish that both my hubby and I grew up eating at our respective grandparents’ houses. Now, at our seder, we serve homemade artisanal gefilte fish; there are rarely any leftovers. Even though I never liked the jarred stuff, it always reminded me of my grandparents and I wanted the tradition of serving this kind of fish during the holiday to continue. Now I know it will.

Every Rosh Hashanah, I make brisket, and we dip apples in honey. The brisket is my grandmother’s recipe, the apples from a local farm nearby in Sebastopol and the honey from a farm in Napa. It’s important to our kids that we honor my grandmother but also our local farmers and beekeepers.

As a Jewish mother, I believe food is where it all begins. It’s my bridge to all the women that came before me, to all my ancestors that live within me. It’s where my best memories of my grandparents lie. It’s the springboard for our family traditions. When we moved here, I was afraid of what might get lost along the way. My kids have taught me that it’s just as important to look forward as it is to preserve the past and honor those that came before us.

And after living here for almost 20 years, I have found a poppyseed cake that’s quite special — as dense and delicious as the one I remember from my childhood. But what’s even more special is sharing it with my hubby and my kids in this beautiful city we proudly call home.

Julie Levine

Julie Levine is a writer who lives in San Francisco.