The Big Cheese
The wild, top-hat-and-jeans-clad compére jumped onto the stage to announce the 20 semi-finalists of the second annual New York Cheesemonger Invitational. The crowd roared approval at those über-mongers who could detect age, nationality, name and bloom. For this, the third of four rounds, each contestant was to cut two 1/4 pound chunks of cheese and wrap each in cheese paper in under a minute. To mad applause, the first woman cheesemonger took to the stage. The clock began to tick. She estimated and sliced cheese amounts, posed triumphantly for the audience when her scale read 0.27lbs and began to wrap vigorously.
Billed as a Fight Club meets Dancing with the Stars showdown between 40 international cheesemongers and a buffet of local cheeses, the event was sold out weeks in advance. Despite the flash flood and subway re-routing, the semi-refrigerated warehouse in Long Island City drew 700 glasses-toting, ironic t-shirt wearing,thirty- something hipsters, who stood nibbling golden nuggets off paper plates, nonchalantly bobbing their heads to Detroit techno. At the entrance were stands with ‘Raw Milk Rockstar’ t-shirts, home-grown sodas, and Raclette ‘smores’ — towers of Graham crackers topped with ginger chocolate chunks and drenched in tangy swiss. Past the central giant stage where the competitive cheesing took place were three tables, each a mini Mount Sinai of fromage. On one, a pot of bubbling cheese was being spooned like champagne. And on the other two, plates of goudas, chévres, blues and rinds. Not to mention, baskets of crackers, pastes, crudites; a minyan of accoutrements.
The wrapping round eliminated all except ten finalist cheesemongers, who were put to the ultimate ‘Plate the Slate’ test, where they had 15 minutes to match a cheese with two other ingredients. The winner was Steve Jones, owner of The Cheese Bar in Portland, Oregon, who was crowned the Big Cheese for his pairing of Austrian semi-soft with bacon caramel popcorn. Traif, but to the international panel of judges, tremendous on the eyes and palate. Paol Price of Vermont and Anna Saxelby of New York trailed closely in second and third places, each winning cash prizes and a slice of cheese fame.
Live competitive cheesemongering seems to be the next step for NYC’s foodie obsessives. What better whey forward than with this form of culture?
Sushi in Ramallah
The salmon and avocado maki were spanking fresh, the miso soup darkly savoury with its traditional soft tofu and seaweed garnish. Even the tempura hand rolls came faultlessly presented in a lacquered temaki stand. Apart from the fact that we couldn’t accompany our meals with a chilled Asahi beer or two — no alcohol served at this venue — all seemed as it should be at Soho Sushi and Seafood, Palestine’s first and only sushi restaurant. My dinner companion, an Israeli journalist, complained rather grumpily that we were paying Tel Aviv prices for a far inferior meal. I thought this a little unfair. On his side of the Green Line, sushi is a yuppie staple, on sale everywhere from supermarkets to petrol station takeaways. In Ramallah we were a military occupation away from the closest wasabi supplier. Inside, a couple of family groups and the odd international sit amid Japanese-style artwork on the walls, jazz gently bouncing off the lacquer-panelled ceiling and courses arriving in quick succession on oversized, mottled-glass plates. The chefs — trained by a Japanese sushi expert from Tel Aviv — are in an open plan preparation area, its counter piled with fillets of fresh fish imported at huge expense from Israel. As one local tells me with an ironic smile: “Ramallah is the Tel Aviv of Palestine”. It’s certainly changed from the dark days of the second intifada, but Western luxury treats are not a reliable index of wider progress: there’s a sushi restaurant in Kabul and that’s still one of the poorest countries in the world. But along with the usual surfeit of aid workers and journalists Ramallah is increasingly attracting a new and aspirational Palestinian elite. To reach Soho Sushi and Seafood — part of the four-star Caesar Hotel in the upscale neighbourhood of Al-masyoun, the heart of the city’s building boom — I pick my way through a series of building sites, along streets lined with billboards advertising Palestinian banks and telecom companies. Inside, I’m handed an English language menu without having to ask, by a sweet-faced young waitress modishly dressed in black like the rest of the serving staff and chefs. I pick through a vast array of inside-out rolls, tempura and soup noodles, and wash it all down with jasmine tea. The whole effect is decidedly Oriental. But the fact that diners can smoke in between bites of sashimi is a reminder we’re in the Middle East. The peace process remains as moribund as ever. The Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence at the UN, expected later this month, may have just about as much impact on the lives of people here as does this temporary availability of yakitori. Because, in any case, the Ramallah sushi venture was rather short-lived. When I enquire again, ahead of another trip to the region, Ifind out that Soho closed a few months after it opened, having failed to reach its sales target. Now it’s gone back to the tried-and-tested format of Mediterranean-Oriental cuisine. Its manager, Eyad Nimer, is sanguine about the experiment. “I personally love sushi,” he says. “But here, nobody was really interested. It’s not just that it was expensive — to be honest, a lot of people tried it and said ‘yuck, what’s that, it’s nasty, I don’t know what it is’”. “The West Bank doesn’t have a beach,” he explains. “In Palestine, people prefer to eat their fish cooked.”
The Messiah of Vilnius
Wyman Brent’s non-Jewishness is a little confusing. This is only partially due to the bright orange yarmulke he occasionally wears; it’s more that he has dedicated a good part of his life towards the Vilnius Jewish Library, of which he is conceiver, founder, fundraiser, book-solicitor, administrator, and, naturally, librarian. The library, after more than eight years of dreaming and planning and setbacks is, amazingly, due to open this November. Brent, 48, originally of Lynchburg, Virginia, is rail-thin and has dark shoulder-length hair left completely un-styled; he looks vaguely monasticfrom the neck down. He speaks easily and softly, never interrupting and with a gentle pride.The library is the product of sheer persistence, serendipity and a complete disregard for the economics involved: he estimates that he’s spent $50,000 to date on the project. “I am simply someone who is very stubborn”, he says. “And I have absolutely no money now.” After three potential locations fell through Brent happened upon some Lithuanian machers and with their help he’s secured the support of the Lithuanian government — which means a rent-free spot and $ 300,000 for renovations. That spot is a second floor walk-up in a courtyard on Gediminas Avenue, a main thoroughfare in downtown Vilnius. It will initially house about 5000 items including books, DVDs, CDs, art, and random memorabilia (like autographed baseballs). He has plans for 100,000 books, though thecurrent space has a capacity of, at shelf-bending maximum, 20,000. “The government will simply have to find me a bigger place,” he said, with a naïve (but thus far vindicated) confidence. Fittingly, it’s through books that Brent discovered both Lithuania and Jewish culture. First there was The Hills of Vilnius by Alfonsas Bieliauskas, which he found while in Russia in the early 90s. And in 2004, while living in San Diego and selling books online, Brent acquired one of the books in Harry Kemelman’s ‘Rabbi Small’ series (Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet etc). He never read it but his roommate, who wasn’t Jewish either, did and quickly developed a rabid Jew-philia. She went to Tijuana, Mexico, interviewed the rabbi and community members, and wrote an article for The Jerusalem Post. (This roommate recently converted to Judaism, something Brent has little interest in.) Then Brent had an epiphany. “It was like a light bulb went off, like in the cartoon”, Brent says. “I love reading, I love Jewish culture, and I love Lithuania — I will open a Jewish library in Vilnius!” Brent immediately began collecting books, bought fancy stationery and sent letters to 36 Jewish institutions in San Diego. He got no replies but acknowledges that this is not surprising: he was a non-Jew with no relevant expertise (or even a college degree) who wanted to start a Jewish library — in Lithuania. Eventually persistence paid off and The Forward sent a reporter to interview him. News of the library spread and books began coming in. Yad Vashem has donated. The Yiddish Library in Amherst is preparing to send 1000 books. Cornell University, Jodi Picoult, and Leonard Nimoy (aka Spock, from the original Star Trek) have all sent books Brent’s way. Sir Martin Gilbert has promised an autographed copy of each of the 79 books he has written or edited. Brent proudly calls Gilbert a friend. Lithuania has a Jewish population of approximately three thousand; whatever Jewish culture there is tends to be produced by and for non-Jews. The yearly Klezmer festival features mostly non-Jewish musicians. A Fiddler on the Roof production, the largest musical in Lithuania’s history, is in the works and there is not a single Jew in the cast or crew. The Vilnius Jewish Library’s ‘Jewish’ criterion is a loose one: any book/film/music created by Jews, featuring Jews, about Jews, has or alludes to a Jewish theme, or in some way just seems Jewish is a candidate. “If it’s not blatantly antisemitic, the library probably has a place for it,” Brent said. (He has yet to turn down a donation.) The film catalogue runs from Two Days in Paris (starring Adam Goldberg) to Zack and Miri Make a Porno (with Seth Rogen). All the Star Wars movies are in (Harrison Ford’s maternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants). Brent sees a natural order to this. “Of course we’ll have Schindler’s List,” he said. “And last time I checked, Steven Spielberg is Jewish. So why not Jaws? Why not Jurassic Park? People will say, ‘Jurassic Park scared the hell out of me — maybe these Jews aren’t so bad!’” Brent clearly likes Jews. And it was a Jew —albeit a dead one — who was his matchmaker of sorts. Two years ago, Brent ordered a documentary about Al Jolson from a small, student-run company in Kiel, Germany. Brent was immediately intrigued by the director’s photo and it proceeded from there: next month, that director and Brent are getting married. He shrugs off the mazel tovs. “It’s the only payment I’ve ever received from the library,” he said. “So thank you, Al Jolson!”
Manhattan in Berlin
Tell them to fuck off”— scrawled beside a towering photograph of the downtown New York composer and musician John Zorn twisting around his saxophone, this is the welcoming statement to the Berlin Jewish Museum’s exhibition Radical Jewish Culture. One enters the gallery and is enveloped in the sounds of downtown New York circa 1995. Clarinets and saxophones squeal; guitars and accordions clash. Projected onto a wall are credits for the looped audio playlist. The music ranges from tradition Klezmer to John Zorn’s Masada, Frank London and the Klezmatics, Anthony Coleman’s Selfhaters, and David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness (with their rendition of Michael Alpert’s Yiddish song Chernobyl). The lyrics are printed on the wall in German and English (not Yiddish). Like the high school bedroom of an eccentric Jewish jazzhead, the walls are covered with LPs from cantor Yossele Rosenblatt to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, from the Klezmer Conservatory Band to Sydney Bechet; there are time-faded posters promoting Jewish avant-garde jazz concerts at the now-defunct clubs Knitting Factory and Tonic, important NY venues for the downtown scene. It’s like a fan’s scrapbook, packed with videos, music listening-stations, interviews, CD cases, sketches, diary pages, scribbled musical notation, set lists, and other, often context-less, artefacts of this obscure but influential sub-set of a sub-scene of a sub-culture. The first half of the exhibition asks the questions: “What is Jewish? Radical? Culture?” The second half attempts to answer these questions by exploring the brand dubbed ‘Radical Jewish Culture’, a term created by Zorn for the 1992 Munich Art Project and rejected by some of the artists it represented: guitarist Marc Ribot wanted to call it “Loud and Pushy Music”. The brand went on to promote hundreds of albums on Zorn’s Tzadik label from artists of such diverse eclecticism that it begs the question: what does ‘Jewish’ actually mean? In a small room, footage of a live performance of John Zorn’s aggressive opus and inaugural 1995 Tzadik album, Kristallnacht is screened on continuous loop. The piece combines free jazz elements with traditional Klezmer modes and electronic samples of Hitler speeches and breaking glass, manipulated to migraine inducing high frequencies. With ears ringing, one can come out of the video booth and read a quote from Lenny Bruce (falsely dated 1981 —he died in 1966): “Dig… if you live in New York or any other big city you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter if you are Catholic. If you live in New York you are Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you are going to be goyish even if you are Jewish.” As poet Gregory Corso once said about the Beats, “three writers do not a generation make.” Likewise, a few musicians on one label do not a whole culture make. Only cursory attention is given to the broader Jewish, specifically Yiddish, music scenes in America and Europe to which Tzadik is both heir and foil. But the exhibition, though imperfect, represents part of a wider movement to recast Jewish culture as a radically open question. Displayed on a wall is a quote by French- Jewish writer Edmond Jabès, also included in the album notes to Kristallnacht: “It is indeed the impossibility of being an ‘untroubled Jew’, a Jew at peace anchored in his certainties, that has made me the kind of Jew I think I am. This may seem paradoxical but it is precisely in that break — in that non-belonging in search of its belonging — that I am without a doubt most Jewish. The Jew doesn’t just ask questions: he has himself become a question.” Before leaving the gallery and re-reading Zorn’s command to “tell them to fuck off”, a quote by the door from poet Paul Celan offers a somewhat more challenging and mysterious directive: “Thunder your shibboleth here into your alien homeland.” This may be the most Jewish way of telling them to fuck off