Growing up in what he defines as a Jew-ish household, Jake Cohen never felt particularly connected to his faith. “I was what you call a High Holiday Jew,” he writes, “the kind who comes out of secular woodwork around Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur.” Only later in life, when meeting his now-husband, did they begin to reexamine and define the role that Judaism would play in their day-to-day lives. After trying a few synagogues, they settled on something that fulfilled their desire to pause at the end of the week, gather with friends, and of course, eat: hosting a weekly shabbat dinner. It was through hosting these dinners, where Cohen explored both the food of his Ashkenazi childhood and his husband’s Persian and Iraqi traditions, that the recipes in this book took shape.
While Jew-ish covers the classics, with approachable recipes for challah, potato latkes, and matzo ball soup, there are plenty of twists (shakshuka alla vodka, anyone?). Cohen’s ability to reinvent tradition, particularly with the Persian-Iraqi influence of his husband, is evident throughout. An overview of his pantry includes Middle Eastern staples like tahini, harissa, and za’atar. The result is something that combines the magic of Shabbat dinner with the fun celebration of a dinner party with friends.
There are customizable recipes for babka and rugelach, and menus for the High Holidays, Hanukkah, and Passover. And these menus are reinvented as well; instead of the classic seder plate, he serves deviled eggs, pomegranate-BBQ chicken wings, and orange segments that represent the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups. Both his authentic voice, and the recipes themselves, serve as a refreshing reminder that we are free to define how the rituals and culture of Judaism can form a part of our own day-to-day lives. Sometimes he follows the rules, and sometimes he doesn’t — a nod to his Jew-ish upbringing.
The community that he’s created through these meals is evident within the pages. “It’s no wonder that after just a few Shabbats, I was able to both deepen existing friendships and quickly build new ones,” he writes. For Cohen, it’s clear that creating an inclusive dinner table full of a diverse range of cultures and people is as important as the food itself.
Whether or not you’ve hosted a Shabbat dinner, this book will give you the tools, and the inspiration, to gather your friends to celebrate and start your own tradition.
Courtney Gooch is a designer and partner at Portrait, a graphic design studio that creates identities for people and places. She lives, cooks, and eats in Brooklyn.