It was two nights before Passover, and at a new restaurant in Somerville, Mass., Jews of all stripes enjoyed chometz-filled dishes and local beers that they were about to give up for eight days.
In the next room, sitting around a communal table, “The Office” star B.J. Novak, his brother Lev and their father William told old-school Jewish jokes. Among the intimate crowd of roughly 20 people, someone who was not Jewish raised his hand and thanked the presenters for helping him understand what makes Jewish humor…Jewish.
On display that night at Lehrhaus, a restaurant and bar that bills itself as a “Jewish tavern and house of learning,” was a joyful vision of what it means to have a space that is both distinctly, vibrantly Jewish and also open, and inviting, to people of all faiths and backgrounds.
Lerhaus had only opened its doors less than a month before, a long-delayed and welcome arrival in this neighborhood, adjacent to Cambridge, that is full of intellectuals, students, professionals and young people seeking meaning — and good food. Lehrhaus pledged to offer both.
“There are plenty of places to go to do Jewish things in Boston, but no place is as easy, tasty and fun,” said Molly Kazan, a 20-something Cambridge resident who works at a Jewish nonprofit in the Boston area. “Stepping into Lehrhaus is stepping into Jewish culture, cuisine and peoplehood all wrapped into a new Somerville bar.”
Since announcing their plans last summer, Lehrhaus founders Rabbi Charlie Schwartz and Josh Foer had sparked a wave of interest across Boston and throughout the Jewish world among people excited by the prospect of a kosher restaurant that takes an inventive approach to craft cocktails, food and Jewish learning.
Following the restaurant’s soft-opening in March, Lehrhaus quickly attracted another clientele: Boston foodies. Lehrhaus has landed on both Eater and Thrillist’s lists of the hottest new restaurants in Boston, and a recent feature-length profile in The Boston Globe cemented Lehrhaus as a rising star on the Boston culinary scene.
“Most kosher restaurants don’t appeal to people outside of kosher dining. This place does. Most restaurants don’t have a distinctive Jewish identity outside of kashrut,” Schwartz told Jewish Insider in a recent interview at Lehrhaus. “What we’re actually doing here is defining Jewish food.”
Nearly everything at Lehrhaus has a story.
There’s the local beer, all from breweries located within 30 miles that welcomed for the first time kashrut supervisors to certify that their beers could be served in a kosher establishment. There’s the amaro, which is a key ingredient in one of Lehrhaus’ cocktails, sourced from a Seattle woman-owned distillery that agreed to become almost entirely kosher for the sake of serving this establishment 3,000 miles away.
Lehrhaus’ food and drink menu is meant to look like a page of Talmud, with the core text — the menu — at the center of the page. It is surrounded on all sides by commentaries, which in this case means historical and religious explanations of the cuisine on offer.
Consider the explanation for the “Tree of Knowledge,” a fruit-forward non-alcoholic cocktail: “There are many thoughts as to what the fruit was that Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge. The prominence of the apple in Western European depictions is likely due to either a mis-translation or pun as the words for ‘evil’ and ‘apple’ in Latin are very similar. Many say the fruit was likely a pomegranate, fig, etrog or even grapes.” The drink has fig, pomegranate, lemon and pineapple — but no apple juice.
The food menu features familiar dishes such as fish and chips (tied to Sephardic Jews who fled to England during the Inquisition) and more inventive ones like the “Seder salad,” whose ingredients include a haroset crouton. (Lehrhaus recently landed on Boston Magazine’s list of the best fish and chips in Boston.)
“Most kosher restaurants don’t want you to think that this is a Jewish space. It just happens to be kosher, like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even notice that it was kosher,’ is the goal,” Schwartz said. “Here, this is a distinctly Jewish space and a vibrant Jewish space.”
Because Lehrhaus is both kosher and, improbably, cool, it attracts a mix of Jews ranging from the unaffiliated to the observant, and everyone in between.
“In our first week of opening, we were trending both on local queer listservs and Orthodox listservs,” said Schwartz. “To have that intersection of people being like, ‘Oh, this too, is mine, and I grab onto it,’ that’s great.”
Lining the walls are more than 3,000 books, ranging from volumes of Talmud to Judy Blume novels to treatises on Zionism. In a beit midrash, or Jewish library and study room, Lehrhaus offers classes on topics ranging from Judeo-Arabic literature to Jewish history in the Roman era, and discussions of Jewish text. Last week Lehrhaus hosted more than 70 people for a conversation about Jewish art with the comic and playwright Alex Edelman, a Boston native.
“There’s a really big chasm in the Jewish community in America right now, I think, between curiosity for Jewish learning, ideas and content, especially when it’s really good, and at the same time, skepticism about stepping foot inside Jewish institutions,” said Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.
Kurtzer recently came from New York to deliver a class on the history of the original Lehrhaus, a Jewish salon established in Germany in 1920 by the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig. At the modern Lehrhaus, the barrier to entry to Jewish learning is low — so low that if you aren’t interested in what you’re learning, you can duck out of the beit midrash and grab a drink at the bar.
“I think that they’re onto something in terms of thinking differently about how we see space in the Jewish community, in terms of understanding the whole self of Jews,” Kurtzer added. “They’re building a different business model for Jewish engagement.”
The classes are for the most part meant to be small, with attendees sitting around a big table and both learning from a teacher and discussing the topic with each other. The initial strategy for the classes they offer is “to go broad and see what works,” said Schwartz. The approach is rooted in pluralism; Lehrhaus has partnered with the Hartman Institute; Hebrew College, a nondenominational rabbinical school; and Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva. Down the line, Lehrhaus hopes to offer one-on-one sessions for people interested in studying with a learning guide.
How many of Lehrhaus’ devoted culinary fans will stick around for the learning opportunities? That remains an open question.
“Lehrhaus as a restaurant is awesome. Two thumbs-up. Lehrhaus as a Jewish learning space, I haven’t really tried it yet,” said Kazan, who noted that text study is not her preferred method of connection to Judaism. “I’m not sure that is going to be the thing that keeps me coming back.” In the two months since it opened, she estimates she has been to Lehrhaus six times.
William Novak, the Newton-based editor of The Big Book of Jewish Humor and one of the speakers at last month’s conversation with his sons B.J. and Lev, said the news of Lehrhaus’ opening had not made it to his group of friends — several decades older than the target demographic he noticed at the restaurant — until the Globe article started spreading in his minyan WhatsApp group last week.
“I live in the suburbs among people in their 70s,” Novak said. Still, he added, he had experience with creative Jewish programs like the Havurah movement of the 1970s. “I’m not unaware of innovative programs, but I’ve never seen or even heard of anything like this. I was so impressed.”
Innovation remains a chief concern of Lehrhaus’ founders, who suggest that future offerings might include prepaid Shabbat dinners (the restaurant is currently closed on Friday and Saturday), opening late on Saturday after Shabbat ends and Sunday brunch inspired by Sephardic and Mizrahi cultures. (“The immediate vicinity is kind of a brunch desert,” Schwartz observed.)
The Boston area — and Cambridge and Somerville in particular — may be the ideal incubator for a place like Lehrhaus, as a community with a thriving young Jewish population that, on this side of the Charles River, lacks many nearby Jewish institutions. But its founders insist that it isn’t the only place that would benefit from a Lehrhaus, nor is it the only one that would be hospitable to such an institution.
“This could be something that changes the math and landscape of a community and the institutions that are meant to be serving the Jews of that community,” said Kurtzer, who added that Lehrhaus’ founders have described it to him like this: “A Jewish community should have a synagogue, a JCC, a mikvah and a Lehrhaus, or a tavern.”
Schwartz and Foer aren’t shy about saying that they want to see other Lehrhauses outside of Boston, although Schwartz was coy about what the next location might be.
“What are the criteria that make this work right now?” he asked. “It’s a fairly large Jewish community with not a tremendous amount of communal infrastructure, a large number of young Jews, a high level of churn in population.” It would also need to be in a place where Lehrhaus could raise enough money to get started, because the institution is a nonprofit.
Kurtzer thinks it’s an easy pitch to philanthropists: “You’re not donating money to a restaurant,” he said. “You’re donating money to a young adult Jewish engagement project that has a revenue stream.”
If you build it, the saying goes, they will come.