When I arrive at the Levertov residence, it’s a Friday evening, 5:34 pm, just before sundown. It’s a race against time because candles are lit and once the sun sets, Shabbat, the day of rest, begins, and you can’t flip a switch, operate a car or for that matter, snap a photo. There’s no time for formal introduction; I have to get my photo for the article, then strategically stash my camera away.
Chabad Jewish Center of Santa Fe (242 W San Mateo Road, 983-2000) is located inside an adobe house. Rabbi Berel Levertov and his family conveniently live a couple houses down. This is the Jewish epicenter of Santa Fe.
Sure, there are conservative and reformed temples scattered throughout town, but Chabad is traditionally religious. I meet the Rebbetson, the rabbi’s wife Devorah Levertov and three of their six children. The kitchen’s average except for the fact that there are three ovens, two sinks, two microwaves, four sets of plates and just as many sets of silverware.
This is the real deal. This kitchen is kashrut: meat and dairy products, under all circumstances, do not mix. The surplus of appliances ensures this.
One of the first people I officially meet is congregant Jonathan Friedkin—who, upon arrival, announces, “This is the best kosher food around!” Not to cheapen his statement, but to be fair, it’s the only kosher food around.
Sure, you can also browse the aisles of Trader Joe’s (and Devorah suggests this as your best bet), Sprouts and Whole Foods and get your basic kosher fix. Meat? That’s another story. Thankfully, Chabad orders busloads of frozen meat every few months to stock their freezers.
After the Kiddush (prayer of the wine), the Levertovs tell me dinners are sponsored by local individuals who support Chabad activities and that, while monthly Shabbat sit-downs are open to the public, weekly dinners are more in-depth and personal (like Willy Wonka, you have to score an invite to ’em).
“Why do we keep kosher?” asks dinner guest Mendel Bryski. It’s a rhetorical question. Bryski’s visiting the Levertovs from Crown Heights, that tree-lined neighborhood in central Brooklyn. That’s where the Levertovs are from. That’s where my dad is from, that’s where Bryski’s from. “Everything in the world,” Bryski continues, “has positive and negative energies; it’s up to us to elevate.” He uses the analogy of blessing a cup of water, which evokes the positive energy. Kosher is the intellectualization of food. Dietary laws and strict regulations force the observant Jew to contemplate the next meal.
As the night continues, more guests arrive. Spare tables are brought out, and the set-up builds and extends like a Transformer. The table is dressed in satin, adorned with two tall candlesticks and a port of serving dishes is docked in the table’s center.
I’m sitting next to Friedkin. “Trust me, pace yourself,” he says, as a bit of professional advice.
I’d soon find out know why.
First course: four salads (spinach, lettuce, garbanzo bean and red cabbage), baba ganoush, eggplant purée and gefilte fish (I usually hate this sponge-like patty, comprised of carp and fish bone, but Chabad’s isn’t half bad). Plates are promptly cleared. Second course: chicken soup with matzo balls (aka kosher penicillin).
Bowls cleared. Third course: roasted chicken breast, galumpkis (sweet and sour meat-stuffed cabbage), kasha varnishkes (farfalle with buckwheat groats), kugel (egg noodle casserole) and grilled vegetables.
Plates cleared. Dessert: hamantaschen (triangle pastries filled with jam) and graham cracker trifle—vanilla cream sandwiched between moist graham crackers.
Familiarity is also an ingredient in kosher meals.
I grew up in Los Angeles, surrounded by a whole bunch of fellow Jews. Plus, my dad’s a rabbi, completely reformed in observance, but a rabbi nonetheless. Truth is, my dad wanted to be a comedian, but he was the product of six generations of rabbis, so trading the pulpit for slapstick didn’t really gel with his Orthodox father. Instead, he started a showbiz temple, a synagogue for Jews in the “business.” And though Chabad is much more strict in observation, the basics are still there.
“Jewish food is comfort,” Devorah says. It’s true. Throughout the night, much like the never-ending entrées, there’s a whole bunch of “L’chaims” (“To life”), cups raised and wine poured.