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magnes collection of jewish art and life

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Thursday, September 11, 2014 | return to: arts
Gourmet Ghettos at Magnes explores
diverse culinary cultures
by carly nairn , j. correspondent
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Long before 1971, when Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse on
Shattuck Avenue, or even 1966, when Alfred Peet opened his first
coffee shop in the North Berkeley neighborhood, gourmet ghettos
existed throughout the world. Just as Sauls, the lone Jewish deli
on Shattuck, gives more than lip service to the California palate,
the gourmet ghettos of Europe, Asia and North Africa were
influenced by the customs, cuisines and agriculture of their
surroundings. The result is an incredible diversity from the kreplach and
cabbage soup of Eastern Europe to the couscous and chickpea mlanges of the
Berkeleys Magnes
Collection of Jewish Art
and Life reflects that
diversity in Gourmet
Ghettos: Modern Food
Rituals, a 150-piece
collection of food-related
Judaica from throughout the world. Presented in
conjunction with U.C. Berkeleys Center for
Jewish Studies and the Berkeley Institute for
Jewish Law and Israel Studies, the exhibit
explores eating, identity and activism in Jewish
life and beyond, according to the Magnes
program. It runs through Dec. 19. An opening
night party took place earlier this week.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is the ritual
table, set for a seder. In addition to the seder
plate, it includes an assortment of plates,
glasses, cookware and tools used for preparing
food. Large pillows are placed to one side, encouraging participants to recline during the festivities.
Engraved silver and colorful porcelain give the hosts an opportunity to display their wealth.
Other notable pieces in the collection include a brightly polished silver Havdallah cup and plate set
made by a silversmith factory in Berlin that was shut down by the Nazis in the 1930s and images of
Orthodox entrepreneurs in their food-related workplaces by Oakland photographer Yves Mozelsio. Also,
mid-century Israeli posters display the culinary wealth of Zion, promoting the nations production of
citrus, avocados, dates and watermelon.
The title of the exhibition, like that of the Berkeley neighborhood, is a pun, says Magnes curator
Francesco Spagnolo. A play with culture and history. A hybrid, two notions that dont necessarily go
together but somehow work.
The first ghetto, instituted in 1516 Venice, was
an area where Jews were compelled to live. Over
the years, the word came to be synonymous with
downtrodden neighborhoods marked by
segregation, classism and anti-Semitism.
However, the word is now undergoing a complete
rebranding by foodies who enjoy high-end,
usually locally sourced, restaurants in a compact
space within a particular neighborhood.
That said, Jewish food culture and the modern
gourmet ghetto find commonality in several
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ideas, according to exhibit co-curator India
Mandelkern: An awareness of where food comes
from and a push for quality control are aspects
shared by both communities.
What is interesting about this exhibition is that it
looks at a lot of those relationships, Mandelkern
says. This is not something that just came out of
a reaction in the past fifty, sixty years, but it is
something that is very engrained in human
culture. We all cook. Its something that connects
us as a culture and creates an identity.
If rituals are the core of Jewish life, according to
Spagnolo, then the act of dining is the mantle.
Its a layer that couldnt exist without its center.
It can be messy, arduous to comprehend, but
incredibly deep and magnetic. The exhibit is
intended to exemplify that relationship, according
to Spagnolo.
It is meant for us to address culture, he says.
Primarily, culture is understood through text,
Spagnolo explains, yet to explore culture and
identity through materials opens avenues to
greater understanding and appreciation.
At times, it can be a daunting task, as Jewish food rituals include complex systems of rules that change
with time and place. Spagnolo illustrates the point with a joke. Coming from an Italian community of
both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, he quips, If someone were to eat a fish, it would be argued it was
kosher if it was caught on one bank, but it wasnt on the other.
Spagnolo said the Gourmet Ghettos exhibit offers just a glimpse of the vast array of Jewish art that
could be interpreted as food-related. The entire collection at the Magnes exceeds 15,000 pieces, many
donated by Bay Area residents. Its one of the largest collections in the world that is solely dedicated to
Jewish art.
By leveraging the global mind of the U.C. Berkeley campus, framed specifically at food rituals in
broader context, he says, we hope that it will engage all communities, whether they be religious, food
or historian.
Gourmet Ghettos: Modern Food Rituals 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, through Dec. 19,
Magnes Collection of Art and Jewish Life, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. Free, http://www.magnes.org
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