On a recent Friday evening, as a cold March sun set on the Hudson, Rabbi Naftali Citron stood in his small and crowded synagogue on 79th Street and West End Avenue, lecturing about the meaning of Shabbat to an increasingly hungry congregation.
On one side of a translucent partition, men bowed and swayed. On the other, women chanted and stomped short-heeled shoes. Children ran all over, demanding lollipops from their praying parents. After a group of singing men marched around the altar, Rabbi Citron told a tale about a baker—a risky move to a famished crowd—who could knead dough, sprinkle salt and add yeast, but never could master how brown the bread grew in the oven.
“He realized that only God has that control,” the rabbi said. The rabbi has obviously never met Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Wolfgang Puck or Bobby Flay.
Well, the National Jewish Outreach Program has, and it has solicited recipes from the famed chefs to spice up what many say is a traditional Friday-night dinner more satisfying to the soul than the stomach. The recipes are collected for the 10th anniversary of the group’s “Shabbat Across America” program, which tries to get non-observant Jews (“singles, couples, families—all ages”) to partake in the weekly day of rest stretching from sundown on Friday to nightfall on Saturday.
The group says the in-house proselytizing is going well, and that they have already distributed over 5,000 of the cookbooks. (They read right to left.)
Favorites include Mr. Puck’s Gefilte Fish (serves 12: two cups of matzo meal, two pounds of fish fillets like pike, carp or whitefish, half a cup of chopped Italian parsley and cayenne pepper to taste); Mr. Vongerichten’s Brisket (serves six to 12, depending on the size of the brisket: sauté onions and chilies with olive oil and season with salt … clean the celery … return brisket to juice to cool … season with soy sauce); and Mr. Flay’s Spanish-spiced rubbed chicken with mustard-green onion sauce (serves 12: three tablespoons of cumin seeds, three tablespoons of ground Dijon mustard, 12 bone-in chicken breasts, French cut … drizzle each piece on the grill, rub side down.)
But on this Friday evening, such refined dishes wouldn’t be making an appearance in the dining room upstairs at the Carlebach Shul on 79th Street.
Rabbi Citron, with a soft voice, demeanor and bearded visage strikingly similar to Rob Reiner on All in the Family, sat in the middle of the dais, under a poster for the outreach program that reminded everyone what God did on the sixth night and seventh day. (Not much.) To the rabbi’s left sat his wife, Chani, a stunning French woman dressed in black Hedda Gabler satin and a white wool hat. Across from her sat Sherri Daniels, a middle-aged redhead who had been attracted to the Shabbat dinner about 15 years ago by an earlier incarnation of the program called “Turn Friday Night Into Shabbos.”
After several speeches and lectures by Rabbi Citron about the “metaphoric and kabbalistic” qualities of the soul and “how the ordinary can become extraordinary,” the food started coming out on plastic plates and metal bowls. A man dressed in tan corduroy at the end of the table stood up to chant and dance. The women put their paper napkins on their laps and picked up their white plastic forks.
“So, who made this coleslaw?” asked Ms. Daniels, spooning some onto her plate. “Very interesting, this coleslaw. What’s in this? Grapes?”
“Looks like grapes and apples,” Ms. Citron.
“Interesting. So, who made this coleslaw?” repeated Ms. Daniels.
“The aunt of the rabbi—my sister,” said Sterna, the rabbi’s mother.
Everyone ate the coleslaw.
When the gefilte fish arrived, only Ms. Daniels dared to question the curry dressing, comparing it to the fish her father used to make.
“Four different types of fish—pike, whitefish and what else?” she asked.
“Trout,” offered Ms. Citron.
“Right—and it was so sweet. And it did not have curry in it,” said Ms. Daniels.
After some more prayers and ruminations on the true meaning of Shabbat, (war/peace, light/dark, work/rest), out came the matzo-ball soup (well salted), followed by a quiche (damp) and bowls of boiled vegetables (also well salted.)
Before the chicken arrived, the rabbi’s mother excused herself from the table. The other women then discussed the possibility of trying some of the recipes in the new cookbook.
“I wouldn’t mind something new every now and then,” whispered Ms. Citron, who teaches a class called the “Kabbalah of Holistic Nutrition,” which she called “good stuff.”
“I can’t even look at chicken anymore. It makes me sick,” said Ms. Daniels.
“I had chicken for dinner every Friday night when I was a kid. It got to the point where I was like, ‘Enough chicken already!’” interjected Irene Susmano, a woman in a red sweater seated to Ms. Daniel’s right, who credited fate with putting her at the Shabbat table. She said she’d started celebrating Shabbat again in 2004, but not for the delicacies on the table.
“It’s not the food you remember; it’s the topics of discussion—it’s the Kabbalah talks,” she said, as Ms. Daniels reached over for the salad.
“I love all salad,” Ms. Daniels said. “As long as I don’t have to make it.”
I’m starting to lose faith in my chiropractor. For one thing, he only accepts payment in Finnish markkas—so every time I visit him, I first must travel uptown to a Chase Manhattan Bank and change $40 into markkas. (Incidentally, my chiropractor is not Finnish.)
Secondly, he smokes. Admittedly, he smokes a pipe—and a briar pipe, at that—but I am sensitive to smoke. And why must he smoke while “adjusting” me?
Thirdly, he plays terrible salsa music. Personally, I appreciate Caribbean dance music, but the songs he plays (which are often Argentine) are listless, noisy and slightly off-key.
Fourthly, he usually has one or two gorgeous women standing around his office, who never speak and give me a look of mild contempt when I remove my shirt.
Fifthly, while I was lying on his table, he once turned and peed in his sink.
The only reason I go to him is that he cured a severe backache in three visits, and I feel fabulous each time I leave him. (But perhaps I’m happy just to escape his office.)