Nice Jewish Goys: No Religion Required in New Shabbat Traditions

Lobster kugel, anyone?

City|Grit's "Southern Shabbat" dinner (Shao-Yu Liu)

City Grit’s “Southern Shabbat” dinner. (Shao-Yu Liu)

Last Friday night, a group of 20-something foodies gathered to celebrate Shabbat. Well, maybe not “celebrate” in the traditional sense of prayers and candles, but a Sabbath meal all the same. In the back of a thrift store on the corner of Prince and Mott Streets, two long wooden tables had been erected for a family-style eating experience among the displays of distressed jeans and vintage belts.

Several times a week, the store is turned from a Soho boutique into City Grit, a “culinary salon” founded in 2011 by Sarah Simmons, an emerging chef recently named one of “America’s Greatest New Cooks” by Food & Wine magazine. Ms. Simmons was standing in front of a comfortably packed room, explaining the genesis of her “Southern Shabbat” dinner, which we’d soon be tucking into.

“Tonight is really special for me, which is funny, considering that I’m a Presbyterian from North Carolina,” she told the assembled, who had each paid $55 to attend the dinner (pricey wine assortment not included). “But I’ve been going over to friends’ houses for years for Shabbat, and hopefully soon I’ll become an honorary Jew myself.”

“Though I’ll have to wait till my grandmother dies,” she added ruefully. “And I don’t want that to happen anytime soon.” Ms. Simmons’s take on the classic Sabbath meal featured a benne seed buttermilk-dressed salad, a thick chickpea stew—or “hummus soup,” as Ms. Simmons put it—that included rice grits and kofta meatballs, a barbecued main course from the newly opened BrisketTown and a dessert of chocolate mousse over mini-latkes. “I always loved dunking Wendy’s fries into Frosties,” Ms. Simmons offered by way of explanation.

Was it traditional? Well, no. Was it kosher? Well, it was kosher-ish, and no one was complaining. “When Shabbat is offered to you, it’s hard to say no,” said Stephanie Feder, a series producer at ITV Studios. Also in attendance were a New York Post features reporter and a relocated Australian couple who had scoured the Internet to find an inclusive Shabbat meal in the city.

“We try to go to Shabbat dinner every week,” said Jordana Shell, a social media consultant who had run the online division of a fashion magazine back in Australia. Her husband, Adam Shell, works in finance. “It’s a good excuse not to cook at home,” she said.

“It’s not like there are a lot of Jewish people in Australia,” Mr. Shell grinned.

Shiksa Simmons’s concept of a culinary Shabbat—more of a meal than a Sabbath—was something she picked up from the Young Manhattanite Shabbat. So was mine.

The first time I ever heard of lobster kugel was at the home of Andrew Krucoff, web content director of 92Y and founder of New York’s most brutal media Tumblr gang, Young Manhattanite (YM). It was 2011, and I was in awe of the individuals who would come over to Mr. Krucoff’s cramped Lower East Side apartment and linger in the 7-by-3-foot kitchen. On any given weekend, you could find Sloane Crosley (who did, in fact, bring cake—a flourless chocolate one, to be precise), various Gawker alums and performance artist Nate Hill, infamous for dressing like a dolphin on the subway and offering free lap rides, as well as for putting up posters in Williamsburg for a “crack” delivery service. (The crack was candy, but people seemed to love the novelty of ordering it anyway.)

The whole YM Shabbat scene was as treif as can be, and not just in the kugel sense. Non-Jews frequently outnumbered the Jews, or at least the practicing ones—though you could always count on at least one person to remember the blessing over the wine, if not the theme of his bar mitzvah. One time, I proudly slaved for 20 whole minutes on matzo ball soup mix, only to have it served with a pepperoni pizza that had just been delivered. A Coke cake—the kind that comes from a can, not a Colombian cartel—stands out as a particularly delicious example of the flagrant disregard for tradition, both cultural and culinary.

“I was purposely putting out nonkosher food like shrimp cocktail,” said Mr. Krucoff, who began having “YM Seders” in 2006. “But I wouldn’t say I was trying to have Shabbat ironically. The parties wouldn’t have been fun if [The Forward cartoonist] Eli Valley hadn’t been there, doing the hamotzi [blessing over the challah] and reading and interpreting the d’var Torah [Torah portion] of the week.”

Of course, what counted as a d’var Torah had a very loose definition; in one notable instance, BlackBook senior editor Tyler Coates just read aloud the climatic scene from Sophie’s Choice. One night there was no food, and everyone just sat in a circle and took turns reading their favorite portions from the erotica collection Coming and Crying.