Remembering the Kosher Kitchen

By David Henkin ’87

The appearance of Yale’s president at a Shabbat dinner at the Slifka Center is not uncommon these days. But on a warm Friday this past August, as President Peter Salovey addressed a large gathering of alumni before the Birkat Hamazon (post-meal blessing), the historical significance of this new normal was striking. The 70 alumni, along with 51 spouses and children, had traveled to New Haven from across the country — and the globe — to reunite with old friends and relive bright college years. But they were also recalling a very different era in Jewish life at Yale.

Between 1973 and 1995, Jewish Yalies who wanted to eat kosher food gathered at a subterranean location on Crown Street known as the Kosher Kitchen. The Kitchen thrived during a distinctive period — after the end of anti-Semitic quotas and a series of cultural changes in Jewish life helped swell the ranks of observant students on campus, but before those students found a conspicuous home amid the larger Jewish community.

Salovey remembered this era from his own days as a graduate student, when he occasionally visited 305 Crown with a friend, and like everyone else at this first-ever Kosher Kitchen reunion, he spoke of it fondly.

The reunion was the brainchild of Naomi Weinberger ’88, who spent the better part of two years beating the social media bushes for old classmates who used to share meals, sing harmoniously, blowtorch kitchen counters, keep the books, organize prayer services, and play ping pong. And her efforts paid off. They came from Cleveland and Los Angeles, from Ra’anana and Beit Shemesh, from up and down the Amtrak corridor, and from every corner of the New York Metropolitan Area.

The bulk of the attendees had been at Yale, like Weinberger, in the 1980s (the Class of 1984 provided the largest single cohort), but others represented the full span of Kosher Kitchen history and demography.

David and Ethan Kra, who helped found the student-run Young Israel House at Yale, as the Kitchen was officially known, in 1973, spoke during the Friday dinner of the early days, when setting up a kosher meal plan was crucial to enabling observant Jews to live on campus. At the front of the dining room, the Kras stood beside Dan Oren ’75, ’85 MD, whose 1986 book Joining the Club documented the development of the Young Israel House and framed it within the history of Jews at Yale. They were also joined by Rabbis Jim Ponet ’68 (Hillel Rabbi, 1981-2013) and Michael Whitman (the Young Israel House spiritual guide, 1987-2001), who reminisced about their elaborately negotiated agreement to bring the Kitchen up from below ground and into the new Slifka Center when it opened on Wall Street in 1991.

For most of the gathered alumni, however, the underground years were a source of intense nostalgia. Though the reunion program featured lectures by learned scholars on Talmud, Genghis Khan, and the 2016 election, the most moving moments of the weekend sought to recreate a very specific old world: an informal recollection ceremony at the close of Shabbat, in which groups of former classmates invoked names and incidents from the distant past; a visit to the chapel at the base of Branford’s bell tower, once home to Yale’s Orthodox prayer services, where alumni bounced old harmonies off eerily familiar walls; and finally, an abortive field trip to the former site of the Kitchen itself, where alumni and their bewildered children stood outside the locked doors of a reconfigured basement and gathered in the backyard, staring into windows that once illuminated a dingy dining hall.

It’s hard to convey the feelings that kept people in that parking lot, the site where the Kitchen Sukkah once stood. On Saturday night, alumni gathered to remind one another of shared experiences and jokes, at first in circles defined by eras, and by the end of the evening, in one large circle of shared reminiscences. On Sunday morning, there were latecomers who were able to join in and a closing session where everyone who was moved to speak stood up and shared their feelings about the reunion. There was gratitude and appreciation for the communities that were pluralistic, inclusive, and familial during formative years at Yale. Most were overwhelmed by surfacing emotions they did not realize were so profound and deep.

Nostalgia for a place where one ate lunch and dinner for four years isn’t surprising. It’s part of what animates college reunions. But Kosher Kitchen alumni were drawn to this reunion by bonds beyond food. Crown Street memories were deepened by the fact that the Kitchen was essentially a co-op. Students ran the operation, balanced its books, contributed to its upkeep, served food, and performed vital chores. Unlike in the Slifka years, kosher dining in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s was light on staff and did not depend on paid clergy or administrators. Kosher Kitchen members — undergraduates, graduates students, professional students — all understood and (mostly) celebrated the fact that only their labors kept the thing afloat.

To many attendees, the Kosher Kitchen also represented a formative site for their distinctive relationships to Judaism. 305 Crown Street had not only allowed observant Jews to maintain their religious commitments and dietary regimes at Yale, it had also exposed them to other different kinds of Jews and challenged them to build pluralist communities with them.

For Yalies who came from non-Orthodox homes, the challenge lay in how to share ritual spaces with the kind of traditional Jew they might never have met on another campus. From the perspective of the more traditional, the challenge was a mirror opposite. In both cases, the reunion marked for many a return, 20 or 30 years later, both to a more diverse Jewish community than the ones in which they had built their subsequent adult lives, and to the place where their own sense of being a Jew in the modern world was powerfully shaped.

Finally, the magnetic pull and poignancy of the reunion reflected something else, too. Those of us who ate underground while technically enrolled in the official meal plan, and lived happily on campus but felt most at home along its periphery, were bound by a shared liminal status. We were proud to be traditionally observant Jews at Yale, but attuned to the ways in which we deviated from campus norms. The Slifka Center proclaimed the end of that era, but the friends who reunited there in August were happily reliving it.

Photo courtesy Naomi Weinberger ’88