SOMERVILLE — The rabbi is serving cocktails. He stops at the bar to schmooze with his customers. Someone just finished a PhD program, he learns. “Mazel tov!” he congratulates the scholar, before moving on. Lehrhaus has to be the only local restaurant where one might hear “mazel tov” multiple times in one evening, read a book about Jewish food or philosophy, get into a joyful argument over some finer point of Jewish law — and, yes, be served a cocktail by a rabbi.
“No space exists like this in the world,” says the rabbi, Charlie Schwartz. “This is the only one.”
Lehrhaus bills itself as “a Jewish tavern and house of learning,” combining the concepts of restaurant and beit midrash, or study hall. Imagine a scene from “Yentl,” but including people of all genders, races, ages, and religions, with imaginative cocktails and food. (For Jewish singles, it could also be the best thing to happen since JDate.)
It opened this spring, getting into gear in earnest after a Passover break, at a time when antisemitism is increasingly virulent and visible. Incidents of hatred toward Jews reached a new high in the United States last year, according to a recent report from the Anti-Defamation League. Lehrhaus is a direct counter to this hatred, founded in the same spirit as Jewish American Heritage Month, currently underway: It is a celebration of Jewishness.
“This is a double-down,” says Schwartz. “This is a very muscular, full-throated double-down. This is where we are. We aren’t going anywhere. We are very proud of who we are and what we are.”
Schwartz cofounded Lehrhaus with Joshua Foer, who helped launch travel publication Atlas Obscura and Sefaria, an online library of Jewish texts, and is the author of books such as “Moonwalking With Einstein.” According to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey, 52 percent of US Jews report attending synagogue “seldom or never.” “We started talking about what we felt was lacking in our Jewish lives and lacking in the Boston community, and really in the wider American Jewish community,” Foer says. “You look around at the landscape and there are two things missing: First is a place that is open and welcoming where Jews can gather socially. Second is a place where learning is open and available and anybody can come in and partake.”
The word “anybody” is key. When people ask whether non-Jews are welcome, Schwartz says, “One of our lines is: You don’t have to be French to go to a French restaurant. Why would you have to be Jewish to go to a Jewish tavern?”
Lehrhaus is kosher and closed for Shabbat on Fridays and Saturdays, usually restaurants’ busiest hours. (It holds what might be the first Massachusetts liquor license that lists an opening time of one hour after sunset on Saturday night.) James Beard award-nominated chef Michael Leviton (Lumiere, Area Four) is an adviser on the project, with chef Noah Clickstein (Juliet, L’Espalier) leading the kitchen; cook Shabbos Kestenbaum is also a mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, and he ensures everything adheres to Jewish dietary law. Hospitality and beverage consultant Naomi Levy (Eastern Standard) is known for Maccabee Bar, the annual Hanukkah pop-up she founded in 2018.
The menu is possibly the most Jewish document ever created, in a long history of Jewish documents. It lists what’s available to eat and drink, with Talmudic explications in the margins. For instance, for fish and chips: “It is believed that Sephardic Jews fleeing the Inquisition first brought fried fish to England. In the 18th century, the now iconic British national dish was referred to as ‘fish in the Jewish fashion.’ Today, matzoh meal remains a popular batter of choice in many British fish and chip shops.” Kosher kitchens can’t mix milk and meat, so there’s a Reuben sandwich, but smoked beets take the place of corned beef. “Chopped not-liver” is made with eggplants and nuts.
The menu reaches beyond the cuisine often featured at restaurants rooted in Jewish tradition. These tend to focus on the food of Ashkenazi Jews, from Eastern and Central Europe. But the Jewish diaspora is global, and Lehrhaus looks also toward the culinary traditions of Sephardic Jews (from Spain and Portugal), Mizrahi Jews (from North Africa and the Middle East), and beyond — from the American South to India. “We really want to show that Jewish food isn’t just pastrami on rye and matzoh ball soup,” says Clickstein, the chef. “We want people to know that there are Jews found throughout the world in different countries, and that foods we might associate with different groups also intersect with certain Jewish communities. We are finding these diasporic communities throughout the world and trying to ascertain what food they consume is Jewish food, not just food that Jews eat.”
This is a delicate topic, particularly when Israel and Palestine come into the conversation. To whom does hummus belong? Friendships have been ruined debating the question. It’s not one Lehrhaus tries to answer. Instead, it defines Jewish food as meeting three criteria. As Clickstein puts it, it has to be “of constraint, time, and tradition.” Constraint has to do with the rules, adhering to kosher law. Time is about the annual cycle of Judaism, with holidays marking the seasons. We are currently in the 49-day period between Passover and Shavuot, which this year commences the evening of May 25. “It’s a cycle that links up to agricultural cycles,” Clickstein says. “It’s fun to see how Judaism ties into food that way. It works so well with the seasonality of restaurants.” (A dish currently being served, spring barley soup, is inspired by Shavuot and ancient harvest offerings. See the menu for details.) And tradition is just what it sounds like: “It’s what we do, what we’ve always done.” Which doesn’t mean it’s familiar to all Jews. Many might know kugel, the noodle dish Lehrhaus marries with mac ‘n’ cheese, adapted from a recipe by Black Jewish writer and historian Michael Twitty, author of books such as “The Cooking Gene” and “Koshersoul.” But dabo, an Ethiopian bread served on Shabbat that was recently turned into croutons here, doesn’t share the same recognition as challah.
The cocktail list is fueled by the same philosophy. “We have drinks that are inspired by dafina, the Moroccan shabbat stew,” says Levy. (That would be the Dafina So Fine, an Old Fashioned riff made with raisin rum, sweet potato, and the Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout.) “We have drinks celebrating the way Jews have migrated and formed communities in other spaces, like the Colonia Roma, which takes Syrian and Mexican flavors and puts them together.” (It’s named for a Syrian Jewish neighborhood in Mexico City.) She enjoys explaining the stories behind the drinks to customers. Bartenders love to geek out about ingredients, she says. “Here we get to geek out about culture and history, and it’s really a fun and engaging way to interact with our guests.”
But Jewish learning is what really differentiates this Somerville tavern — named after a Frankfurt house of study founded by Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig after the influenza pandemic of 1918. It offers a robust series of classes, from one on an obscure but fascinating figure known as the Kotzker Rebbe (led by Kestenbaum, who is also a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School, focusing on Chasidic theology) to Sunday’s scheduled conversation with comedian Alex Edelman, also in town to perform at the Emerson Colonial Theatre en route to Broadway. And it offers a library, of some 3,000 volumes.
The books are what one notices first upon entering, shelves and shelves of them. There are handsome leather-bound sets in Hebrew, and popular works: novels by Philip Roth, guides to Jewish social justice, Bari Weiss’s “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” “Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame,” by Franklin Foer (Josh’s brother) and Marc Tracy. There are cookbooks, books of Jewish jokes, volumes of poetry.
The shelves are labeled: “Jewish Reality: History, memoirs, Israel, biographies, and books about people trying to kill us”; “Jewish Ideas: Philosophy, theology, essays, and criticism. Occasional heresy.” In the “Jewish Imagination” section, Chaim Potok’s “The Gift of Asher Lev” sits beside “Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology.” There is no erasure of one view or the other. There is no specific ideological stance. There is the presentation of a kaleidoscope of Jewish views, and with that the opportunity to talk them through.
“There are two really central Jewish communal institutions going back to antiquity. The synagogue is the space for prayer, and the beit midrash is the space for learning, engaging with ideas, text, argument, and debate,” Foer says. That’s what they want Lehrhaus to be: “the place where your identity can be grounded in learning, debate, and argument. We have a feeling that not only is that something that appeals quite broadly, but also that a little bit of the world needs to get better at right now — engaging with difference and ideas and argument and debate without being disrespectful.”
On a recent evening, that spirit is very much in evidence. At a long table, a woman pores over Hebrew texts, taking notes and talking with another guest. “No, you’re wrong!” she shouts gleefully, and he laughs. At the bar, two customers are deep in philosophical talk about liminality. It’s crowded and convivial here, like a Passover Seder crossed with a dinner party. In the lounge area, customers read, chat, and sip cocktails, sinking into the dark blue velvety banquettes and caramel leather armchairs. “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits” spins on a turntable. A tiny TV plays Jewish silent films from the ‘20s. Next to a portrait of Austrian-Jewish feminist and social worker Bertha Pappenheim is the kind of Instagrammable neon sign one sees everywhere these days. It reads: “Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know,’” a quote from Maimonides. Big windows offer a view out onto the street — and, for passersby, a look inside Lehrhaus.
“This is a moment in time where many in the Jewish community want to retract a little bit out of a fear of antisemitism,” Schwartz says. “We’re saying no. Judaism is an integral part of the story of the US and Boston and Somerville. We want people to come in and encounter the best Judaism has to offer: welcomeness, stories, warmth, and love.”