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Pickler preserves an Ashkenazi legacy
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Pickler preserves an Ashkenazi legacy

Brooklyn food activist Jeffrey Yoskowitz, 29, finds meaning in brine

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

At a time when every hipster dreams of transforming traditional foods into “artisanal” commodities — from craft cheeses to raw milk to “handmade” vodka — Jeffrey Yoskowitz explains himself with a faux apology.

“I’m embarrassed to be just another young pickler in Brooklyn,” said Yoskowitz, 29, cofounder and chief pickler of the Gefilteria, a “boutique purveyor of Old World Jewish foods.”

But Yoskowitz, who grew up in Basking Ridge, is not just another pickler. Rather, the Brown University graduate and food writer is in the vanguard of the Jewish food movement, trying to rescue Ashkenazi specialties from their factory-made, artery-clogging reputation.

On Dec. 8, he brought his ingredients and his philosophy to Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael, where a group of 40 people gathered for a workshop on pickle-making.

An alumnus of Adamah, the Jewish organic farming internship at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, Yoskowitz recalled the bumper crop of cucumbers that came up during his tenure there.

“We couldn’t keep up! Someone came up with a recipe from her grandmother and we made pickles,” he said. “It became a thing on the farm, and the next summer we planned to make pickles just because of the taste memory.

“There’s something about a fresh-from-the-field pickle that is very powerful. I fell in love with the pickle that summer.”

He returned to the center the next summer as a pickle apprentice, and he’s been pickling ever since.

Yoskowitz views his work — Gefilteria makes gefilte fish, horseradish, and beet kvass in addition to the pickled products — as a kind of cultural mission. “We are Jews taking ownership of our Eastern European heritage that we’ve neglected. I went to the Solomon Schechter Day School” — SSDS of Essex and Union in West Orange, now Golda Och Academy — “and I have to tell you we always celebrated with falafel. We were always eating falafel! But I never, not once, remember having a pickle at Solomon Schechter. There’s something wrong with that.”

His current work, he said, is all about “elevating the foods of my heritage.” That means researching the role of the pickle in the Eastern European diet. He takes clear delight in debunking Michael Pollan’s claim, in the Omnivore’s Dilemma, that the pickle serves no purpose.

“The pickle is actually a bacteria-rich food that aids in the digestion of a fatty meat sandwich,” said Yoskowitz. That requires the pickle to be brined with salt rather than vinegar. Pickles found on shelves in the grocery store (not the refrigerator section) tend to be vinegar-brined.

Sponsored by the congregation’s adult learning group, the synagogue workshop drew Jews and non-Jews from the wider Morristown-area community. Some came so they wouldn’t have to wait for their favorite pickle company to show up at the farmers’ markets. Others came to find a way to manage the excess vegetables growing in their gardens.

Yachu Juan of Whippany said she found Yoskowitz’s pickling methods very different from those of her native Taiwan.

Pickles, Yoskowitz revealed, are shockingly easy to make.

He led the group in adding garlic, dill, mustard seed, and bay leaves to the water and salt they had already mixed in mason jars. The cucumbers were added, and, after just a few minutes, the preparation was done. All that was left was to wait a few days.

Yoskowitz also demonstrated how he makes sauerkraut. He cut up some green and purple cabbage, added salt, and continually mixed and stirred the cabbage with his hand until the salt drew the water from the cabbage and it began to form its own brine. Traditionally, he pointed out, it would sit in this brine for the winter in a root cellar, growing more sour as the winter wore on.

Monroe Chirnomas of Morris Township stopped in after dropping off his son at Hebrew school. He was delighted with his pickles. “I just had to check it out, and I’m so glad I stayed. The guy with the barrel of pickles doesn’t exist anymore. It’s such a great tradition. And I learned about the health benefits of pickles. Here I am eating yogurt, and I could be eating pickles and sauerkraut!”

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