For A Physical Space Where Taste Lives

When I first began Diaspora, it worked under a different name: Faygele. The name was perhaps a little too on the nose -- the Yiddish slang for faggot, or effeminite male, it also refers to little birds, like finches and juncos. It felt like a cute nod to both myself, a Yiddishkeit young man of the homosexual persuasion, and also, to something cute, affable, and easy to wrap your tongue around (not, actually, referring to myself still). We scoured the Ashkenaz tradition for pastry inspiration and produced some bread for a couple of pop-ups, and did a scattered, low-key dinners. It was swell, but also a smidge limiting; I didn't feel I could dig deep into the Sephardic and other traditions that I also felt attuned to, and also beggared questions of appropriation, which I was sensitive to in that time. 

I had been raised in a household that was kind of an exemplar of the rootless cosmopolitanism that Judaism sometimes claims as its cornerstone. My mothers parents were both Europeans (her mother German by way of Spain, her father Polish by way of the Netherlands and Morocco) who landed in the Palestine mandate by circumstance (she by being an educated woman in a relatively religious family, who thought her only prospect for marriage was to one of those lowly Zionist secularists; he, by way of Anders Army, a Polish British military brigade, after he was released from the Soviet prison camps as a Polish POW, taken to Baghdad, and eventually smuggled into Jerusalem after the war by a gentleman named Menachim Begin), and after having two children, decided to leave for the United States. They settled up in New York City, and stayed there until the end of their days; my mother would return to Israel for her undergraduate work at Hebrew University, where she met a gawky American Peace Corp serviceman from the sticks of Washington State who would later become her husband. When they married, Los Angeles was the great in-between from their families, and thusly where they stayed, and likely will, till the end of their days. 

My parents raised us in a household that made certain choices on our behalf; public over private school, travel and eating out over a lot of eating in. When we did eat in, it was a lot of things that, at their core, were kind of poor foods: chicken schnitzel and frozen peas, mac n cheese from the blue box, and the one that lingers, turkey a la king (where leftover meats were tossed in white sauce laden with black pepper, over boiled rice). But when we went out, the majesty of Los Angeles' culinary landscape, and my mothers connection to specific foods and places, came alive. There was Shul & Esthers, on Fairfax, a Yemeni workmans cafe, where I had my first shakshouka; Carnival, the place owned by a Lebanese Christian family on Woodman, where I had ful mudammes and molokhia; Webby's was our local Jewish deli, split three ways so it had a meat section, an appetizen for dairy and smoked fish, and the bakery, which produced acceptable, though not mind-blowing things; a nameless Persian place on Melrose in West Hollywood where I became enamored with fessenjen and mast-o-khiar. There was the aptly named Baklava Factory in Tarzana, where we would get all variety of pastry from a mixed family of Armenians, Syrians, and Persians. We travelled to Israel often, to see my mothers family in Tel Aviv, where multi course meals that lingered for hours, sometimes all day, had their role; the amazing spreads of salads and pitas that were meals unto themselves, the occasional bifurcated irregularity of seeing Ashkenazi dishes alongside Sephardic or Misrahi dishes in weather that didn't do much for the former, the European style cafes where espresso coffee offered central European baked goods in the same breath as baklava. Delis made occasional appearances, like Arts, where I fell in love with Lox, eggs, and onions; but holiday foods were almost always homemade, from cholent to kugel, and all in between (save challah, which almost universally came from, of all places, Noahs Bagels). Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican food all came with the territory, in myriad flavors; but these were always flavors that I knew weren't mine, per se; I grew up with them, but they always lacked the emotional connection that other places had for my mother. 

All of this is to say, when I did start cooking on my own, which started young, I had a big pantheon of flavors to choose from, and many of them felt comfortable to me. Using zhug, or zataar, or baharat (let alone pronouncing them) seemed easy; same with techniques like yogurt marinades or sour applications like pomegranate molasses. I understood that there were myriad Jewish cuisines, that embraced a wide range of flavors and associations that I knew were rooted in a place, and often served well outside of them. And in that I learned of the ways those flavors hit home; when I was traveling through Vienna on my own on my year abroad, I stopped in a cafe where I ordered a coffee, and a gespritz, sparkling water with fruit syrup (in this case, himbeer or raspberry). The flavor stopped me in my tracks, as it was a reminder of a syrup my aunts would bring to family gatherings for the kids to have in lieu of Coke. One was the other, a tradition probably brought over by the Jews of Germany and Austria and habituated as a refreshment in the (much warmer and drier) Palestine mandate. From having lachmajun in Turkey to blintzes in Berlin, certain things resonated, and continued to provide strange familiarity in places I had never been. 

So when I began piecing together my new proposal, having now bounded from LA to the Bay Area, to London back to the Bay, Los Angeles and then finally NYC, Diaspora seemed an important renaming, insofar as I not only had come unsettling myself from elsewhere, but so did my food. On top of that, it felt like whomever I met in New York, that story followed -- bounding from place to place, feeling at home in a city none of us actually could lay claim to having been born in. Despite that, we all carry things with us, the flavors of familiarity, of places we no longer either can or want to lay claim to, or things that feed us on a spiritual level, even though those places that gave them to us are gone. Food can ground us on a spiritual level, and remind us that there are things we can commit to, or want to, despite the hardships and difficulties we come to face in the geographies of our choosing. Birds are migratory creatures, but they always have a place to roost. Diaspora, in whichever iteration it may take, hopes to be that physical and spiritual place.