November 21, 2018

Strangers in the night — a Ghetto Purim

We followed the directions explicitly. At 6:55 p.m. last Saturday night, armed with two floor cushions and a bottle of wine, my husband, David, and I approached a
stranger’s house on a dark Los Feliz street and walked in. The apparent master of the house sat on the stairs in the front entrance with a little boy in blue pajamas.

“Hi. Welcome,” he said. “Straight through this hall to the back yard. You’ll see the tent.”

The first e-mail had been fairly cryptic:

“Reboot LA presents Ghetto Purim…. Ghetto Gourmet is proud to announce a wild Purim feast.”

There was a date and a time listed. Price was $50 per person. Location only indicated the city, with a note at the bottom: “more details to follow once you sign up.”

I’d known of Ghetto Gourmet and had always been intrigued, but this was my first time at one of its events. Jeremy Townsend, a poet, came up with the idea as a gift to his younger brother, who was a restaurant line cook, a notch below sous chef in a professional kitchen. The brother was eager to try out some of the dishes he’d created, so they organized a dinner for a group of strangers they found through Craigslist. They charged each person cost, plus 20 percent.

The brothers held the dinner in their apartment in Oakland — couches were pushed against walls, people sat on floor cushions, and legend says guests even had to share forks — and they called it “ghetto” because it was so informal in nature, though not in ambition. The concept was so successful, however, that it blossomed into a regular roving dinner party — a way for strangers to meet over a good meal.

“You bring people together, you get everybody out of their element, and you get openness and generosity,” Townsend said.

Since that 2004 experiment, Townsend has taken Ghetto Gourmet to other cities, including Chicago, Nashville, Miami and Los Angeles.

Now that they were back in L.A., I was eager to give it a try, especially since they were offering an alternative to the standard Purim night festivities.

The tent was done up with white lights and orange balloons. Low tables were set festively for 45 guests, with silver Mardi Gras beads placed in our wine glasses. A black Ghetto Gourmet flag hung on the back wall of the tent, with its signature white skull wearing a chef’s hat above a crossed spoon and a fork, replacing the traditional skull and crossbones.

We realized immediately that we were the only ones who’d taken seriously the note that dictated dinner would be at 7 p.m. “sharp.” Unfazed, we chose spots and settled onto our cushions. People seeped in, smiling at friends and hugging, and took places around the tables. But not ours.

David and I looked at each other. Did everyone know each other already? This was about to become a junior-high nightmare. Friends were sitting with friends, and no one was sitting with us. At least we weren’t naked.

By 7:30 p.m. we felt like crashers at a stranger’s dinner party. Finally, two people sat down with us. They also appeared to be part of the inner circle, but we made casual chitchat for a bit. Then there was a shift. They got word that there was room for them at their friends’ table. They politely made their exit.
We were alone again and beginning to suspect something had gone awry in the event’s planning. Wasn’t the point to bring strangers together? We were about the only strangers, save maybe one other couple.

I’d recognized the guy when he walked in. Joel Stein, in addition to being a Time magazine contributor and Los Angeles Times columnist, is one of my professional heroes. I didn’t recognize the woman he was with, but assumed she was his wife. They made pleasantries with some people, then sat down at a table across from ours. But for some reason unbeknownst to us, a short while later, the woman came over and shyly asked if we were saving the table, or if they could sit with us.

Joel Stein’s wife asked if they could sit with us.

I took in the moment and quickly invited them to sit. The night was finally getting good. The rest of the guests flowed in and sat down. A group of three friends, and two others, joined our foursome. Someone asked if anyone knew the Purim story, and a blond girl named Rachel offered up her version, which she’d heard on NPR earlier, she said. She explained the symbolism of hamantaschen — how the cookies are shaped like wicked Haman’s three-pointed hat. Joel Stein loved that. “So, it’s a cookie of mockery?” he asked rhetorically.

Finally, someone called us to order, summer-camp style. Jeremy Townsend loudly welcomed the group and instructed us on the two rules of the night. First, give thanks for the blessing of being part of such an evening. Second, hold on to your fork. (Guests don’t have to share forks these days, but the ghetto vibe is still maintained. Thus, no salad or dessert forks here.)

The evening’s co-hosts were next to speak. Writer Jill Soloway and writer/director Julie Hermelin (we were at the latter’s house) represented Reboot L.A., which aims to inspire younger Jews to revitalize community life in a way that resonates for them. They led us in a Shehecheyanu and instructed us on the Purim mitzvah of getting so drunk that you can’t tell the difference between heroic Mordechai and villainous Haman.

As Soloway described it, the melding of Purim with Ghetto Gourmet was inspired by a Reboot summit she attended last year in Park City, Utah. Reboot’s mission is to help activate the next generation of Jews to redefine their religion in their own terms. With the help of a two-year Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, Soloway and Hermelin recently hired a full-time staff person to coordinate more such events in the future, including a planned larger-scale second-night Passover seder this year at The Echo nightclub.

Between bites of artichoke and lemon crostini, I talked to Todd Krieger, a media and technology consultant who said he’d heard about the night’s event from a friend.