New York Jewish Week — House-smoked fish platters. Plates of malawach, the Yemeni flatbread. A perfect labneh. And for Passover, “milk and honey” slushes and brie matzah with a salad of bitter herbs.
Since opening as a pop-up shop in 2020, Edith’s Eatery and Grocery in Williamsburg has embraced Jewish cuisine from across the diaspora. The brainchild of Chicago-born Elyssa Heller, the store and restaurant are a celebration of Jewish cuisine outside the narrow lanes of familiar traditional Ashkenazi or Israeli menus.
“People seem really open to the idea of a more inclusive perspective on what Jewish food can be,” Heller said in an interview. “No menu leans too far in a diaspora direction. We want to make sure there is equal representation all the time.
Heller crafts menus by talking to customers, tapping into childhood memories and delving into the works of Jewish cookbook authors like Joan Nathan and Claudia Roden. For Passover, the store sold its version of charoset, as well as sweet and sour meatballs, matzah brie with sour cream and fried onions, and chicken broth with matzah balls. They also transformed the back bakery into a halva bar for the holidays with matcha, pistachio and marble flavors. (The shop is not under kosher supervision.)
Named after Heller’s great-aunt, Edith’s has grown steadily, operating a sandwich counter since last summer and, since last January, a large market and 25-seat restaurant nearby. Grocery store shelves are filled with hard-to-find items from around the world – spices, snack foods, pickled vegetables, appetizing items, dips, pierogies and more. The back of the store serves as a restaurant.
Heller’s growth plans haven’t stopped yet. Next month, Edith’s Eatery and Grocery, located at 312 Leonard Street, will open for dinner, featuring Roman Jewish handmade pasta, kugel dessert and North African curry. “I don’t think I’ve been more excited for anything. We’ve been working on the menu for almost a year,” Heller said.
New York Jewish Week caught up with Heller to talk about the restaurant’s success, what it means to serve “Jewish food” and how New York is a constant source of inspiration.
The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
New York Jewish Week: Have you been fully open since January. Do you feel like it has become a community space in some way? Because you offer so many foods from so many different cultures, do you feel that this diversity is also reflected in the people who come?
Elyssa Heller: Much of the food we carry is not easily found in this part of town or even in Brooklyn. For a lot of the things we carry, I have to go to specialty grocers in Brighton Beach or Astoria. I think it’s good to bring these foods to a new community of people who might know and love them in a restaurant and not realize there’s an opportunity to incorporate them into their daily lives. I really hope it becomes that kind of community place.
For me, Jewish food has always been more of a special occasion or holiday. My family never ate Jewish food every day, so I wanted to create a space that feels like you can come here every day, whether it’s for a coffee or a glass of wine or a snack. or for working on your computer during the week or having fun on the weekends. It’s kind of a little something for everyone, every day.
What does it mean to have a Jewish restaurant? Does it look like a specialty store or are you trying to standardize Jewish food across the Diaspora?
I feel like the food that exists in the landscape today is really Jewish deli or Israeli food. Then there’s this gap between the two with nothing. I hope that together with Edith’s we can fill this gap with Jewish food from across the Diaspora that is accessible, comforting and familiar to people, because no matter what your background, you will find many similar dishes and cooking methods similar and across different cultures – like how everyone has a dumpling. There are so many different types of dumplings.
I think people have this very siled view of Jewish food and I really want to break that down and show people that it doesn’t have to be so serious. It doesn’t have to be kosher food only. It doesn’t have to be just holiday food. There is a way to eat Jewish food every day. I think it’s something I missed growing up so it’s something I want to give back to our community today.
When The Infatuation has listed our new restaurant and grocery store as a Jewish restaurant, I had never seen this before. The restaurants are either categorized as a deli or perhaps Israeli cuisine, or based on location, such as Thai cuisine or Mexican cuisine. I was so proud to see Jewish food. I was like, “this is how people see this new place.” It’s a really powerful thing.
What did you learn about connecting different Jewish cultures across the Diaspora at this restaurant that you weren’t expecting?
People are thrilled that there is a place for all these different types of Jewish foods. Mizrahi Jews, Sephardic Jews, everyone has their own Jewish experience. Mine growing up Ashkenazi was obviously very different. But people really seem to accept it. We receive many people who have different Jewish origins. One of our clients is an Afghan Jew. He shared some of his family recipes with me and we were able to have this wonderful conversation and I was able to learn a lot. Without having all of this food and all of this conversation in one place, this would never have happened. I think it’s important to celebrate the Jewish experience no matter where you come from.
I was afraid that my Jewish experience might be “inferior” to someone else’s Jewish experience, simply because it was a more American experience. My family came from Poland and Russia and they wanted to be American. They couldn’t find work as Jews, so they changed their last name. When I was growing up, my mom made me noodles and cottage cheese while driving me to volleyball. I think there is as much room for these types of Jewish experiences with food as there is for other Jewish identities anywhere in the world.
How has New York influenced your restaurant and why is it important for New York to have a place like Edith’s?
The New York Jewish Dining Experience and the New York Jewish Community [experience] in general is quite unique. But New York is the best representation of a real melting pot, partly because everyone is on top of each other. So many amazing traditions grew out of the experience of Jewish immigrants to New York and passing through Ellis Island. So whatever happens, it permeates a lot of our current food traditions today.
Growing up in suburban Chicago, my view of Judaism was very unequivocal. I learned what I learned in Hebrew school, I learned to read Torah, I had a bat mitzvah, and it really ended there. It wasn’t until I went to school in Canada and met Jews from Montreal for the first time that I thought to myself, wait a minute, you have different cultural experiences than mine and different food traditions and you speak a different language but you are still Jewish. We didn’t learn about the different cultures of Judaism at all growing up. I think there needs to be an inclusion of everyone’s experiences, there should be a place where people can celebrate that and bring their identity to the table.