Ditmas Park’s Jewish Dinner Party


‘This is the Hester!” says an Australian-accented hostess, exuberantly, as patrons of the quasi-clandestine kosher supper club reach her. “Here’s how it works.”

Her twang carries, and the line stretches out the door and onto the porch of the Brooklyn Victorian where the monthly club takes place. But she’s not whispering, and neither is anyone else.

It’s odd, because organizer Itta Werdiger Roth calls her monthly party a speakeasy, and like the speakeasies of old, the legal risks involved are real: including but not limited to noise complaints and zoning violations.

“The speakeasy vibe is exciting,” says Roth, a 30-year-old freelance chef who, like her greeter, is a Lubavitcher from Australia. “But I don’t want to be closed down. So I have a donation system, and make sure the music ends at a reasonable hour.”

Grabbing menus and pricelists, the greeter thrusts them at the throng milling around her, trying to get their attention as they peer greedily at the well-but-modestly-dressed crowd already sipping vodka watermelon granitas. To get there, those stuck in line must first focus.

The Hester runs on a complicated system whereby patrons exchange money for colored tickets, which in turn entitle them to various amounts of food and drink, like those cool-looking cocktails garnished with a sprig of rosemary. But wait — there’s that fine print: “All prices are suggested donations for labour & materials.”

“It’s a party where I’m asking people to cover the costs,” said Roth.

Suggested donations range from $12 for one drink ticket to $40, which includes three drink tickets, an entrée and dessert.

Last Thursday, Roth broke even with about 75 guests. And that’s fine for now, but she has dreams: of turning the Hester into a real business that also hosts private parties, or a nonprofit that brings Jews together around food and culture.

Once inside, the music raises the noise level still higher. The first act is classical, from “The Invisible Three;” the second, jazz from Modern Orthodox Rabbi Greg Wall’s New American Quartet.

Waiters, most of them non-professionals, take orders while a staff of three preps in the kitchen. But if you read the sign hanging in the bathroom that explains the club’s name, the rowdiness makes historical sense.

Kate Hester, it says, was a saloonkeeper in the early 1900s who lost her liquor license and used to implore her customers to “Speak easy, boys!” Also, in Hebrew, “hastair” can mean hidden. Roth knows her Bible. She cites Deuteronomy 31:18 to back this up.

It’s that combination of the holy and the worldly contained in the Hester’s name that encapsulates the nature of the gathering, which is a funky mix of artsy Chasids — the men in T-shirts and dangling tzitzit, the women in glamorous wigs and pencil skirts that hit just below the knee — and secular foodies flaunting bare shoulders and décolletage.

“This is unusual for Midwood,” said Michael Brenner, 32, a prosecutor in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, employing lawyerly understatement about a neighborhood known for its concentration of yeshivas and shtiebels, or synagogues based out of homes. “The one thing Midwood is lacking is a place for a young crowd, that’s not necessarily Orthodox, to gather.”

Which comment inspired a genial machloket, or scholarly debate, about whether the Hester is even in Midwood. Some would say Flatbush, while Roth calls the neighborhood Ditmas Park. So do local realtors. Their home is near Avenue H and Ocean Avenue.

Of course, blurry neighborhood boundaries get more so under the influence of gentrification. Prices in the Roths’ section of Brooklyn can range from the $700,000s up to $1.5 million, depending on the size of the lot and the state of the house.

Itta and her husband, Matthue, bought theirs in 2010. It requires no fewer than 23 mezuzahs, according to Matthue Roth, he of the side curls and goofy grin, whose website says he’s a “Hasidic author, Jewish slam poet, Torah geek and occasional screenwriter.” The Roths have two girls, ages 2 and 4, who retire to their paternal grandparents’ place in Philadelphia on Hester nights.

Whatever its actual address — and nobody will tell you until you RSVP — the Hester sits at the intersection of several trends. The neighborhood itself has become increasingly popular among those priced out of the brownstone belt, including young Jewish families. Then there’s the supper club aspect: the Hester has kosher counterparts in Montreal and Los Angeles. It’s a pop-up, like a trendy shop.

And the food is organic, seasonal and mostly local. Last Thursday’s menu offered a choice of pizzas, including “Vegan Shmegan” with roasted shiitake mushrooms and nutritional yeast. For dessert: “two scoops of cold hard love” with a choice of peach ginger, “70% chocolate heaven” and cantaloupe basil.

Roth adheres to stringent standards of kashrut and abides by the laws of kol isha, or voice of a woman, which means that female musicians can’t sing at The Hester.

On the other hand, it’s by no means a religious outreach event of the kind that has won Chabad millions of followers around the world since its most recent rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, instructed his followers to actively help other Jews embrace their faith.

At the Hester, Roth preaches a gospel of good times, but her background plays a role, friends say.

“Growing up Chabad, we’re trained to gather people together,” said Freidel Levin, 27, a friend who owns a flower shop, Mimulo, in Crown Heights. “So she is doing that, but all she wants is for people to enjoy themselves.”

The Hester used to be patronized mainly by Roth’s Chabad friends, Levin said. The crowd has gotten more diverse over the club’s year in operation.

“It’s a salon kind of feeling here,” said Etta Abramson, 28, an educator specializing in Bible, commentary and bar/bat mitzvah preparation, as she surveys the scene. “It feels like we’re in Enlightenment Europe.”

helen@jewishweek.org; @thesimplechild