Remember that Pew study a couple years back that showed that Jewish millennials were eschewing religious activity in droves? Well, a group of 20-somethings and 30-somethings on the South Side of Chicago may have figured out a way to reverse that trend.
All right, the secret does involve alcohol, but … it’s working.
Welcome to Tippling Through the Torah, a blog that provides a cocktail recipe each week that corresponds to the current Torah portion or holiday, courtesy of the efforts of a creative bunch in Hyde Park that gathers together regularly to discuss the parshah, and to drink.
The group calls itself “the Kiddish Club,” and its members are all affiliated with the Conservative congregation, Rodfei Zedek. What started one year ago as a challenge from their rabbi, David Minkus, has morphed into a passion, with an online following of more than 3,000 fans.
“The origin was we were at dinner at the rabbi’s house, and afterward, he offered us drinks — whiskeys and Scotches,” recalled Max Hutchinson, a 26-year old scientific software engineer originally from Mt. Lebanon. “Tracey [Ziev, who is married to Hutchinson] doesn’t like whiskey. So the rabbi gave her some vodka, and Andrea [Frazier] had some crabapples that she chopped up with the vodka. And we added some honey because it was Rosh Hashanah. And then the rabbi said, ‘I bet you can’t do this every week.’”
The group dubbed that first drink “Sweet New Year.”
As an early blog entry explains: “It was delicious, and it led to the dare, that led to the blog, that led to getting drunk on Torah.”
After the rabbi again threw down the gauntlet during a bar mitzvah lunch, the Kiddish Club got to work on coming up with drinks for Simchat Torah: the Apple and Eve (apple cider, honey, cinnamon, ginger, club soda, and a fig leaf); the Apple and the Serpent (vodka, whiskey, a splash of cider, honey, ginger, chopped apples, and club soda); and A Fiery Law (hot peppers, vodka, a squeeze of lime juice, a squirt of honey, and ginger).
Since then, five core members of the group meet regularly to study and come up with a drink for every Torah portion and most holidays.
“A couple of us bring the liquor and the Chumashes, and we just start reading through the parshah,” said Hutchinson. “Then we come up with ideas for drinks, try the drinks, then tweak the drinks. Then we come up with funny names and stories that tie it all together.”
For the first time, he added, “I’ve had my eyes on the whole Torah this year.”
One of the members of the group, Jamie Weisbach, is a yeshiva student, Hutchinson noted, and often brings “something extra from his weekly study.”
“We realized we were pretty serious about Talmud study when Jamie showed up with all his Talmud books,” said Ziev, 28, an engineer originally from the Philadelphia suburb of Phoenixville.
For Frazier, who writes the blog, in addition to “being a goofy way to make sure my friends would drink with me once a week,” the Kiddish Club has been a way in for her to study Torah.
“I was never one to sit still for a lot of Torah study before,” she said. “Now I know what each Torah portion is about. It’s been a good way in.”
Although early on it was a challenge to come up with a drink to correspond to each Torah portion — “we were particularly worried about Leviticus,” Hutchinson said — the process got easier.
“As you go on, the stories get richer,” noted Frazier. “There are more stories about the land, and there is more imagery.”
Frazier, a health system analyst originally from a town in Illinois near the Iowa border, recalled that coming up with a drink for Genesis was difficult.
“We were thinking about the Big Bang, and we used Pop Rocks so the drink would pop,” she said. “It wasn’t even Pop Rocks. It was kosher fizzing candy. It was gross. I’m not going to lie.”
Another drink that didn’t go over well with everyone was the “Pillar of Salt.” Hutchinson said he would not recommend it.
Frazier, however, is a fan.
“I still like the Pillar of Salt,” she said of the cocktail made with coconut water, Bacos, cilantro, gin or vodka, and a salt rim. “Except for the Bacos.”
A lot of creativity is involved in coming up with ideas for the drinks. Ziev’s personal favorite is the Mikvah Mule, which corresponds to the Torah portion about ritual purity. The drink is “obviously made with rain water,” Ziev said.
“We filtered the rain water, and diluted it with seltzer, and added vodka infused with mint and sugar. It was actually pretty good,” she said.
Because the Kiddish Club already has come up with a drink for each Torah portion, this year it will focus on haftorahs, said Ziev.
“We’ve been joking that we will work on Daf Yomi after this,” she said. “I figure we’re set for the next eight years.”
For his part, Minkus thinks the Kiddish Club is a good way to engage millennials and meet them where they are.
“That being said, I think it’s a great way to engage people of all ages,” Minkus wrote in an email. “We become overly concerned with engaging one demographic over another. But what the creators of the Tippling Through Torah have demonstrated is that great ideas are a means of bringing people together, regardless of what that actual idea is.
“If we had always been thoughtful and inclusive about our programs and how we build community then we would not have issues of engagement, regardless of age or cohort. The Kiddish Club is smart and fun while helping to further our ongoing quest to understand and live by the Torah. We are lucky for this innovation.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.