The Hester
J-Date calls The Hester 'the most interesting underground club in the city.' Photo by Dan Keinan
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Sitting next to an antique wooden table in the living room of her spacious home in the beautiful Ditmas Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, Itta Werdiger Roth asks me not to publish the exact address of her home. The reason: Once a month it’s the site of The Hester − an underground, word-of-mouth supper club / cafe / speakeasy / community space. Last Thursday, a large crowd of people, drawn by rumors, stood and conversed at the entrance to the three-story Victorian house, which is painted bright green and purple. But in order to get in it’s not enough to know the address: To be invited, along with 80 or so others, you have to send Werdiger an email and get an affirmative reply. Otherwise you are liable to reach the promised land, only to see it from afar.

The secrecy is not the only thing that sets The Hester apart from other night spots in New York. Even though Werdiger offers drinks, fine food and music into the night, she takes meticulous care to ensure that every aspect of The Hester meets the rules of halakha, Jewish religious law. Her aim is to create the sort of leisure culture that is usually identified with a secular lifestyle, but for a religiously observant Jewish community. Accordingly, the food is dairy and kosher ‏(“I cook everything in my private kitchen, so it’s easier for me to observe the kashrut laws,” she explains‏), there are no female singers ‏(“After lengthy consideration we decided to observe the prohibition on ‘kol isha’” − i.e., hearing a woman’s voice‏), and the events are held on Thursdays rather than the weekend, to preserve the sanctity of the Sabbath.

As one would expect in one of the world’s most multicultural cities, The Hester’s clients constitute a diverse group. According to Werdiger, “We’re talking about young Jews in their twenties and thirties, although we also have older people and even a few regulars who are in their seventies and eighties. Most of them are Chabad Hasidim who yearn for cultural recreation for obvious reasons: They grew up in America, amid a completely secular culture which they cannot partake of. The idea that it is possible to enjoy music and food simultaneously is new to them and is a definite attraction.”

Indeed, the human diversity at the most recent evening, last Thursday, attests to the many faces of the Jewish community in New York. Rabbi Greg Wall, a musician known as “the jazz rabbi,” is sitting on a light-colored sofa in one of the three rooms on the ground floor of the house. On the walls are posters from Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” alongside photographs of rabbis and a wooden sign with the inscription “Shabbat and holy day” in Hebrew. Nearby are Michael Orbach, who writes for the Jewish magazine Tablet, and Rachel Silverstein, 27, who is from an ultra-Orthodox family of eight and describes herself with a smile as “an Orthodox atheist.” Alan Jay Sufrin, who played at a previous event at The Hester as part of the Jewish pop band Stereo Sinai, which fuses biblical texts with electronic music, is handing out business cards to a group of yarmulke-wearing young men. The card says, “We steal lyrics from God.”

In the next room, close to the entrance, Daniel Zana, 29, a documentary director who is currently working on a series about young people on Broadway for PBS, is perusing the menu with his wife and her sister. He is wondering whether to order a dish called “Death to Margherita” − organic pizza with roasted eggplant, tomatoes, capers, mozzarella cheese and basil on whole-wheat dough − or to go for the pizza with the catchy name of “Jewish Jamaican,” whose ingredients are pineapple, hot peppers, corn, zucchini, sardines, ricotta and Parmesan.

Micki Weinberg, California-born and wearing a cap, who prefers to be interviewed in Hebrew rather than English, vividly captures the spirit of the place. “One of the tragedies of our world, and especially of the Jewish world, is the need for definitions,” he says, sipping on a frozen granita of vodka, watermelon and rosemary. “I am first of all a human being, and in parallel I am also very connected to my Jewish identity. That is expressed in the language, in the way I grew up and in numberless everyday ways. A place like The Hester makes it possible to create a dialogue between very creative people to whom Judaism is important. It’s because of combinations like this that I love New York so much. Not long ago I held a party in my loft in Williamsburg and there were Satmar Hasidim there along with young Swedish hipsters. That’s the charm of this city.”

Rabbi Wall, who is a member of the successful jazz band the New American Quartet, sees The Hester as a direct continuation of more traditional Judaism. “Where did Jews usually meet? In the synagogue,” he says. “The problem is that in America synagogues have become places that people go to only to pray and then go home. The sense of community has been lost, and that rigidness doesn’t suit younger people. Places like The Hester make it possible to get a very unique Jewish cultural experience and above all one that is very cheering and cheerful.”

The choice of the name “The Hester” also reflects the desire to blend religious tradition with contemporary pop culture. “The name has a few sources,” Werdiger says. “First of all, it is connected to the expression ‘hester panim’ [turning the face away] and to the verse ‘vehistarti panai mihem’ [“I will hide My face from them”; Deuteronomy 31:17], which refers to the fact that Divine Providence is hidden from us, which is the true test of faith: to cling to God even when we cannot prove His existence and do not always understand His ways.

“In addition,” she continues, “when I asked my sister to think of a name she told me about an American woman named Kate Hester who ran a saloon in Pennsylvania in the late 19th century. She sold liquor against the law during Prohibition and used to tell her clients, ‘Speak easy, boys,’ to shush them so there wouldn’t be noise and the police wouldn’t raid the place. That is the origin of the term ‘speakeasy,’ referring to institutions that sold liquor without a city permit. The third and final reason is my fondness for Hester Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which in the 20th century became a thriving community center for tens of thousands of Jewish migrants who fled to the United States from Europe.”

Tangled life story

The plethora of sources of the name “The Hester” is suggestive of Werdiger’s complex, rich world. A Chabad woman and mother of two, she is the embodiment of the concept of “modern Orthodox” and its multiple internal contradictions. Her tangled life story is an example of the infinite complexities of Jewish identity in our time. She is the third of seven siblings in a Chabad family from Melbourne. A photograph of her paternal great grandfather, Rabbi Zalman Serebryanski, one of the founders of the Chabad movement in Australia, hangs on the wall at the entrance to The Hester. Next to him stands her great uncle, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Futerfas, who was exiled to a Siberian labor camp for 14 years after being convicted of organizing underground prayers and Pesach seders in the Soviet Union.

“My father is descended from a respected and influential dynasty of rabbis,” she says, “and he was always very active in the Melbourne Jewish community. It’s a very cohesive community in which everyone knows everyone else. My parents sent me and my sisters to a women’s institution called Beit Rivka, and even though I was a rebellious girl and I was suspended many times, they could not actually kick me out of the school because my father’s grandfather was the founder. In the end, I somehow survived that period, but it was obvious to me that I wanted very much to get away from Australia and from my family. The community was warm but also very suffocating, and even though I had no philosophical qualms about my faith I really wanted to explore the world outside.”

Instead going in search of herself in India or South America, like young Israelis, the 18-year-old Werdiger did what every young woman from a good Jewish home is supposed to do: She went to Israel. She spent a year in a yeshiva in Safed and then moved to Jerusalem.

“Chabad,” she says, “has a complex relationship with Israel, so I didn’t go for Zionist reasons. I just wanted to escape to a different place. Ironically, even though I escaped because I had a hard time with the religious education and all the restrictions that were placed on me, in Israel my faith was very much strengthened.”

After two years, despite the positive experience she underwent in Safed and Jerusalem, Werdiger decided she needed to leave religious studies and obtain an education in the humanities and art. “I was tremendously curious and I switched from one subject to another: I studied psychology and history and then I returned to Melbourne and took painting and photography. That was interesting, because I was the only religious person in all the classes, including classes in which we painted nude models. In that case I was overjoyed to be a woman and not a man, because I think that for a religious man it would be difficult to impossible to study in that situation. Happily, my parents always supported me. I think they also knew that I would not stray from the religion ... and that in the end I would marry a Jew.”

To her parents’ relief, they did not have to wait too long. At the age of 22, Werdiger attended her brother’s wedding, in Pittsburgh. On the way she spent a few days in New York, where she met her husband-to-be, Matthew Roth, a secular Jew from Philadelphia who had become religiously observant. They were introduced by a mutual friend.

“My parents agreed to accept him,” she says, “even though he was a ‘penitent,’ on one condition: My father made him study for a year in a yeshiva after the marriage. Matthew, who is from a middle-class American family, did not really like the idea, and he especially hated the thought that his wife’s parents would have to pay his tuition fee in a prestigious yeshiva. But in the end he agreed and we moved to the Nahlaot neighborhood in Jerusalem for a year.”

As with Werdiger, Roth’s Jewish identity also offers a contemporary interpretation of tradition. He explains that, “My family is traditionalist but not Haredi. At the age of 26, when I married Itta, I had already become religiously observant, but even so I did not want to spend a year in Israel. However, in the end I agreed.”

Roth has published four books for children in the past few years and is now working on a children’s book titled “My First Kafka.” “The basic idea,” he explains, “is to mediate some of Kafka’s short stories for a younger audience. After our two daughters were born, Itta and I discovered that there is a shortage of good, challenging books for those ages, and this is an attempt to fill that vacuum.”

Do you really think that a story about a person who wakes up one morning as a large insect and is persecuted by his family can provide suitable reading material for 4-year-olds?

Roth: “Yes. I think that Kafka can definitely be appropriate for children. I remember that the writer Maurice Sendak [author of the children’s classic “Where the Wild Things Are”] said once that adults always told him that his books are too scary for children, but children never told him that. I think children can connect to this content and get a lot out of it.”

Werdiger adds that her husband’s interest in this subject “also has to do with Kafka’s Jewishness. That allows him [Matthew] to talk about Judaism in a different, more complex way, and that is the kind of connections we are looking for all the time.”

Montessori and Orthodox

The couple’s effort to integrate their religious identity with a liberal, creative lifestyle prompted them to wander from Israel to Chicago and from Chicago to New York in search of a warm, embracing, open Jewish community.

“When we first moved to New York we lived in Crown Heights, which is a very diverse neighborhood with a lot of Satmar Hasidim and a large population of Afro-Americans,” Werdiger recalls. “But we did not find a synagogue there that we could connect with and where we could feel at home.

“One day, when I was pregnant with my older daughter, Yalta ‏(a name from the Talmud‏), we were walking in the street and we saw a real shooting incident right in front of us. Someone pulled out a pistol and shot a man who was sitting in a parked car. Then he ran toward us and passed by us. We stayed in the neighborhood another few months after that incident, but finally we decided to move.”

Following Yalta’s birth the young family searched for a synagogue and a community they could feel a part of. After moving into the three-story house in the historic and beautiful neighborhood of Ditmas Park, in Flatbush, they sent their daughters to an Orthodox-Montessori school in Crown Heights. Asked how it is possible to combine the Montessori method, which advocates free choice and finding “the child’s true nature,” and an Orthodox Jewish education, Roth smiles and says he finds no contradiction between the two methods.

“There is a great deal of emphasis on art and creativity in the kindergarten,” he notes. “There are different ‘stations,’ at each of which you can learn a different subject. The child chooses which station he wants to be at that day. They are also taught Jewish content, such as holidays and prayers, and that is also done through creative work and self-expression.”

Even as her daughters were learning how to draw and sculpt, Werdiger herself abandoned art and began to work in Jewish families as a nanny and a cook. “I was working for a charming family and started to notice that I really enjoyed the challenge of cooking kosher, healthful gourmet food for them, which was based on fresh, seasonal produce. They were very wealthy and let me experiment with expensive, superb items. The result surprised me. I realized that it is possible to cook kosher food that is also very tasty and healthy. After that I started to cook for more families, and in the end I established a small kosher catering business based on organic food.”

The orders flowed in, but with two small daughters, Werdiger knew she would not be able to meet the pressures of catering from her home. “The need to open The Hester actually arose from all kinds of ideas and insights which had been with me for a long time: the fact that religious people do not really have the possibility of going out and listening to music, the demand for kosher gourmet food that is organic, seasonal and nonfattening, and of course the need to find a community within an intensive urban life that is packed with commitments.”

The idea of opening a club-like space assumed concrete form in November 2011, a few months after the family moved into its new home.

“We chose this house because the ground floor is very large. It has three rooms here that form an open space in which dozens of people can be accommodated,” Werdiger says. “After I held a few small parties and hosted a launch party for a CD put out by a cousin of mine, I mustered my courage and started to invite strangers here.”

‘Creating a community’

The Hester immediately generated a small, loyal clientele, but the true push that Werdiger needed arrived during a short visit to Israel in June of this year to take part in the annual conference of ROI, an international community of Jewish entrepreneurs founded in 2005 by the philanthropist Lynn Schusterman. “Every year, about 150 Jewish leaders from all over the world meet in Israel for four days of discussions, panels and cooperation,” Werdiger explains. “There I had the time to devote to the concept of The Hester. In the first conversations I just told people that I gave parties for the religiously observant once a month. But the more reactions I got, the more I started to understand the deeper meaning of creating a community which can also match up young singles and also constitute a house for all kinds of issues of Judaism.”

One of Werdiger’s most meaningful meetings was with the founders of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, which is also supported by the Schusterman Foundation. “They told me about an event called ‘In-House Festival,’ in which theater performances are held in people’s homes. That really inspired me. I started to think about the way a physical space changes our experience. You know, if you eat a great meal in a gorgeous park or on the beach the food tastes different than a quick snack in front of the computer or the TV. So the possibility of opening my private home and inviting strangers into the living room is tremendously important for me.”

In addition, panels dealing with business models helped Werdiger work out the arrangement for The Hester. It’s based on the “ticket method,” by which each guest can choose between an entry ticket and one alcoholic drink ‏($12‏), a drink and dinner ‏($30‏) or two drinks and dinner ‏($40‏). This method allows guests to opt for either a relatively inexpensive evening out or a complete culinary experience, albeit more pricey.

The idea of hosting some 80 people in her home was a matter of no little concern to Werdiger. “Generally speaking, the statistics of restaurants in New York are very gloomy − most of them fail − so I decided not to open a restaurant but a monthly club. Actually, my only major expense at the start was a few dozen wine glasses, which I bought at Ikea. Unfortunately, I still do not have an orderly business model and I try to improve, from one event to the next.”

Would you describe The Hester as an economic success?

“Obviously it is impossible to get rich from it. Sometimes there is a little more income and sometimes there are a few more expenses, but all in all it balances itself.”

Since Werdiger’s return to New York from the conference in Israel, The Hester has morphed from being a supper club into a bold attempt to create a religious community and to connect observant Jews by means of music and food. Werdiger had indeed hoped that her friends and their guests would pop in to eat and have a drink, but she was taken aback by the number of responses and the demand for “the most interesting underground club in the city,” as JDate, the online Jewish singles community, wrote. “Basically, there is room for 80 people in the house, but in practice more than 100 have come to the latest events. Somehow it also became a type of place to meet for young Jews,” Werdiger says proudly.

But the surprising success was accompanied by unexpected reactions, notably a fraught debate over whether to allow women to sing at the events. “In the second event we had there were two women who sang, and one of them was not Jewish. Generally I publish the names of the musicians a few days before the event. When I published those names I started to get a lot of calls from people who claimed I was distancing a significant part of the community by allowing women to sing in front of men. I consulted with other people, who warned me that if I prohibited singing by women, some bands would boycott The Hester and a different public would be offended.”

In the end, after agonizing that Werdiger describes as “particularly difficult and drawn out,” she decided that women would not sing at The Hester but could be part of musical groups on the stage. Recently, a group called The Grasshoppers, which has three female members − a drummer, a bassist and a singer − performed at The Hester.

Werdiger: “Not only did they agree to appear, they even changed some of their songs so that only the men in the band would sing. That ability to understand the sensitivity and to meet us halfway in order to appear before a new audience, which otherwise would not be able to be exposed to their music, moved me very much.”

Do you understand the disappointment at the fact that a place that was founded and is managed by a young woman bans singing by women?

“I understand that criticism. In the days before the decision I felt like an adolescent in a Hasidic community who is susceptible to a complex network of pressures. It was important for me to be honest and true to myself. I knew that whatever I decided, I did not want to feel like a hypocrite. My solution is to encourage women to come and play here, but not to sing here. People mistakenly think that if you want to follow halakha, women must not be on the stage at all, but the rules are more complicated than that. There are many complexities: whether they use a microphone, whether they are Jewish. I am trying to find the golden mean amid the halakhic demands.”

‘Not a beach party’

Do you insist on a dress code that prohibits overly revealing attire?

“I have never told anyone how to dress, but I think everyone understands that this is a Jewish-community place and not a beach party. Interestingly, it’s the non-Jewish guests who are most sensitive to this. They ask me if a T-shirt and jeans is all right. Of course it’s all right. There hasn’t been a case in which I didn’t let someone in because they were dressed too revealingly. On the other hand, we will not allow women to dance on the stage, because many of our guests follow a religious way of life and will feel uncomfortable.”

Do you categorize yourself as a feminist? What is your attitude toward feminism?

“Generally, I hate categories and try to avoid specific categories. Beyond that, I think men and women are basically different anatomically. After giving birth twice and breast-feeding it is perfectly clear to me that my body tells me to do different things than my husband’s body. Even if we assume that there is also social conditioning, it is impossible to ignore the fact that after giving birth there is milk that flows from my breasts and that infants have a sucking reflex.

“On the other hand, I do not want to be a housewife and I definitely think that if a man and a woman do the same job they have to be paid the same salary. I am comfortable with the halakhic concept that men and women have different commitments, but even within the halakha a woman has a great deal of freedom to choose what to do and how to live her life.”

Still, your brothers can be rabbis, for example, whereas your possibilities are more limited.

“True, I can’t be a rabbi, but I also don’t like the tendency to always see the half-empty glass. There are so many other things that I can do.”

The halakha takes a very strong stand against homosexuality. Would you agree to have musicians who have come out of the closet play at The Hester?

“Of course. There is considerable hostility in the Orthodox community toward homosexuals and lesbians, and it is very important for me to let them take part in the events here. The main problem of the halakhic world is that it is based on hierarchies, which creates an opening to ostracize many groups. But you have to understand that The Hester is first of all a cultural space with music and food, not some ancient Jewish ritual. We will not swing chickens over anyone’s head and will not check at the entrance if you are circumcised or whether your mother is Jewish.”

Werdiger’s openness is also reflected in her decision to prepare food in a private home that does not have a rabbinical certificate of kashrut.

“This is my private kitchen,” she says, “and I am always strict about the kashrut laws. Above and beyond that, there is a rabbi whom I ask specific halakhic questions when I am undecided about what to do. I invite religious people to eat here and that involves a certain degree of trust: They trust me to serve them kosher food.”

Why does The Hester only operate once a month?

“Because when all is said and done this is my private home, and I hate sending the girls out of the house for a whole day. Beyond that, there is an attempt to preserve a community character, so it’s nice to build up a bit of anticipation between events and allow our guests to plan their arrival a week or even two weeks ahead. From just going out it becomes a very special cultural event, and that feeling might be lost if there are events every week.”

And why the insistence on secrecy? Why not just publish the address so that whoever wants can come?

“First of all, it has to be secret, because if there are more than 100 people here a serious crowding problem results. On top of that, it is a very special feeling to enter someone’s private living room and eat there, and it is easier to create it in a community that offers a feeling of confidence and acquaintance, even if it’s superficial at first. So it is important for me to confirm every email in advance and not just to open the house to everyone.”

What is your fantasy for this place?

“I have a few dreams: to transform my guests into a genuine community that will be able to celebrate holidays and family events together, to occasionally host private events like weddings or fund-raising evenings, and to introduce local Jewish music to new audiences.”

Despite Werdiger’s effort to end each event at The Hester at 11 P.M. for the sake of the neighbors, dozens of guests were still packing her home at about midnight last Thursday. The intense August heat of New York drives young men and women to sit out on the wooden verandah and indulge in Werdiger’s homemade ginger-peach or canteloupe-basil ice cream. The New American Quartet led by Rabbi Wall finished its last set a while ago, and Alan Jay Sufrin from Stereo Sinai is about to head home.

“You see,” he says, indicating two young men in yarmulkes who are holding porcelain dishes with ice cream. “There are very high-level people here. It doesn’t really matter if they are Jewish or not; they can all enjoy music and good food.”

To which Elad Nehorai, 27, a bearded man who writes about “Jewish pop culture” for popchassid.com, adds, “Because I am strict about the ‘woman’s voice’ prohibition and it is important for me to eat kosher, I am left with very few options for going out. On the other hand, I am a music junkie. I think that many young Chabad Hasidim are torn between the desire to express themselves creatively and their religious identity. The Hester is the golden mean for people like us. It’s a place that actually proves that you can have your cake and eat it too.”