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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, March 2, 2024

At Lehrhaus in Somerville, flavors of the Jewish diaspora are on the menu

Cover-scaled
Lehrhaus is pictured on March 7.

Lehrhaus, a new Jewish tavern and educational space, is now open in Somerville, serving up comfort food inspired by Jewish diasporic flavors.

Translating directly to “house of learning,” Lehrhaus is a project born from the COVID-19 pandemic, when rabbi Charlie Schwartz and Joshua Foer, a journalist and co-founder of Atlas Obscura, began thinking about what future gathering places might look like.

“We started thinking about public-facing spaces that are easy to enter and easy to meet people, and engage with both people and text,” Schwartz said in an interview with the Daily.

Within a year and a half, the concept fell into place, with Michael Leviton joining as chef advisor and Naomi Levy, a renowned bartender, creating the drink menu. 

The space itself was designed by Miriam Spear and Lisa Wasserman Sivan. Every aspect of the tavern is meticulously thought out, from the book shelves sorted by genre to the academic yet welcoming atmosphere. Upon entering Lehrhaus, there are two wide open spaces: a library akin to a living room, and a dining room.

There’s a history of Jewish taverns as far back as 18th-century Poland, as well as a vast tradition of Jewish houses of learning. Lehrhaus offers educational opportunities in many formats, whether it be classes on aspects of Judaism or by eating and drinking your way through the menu.

“Anytime you’re trying something new,” Levy wrote in an email to the Daily, “you’re learning, whether that’s discovering a new flavor or delving into the stories and history of a different culture, in the case of Lehrhaus, Jewish culture from around the world.”

“This whole place is based on learning through texts,” Noah Clickstein, the chef at Lehrhaus, said. Hailing from a Reform Jewish household, Clickstein added that the menu was “learned through a bunch of different cookbooks, as well as things picked up in my upbringing.”

The menu is kosher and pescatarian, and draws upon traditional flavors of the Jewish diaspora. Having worked at the French-style restaurant Juliet in Somerville, Clickstein seems to be a perfect match for Lehrhaus. Each dish has the essence of tavern comfort food, but feels elevated and innovative.

The fish and chips, for example, comes with a stunningly crispy filet and Old Bay-seasoned fries. Aside from the classic spice blend — invented by a Jewish refugee, Schwartz points out — the dish has a side of aioli with s’chug, a Yemeni herb sauce, and a show-stopping condiment: vinegar with juice from amba, a type of pickled mango condiment brought by Baghdadi Jews to India. It’s so good, Schwartz mused, “we might have to start locking it up.”

The drink menu — also kosher — was created by Levy. The mixed beverages include inspiration from delis, Southwest Asia and even Passover seders.

Lehrhaus offers egg creams, regular or spiked, in chocolate cinnamon and vanilla cherry varieties. The Song of Songs, a non-alcoholic drink inspired by haroset, has cider, grape juice, cinnamon, honey, walnut and lemon; and a classic espresso martini has a twist in the form of a Yemeni spice blend.

Additionally, Lehrhaus worked with local breweries such as Aeronaut and Remnant to ensure that all beers were kosher certified.

“We could have gone with macro brews that are already kosher, like Blue Moon and Coors … but we wouldn’t be [as] competitive as a bar with those,” Schwartz said. “So we went with just local breweries. … It’s this interesting restriction that necessitated it, and it actually makes our beer more delicious.”

On opening day, it was cold and raining, but by 5 p.m., the space was packed with friends, family and neighbors. The menu reminded many of Jewish meals with family.

The plate of pickled vegetables includes half-sour cucumbers, cauliflower and turnip, which are all uniquely flavored and delicious. The smoked salmon pǎté includes all the tang and smoke of a schmear with a side of everything bagel chips.

However, of the menu items tried, the beet “pastrami” reuben stands out. A classic reuben in every other essence — with sauerkraut, Russian dressing and melted Swiss — this version includes roasted and spiced beet in place of the classic pastrami beef. Toasty, rich and smelling of a kosher deli, the absence of beef was entirely unnoticeable. No matter — is beef even necessary in the first place?

In the future, Schwartz plans for Lehrhaus to be open all day, with Jewish learning guides available and classes on Judaism. In April, Tufts alum and musician Ezra Furman will teach a class on Exodus.

For Schwartz, Lehrhaus is “an approach to Judaism [where] you’re seeing yourself as part of something greater than yourself.” Rather than focusing on a singular American or European Jewish experience, Lehrhaus approaches Judaism through the lens of the diaspora.

“My family’s from Eastern Europe. I grew up in Oregon. But I feel connected to these different communities in some very key ways,” Schwartz said. “Judaism isn’t something that just exists in Boston or in these places, but it's actually this much larger diasporic experience.”