A museum cafe can feel like an afterthought—either secondary, tertiary, or entirely unrelated to the goals of the museum except as a potential revenue stream. Lefty’s, the small sandwich counter at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE) is the rare museum cafe that feels part of its surroundings—in keeping not only with the history on display and the spirit of namesake Lloyd “Lefty” Rosenfeld, but with the mission of the museum.
The OJMCHE moved into a new home on Northwest Davis last spring. It was not lost on the OJMCHE (whose mission director Judy Margles describes as “captivating [visitors] intellectually, socially, and ethically” by educating some 10,000 visiting children each year) that they would be opening the new location in the wake of an allegedly racially- and religiously-motivated stabbing on the MAX that left two people dead and much of the city stunned.
Among the permanent exhibits at the OJMCHE, along with Oregon Jewish Stories and The Holocaust: An Oregon Perspective, is Discrimination and Resistance, An Oregon Primer. The goal of this visual history of discrimination in Oregon from pre-statehood to today—and methods to combat it—is “to find the commonalities in instituting and perpetuating discrimination and the many ways we can resist and overturn discrimination to create a more egalitarian state.”
One of those ways is, as the museum’s mission states, through conversation. Lefty’s, its walls lined with images of historic Jewish delis and cafes and a small but surprisingly accommodating array of tables, all within chatting distance from the counter, is clearly meant to foster reflection on and conversation about the exhibits in the museum.
While drawing up plans for the cafe, the museum called in Harriet Fasenfest, a Portland restaurateur-turned-writer, self-described urban farmer, and “old-world revolutionary” to consult on the menu and design. Fasenfest’s secular Jewish upbringing in the Bronx provided her a lifelong interest and passion for food, as well as a homegrown expertise in traditional Jewish dishes; she professes to “attempt the work of Tikkun Olam,” a Jewish concept meaning “repairing the world.”
I already knew Fasenfest personally (her book A Householder’s Guide to the Universe was published by a company I worked for, Tin House Books), and was familiar with her propensity for challenging, intellectual, sometimes outrageous conversation. She has an affinity for holding such talk over hearty egg-salad sandwiches or dense, delicious pastries like the rugelach and hamantaschen that you can and should get at Lefty’s. When I talked to her for this article, she ranted briefly but intensely against the “sheen” of a market-driven restaurant industry—the “basic grooviness of everything related to food that too often has more to do with what folks don’t know about food.” She’d like to see “everyone saving their money and staying home and baking a potato, a really good potato... with geshmak.”
Fasenfest often uses that Yiddish word, which the OJMCHE also uses in their description of Lefty’s. Geshmak, Fasenfest says, means “good taste or enjoyment,” and one eats with geshmak when one fully—and deeply—enjoys a meal. But one can also cook with geshmak, using “passion and joy as if you anticipate how your guest will eat it.” There is no kitchen at Lefty’s—all the food is prepared elsewhere in town, mostly by Portland chef and restaurateur Ramona White, and sourced locally from Rockwood Urban Farm, Jasmine Pearl Tea Company, Nossa Familia Coffee, and Fleur de Lis Bakery. Yet as a food critic who spends most of his time eating through that “sheen” Fasenfest laments, I recognize the unpretentious passion of geshmak.
This passion, to my mind, is also compassion, and it is clearly evident in the Discrimination and Resistance exhibit, as well as the current exhibit of art by Jewish Oregonian artists, I Am This. The simple fact is that museum food, and in fact any food, isn’t this good unless it’s something more—bread is just bread until it’s broken and shared. At Lefty’s, to share a table and a pastry is to share an infectious passion, a crucible for compassion and conversation, rooted in individual and cultural history—but also in the ground of a farm so close you could walk to it and thank the farmer.