On a chilly November evening, Olé Mexican Grill in Cambridge filled with warmth as 70 dinner guests gathered for the New Center’s “Jewish Con Salsa” program. The atmosphere was more dinner party celebration than formal presentation, as people mingled and greeted one another over sangria, margaritas and guacamole at the bar before heading to their tables. This unique event—perhaps the first of its kind, according to Ilan Stavans—featured a fusion of Latin American and Jewish cuisine prepared by Olé’s outstanding Chef Erwin Ramos. Acting as host, the illustrious academic and cultural commentator Ilan Stavans’ rich insights on Latin American Jewish culture and history were accompanied by Cantor Elias Rosemberg’s own eclectic musical blend of Jewish Latin songs.created at: 2013-11-15

A professor at Amherst College and a renowned author and translator, Ilan Stavans grew up in Mexico City in an Ashkenazi Jewish community where Yiddish was spoken. The distinction is important: as Stavans noted, relations between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews in Latin America used to be rather tense. “Even in the 1960s, when I was growing up,” he said, “they would say ‘you should not do a mixed marriage’”—and they meant Ashkenazim with Sephardim.

This cultural tidbit was just one of the many that Stavans served up alongside the meal. Whether detailing the waves of Jewish immigration to Latin America, or what life is like for Jews there, Stavans took us with him to Mexico City, Cuba, Buenos Aires, and more. By the end of the night, everyone seemed ready to head home and book their trip south of the border.

Especially after enjoying the delicious food, which perfectly complemented the night’s theme. “My grandmothers used to combine Mexican ingredients with Jewish ingredients,” Ilan Stavans said. “And that’s the idea behind what inspired this meal.” It certainly was: diners ate a spicy pozole (a traditional Mexican soup) with matzo balls, potato latkes à la Olé (inspired by Stavans’ wife’s own “latkes mole” dish, but this time with lentils, plantains, and tomato broth), a sumptuous tres leches cake that would put most honey cakes to shame, and much more during the four-course meal.

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As the Latin American country with the biggest Jewish population, Argentinean influence was prevalent both in this food and in the entertainment. Cantor Elias Rosemberg of Temple Emanuel in Newton, hails from a small town by way of Buenos Aires, and comes from a family of musicians (his grandfather was a Hazzan). The room burst into spontaneous rounds of rhythmic clapping, as Cantor Rosemberg performed songs in Spanish, English, Yiddish, and Hebrew. This perfectly mirrored Stavans’ claim that up until recently, “Jews have always been poly-lingual”…a notion still evident in Latin American Jewish culture.

Stavans ended the evening with a special treat. He surprised everyone with a copy of his new illustrated children’s book, Golemito, which tells the story of two young Jewish boys in Mexico City who create a Golem to help deal with bullies. It was just another bonus for the lucky 70 who managed to get their tickets to this sold-out event.

If you weren’t one of them…soon you can be! The New Center will be hosting another “Jewish Con Salsa” in the spring. Tickets have yet to go on sale, so be sure to get on the mailing list or check the website in January. And, if you want to meet Chef Erwin Ramos (and sample his tasty version of Jewish foods), he will be joining us at Beyond Bubbie’s Kitchen on February 9! Tickets available here.

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