On a Sunday afternoon last March, a group of people wearing comfortable shoes and toting water bottles congregated outside a Judaica shop in Brooklyn. Before long they were joined by Myra Alperson, the high-energy founder of Noshwalks, an organization that leads culinary walking tours around New York City. The itinerary highlight that day was shmurah matzo; the group was scheduled to get a behind-the-scenes look at a bakery that specializes in the hand-rolled Passover matzo. But first, they would nibble their way around the neighborhood, stopping at a Jewish-Yemenite food market, a Jewish bakery, and an appetizing shop that sells dips and smoked fish.
Noshwalks is one of several New York-based companies that offers one or more tours focused on Jewish food. The family-run Levy’s Unique New York, for example, leads a “Jewish Heritage of the Lower East Side: Immigrants and Noshes” tour that visits food icons like Katz’s Deli and Russ & Daughters. Ben’s Bagel Tours, run by Ben Wagenberg, runs a similar Lower East Side tour as well as one in which participants get to watch bagels being rolled, boiled, and baked. Angelis Nannos, who founded In Food We Trust, guides tour-goers through the Upper East Side, stopping for tastes of pastrami, smoked fish, egg creams, and black-and-white cookies along the way. And in Brooklyn, Ray’s Food & Walking Tours holds a Williamsburg-based tour called “Hip, Hispanic, and Hasidic” that explores the multiple cultures and cuisines that live there side-by-side.
Alperson, who grew up in White Plains, has been leading food tours around the five boroughs—both Jewishly focused and not—longer than most. In the early 1980s, she co-founded a group called the Hungry Pedalers. Tour participants would meet at Columbus Circle and travel by bike to the Lower East Side, then over the Williamsburg Bridge and into Crown Heights and to King’s Highway. Even today it would be an ambitious route. But in the city’s pre mass-gentrification era, it was particularly adventurous. In 1987 Alperson co-wrote The Food Lover’s Guide to Real New York, and in 1999 she launched a popular newsletter called Nosh News, which ran for nearly 15 years.
Today, Alperson’s tours—she leads them all herself—extend far beyond the expected Lower East Side lox-and-pastrami route. Noshwalks explores Israeli and North African dishes in Flushing, kosher Uzbeki and Bukharian food in Rego Park, and the Sephardic cuisine along King’s Highway, among other Jewish food communities. A Flatbush and Crown Heights-based tour titled “Caribbean-Kosher Brooklyn” traverses the neighborhood’s intersecting Caribbean and Lubavitch populations. And she offers the shmurah matzo tour annually in the weeks leading up to Passover.
The food stops on Alperson’s tours are diverse, ranging from bustling kosher supermarkets to small family-run Sephardic bakeries selling baklava. She often advises tour-goers to bring a backpack to tote home goodies from the markets they visit. “I have been doing this for so many years, I usually know what’s out there,” Alperson said about putting her itineraries together. That said, she will usually walk the neighborhood before leading a tour to avoid surprises like a store closing or changing ownership.
Over in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, tour guide Frieda Vizel is also intimately familiar with the neighborhood she leads groups through. Vizel grew up in the Hasidic enclave of Kiryas Joel in Orange County, New York, which shares many similarities to Williamsburg’s ultra-Orthodox community. She left that world several years ago, but has found her way back in this new and unexpected capacity.
Vizel’s first foray into leading tours began three years ago while she was a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence. A group of Ph.D. students were hoping to visit Hasidic Williamsburg, and a professor who knew Vizel’s background forwarded her their request. “It would be impossible for me to lead a tour through my own neighborhood,” she said. “I would run into family all the time and give my mother a heart attack.” But in Williamsburg, which she deeply understands but doesn’t have the same personal connections to, felt doable.
Still, she said, “I was mortified on that first tour.” Within the Hasidic world, she had maintained a quiet and reserved persona. But on the tour, she was in the spotlight. “I would never have imagined doing anything like this as a career,” she said. But one tour led to requests for more, and it began to feed on itself. Today, she leads a cultural walking tour of the neighborhood through her company, Visit Hasidim. Her regular cultural tour, which runs most weeks throughout the year on Fridays and Sundays, includes some stops at food businesses. She also leads a tour that is entirely focused on the neighborhood’s food.
On Vizel’s food tour, she takes participants to a dairy restaurant that has a mechitzah (dividing wall) in the dining room that separates male and female customers, and to Gottlieb’s—a hospitable, 55-year-old delicatessen that serves pastrami, noodle kugel, and other quintessential deli staples. The tour pops into bakeries for take-away rugelach and babka, and into grocery stores for dips and gefilte fish to assemble an impromptu picnic. “In Williamsburg, I don’t really have vendors I can organize with in advance,” Vizel said. “Whatever is coming out of the oven or pot when we arrive is what they serve us.” That means tour participants in March sample Purim’s hamantaschen, while those coming before Rosh Hashanah try honey cookies.
Early on, Vizel—who now identifies as “a very typical New York Jew who tells myself I should go to synagogue on the high holidays”—tried to keep some distance during her tours. She dressed in contemporary clothing and spoke exclusively in English. “I felt that if I spoke in Yiddish, people would realize that I had rejected their way of life,” she said. “There are so many biases that go along with that. I didn’t want people to think I was there to say terrible things about them.” But her neutrality didn’t last long. On one tour she slipped up, accidentally addressing a shopkeeper in Yiddish. “Now they all know who I am,” she said with a laugh.
Tour participants range widely and include both tourists and private groups. In May, for example, Alperson led a custom tour for culinary students visiting from the U.K. But both Alperson said Vizel said they also get lots of locals—people from the five boroughs and around the tristate area. “I get people who are curious about the neighborhood they bike through, but are not comfortable exploring by themselves,” Vizel said. “The tours help New Yorkers get out of their usual comfort zone,” Alperson said.
For the most part, Vizel said, her tour groups have been well-received—or at least tolerated—by Williamsburg’s community members. “The shops are glad to be patronized as long as we are not deliberately offensive,” she said. “And people tend to be curious more than anything. They ask, ‘Why do you find us interesting?’” Alperson, meanwhile, said she has learned certain etiquette techniques over the years, like putting money on the counter instead of handing it to a shopkeeper while in religious neighborhoods to avoid any modesty issues.
For both Vizel and Alperson, curating delicious food experiences for their tour participants is important, but only one piece of the puzzle. More vitally, they say, food is a compelling gateway into the city’s many cultures. “People who know my tours and know me know that there is a lot more going on than just eating,” Alperson said. In addition to food stops, Alperson’s tours typically include sites that illuminate the neighborhood’s personality: a block of historic houses, a significant synagogue, or a prominent local store.
Vizel has found specific ways to add an educational component to her tours. At bakeries, she makes sure the group tries both pareve and dairy baked goods and then sparks a conversation about the difference. At a kosher grocery store, she will hand out cards with different hekhshers (kosher-certification symbols) and ask people to find a product stamped with each. “It opens up a new level of nuance for people,” she said. “They walk away intrigued and having learned something.”
These days, Asperson said, tour companies face growing competition—not just among themselves, but with the internet as well. “It is so much easier for people to travel now and just do things on their own,” she said. But in New York’s ever shifting cultural and culinary landscape, a guided tour offers unparalleled insider access and insight. “Our job,” Asperson said, “is to get people to experience New York with a different set of eyes—and taste buds.”
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