Richmond is a natural birthplace for a restaurant like JewFro. The former capital of the Confederacy relied heavily on an industry of slavery, which primarily operated in what is now JewFro’s neighborhood. As early as 1790, Richmond boasted the fourth largest Jewish population in the country, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. The local Jewish community’s relationship to Black residents has long been fraught. An estimated 75% of Jews in Richmond owned enslaved Africans at the beginning of the Civil War. Particularly after the Holocaust, Jews in Richmond stepped up their support of civil rights, but already facing discrimination and fearing a backlash, they often did so behind the scenes, according to the Virginia Center for Digital History.
Today, Richmond’s population is almost 50% Black, including small communities of African immigrants. It’s also home to a modest but active Jewish community. JewFro isn’t the only local effort to address the two group’s shared histories; the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond partnered with organizations like the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia on an educational program about Jews in the Civil Rights Movement last Black History Month, for example. But the restaurant is arguably the most visible and ongoing attempt to foster cross-cultural relations between Black and Jewish communities in this city.
Before JewFro opened, there were already restaurants serving Jewish or African food in Richmond, of course. Locals love Perly’s Deli, Africanne on Main, and Nile, among others. With JewFro, Owens and his partners are getting at something else—a crossover that expands the bounds of the kitchens it encompasses.
Doing things differently has required education, including for diners—and sometimes even family—with strong feelings about their favorite foods. Augenbaum’s own grandfather couldn’t believe the restaurant was charging $18 for chopped liver, a traditionally modest and affordable dish in Ashkenazi Jewish communities that Augenbaum makes with the inclusion of foie gras.
By pulling from a range of cultures, yet diverging from all of them, JewFro aims to offer an experience that forces diners to think beyond easy narratives. That begins with the restaurant’s potentially loaded name, which some locals aren’t sure how to interpret, and continues with the menu, which includes a glossary explaining that “kishka” is a Jewish sausage made with schmaltz, and “dukkah” is an Egyptian nut and spice blend.
There’s nothing traditionally Jewish gold African about JewFro’s approach. That’s exactly the point. “Our goal is to remind you of the thing you’re familiar with, but do it in a way that’s new,” Hovnanian says. “People are really excited about it after they get over the initial shock of ‘What is this place?’”