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Finding Solace in Seltzer

I’ve been drinking a lot of seltzer lately. Jews are chronic worriers, you see, and there’s plenty to worry about these days. Seltzer is one of our home remedies for worry. The crisp, percussive burst of bubbles acts as a psychic analgesic, lifting my worries into thin air. The effervescent mist at the top of the glass becomes a spa treatment for my nostrils in miniature. Seltzer doesn’t work miracles, but it has a way of leaving me better than it found me.

Other people are drinking a lot of seltzer, too. In a rainbow of flavors, that is, or with alcohol right in the can. There’s even CBD-infused seltzer now, amped up with adaptogens that do whatever adaptogens are supposed to do. If this panoply of sparkling waters alleviates your worries, my grandparents would probably tell you gei gesunderheit—Yiddish for “go in good health.” Personally, these adulterated seltzers all taste insipid to me, their lab-derived essences of peach or cucumber a cloying distraction from seltzer’s purifying fizz. As a Jew who swigged seltzer as soon as I was weaned off breast milk, there’s something distinctly gentile about a push to glam up plain sparkling water with invisible flavors and fragrances.

Gentiles invented the machinery to make seltzer, but it’s the Jews who made it big. The word itself is Yiddish, an adaptation of the German Seltsers wasser. This is the name of a naturally fizzy mineral water from the town of Niederseltsers near Frankfurt, popular for centuries for its purported tonic effects. In the late 1800s, as technologies for carbonating water became increasingly accessible, Jews across Europe became seltzer ambassadors. The fizzy stuff quickly became an affordable alternative to pricey mineral waters, and low start-up costs allowed entrepreneurial Jews to establish a cottage industry.

Jews immigrating to the United States brought their seltzer with them, and by the early 20th century, a fleet of Jewish seltzer men had enchanted the city of New York with this inexpensive, refreshing novelty. Today, the seltzer market is dominated by gentile brands like Schweppes and Canada Dry, but you can still find old-fashioned glass siphons in a few New York restaurants that refuse to give up the shtick, such as Sammy’s Romanian Steakhouse, where you can also get a mean chopped liver, mixed tableside and finished with a free-pour of schmaltz from a maple syrup pitcher. I’m glad. Seltzer from a siphon typically contains more dissolved carbon dioxide than what you get from a bottle or soda gun. This means bigger, more forceful bubbles, more of the subtle tang that makes plain seltzer taste to me like that old-fashioned religion.

Since I don’t have a seltzer man to deliver me a case of siphons each week, much of my recent seltzering has taken the form of naturally sparkling mineral waters. These are not genteel mineral waters like Pellegrino, with its petite Champagne-style bubbles. I want a water that smacks me in the face with fizziness and leaves me thirsty for more. My favorite, and the most accessible in the U.S., is Borjomi, a volcanic water from the Republic of Georgia, with bubbles so formidable that I often need to ice it down to dilute it. Eight ounces of Borjomi contain a whopping 360 milligrams of sodium, a testament to its meteoric mineral content. It hits me like seltzer, but more so—unquestionably medicinal, almost obliterating in its refreshment. Not an everyday seltzer, but ideal for acute cases of worry.

Borjomi is also my sparkling water of choice for mixing. Highballs made with club soda or seltzer never achieve the fizziness I crave, but Borjomi has the bubbles—and appealing salinity—to make up for even a generous pour of whiskey. I especially enjoy its bite when mixed with herbal aquavit, or as a fifty-fifty zero-proof drink with one of Georgia’s beloved tarragon sodas—too sweet and flat on their own for my taste, but perfect when blasted with extra bubbles.

My next Borjomi project is a homemade egg cream. Jewish soda jerks from 100 years ago would probably tsk-tsk me for using something so outré and salty in what should be a simple childhood drink. But this is what Jews do: We adapt. And we ease our worries however we can.

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