What Roy Choi can teach the Jews
I was sitting in Commissary, Roy Choi’s new restaurant on the pool deck of the Line Hotel in Koreatown, thinking about the secret of Choi’s success.
It was my fourth time in the restaurant in the hotel Choi helped resurrect out of the dry bones of an abandoned Radisson.
Choi transformed the place. He plopped down a giant fantasy of a greenhouse, filled it with rustic chic decor, and fashioned a menu that incorporates his beloved Korean ingredients with California, Mediterranean and Mexican flavors. The food is delicious; the place is always packed. These days, people even swim in the pool.
Choi revels in the hybridness, the mixed-ness of Los Angeles. Born in Seoul, he came of age in an L.A. that offered the tastes and sounds and colors of some 200 cultures, the most diverse city on the planet.
One fateful day, Choi combined the flavors of Korean barbecue with salsa roja on a soft tortilla, and the Kogi taco was born — and, along with it, the food truck craze that revolutionized American street food.
“There it was, Los Angeles on a plate,” he writes of that first Kogi taco in his new autobiography, “L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food.”
“Maybe it wasn’t everyone’s L.A., but it was mine. It was Koreatown to Melrose to Alvarado to Venice to Crenshaw crumpled into one flavor and bundled up like a gift.”
How did he do it? Not just by blending but by standing out. And I’m not talking, of course, just about tacos.
Last month, a new business and website launched, The Mash-Up Americans (mashupamericans.com), to celebrate the multiethnic, multicultural America and the fact that we’re not just meeting and mixing, we’re mating. Founded by Brooklynite Amy Choi (no relation) and Angeleno Rebecca Lehrer, the site reflects the reality that the fastest- growing category for race on the U.S. Census is “mixed.” The number of people who reported a mixed-race background grew by 32 percent — to 9 million — between 2000 and 2010. The single-race population increased by just 9.2 percent.
Amy Choi describes herself as a Korean-American married to a Colombian-Mexican-American, and as a mom to “a feisty Korombexican-American.” Lehrer is a self-described “Salvadoran-Jewish-American married to an American-American” — though her Salvadoran side is Jewish by way of Holocaust refugees. In any case, if their children don’t check the box marked “mixed,” the odds are their children’s children will.
“Increasingly,” Census official Nicholas Jones told Pew Research, “Americans are saying they cannot find themselves” on census forms.
Of course in the grand sweep of human evolution, mash-up makes the world go round. That’s why we Jews look more Belgian than Bedouin. Cossacks, Berbers, Templars and others splashed in our gene pool. After all, is a Kogi taco all that different from a pastrami sandwich, which mashed together basturma, a dried meat that originated in Ottoman-era Turkey, with Eastern European rye?
None of this should surprise us, but it does pose a challenge. In an increasingly mashed-up world, how do we know what our roots are? How do we ground our children in an identity? How does “mashed” not become just “mush”?
Roy Choi has succeeded precisely because his work is founded in his Korean-ness. His embrace of his traditions, his flavors, is what made him unique — it’s what he brought to the party.
Identity is, after all, not just a funny-sounding last name on a family tree. It is the things that name represents. Not just the foods people cooked, the stories they told, but most important, the values they lived by. What are the bedrock values that a strong Jewish identity brings to the mash-up? The ones that may get mixed but are too valuable to lose?
This same week, I came across “Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Guide for Seekers,” by Rabbi Arthur Green. At just 100 pages, it speaks to members of the Mashed-Up Generation whose attention span has been calibrated by BuzzFeed.
But Green is a serious scholar, a kabbalist, and he doesn’t reduce, he distills. He manages to deliver what for me is the essence of Jewish teaching, the key values that shape a Jewish identity.
They are: 1) Joy. 2) The fact that we are all created in God’s image. 3) The idea of halacha — walking after a divine path. 4) Tikkun olam — the desire to heal the world. 5) Shabbat. 6) Teshuvah — our capacity for change; 7) Torah — the wrestling with text. 8) Love of education. 9) The embrace of life and death. And finally, 10) The idea of one God, the unity of all things. (I think he missed humor, but no one’s interested in a Top 11 list.)
Many of these values are not unique to Judaism. But taken together, they are what being Jewish stands for — our stories and rituals convey them, our holidays and traditions elevate them. And while we will inevitably blend and mix and mash in the free market of American love and ideas, we need to cherish this identity, nurture it, and offer it to our children and to others, bundled up, as Roy Choi would say, like a gift.