Nathan Takes a Bite Out of Boring Fare

“The New American Cooking” by Joan Nathan (Knopf, $35).

A tempeh Reuben sandwich and guacamole made with mayonnaise may sound like sacrilege to food purists, but not to food journalist Joan Nathan. The author of 10 cookbooks, including the award-winning “Jewish Cooking in America” (Knopf, 1994), Nathan’s latest is “The New American Cooking,” which offers recipes for the way Americans eat today.

“I never think of food as something that’s stationary,” Nathan said on a recent book tour stop in Los Angeles. “Things change, neighborhoods change, food changes, we get new ingredients, people get ideas. And when you come to a country you adapt what you knew to that country.”

Nathan makes no judgments on those adaptations, what matters to her is how it tastes. Her openness is expressed through the variety of the 280 recipes she includes in the book, which contains many cross-cultural meldings. She offers up four dishes for public consumption, some new and some old, at a special dinner at the Skirball Cultural Center this week. The diverse menu will include Roasted Squash Soup With Coconut Milk; Georgian Spinach Salad With Pomegranates; Horseradish-Crusted Bass With Borscht Broth, Garlic Mashed Potatoes and Ragout of Wild Mushrooms With Shallots and Thyme; and a Chocolate Torte for dessert. For fans of Nathan, what is perhaps most striking about her newest book is that the word “Jewish” does not appear in the title.

Nathan was raised in Providence, R.I., and after getting her master’s degree in French literature from Harvard, she went to work as foreign press officer to Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. The experience inspired her to write her first cookbook, “The Flavor of Jerusalem,” and today she is mostly known for her Jewish recipes, with eight of her previous collections focusing on Jewish or Israeli cuisine.

Although this new, broader American focus might seem like a departure for her, Nathan sees it more as a logical extension of her previous work, specifically “An American Folklife Cookbook” (Schocken, 1984) (her only other non-Jewish title) and “Jewish Cooking in America.”

“The Jewish cookbook was one ethnic group, but within that one ethnic group there is so much diversification,” she said. “Look at the Persian Jews here and the Sephardic Jews and the Israeli Jews. There are all kinds within the Jewish population, and it probably made me more aware of other people around America. And I’m American, so I thought it would be interesting to look at the whole country.”

What she was looking for in particular, she said, were the changes American cooking has undergone in the last 40 years.

She found her answers through the recipes of a range of professional and home kitchens across America, from food stands and restaurants to heirloom family favorites.

The dishes are coupled with stories about their origins, so that what emerges is a sort of travel book and cookbook in one, a text that is as much about who Americans are, as it is about what they eat.

Nathan sees America today as a country changed by technological advances like the Cuisinart, the growth of organics and sustainable agriculture, the integration of ethnic foods and ingredients into the somewhat bland American palate of her 1950s youth, and the rise of the celebrity chef.

But Nathan is aware that not everything in today’s American cuisine is positive.

“I’m not sort of Polyanna-ish,” she said. “I know that supermarkets all over the country have all processed food and apples that look like each other and terrible tomatoes. But I’m not looking at that. I’m looking at what people are doing to make changes. I’m looking at farmers markets, at individuals, and I think these small individuals will get bigger.”

Many of the small individuals Nathan mentions in her book are Jewish, including two trailblazing Southern California women. Along with a recipe for Pomegranate, Mango, and Papaya Fruit Salad with Lime, she includes the story of Lynda Resnick, creator of the pomegranate and pomegranate juice company POM Wonderful. Alongside a recipe for Sugar Snap Peas with Red Pepper, Nathan pays tribute to Frieda Caplan, creator of the company Frieda’s Finest, who first brought kiwis and sugar snap peas to the American public.

And her new American cooking is also still influenced by Jewish recipes, like challah and matzah balls and dishes like the Cuban Jewish casserole Plantains with Picadillo.

Nathan said the number of Jewish contributions in her book has little to do with her own roots. She said Jews play a huge role in the food industry.

But it’s not only that.

“There are a lot of good home-cooked recipes in a lot of Jewish families, especially ethnic ones,” Nathan said, “like that Plantains Picadillo, and the date and nut cake with orange. That’s delicious.”

Joan Nathan hosts “Dinner With Joan Nathan: Jewish Cooking in America,” on Thursday, Dec. 15 at 7:30 p.m. $65-$85 (ticket sales end Dec. 12). Book signing follows. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (866) 468-3399.


Still Got ‘Game’

Like Budd Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run?” Phillip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” and other milestones of Jewish American literature, Will Eisner’s “Name of the Game” explores the depths of Jewish self-loathing and assimilation. But what separates “Name” — a tale chronicling two immigrant families that merge through marriage for social advancement and then suffer destructive consequences — from the others, is that Eisner’s work is a comic book.

Make that a “graphic novel” — the term attributed to ambitious comics with mature themes and a traditional bound format. Graphic novels have become a multimillion-dollar cash cow. Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” revolutionized comics in 1986 with its brooding, cynical interpretation of Batman. Art Spiegelman’s nonfiction Holocaust opus, “Maus,” won the Pulitzer Prize.

“I was frankly enthused when Spiegelman got the Pulitzer,” Eisner told The Journal from his Florida studio, “because it gave the medium the credit it deserves.”

Eisner’s latest is a 160-page saga in which the destinies of two social-climbing immigrant families collide. It’s a stunning study of disconnect, in which characters choose money over love, practice infidelity in the bedroom and in the boardroom, and embrace assimilation over identity. “Name” comments on the American Dream, and the lengths some will go to deny themselves in their quest to obtain and maintain it. It was inspired by folk tales, as channeled through the prism of Eisner’s Jewish American experience.

“Jewish and Russian folk literature, they had a similar thread to all of them,” said Eisner, married to wife Ann for 52 years. “Everybody succeeded in elevating themselves, and that’s through marriage — certainly in Yiddish folklore. Nobody succeeds in fairy tales unless they marry the prince or the princess.”

Eisner, who has been writing and drawing graphic novels since the 1970s, actually created this genre. The first graphic novel, his landmark “A Contract with God,” was originally published by Baronet Books in 1978. The Jewish-themed, Bronx-set story depicted protagonist Frimmer Hirsh’s relationship with his Maker.

Eisner also authored a seminal textbook, “Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling,” and taught popular cartoonists such as Drew Friedman and Pat McDonnnell at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Since 1988, the Eisner Awards, named in his honor and held annually in San Diego, have become the industry’s Academy Awards.

However, his major contribution to his industry is his classic strip “The Spirit.”

Conceived in 1939 for a newspaper comics supplement, “The Spirit” told the tale of Denny Colt, a policeman reborn as a Stetson-wearing masked detective superhero. Eisner used the strip to redefine the medium by employing cinematic compositions and pacing, noir design sensibilities and a cartoon realism unseen in comics back then. His storytelling style reflected the moviemaking of his day — Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur, bringing to comics what Orson Welles brought to movies with “Citizen Kane”: sophistication.

Both “The Spirit” and its creator were a product of what is now called the Golden Age of Comics — a time when New York Jews ruled an industry that was beneath most non-Jews; the same era explored in 2000 by Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” for which Eisner was a consultant.

Since 1978, Eisner has explored his most personal art through his graphic novel format, works that capture facets of his upbringing as the son of Jewish immigrants in 1920s-30s New York. “The Heart of the Storm,” for example, tells his parents’ story — his father was a fine artist from Vienna; his mother of Czech descent.

The Jewishness of Eisner’s tale was never an issue for his publisher.

“They were very supportive and never attempted to make editorial content,” Eisner said, singling out his longtime DC editor Dave Shriner.

Unlike DC’s flagship characters “Superman” and “Batman,” “The Spirit” never materialized in Hollywood, save for an unaired 1984 TV pilot produced by DC’s parent company, Warner Bros. Eisner doesn’t believe “The Spirit” translates to other mediums.

Nor does he even want to return to his iconic character in his own medium. His list of upcoming project ideas has grown too long for him to look back.

“There would only be two reasons I would revisit ‘The Spirit,'” Eisner said. “To prove that I could still run a quarter mile and to make money. I don’t need either.”

Learn more about Will Eisner at

Anxiety about Jewish Literature

As long as the Jewish people lives, it will generate a living culture, and as long as that culture values the written word, Jews will write books.

Individual genius notwithstanding, these books will reflect the Jewish culture of their time. The Talmud was argued and codified when the Jewish elites concentrated on interpreting Jewish law, and the New York intellectuals generated Commentary and Partisan Review when American Jewish elites began "arguing the world." In between, Jews of Spain took up poetry, and Jews of Poland created hagiography about their rebbes, each in creative response to their religious communities. The diarists of the ghettos during World War II raised the pen against the swastika in an appeal to history that was as absolute and passionate as their forefathers’ appeals to God.

Our present anxiety about Jewish literature derives not from a slump in contemporary Jewish writing, but from the insufficiencies of American Jewish life. An ignorant Jewry inhibits even the knowledgeable Jewish writer.

Sholom Aleichem, at the turn of the 20th century, assumed that his main readers would be familiar with the Jewish prayers, though they might no longer be observing the commandments. Thus, when he wanted to create an "ordinary Jew," he imagined a dairyman so saturated with liturgy and Bible that he could improvise riffs on the psalms as he guided his horse over a country road.

But when Tova Mirvis writes in the first-person plural about "the ladies auxiliary" of an Orthodox synagogue, she feels obliged to explain one Jewish ritual per chapter to educate a potential readership of Jews who may know as little as gentiles about their religion. Her self-consciousness about what earlier writers could take for granted — intimacy with Jewish languages, texts and way of life — saps the energy from her voice, which could just as easily belong to the Methodist down the block. Some Yiddish words used to draw a laugh in the general culture as reminders of the immigrant condition that American Jews had outgrown. Nowadays, every manifestation of Jewish observance is played for comedy.

Add indifference to the ignorance, and Jewishness becomes silly putty. Say what you will about the Jews who wrote in German, even Heinrich Heine and Karl Kraus — who accepted baptism as their passport to European civilization — but they never lost their awe or dread of the religion they no longer practiced.

Judaism throbs in their works as pulsating conscience and threat. They registered the high cost of being a Jew. There is no such tension in authors such as E.L. Doctorow or Grace Paley, who treat Jewishness as whatever they wish it to be. Because of the benignity of American democracy, conversion to American liberalism requires no ceremony. Modern Jews don’t have to acknowledge that they are switching allegiances as they substitute leftist pieties for the tough Jewish discipline: They can pretend that they have never defected at all. If American Jews judge Judaism by the standards of The New York Times rather than judging The Times by the standards of Judaism, those writers who dream of being reviewed by The Times will reflect its values instead of God’s.

Cowardice is the third and most serious hindrance to the quality of the Jewish book in America. I wonder whether there has ever been in the history of the Jewish people a generation as craven as the one in whose midst we live. The single Columbia University professor Edward Said — who falsified his biography so that he could blame the Jews for losses inflicted on him by the Egyptians — managed to cow thousands of his Jewish fellow academics into apologizing for the existence of the Jewish State. In the 53 years since the Arab countries launched against Israel the longest and most protean war in modern history, the Jews of America have been beating a steady retreat from defense of the Jewish homeland. Most American Jews don’t even have the grit to speak out for what other Jews daily defend with their lives. No wonder Mark Helprin looks for heroes in World War I, and Michael Chabon in the comic book supermen of World War II. They would be hard put to find models of heroism among the Jewish elites of Los Angeles or New York.

The Jewish book reflects this moral collapse, and our best books are those that tell of it most honestly. Saul Bellow’s "Bellarosa Connection" registers the consequence of forgetting and neglecting what is sacred and significant. Midge Decter wrote "Liberal Parents, Radical Children," and Philip Roth adapted it as the superb novel "American Pastoral." Cynthia Ozick is our toughest naysayer, refusing the placebos of a homogenized culture. Those books are the truest that expose the ignorance, the indifference and the cowardice, reminding us through negative, if not yet positive, representation of what the Jewish people could yet become.

Mitzvah Day

Imagine the possibility of having restricted access to your own religion and culture without even realizing it, whether you attend synagogue and study sessions faithfully or not. Such a phenomenon actually exists, and it’s doing its disturbing work in our own Jewish community. I am referring to the inability to read and interpret the Hebrew language – the original mode of communication of the Torah, rabbis, biblical scholars and personas, and thousands of years of Judaism. I call this disability Hebrew/Jewish illiteracy.

The term illiteracy most often conjures up those stereotypical images of people far outside the walls of our own community. Prima facie, no one would associate this handicap with the People of the Book. Yet it is a fact that most Jewish Americans do not possess the bilingual skills necessary in which to truly live up to their name. Yes, being a fully expressed Jew actually does have something to do with the Hebrew language. Generally speaking, Jewish Americans, due to a language barrier, are incapable of fully connecting with the bread and butter of their faith – biblical and rabbinic texts. These repositories of our collective ancient wisdom and spirituality remain, for most, largely unapproachable, and yet they form the basis of what it means to be Jewish. And whereas the concept of Jewish literacy means much more than just reading and writing in a particular language, on the most fundamental level it certainly must start there.

You can’t just take somebody else’s word for what thousands of years of Judaism have to say. The availability of the many excellent English translations of classical Jewish writings simply does not do the job. First of all, for every English language Torah book, there remain thousands still available only in the original Hebrew. Buyer demand has created a steady supply of English Bibles, prayer books, Talmuds, philosophical guides, Rashis, etc. But try getting your hands on a sufficient number of the layers upon layers of classical commentaries in English that make the aforementioned works user-friendly and truly accessible. Commentaries, whose job is to elucidate, create access to the primary evidence they are interpreting. Lose the commentaries, and you lose real touch with the source material. Certainly, there are numerous modern scholars who offer valuable thoughts in English on the Bible, liturgy and Jewish law. But no collection of modern theories and formulas can take the place of centuries of Jewish thought and scholarship. At the current pace, we might never see the finish of the massive job of translating the necessary books of ages past.

Moreover, English translations are often, though not always, misleading, emphasizing a conceptual understanding rather than a literal one. The final product ends up being a processed explanation rather than a true and careful translation, so you end up studying the translator and not the original author. In addition, even if a given translation is extremely precise, each Hebrew word can mean different things to the various classical scholars. Since it is rare to find a complete consensus, a typical English Bible, let us say, will have to resort to something like offering one scholar’s view in its translation of one word and another sage’s opinion for a different term. Technically, such renditions, when viewed as a whole, do not satisfy any one opinion of those original biblical exegetes; instead they are a hodgepodge of them all. Only upon learning the Hebrew language can we effectively sift through all the evidence and see how Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi, Rabbi David Kimchi, and the Maharal of Prague would each independently translate that same Bible.Finally, only a small percentage of the English-language Jewish books in publication today are dedicated to the task of translation at all. New-age authors have their own valuable ideas to communicate. Yet, somehow, year after year, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher’s 14th century magnum opus – the Tur, a compendium of Jewish law and the actual precursor to the monumental Shulchan Aruch – remains a mystery for the masses due to an ever-present language barrier.

The problem of Hebrew/Jewish illiteracy is by no means new, but it is particularly virulent in its modern form due to the dynamics of today’s Jewish landscape. The incredible availability of certain excellent Jewish works in English is really both a blessing and a curse in its propensity to solve one problem and exacerbate another. Fifty years ago, most of these books weren’t even available in English. Now we have little incentive to actually master the fundamentals of the Hebrew language. We are undoubtedly the first generation in history to produce individuals who have studied the entire Talmud and who cannot translate a single word of it. Today’s synagogues and Jewish institutions largely add to the problem by simply not acknowledging it – most rabbis, from Orthodox to Reform, give sound-bite oriented lectures, which demand zero textual skills on the part of their audiences. Jewish organizations continue to boast of their large constituencies who remain virtual outsiders when faced with the basic task of praying in Hebrew. (I make no attempt to use this phenomenon to measure anyone’s spirituality; I am addressing our potential for complete Jewish literacy.) And so it continues to be a world of haves and have-nots: Jewish children quickly surpass their own parents’ Hebrew ability, and Jewish adults continue to stare at the letters of the alef-bet as if it were hieroglyphics.

There is a viable solution. We need to adopt a more proactive attitude by demanding more opportunities for Hebrew language empowerment. We need to study Judaism more efficiently and learn how to learn. We, instead of the teacher, must be seated in the driver’s seat with an open book in front of us armed with the mission of improving our textual skills. For some, the answer may be as simple as signing up for an ulpan or a Hebrew grammar course; others may prefer the time-proven method of poring over the material with an advanced study partner (chavruta). All of this may seem hard at first, but as with any other skill, the reward is commensurate with the effort; the Talmudic giant Rabbi Akiba began his Hebrew linguistic adventure at age 40. I truly believe that Mark Twain’s words put many of these issues in proper perspective: “Don’t explain your author; read him right, and he explains himself.”

Free Hebrew Courses

North Valley JCC, the Jewish Home for the Aging, Westwood Kehilla and Jewish Learning Exchange are just a few of the Southland locations that will host a free Hebrew class during November for the Third Annual Read Hebrew America, a program organized by the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP).The classes, designed for Jews with little or no background in Hebrew, will concentrate on the Hebrew alphabet and basic reading skills. A level-two program will be available for those interested in advancing their Hebrew reading and comprehension skills.

NJOP’s primer, “Hebrew Reading Crash Courses,” will be available in English, Russian and Spanish, and a French version will be published next year. As a bonus, students who complete this year’s course will receive a mezuzah designed by world-renowned artist Yaacov Agam.

NJOP, which also spearheads Shabbat Across America, estimates that more than 15,000 unaffiliated and marginally affiliated Jews will participate in this year’s classes nationwide. Since 1987, NJOP has taught more than 215,000 North American Jews to read Hebrew.

To find the location and date of the class nearest you, visit the NJOP Web site at or call (800) 44-HEBREW. – Staff Report