Opinion: Where would I be now?

It’s amazing the kind of stuff you hear when you just ask. At a family wedding last weekend in Montreal, I caught up with some relatives and heard family stories worthy of a mystery thriller.

Let’s start in Casablanca with my maternal grandmother’s grandfather, a man named Shlomo. Shlomo’s family had a tragic history with childbirth. His mother and wife both died giving birth. His only daughter married at 14 and at 16 gave birth to a baby girl who was two months premature. Sadly, that mother also died. When Shlomo saw the fragile baby — his granddaughter — he was so intent on not losing her that he made a vow to God: If the baby survived, he would move to Israel. This was in 1916.

After some close calls, the baby did survive. By then, Shlomo had gotten so attached to the baby girl that he wanted to take her with him to Israel. The baby’s father, however, wanted to stay in Casablanca. What to do?

They went to the community beit din, and, after long deliberations, the religious court ruled in favor of the father. Because Shlomo could not break his vow to God, he made the heart-wrenching decision to leave his granddaughter and move to the Holy Land, knowing he probably would never see her again (this was before Skype and Facebook).

Eventually, this little fragile girl, Chaya (Hebrew for “life”), married a man named Yamin and had 11 children, one of whom is my mother. Many of the children moved with their parents to Israel in the early 1950s (my family moved to Canada in the 1960s); some even fought in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. The children are all still alive, most living in Israel, with a flock of descendants numbering close to 200.

Meanwhile, Shlomo, who never saw his granddaughter Chaya again, started his new life in Israel and opened a little Sephardic shul near the Kotel. He remarried, to a much younger cousin, and they had four boys. One of those boys had a son, Shlomo, named after the family patriarch.

It was this son, who now runs a garage near New York City, who told me these stories at the wedding. The thought occurred to me: What if the beit din had ruled in favor of my great-great-grandfather, and my grandmother had moved with him to Israel and married someone else?

Hmmm, where would I be now?

On that note, I wanted to know how my grandmother, Chaya, met her husband, Yamin. So I probed my Aunt Helena, one of Chaya’s 11 children, who’d come from Eilat to attend the wedding.

Apparently, my grandfather, who was a Berber living in the Atlas Mountains, had a father who had a reputation for being a “tough guy.” When Yamin was a young boy, as the family lore goes, the father saw an Arab man harassing a Jewish girl and got into a fight with him. Tragically, the Arab man died during the fight, and Yamin’s father, not trusting the authorities, fled to another town. With his father on the lam, Yamin was left alone with his mother, who was not well.

As a young man, Yamin decided to move alone to Casablanca with the hope of finding work so he could take better care of his mother. He located a distant cousin, who offered him work in his spice shop, with one caveat: He couldn’t pay him right away. After several months of working for “free,” Yamin asked to be paid, but the cousin told him he still didn’t have the money to pay him.

Down on his luck, Yamin walked the streets of Casablanca with no idea what to do next. He looked down and saw a gold chain on the sidewalk. He picked it up and, seeing nobody around him, took the chain to a jewelry store and sold it. This gave him enough money to get an apartment for him and his mother — and to open a little candy stand.

So, where does he open the candy stand? On La Rue des Anglais (The Street of the English), where a young girl named Chaya lived. It turns out this girl loved candy and became a frequent visitor to Yamin’s kiosk.

Well, you guessed it: Chaya and Yamin fell for each other, got married and had a burst of procreation that netted 11 children, one of whom being my mother.

As Helena told me the story over the loud music of the wedding, I looked out at the dozens of young and older relatives dancing happily, some of them making the silly gyrations you often see at weddings. Many of those relatives, including my own kids, are direct descendants of Yamin and Chaya.

Again, the thought occurred to me: What if Yamin’s boss had paid him his salary, and Yamin had never taken that long walk and found that gold chain that enabled him to open a candy stand and meet a woman named Chaya, who gave birth to a woman named Suzanne, who gave birth to yours truly in a little village just outside of Casablanca called Berechid?

Where would all those dancers be now?

And whose column would you be reading?

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Macrobiotic principles fit Sukkot meals

Lee Gross, 31, and Ben Newman grew up together in New York. Both loved Hebrew school and dreamed of going to rabbinical school. Twenty years later, their spiritual journeys took them on different professional paths. Newman is a rabbi. Gross is executive chef of M Café de Chaya on Melrose.

However, they are linked by a common belief in the macrobiotic principle that a peaceful, mindful and purposeful existence begins with eating a diet of whole, organic foods that are seasonally appropriate. The seasonal aspect of contemporary macrobiotic cuisine seems to fit Sukkot perfectly, because it is a harvest holiday focused on food and hospitality and is set in an temporary exterior dwelling.

According to Newman, who serves as a consultant to M Café de Chaya and is a Reconstructionist rabbi in Scarsdale, N.Y, “The foods that we eat on Sukkot and the vegetables that we use to decorate the sukkah are traditionally seasonal and local, which mirrors the macrobiotic philosophy. Just as macrobiotics tries to help us remember where our food comes from and to be conscious of what we put in our body, so, too, does the celebration of Jewish agriculturally based holidays, such as Sukkot.”

Remembering his Hebrew school days, chef Gross noted that the Torah not only commands us to have a sukkah roofed with organic materials but also mandates that each sukkah meal must include at least two ounces of grains. All other foods — meat, fruit, vegetables, beverages, etc. — do not constitute a meal and may be combined outside the sukkah. Whole grains are one of the key ingredients of Gross’ menu at M Café de Chaya.

Gross’ voyage to Melrose Avenue parallels his curiosity for spiritual meaning in life. After receiving traditional culinary training the University of Providence, Gross was readying himself to become a chef at five-star restaurants. He worked with notables such as Daniel Bruce at the Boston Harbor Hotel, Philippe Jeanty at Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley, and the famed Al Forno restaurant in Providence, under the tutelage of George Germon and Johanne Killeen.

While these jobs satisfied his passion for food and haute cuisine, Gross’ goal was to combine his social ideals and personal ethics. He began studying the relationship between food, health and the environment at an intensive macrobiotics program at he Kushi Institute, from which he made the commitment to build a new cuisine inspired both by his classical training and ecological and health imperatives.

After meeting in 2001 with celebrity macrobiotic counselor Mina Dobic, Gross became Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal chef. As he traveled the globe, he incorporated dishes from Spain, Italy, Japan, India and England into his repertoire. He also further developed French patisserie items that do not contain refined sugars, eggs or dairy but taste just as good.

The concept of M Café de Chaya was born after a chance encounter in Japan with the Tsunoda family. The family has owned Chaya restaurants in Japan for more than 30 years. Shigefumi Tachibe, executive chef and owner of Chaya U.S., recruited Gross to develop M Café de Chaya, which opened in May 2005.

Located on Melrose Avenue, just west of La Brea Avenue, glass encasings display appetizing and beautiful dishes ranging from traditional bento boxes, paninis (with tofu mozzarella) and French-inspired tarts and patisseries. My personal favorite is the daily selection of salads (particularly the celeri remoulade), sushi and edamame croque-en-bouche (small potato shell bites filled with edamame). Diners can sit at small tables or a large communal table. The atmosphere is both trendy and comfortable.

While the restaurant does not use red meat or dairy, it is not kosher and, in the macrobiotic tradition, serves both fish and shellfish.

However, Gross gave me a few recipes that can be prepared in a kosher kitchen.
Both Newman and Gross describe M Café de Chaya as “eco-kashrut” for “down-to-earth Judaism.” They both add that there need to be more health-conscious elements to kosher cuisine than just not mixing meat and milk and avoiding pork and shellfish.

Wild Scottish smoked salmon Benedict with soy Hollandaise

Recipe by Lee Gross, adapted by