Gerda Straus Mathan

Gerda Straus Mathan, a well-respected, Berkeley-based photographer of Jewish and other subjects who studied with Ansel Adams and lived for a time in Southern California, died Aug. 10 following a long illness. She was 83.

A photojournalist with degrees in biology, zoology and art, she brought an individual and humanistic perspective to her work, which was almost exclusively in black and white, with occasional hand-colored details.

Mathan traveled extensively in the United States, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, as well to the homes and gatherings of her family, friends and community, always with camera in hand. She gave the same attention to detail, whether shooting ancient Torah scrolls in Cairo, a rabbi in Safed or the willow tree in her carefully tended backyard.

Mathan’s work has been exhibited in numerous galleries throughout the Bay Area, Southern California, New York and Washington, D.C. In the Southland, she had shows at the University of Judaism, Santa Monica College and in Pasadena, where she lived with her family for several years in the 1960s.

Mathan’s "Valentina’s Uncle: Portrait of an Old Man," a book that documents in pictures and text the final years of a Russian immigrant, Vadim Shepkin, was published by Macmillan Publishing Co.’s Collier Books division in 1981 and later excerpted by Reader’s Digest. Many of the photos show Shepkin flanked by young grandnieces and grandnephews, a striking portrait of youth and old age. 

Fascinated with natural light, Mathan experimented with infrared film when photographing ancient cities and synagogues in Spain, Turkey and Czechoslovakia, and created a remarkable series of photos using old Brownie cameras that rendered her subjects in a dreamy, diffuse light.

"My medium is black-and-white photography because in this way light seems to appear in its essence, and reality is abstracted to its more basic elements," Mathan said in a 1997 interview preceding her wide-ranging Santa Monica College exhibit. "For me, photography’s wonder lies in its ability to capture the fleeting light, the passing mood, the unplanned gesture and the unexpected encounter."

In addition to Adams, Mathan studied with Imogen Cunningham and Ruth Bernhard. She also taught photography, befriending and inspiring her students at Bay Area Jewish community centers, community colleges and senior centers.

A member of Yeldei HaShoah, a group of child survivors and refugees from the Holocaust, and of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Mathan was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, on Jan. 31, 1921. She was the fourth of five children of a strongly Jewish family that traced its German roots back to the 16th century.

Friedrich, known as Fritz, was a partner in the well-known Karlsruhe bank, Straus & Company, which was sold when the family fled to the United States in 1938 to escape Hitler.

They settled in Berkeley, where Mathan raised three children. They survive her, along with three grandchildren, a sister, a brother and many nieces and nephews.

Ruth Stroud, a Manhattan Beach-based freelance writer, is Gerda Mathan’s niece.

Baker Whips Up Cakes for the Kosher

Vicki Hulbert wants to change kosher weddings: She would like people to start thinking about wedding cakes a little more seriously.

Wedding cakes — the real, one-of-a-kind, no-holds-barred, bedecked in sugar flowers, encircled with candy ribbons, multitiered, frosted extravaganzas — have rarely been a must-have-item at kosher weddings. They are very expensive, starting at $4 or $5 a slice. Kosher consumers were just as happy with no cake or a faux wedding cake — plastic tiers for display but sliced sheet cake to eat.

Hulbert wants to change all that.

Her wedding cake company, Bridal Sweets Cakes, recently acquired kosher certification. While most of Hulbert’s business is dairy cakes, frosted with buttercream made of real butter and filled with ganaches made of real cream, she recently branched out into pareve (neither meat nor dairy) cakes that can be served at a kosher wedding with a meat meal.

“You have the same problem that you have in the kosher market that you have in the secular market: That wedding cakes taste bad, and pareve cakes taste worse,” said Hulbert, who was a graphic designer before she started baking professionally. “So for the pareve recipes, I did a lot of product development and a lot of experimenting, because I didn’t want someone to have a slice of pareve cake and say, ‘This is pareve cake.’ It has to taste like a regular product.”

To accomplish this, Hulbert made adjustments to her cake, filling and frosting recipes to make up for the fact that even the best margarine will never be butter, and the best pareve whip will never be cream. Her pareve Italian meringue buttercream has the addition of cocoa butter, which adds more body to the frosting, her pareve devil’s food cake substitutes nondairy creamer and vinegar for buttermilk and instead of cream in the ganache filling, Hulbert uses Mocha Mix.

“If you use a really good chocolate, then you can’t tell the difference,” she said.

Hulbert prides herself on using only the best quality, most natural ingredients, which is why she won’t use fake whipped cream and will only use fresh, seasonal fruit to decorate cakes. Unlike other wedding cake maestros, like Sylvia Weinstock in New York, who make cakes for people all over the country, Hulbert only works for Southern California clients, because she wants to keep her cakes as fresh as possible.

But even with such gastronomic pleasures as pareve dark-chocolate cake with dulce de leche filling and raspberry ganache or lemon cake with wild-strawberry filling, all covered with rolled fondant and decorated to look like they belong in Martha Stewart Weddings, Hulbert still finds that the kosher community is slow to warm up to the idea.

“I don’t think the Orthodox community is quite in the frame of mind yet that having a nice cake or good cake is something they expect,” Hulbert said “There is a little bit of re-education that has to go on. But there is no reason that a kosher client can’t have a fabulous cake and the whole presentation.”

For more information on Bridal Sweets Cakes go to www.bridalsweetscakes.comor call (310) 373-1185.