Green gold: Israel sets a new standard for legal medical marijuana research, production and sales


Just over six years ago, in the lush Upper Galilee of northern Israel, the nation’s first large-scale harvest of legal medical marijuana was flowering on the roof deck of Tzahi Cohen’s parents’ house, perched on a cliff overlooking the bright-green farming village of Birya. Until then, fewer than 100 Israeli patients suffering from a short list of ailments had been allowed to grow the plants for themselves, but this marked the first harvest by a licensed grower.

The Cohen home soon became a temple in the area for believers in the healing powers of cannabis — a legendary family operation that, in this early golden era, served as a grow house, a pharmacy and a treatment center all in one. In “
Strain samples at Tikun Olam’s distribution center in northern Tel Aviv.

“We think that medical cannabis should be distributed to the patients as any other medical drug — at pharmacies,” Ministry of Health spokeswoman Einav Shimron Grinboim wrote in an e-mail.

The ministry first announced that a new, cutting-edge distribution program would be unveiled in spring 2012, but — due partly to a turnover in the Israeli Knesset, and the challenges of setting up such an unprecedented structure — the ministry now predicts it will go into effect by the end of 2014.

The head of Israel’s newly created Medical Cannabis Unit, political unknown Yuval Landschaft, has a no-press policy of his own, and the Ministry of Health will not reveal the details of his new plan. But insiders told the Jewish Journal that Landschaft and a team of brand-new hires, whose sole duty is to oversee and redesign Israel’s medical cannabis program, are racing to build a streamlined pharmaceutical system that could set a new global standard in the field.

“Yuval’s dream is that everything be sent to a central warehouse, where it’ll be packaged for distribution,” said Mimi Peleg, director of patient training at Abarbanel’s cannabis center.

Under the plan, government-affiliated pharmaceutical supplier Sarel Ltd. would be in charge of testing each batch of cannabis to verify its quality and consistency, and would then stock pharmacies across Israel with measured doses of marijuana — as it does with any other medication.

Similar programs have previously been tested in both Canada and Holland. However, Canadian officials recently announced that they will hand the industry back to private suppliers in 2014, eliminating the federal government’s previous role of approving and educating cannabis patients. And in Holland, the number of patients has dropped to less than 1,000, with critics alleging that the quality of legal coffee-shop weed consistently tops the medical stuff.

State and city programs across the United States have spiraled even further out of control: A patchwork of conflicting laws at the local and federal levels have prevented a cohesive program from taking shape in any of the 20 states (plus Washington, D.C.) where medical marijuana is legal.

If Israeli officials can overcome this cannabis curse — requiring them to fit a radically complex, villainized and under-studied plant into a rigid pharmaceutical system — the small Jewish nation could become the first to pull off a federal program that the medical community can get behind.

WEST COAST ROOTS 

Right around the time the Cohens founded Tikun Olam, former Los Angeles resident Yohai Golan fled the Wild West medical cannabis scene in California to start growing small and humble again at his mother’s house in Israel. 

Golan and the Cohen family each received founding grants in 2008 — $15,000 and $50,000, respectively — from David Bronner of the Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps fortune, who told the Jewish Journal he was inspired to donate the money because “the government in Israel looked like they were going to set an example of a more reasonable approach.” Bronner also funded a visit to Israel from leading cannabis experts at the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz, who coached the growers through their startup phase.

Sitting at an outdoor cafe in Tel Aviv in early September, dressed in a stone-studded Peter Pan hat worthy of Burning Man, Golan told turbulent stories of growing medical cannabis in Venice Beach and San Francisco in the late 1990s and early 2000s, running with the crews of big celebrity pot advocates like Jane’s Addiction front-man Perry Farrell and actor Woody Harrelson. Although Golan claimed he was legally licensed to grow in California, he said his grow houses were subjected to constant raids by local police, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents and even motorcycle gangs.

“California is where it began, but it became a mess,” he said. So Golan returned home to Israel, where he poured everything he had learned growing marijuana in California into a farm he later named Better.

“My friend is the owner of Bodhi Seeds out of Santa Cruz, and he went and took master strains that I liked and cross-bred them especially for me to use in Israel,” Golan said. “He created a Purple Kush strain — a cross of Purple Kush, Bubba Kush and Sour Diesel — that was made especially for the desert.” It has since become Better’s most popular strain.

Unlike the Cohens, who chose their spot in the Upper Galilee for its pure mountain air and mystical history, Golan eventually decided to base his farm a few hours south, in the Valley of Elah. “We have no humidity and desert winds that drop into the mercaz,” he said. The Better farm now grows another buzzed-about strain called “cheesepie,” which contains 13 percent CBD and less than 1 percent THC, along with seven other standardized strains and many more in the development stage.

Various cannabis growers in Israel confirmed that a few months ago, they received a letter outlining some of Landschaft’s proposed changes — including grouping the strains into four medicinal categories based on their levels of CBD and THC.

Nativ Segev, CEO of Better, said that as long as strain experimentation isn’t limited, he believes the strongest cannabis growers will still be able to thrive within the ministry’s egalitarian vision. “The best thing to do is specialize in growing — to grow the best you can, and then sell it to the government,” he said. “If you grow good things, if you grow the best [strains], you will be OK.”

Other farms are hesitant to move toward a more socialist system, which would involve sharing their gardening secrets with the feds, said Dr. Yehuda Baruch, Abarbanel’s director and former head of the cannabis program (before a changing of the guards in January).

“I tell the growers, ‘This is not the THC Olympics,’ ” said Boaz Wachtel, one of Israel’s original cannabis advocates and founder of the country’s fringe Green Leaf Party. “They’re very competitive.”

Up to now, a healthy competition between farms, as in many Israeli industries, has livened up the market and encouraged top product quality. However, a more centrally regulated system under construction at Israel’s Medical Cannabis Unit would eliminate some farms’ current branding advantages, and would allow patients and doctors to choose from all the farms’ strains, instead of just one. (Currently, patients report that it’s almost impossible to switch from one farm to another.) “If every grower has a number of great strains to offer, it won’t be a problem,” Wachtel said.

“The most important thing is that we stabilize phenotypes so that we can depend on what we’re getting from one season to the next,” said Abarbanel’s Peleg, who does strain testing for three of the farms. “The way to get there is to start sharing genetics — to have this national grow where we have a nursery for everybody, and start making better and more healthy clones that we’re giving away to the growers.”

However, she added, “this sharing attitude is not popular here.”

Doctors and other cannabis experts who spoke to the Jewish Journal agreed that one of the keys to writing cannabis into modern medical history, and to completing the clinical trials needed to more fully legitimize its use, will be to create standard strains or oils that can be replicated and expected to have consistent results, patient-to-patient.

Peleg said she hopes ego wars among growers won’t block Israel’s road to a more compassionate system. “We have the opportunity to really do something better” than anywhere else in the world, she said. “And I hope we take advantage of it.”


The outer wall of the Tikun Olam laboratory is inscribed with a passage from the Bible, in which God instructs Moses to anoint the altar with a special incense. Many believe this incense included cannabis.

MEDICINE OR SNAKE OIL?

In the United States, the exasperated Drug Policy Alliance, a leading organization in the fight to turn around backward cannabis policy, has long argued that American scientists and physicians interested in studying and prescribing cannabis are stuck in a sort of catch-22.

Amanda Reiman, policy manager for the alliance’s California branch, wrote in a March 2013 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times: “Marijuana’s Schedule I classification, which places it alongside heroin, defines it as being too dangerous for most research. Consequently, almost no research on marijuana’s medical benefits gets funded, so there’s practically no way to find the evidence that would result in marijuana’s reclassification.”

Due to this lack of hard evidence, doctors in Los Angeles — from the so-called Dr. Feelgoods along the Venice Beach Boardwalk to pricey boutique physicians in Beverly Hills — are not even technically allowed to prescribe cannabis. Instead, they issue patients a recommendation slip, no questions asked.

“A doctor can recommend cannabis, but they can’t tell [patients] where to get it, and they can’t have a conversation with them about using it,” Reiman said in an interview, adding that in Israel, on the other hand, “when your federal government participates in the program, doctors don’t have to worry that if someone finds out, they’re going to get a bad reputation.”

Peleg, who worked for many years in Santa Cruz for the respected dispensing collective Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana before moving to Israel, added that in California, “Doctors aren’t supposed to talk about strains and methodologies, and sellers aren’t supposed to talk about diseases and implementation.” This leaves patients in the dark about the nuances of the cannabis plant in relation to their symptoms, and they find the right strain and dosage through trial and error. 

“It’s irresponsible for us to consider this a medicine and treat it like snake oil,” Peleg said. “Just because it works on everything doesn’t mean it’s snake oil. We need the studies for the right reasons — because people deserve to know what to expect. We need to know really basic questions, like do strains matter or not, or do cannabinoids matter? Let’s prove it.”

Although there is a world of research to conduct before the ingredients of marijuana are 100 percent understood within a medical framework, much of what doctors do know has come out of the Holy Land. “In many ways, Israel is providing the research we need to move forward,” Reiman said.

Researchers in the United States complain that due to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s stronghold on the scientific cannabis supply, it’s near impossible to conduct the studies and clinical trials that doctors need to more confidently prescribe marijuana to their patients.

Conversely, in Israel, a tiny country of 8 million with intimate connections but big dreams, a circle of talent in the field — including cannabis growers, scientists and physicians — are all within one phone call to a friend-of-a-friend.

Professor Raphael Mechoulam, known internationally as the grandfather of cannabis research for being the first to isolate THC in the 1960s, remains today a top professor and researcher at Hebrew University. In the middle of an interview with the Jewish Journal, the kindly and soft-spoken 82-year-old took a panicked phone call from a local physician who wanted to know whether his cancer patient could benefit from cannabis. “I get that several times a day,” he said.

“Until well-designed clinical trials have been done and have been published, physicians don’t know what to do,” he added.

Mechoulam famously got his hands on his first batch of Lebanese hashish in the early ’60s, through a friend who had connections at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police. “Later we found that both the head of the investigative branch of the police and I had broken quite a few laws,” Mechoulam wrote in the British Journal of Addiction. “The Ministry of Health was in charge of illicit drug licensing and not the police, and I had broken the severe drug laws. Luckily, being ‘reliable,’ I just had to apologize.” He would later go on to receive the Israel Prize in exact sciences, the nation’s highest honor, for his work with cannabis.

In the decades since Mechoulam’s groundbreaking discovery, he and dozens of other Israeli scientists, in collaboration with their peers around the world, have built a foundation of knowledge on which a sane medical cannabis program can be built — all with the crucial blessing of the federal government.

Professor Ruth Gallily at Hebrew University has proven herself the queen of CBD research, confirming it highly effective in treating many types of inflammation, including that which leads to severe spine and back pain and even some heart disease.

“I can really tell you that CBD is a fantastic anti-inflammatory,” she said. “I have seen the benefit of it to so many people.”

Dr. Ephraim Lansky, an Israeli physician who specializes in studying herbs, published a now-famous case study based on a cancer patient who came to him with a golf-ball-sized tumor in his head. Lansky treated the young man with about one gram of high-CBD cannabis per day, ingested orally.


“Prescribed Grass” filmmaker Zach Klein, left, visited the Hadarim nursing home in southern Israel with CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, center, to show him the benefits of cannabis for some patients there. Also pictured is nurse Inbal Sikorin, who helps administer the cannabis to patients. Photo courtesy of Zach Klein

Eight months later, according to Lansky, the tumor had shrunk by 75 percent, and his patient’s seizures had faded completely.

“Cannabis is just another herb, and it belongs within the wider context of herbal medicine,” Lansky told the Jewish Journal. “Of all the other herbs I use, it’s the most useful. I’d even have to put it ahead of garlic.” He hopes to spend the next few years publishing case studies on his cannabis patients, which could become the building blocks for full-scale clinical trials.

Mechoulam is likewise interested in the greater context of cannabis as a sort of cure-all: He continues to explore and lecture about his discoveries within the human body’s own natural endocannabinoid system, a network of receptors that line up with the dozens of active ingredients in marijuana. The system could hold the secret to why marijuana is able to ease such a wide variety of symptoms and illnesses.

Their work is not going unnoticed.

Dr. Alan Shackelford, a Colorado physician who treated an epileptic 5-year-old with high-CBD cannabis as the crux of Gupta’s CNN documentary, has announced that he is immigrating to Israel to take advantage of the more expansive research opportunities.

“We have an obligation as a medical community to study cannabis so that we can understand how it works, and more effectively decide what cannabinoids are most effective for what, and at what dose,” Shackelford told the Jewish Journal in a phone interview. He added he is “humbled by the opportunity to take what I know and expand on it in collaboration with these committed people in Israel who have done so much more.”

Shackelford hopes to study cannabis’ effectiveness in treating seizure disorders, among other conditions. “Israel’s the perfect place to do it, because of the openness to inquiry, and because of the relative lack of pejorative government opinion — because federal legislation is not restrictive,” he said.

Shackelford is also determined to help set up a system in Israel wherein physicians are involved in learning about the particulars of cannabis as a medicine. 

The real remaining obstacle to putting scientific theories about cannabis into medical practice, and setting up a sound pharmaceutical system, is a lack of funding for clinical trials on humans, said Shackelford — a problem echoed by many other experts in the field. Researchers must first test various combinations of THC and CBD (and other cannabinoids) on patients, under strict controls, before the medication can be properly prescribed.

“Clinical research is not an easy thing to do,” Mechoulam said. “And because cannabis came from the wrong direction, from the direction of an illicit drug, it’s difficult to get it into the clinical trials.”

The Israeli government has approved some of the only clinical trials involving cannabis in the world, including an exciting look at the response of PTSD patients to cannabis high in THC. However, these trials have only just touched the tip of the iceberg. And while some pharmaceutical companies have taken cautious interest in refabricating the elements of marijuana and running their own trials, they still seem generally unsure of how to brand and patent such a complex product of Mother Nature.

Thanks to this absence of conclusive research, it’s not easy for patients to snag a coveted pot license from the Ministry of Health.


A single storage locker at Abarbanel Mental Health Center holds the majority of the nation’s cannabis supply, after the marijuana has been tested at the lab and before it is packaged for distribution.

Although the number of license holders in Israel has been growing in recent months — according to the ministry, the total now sits at about 12,700, up from about 11,000 at the start of the year — estimates by pro-cannabis politicians and even the Ministry of Health itself put the number of potential cannabis patients still left out in the cold at between 40,000 and 100,000. 

Doctors in California can recommend medical marijuana for any condition as they see fit, while Israel’s Ministry of Health instructs doctors only to prescribe marijuana as a last resort and keeps a strict list of medical conditions that qualify for treatment, such as Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and cancer. Some patients wait months, even years, before they see their requests approved.

Israeli activists have not stood idly by: An angry mob staged a hunger strike outside Health Minister Yael German’s house in May, responding to a further tightening of the list. (German has since expanded the list to include Parkinson’s disease and Tourette syndrome.)

An Israeli psychiatrist who wished to remain anonymous said he has seen a mere four or five new cannabis licenses issued to his PTSD patients in the past few years, out of hundreds who have applied. This, despite the fact that he has seen “spectacular results in patients with post-trauma.” 

A recent pilot for a clinical trial out of Abarbanel showed similarly promising results. However, “In order to convince the specialists to agree that cannabis is good for post-trauma, you need to [isolate] certain cognitive functions that you can test very precisely,” the psychiatrist said. Rick Doblin, founder and director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in California, also attested that the study was “very haphazard and irregular, with no information on things like how much marijuana they used — but still it showed that it seemed to be helpful for quite a few people.”

Tragically, as researchers fumble in uncharted territory, many of the unusually high number of Israelis with PTSD are unable to find relief in the top-of-the-line bud their country has to offer. 

THE HAVES AND HAVE-NOTS 

“We have to consider, what are we doing when we don’t give people this medication? That’s the real question,” Dr. Itai Gur-Arie, then-chairman of the Israel Pain Association, said in the documentary “Prescribed Grass.” “It’s not that the patients won’t get any medication at all. They’ll get other medication — opiates. In other words, we won’t give them marijuana, we’ll give them heroin.”

Wachtel, one of Israel’s first cannabis advocates, had to rush out of an interview to consult a family whose teenage daughter, stuck at home for the last nine months with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, couldn’t get cannabis through her doctor — “so the family decided to go to the black market, to see if it helps,” Wachtel said.

On the positive side, patients in Israel lucky enough to meet the government’s cannabis criteria — and, in many cases, persistent enough in pressuring their doctors — are overwhelmingly impressed with the results. 

A 32-year-old cannabis patient in the western Galilee who wished to remain anonymous said he experienced violent spasms in his legs after being paralyzed in a swimming-pool accident a couple of years back. After trying marijuana on his own, he found that it instantly relieved the spasms.

So the quadriplegic told his doctor he needed cannabis for back pain, because pain is one of the approved conditions on the Ministry of Health’s list — and was prescribed 20 grams a month, the ministry’s conservative starting dose. Although the patient said he believes he needs a few more grams per month, he has been highly impressed with the strains he receives through IMC Agriculture, another licensed grower in Israel. (He said he chose IMC over Tikun Olam because the latter “became too commercial.”)

“When I go to swim, if I’m not using the cannabis, my body starts having spastic seizures — my body becomes completely stiff,” the patient said. But with a few puffs of cannabis beforehand, his paralyzed limbs are able to relax in the water.

With the help of cannabis, the 32-year-old has eliminated all but one of seven pharmaceuticals from his daily regimen.

Paulette Azar, 55, a recovering breast-cancer survivor who lives on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, said she fights for about three months each year to renew her annual cannabis license to treat her lingering cancer pain and PTSD symptoms. 

“It was very painful, the cancer — very painful,” she remembered, clutching her forearms tightly. “The doctors tried to give me other medications, but I didn’t let them. I had to be rude with them. I shouted, so I got [the cannabis]. And since then, I have no more pain when I smoke it, and I am very happy. I put music in my house, and I can live my normal life.”

Since the humble beginnings of the Ministry of Health’s cannabis program, the standard dose has plummeted from 200 grams to 20 grams per month. “At the beginning of the month, there are so many people who need their medicine, so we have to wait in line for, like, two hours,” Azar said.

Still, Azar said she is shocked and grateful that such a security-obsessed government allows her up to 70 grams of Tikun Olam product monthly.

Another Tikun Olam patient, Mor Hagdi of the Ramat Gan suburbs, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was just 22. He said he tried cannabis as a last resort, when his cocktail of pain pills wasn’t able to ease his suffering and was turning him into a zombie. “The pain is chemo pain,” he said. “I swear to God, I wouldn’t want even my enemy to get this pain. Now when I am talking about this, I cannot sit, I must walk — it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anybody in the world. But when I smoke the cannabis, I just feel the pain going down. It’s relaxing — and now there is no more pain.” The marijuana has also helped stoke his dwindling appetite.

Three years ago, Zach Klein, the filmmaker behind “Prescribed Grass,” initiated a very do-it-yourself clinical trial at the Hadarim nursing home just south of Tel Aviv — the same one where CNN’s Gupta watched a Holocaust survivor smoke away his dark past.


Yossi Segev, left, and Mimi Peleg were two original employees of Israel’s central cannabis distribution center, located at Abarbanel. Here, Peleg weighs cannabis during the center’s early days. Photo courtesy of Mimi Peleg

“One of the families [of a patient] saw the documentary and asked the head nurse for medical cannabis,” Klein remembered. “She said, ‘No, that’s ridiculous.’ But they insisted. So she called me and told me, ‘You made this movie, so now come here and help me out.’ ”

Klein, who worked as head of research and development for Tikun Olam at the time, came to the home and tried blowing cannabis in the face of a 75-year-old woman with dementia. 

“I saw an immediate change,” he said. “She stopped shouting; she created eye contact with me. The nurse almost collapsed, because for months, this was the tiger in the place. And after a few minutes, we actually had some kind of communication — I was calling her name, and she was responding. After a few minutes, she was even laughing.”
One of the most outspoken medical pot advocates in the Israeli Knesset has also been the most unlikely: Knesset member Moshe Feiglin, the same religious conservative who ignited the Israeli right this year when he posted to Facebook that he didn’t see anything wrong with shaking women’s hands. Feiglin is furious that it has taken Israel so long to build a system wherein marijuana is prescribed to everyone who needs it. 

 “Israel has reached a very, very high level of research and development of new kinds of cannabis,” Feiglin said in a phone interview. “It can help the whole world, and it can help the Israeli economy tremendously. I find it hard to believe that people are trying to restrict it. You cannot stop something that is so clear — so good for the patients and so good for the economy.”

Currently, only Holland allows its medical cannabis farms there to export marijuana to other countries, and the quality of Dutch medical strains is hugely lacking, according to Israeli activist and expert Wachtel. Israeli cannabis farms are anxious to share their strains with the world. At least two farms have been preparing for the coming revolution: Tikun Olam and Better have grown a loyal following around the world via social media, racking up about 1,300 and 24,000 followers on Instagram, respectively. Better’s fans drool over close-ups of the harvest, leaving comments such as “Dank!” “Gorgeous!” “Teach me your ways” and “You’re an inspiration to growers everywhere.” 

Beverly Hills PR maven Cheryl Shuman, who calls herself “the Martha Stewart of marijuana,” made a highly publicized trip to Tikun Olam territory in early September, bringing back with her high praise for the Holy Land. 

“What I’ve seen in Israel is the first time a business model is working on all cylinders — with the government, growers, counselors and patients all engaged on such a high level,” Shuman told the Jerusalem Post Magazine for a cover story on her visit. “This is the perfect role model to take to other countries. … That’s why I’m here. I’ve got tons of money behind me, and investors who believe in what I’m doing. They’re counting on me to bring them the right people to take this industry to the next level, and I’ve found them in Israel.”


At a lab located on the Tikun Olam farm, various forms of marijuana — including, from left, capsules, cigarettes, whole buds and liquid tincture — are tested.

Tikun Olam spokeswoman Weisberg said the farm is more than willing to meet that tall order. “This is a product that we can send to the whole world,” she said.

One of Colorado’s most active medical pot advocates, Bill Althouse, said he has communicated with growers in Israel about the possibility of sharing cannabis strains by shipping their genetic material internationally. Yet, the Ministry of Public Security, which runs Israel’s police department, has been a roadblock to the farms’ expansion, arguing in government meetings that medical cannabis is “leaking” into the hands of non-patients. Police keep a close eye on the farms — mandating video security systems worthy of Israel’s nuclear research center in Dimona — and poke around every once in a while to make their presence known. 

Tikun Olam has received numerous warnings to stop selling “special” baked goods such as chocolate praline and tahini cookies containing cannabis butter, on the basis that their effectiveness has not been properly researched. Police sent an undercover agent to Tikun Olam’s cramped storefront in northern Tel Aviv three years ago to prove that the supplier was over-selling to patients.

“I don’t think they themselves know why they’re here,” said Weisberg on our tour of the Tikun Olam farm, ducking into the portable office building when she realized cops had arrived to survey the premises.

But despite ongoing complaints from growers and patients that Israel’s medical cannabis program is too tightly regulated, many experts see the strict and tedious beginnings of the Israeli program as essential to its eventual success. 

“The con in Israel is there are a large number of patients who can’t get recommendations because they don’t meet this limited list of conditions that have been chosen to start the process,” said MAPS’ Doblin. “But the advantage is that Israel is building public support in a pretty steady way, with no backlash. When you have these broader, anything-goes [policies], there often is the potential and actuality of a backlash.”

Peleg, who is working as MAPS’ liaison in Israel, agreed that the Israeli government’s heavy hand has been a blessing in disguise.

“In a democracy, you’ve got to take into consideration that it’s all about compromise. And in terms of slow and steady growth, we are having a responsible growth rate,” she said. “I was shocked when I recently did a tour of cannabis clubs in California and Colorado to learn that in those states, you don’t have to be taught how to use cannabis, ever. There’s a real disconnect going on there that I think we’ve got solved here.”

Holy harvest


It’s a Tuesday evening, and Rabbi Craig Wyckoff is turning the compost in a wire bin next to rows of kale, tomato and cucumber plants on the grounds of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Studio City (UUCSC). 

When he’s finished, he leans his pitchfork against a shed. But there’s still a meaningful task left to perform. “Close your eyes,” Wyckoff instructs. “We’ll say a blessing.”

In the cool, late-August twilight, he stands before two plump, yellow squash fruits and recites the borei pri ha’adamah: “Blessed is God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the Earth.”

It’s a common scene at the church, where members of the UUCSC community and the two Jewish congregations that rent space at its facilities are finding their roots — and each other — in a cooperative garden. In March, volunteers from the church, Congregation Beth Ohr and Congregation Tikkun Olam partnered to build the Shared Earth Project, an organic patch of vegetables and fruit trees they committed to maintain together. At this season of Sukkot, the interfaith project is feeding their desire for a closer relationship while also feeding the hungry.

Founded with charity in mind, the aim of the 700-square-foot garden is to grow fresh produce for locals in need, said Jeanne McConnell, UUCSC member and garden committee chair. Organizers split their weekly harvest between the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission and Jewish Family Service’s SOVA Community Food and Resource Program. So far, they’ve donated about 50 pounds of food. 

“The intention of this was to open up our land to the community,” McConnell said. “One in six people across the U.S. go hungry at least once a month, so this is the kind of thing that’s really needed.”

Yet acting on their values isn’t the only benefit the three faith communities have reaped. Each group has also gotten to know its neighbors in new ways while digging in the soil. 

“We had been here for so many years and had no real connection with the church except for talking to them about administrative things, like rent,” said Sue Nevens, a board member at Beth Ohr and garden volunteer. “So when Jeanne presented the idea to us, we thought it would be so nice to work together and get to know each other. That has been very fulfilling.”

Church members had been talking for years about planting a garden, McConnell said, but it was a chance encounter with a Jewish organization at a conference that got the ball rolling. As Devorah Brous, the director of a group called Netiya, was teaching attendees about the Valley nonprofit’s mission to cultivate urban gardens and give their bounty to the needy, the notion clicked with McConnell. She knew her congregation would feel the same.

“I thought, ‘What a wonderful idea,’ ” recalled McConnell, who said the church previously planned to create personal garden plots that local residents could farm themselves. Netiya’s method sounded like a more efficient way to get food into the hands of those who needed it, she said. It also would allow volunteers to perform the mitzvah of helping. 

Brous suggested getting the two small Jewish congregations that worshipped at the church on board, too, so McConnell contacted leaders from Beth Ohr and Tikkun Olam. They embraced the project. “My gut feeling was, let’s go for it,” Nevens said. “I loved the idea of not just writing a check to some wonderful organization but to actually do the physical work ourselves. It was a new experience — very satisfying, yet also very difficult.”

The first step was stifling the weeds. UUCSC, which has about 130 members, has owned its Moorpark Street property since the 1940s, but the church never did much landscaping beyond planting a rose bush here or there, McConnell said. When project organizers surveyed the proposed garden plot, they found a sea of crabgrass.

To prepare the land, they layered cardboard, mulch, newspaper and soil, building up an organic groundcover in which seeds could grow. They got donations of compost and vegetable plants from the city and fruit trees from a local nursery. They laid recycled concrete chips around the planting beds and delineated walkways for future pedestrians.

Hundreds of volunteers labored over six weekends to convert the unused land into a garden. A dozen students from the Cornell University Hillel lent a hand on an alternative spring break trip coordinated by Netiya. Students from UCLA and volunteers from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles also rolled up their sleeves on heavy workdays. 

Wyckoff, the spiritual leader of Tikkun Olam, spent hours shoveling mulch alongside the other volunteers. Known as “Rabbi Craig” to his congregants and colleagues, he said he’d long hoped the three faith groups would adopt the kind of charitable project on which Tikkun Olam — as its name implies — was founded. The 60-member congregation’s past “repairing the world” efforts have included clothing and food drives for the homeless.

“I’ve enjoyed taking part in this because it was fun to see, as the progression went on, what we ended up with,” Wyckoff said. “A place that was covered with weeds became a place where we could feed people.” 

Plus, said Tikkun Olam congregant and volunteer Michael Tohl, “Even if not everyone there called it ‘tzedakah,’ it was nice to be part of a group of people who were having fun while giving to a common cause.”

Located in a corner of the church’s front lawn, the garden sprouts vegetables in shades of red, green and purple. Nearby, 31 plum, peach and apple trees comprise a compact orchard. UUCSC member Mary Sager McFadden designed the plot with meandering, circular paths that encourage unhurried strolls through rows of kohlrabi and Swiss chard. 

“We tried to make it meditative, so people can walk around through it,” McConnell said. “It’s a way for people to get to enjoy nature in this park-starved city.” 

To that end, organizers left a common feature out of the garden’s design: a fence. Pedestrians ambling by on the public sidewalk are free to veer into the leafy maze, contemplate a small reflecting pool and snack on tart mignonette strawberries right off the stem. 

Committee members debated whether to fence in the area, McConnell said. Some feared the plants would be stolen if left unprotected, but ultimately they decided that restricting access to the nutritious fruits inside would undermine the goal of the project. “The purpose of all this is to feed people who are hungry,” she said. “So if people are hungry, it’s open to them.”

The sentiment recalls a biblical concept with which all three congregations are familiar — the Leviticus mandate that farmers leave the corners of their fields unharvested for the poor to glean. Yet the Shared Earth Project adds its own twist: Here, visitors are also welcome to savor their gleanings in a shady seating area the church refurbished for the occasion. 

Organizing the project from an interfaith standpoint sends a “powerful and sustainable message,” said Rabbi Noah Farkas, founder of Netiya and a spiritual leader at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. “We want to help reintegrate our communities, and working for food justice can bring people closer to their community and to their faith,” he said.

Sukkot offers the perfect lens through which to examine the garden’s lessons, Farkas added. At once a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt and an agrarian celebration, the holiday channels a primal connection to the Earth that Jews tap into when they spend time in their sukkah. Living in the structure, much like spending time in a garden, prods us to live closer to the land. 

“By creating these gardens, we re-create these centers of meeting and centers of meaning,” Farkas said. “We can ask questions: Where does this food come from? Who has and doesn’t have an opportunity to eat it? When you’re able to pick a tomato off the ground or a pomegranate out of a tree, it isn’t a flat or opaque experience — suddenly this piece of food has a story. When you connect to that, you connect to God and to your community.” 

The faith groups’ connection to one another was a long time coming. Beth Ohr, an unaffiliated congregation of about 25 members, has rented space at the church for around 40 years, Nevens estimated. The newer Tikkun Olam, also unaffiliated, joined the church roster six years ago. Both congregations ended up calling UUCSC home because church leaders were open to the idea of different faiths meeting under one roof, members said. It didn’t hurt that the rental rate was reasonable, too. 

Beth Ohr gathers for Saturday morning Shabbat services in the sanctuary, while Tikkun Olam holds its monthly Friday night services in a meeting room. Because Beth Ohr has been a fixture at the church for so long, a permanent ark is built into the wall near the pulpit. Unitarian Universalist churches don’t bear many religious symbols — only a chalice, the emblem of the pluralistic faith — so improvising a synagogue atmosphere isn’t complicated. 

Yet despite its volunteers passing each other on the way in and out of the parking lot each week, the garden is the first project all three groups have undertaken as a team, McConnell believes. “It has been really meaningful,” she said. “It’s nice to meet other people. I’ve been stunned by the amount of help people gave us. Everyone has gotten to know each other better.”

Now that the initial burst of energy during the building phase has faded, a core group of volunteers has settled into a comfortable rhythm of regular maintenance. Tasks include watering, weeding and chasing away pests. Volunteers can sign up to care for the garden on a weekly basis, during which they use an on-site journal to log notes — the arrival of worms or snails, for instance. 

“We all try to figure out how to manage issues,” Nevens said, recalling the time they discovered slugs in the garden. (She repelled them by planting tiny containers of beer.) 

Every Tuesday, Wyckoff visits to turn the compost. The 15-minute job is nothing to sniff at, he insists. “I have a black thumb — I know nothing about gardening,” he said. Afraid he might pull healthy vegetable shoots if entrusted with the weeds, he offered to oversee the compost instead. “It’s a job that I can do, and I take pride in the fact that I can do it,” he said. 

And every Wednesday, McConnell supervises the harvest. Two or three volunteers usually show up in the evening to pick what’s ripe, and McConnell drives the produce to the recipient charities the next morning. 

Finding their groove has been a learning process for the amateur gardeners, she said. The group had been donating its produce to a homeless-services agency that offers emergency food aid until they realized that bunches of kale might not be useful to people living on the streets who aren’t able to cook their food. SOVA and the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission are a better fit, McConnell said. 

But minor errors aside, Wyckoff said, “It’s the best feeling, knowing we’re doing something to help people. As Jews, we have a mandate to do tikkun olam and to give back. Anything we can do to help make people’s lives a little easier, it’s great to be a part of. At Sukkot, it should be a time when we can give thanks for this garden and for giving us the ability to provide for so many families who are in need.”

Nevens wants to see more institutions setting aside pieces of their property to contribute sustenance for the community. “According to the Torah, we’re supposed to be stewards of the Earth,” she said. “We’re in tough times. These are gardens that would, hopefully, outlive us, that would keep giving.”

The Shared Earth Project’s lesson in interfaith cooperation is not just about its bounty, said UUCSC pastor the Rev. Darrel Richey; although small, the garden tended by Jews and Gentiles is symbolic. 

“Here they are, side by side, weeding a garden,” Richey mused. “How often do you see that?”

Israeli court approves harvesting of dead woman’s eggs


In an unprecedented decision, an Israeli court has ruled that the eggs of a deceased woman can be harvested and donated.

The Kfar Saba Family Court on Sunday ruled in favor of the family of a 17-year-old accident victim, allowing the family to remove the eggs of their daughter and freeze them for donation to her aunt, who is infertile, Israel Hayom reported.

It is the first time that a court has allowed egg extraction from a body.

The girl’s organs were transplanted into four other people, saving their lives, Haaretz reported.

Swedish paper published modern-day blood libel


With the Palestinian family cited in the Swedish daily Aftonbladet now denying ever claiming that their son’s organs were “stolen” by the Israeli military, maybe the lurid and grotesque accusation published by the newspaper in mid-August will disappear.

Maybe the idea of an international Jewish conspiracy stretching from Israel to New Jersey harvesting the flesh of Palestinian innocents will be forgotten except as a 21st-century footnote to the odious blood libel tradition. It’s a tradition that dates back to Apion of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus who accused Jews of kidnapping non-Jewish captives to be fattened and eaten at the Sabbath feast.

But perhaps this screed is only a harbinger of a new epidemic of lies against Jews the likes of which we haven’t seen since the days of Hitler and Stalin.

During the Middle Ages, the libel of Jewish ritual murder was carved into the very stones of Frankfurt’s city wall. In 2009, it’s hard to see a difference between the virulent hostility toward the Jewish state by Sweden’s largest left-leaning paper and the newspaper of the country’s far right, the Svenska Motstandsrorelsen.

Sweden’s ambassador to Israel immediately denounced the obviously phony blood libel, but then had the ground cut out from under her by her own government’s assertion that it had to stand behind “constitutionally protected free speech.”

What a curious time to stand behind freedom of the press. During World War II, Stockholm took a different view when it censored newspapers to prevent publication of stories critical of “neutral” Sweden providing Nazi Germany with iron ore and ball bearings, as well as safe passage for German soldiers posing as Red Cross personnel.

Are the baseless charges splashed across a double spread in the style section of Aftonbladet anti-Semitic? Of course, but that’s not the worst of it.

Sweden’s government, through its defense of the indefensible, has sanctioned Aftonbladet’s trafficking in political anti-Semitism—a very different beast than the everyday kind of prejudice still experienced by Jews or African Americans and other minorities.

Historically, this virulent ideology not only has justified social and economic discrimination against Jews. In Europe, it also opened the door to ghettoization, pogroms, deportations, yellow stars and, ultimately, mass murder.

Make no mistake about it, there is an international conspiracy afoot in the 21st century, but it’s a not a secret Jewish plot out of the pages of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” It’s an open coalition of Palestinian extremists and their collaborators in Europe and North America who don’t even try to hide their coordinated efforts to make Israel into a pariah state—“the Jew among nations”—as a prelude to elimination.

For 20 years, Palestinian extremists and their Mideast allies, including Tehran’s mullah-cracy, have been accusing Israelis and Jews of murdering non-Jewish innocents to profit from their blood. A few years ago, the Iran government’s TV channel Sahara aired a weekly drama titled “Zahra’s Blue Eyes” that portrayed “Zionist” doctors kidnapping little Palestinian children to harvest their organs.

These fantasies, increasingly marketed as fact, are part of a broader Palestinian hate literature claiming that the AIDS virus is an Israeli ethnic bomb designed to selectively murder Africans and Arabs. There is even the new charge in Palestinian media outlets funded by the governments of Denmark and the Netherlands that the swine flu is an Israeli/Jewish conspiracy.

Worthy of winning our new Ignoble Prize for this year’s vilest anti-Jewish libel, Aftonbladet has managed to mainstream a favorite Palestine libel, as well as update it, by accusing New Jersey rabbis arrested for money laundering of involvement with Israeli soldiers in an international Jewish organ harvesting ring.

The revived libel has now made the leap from medieval times, resurfacing in postmodern Europe.

(Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Historian Harold Brackman is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.)

Sit, eat, stay a little while in the sukkah


We begin with a basic Hebrew language lesson.

The blessing recited in the Sukkah — “… le-shev ba-sukkah” — does not mean “to sit in the sukkah.” One of the most common mistakes on Sukkot happens when people enter a sukkah, stand during Kiddush and, immediately after pronouncing the required blessing — “… le-shev ba-sukkah” — feel compelled to sit down because they (mistakenly) believe that the blessing commands them to “sit down.”

I have seen rabbis, Hebrew school principals, and even (believe it or not) Hebrew-language teachers perpetuate this mistake by signaling their congregants or students to sit down upon reciting the blessing. If the mitzvah was really about “sitting,” the blessing would be “… la-shevet ba-sukkah,” for in Hebrew, “la-shevet” means “to sit.”

The mitzvah on Sukkot goes far beyond sitting. We are not commanded to “sit” (la-shevet) in the Sukkah, rather we are commanded to “live” (le-shev) in the sukkah.

“Ba-sukkot teshvu shivat yamim” — “You shall live in sukkot for seven days” (Leviticus 23:42).

In this verse, the Talmud (Sukkot 28b) teaches: “All seven days [of Sukkot], one should make the sukkah his temporary residence.”

What is the biblical basis for this?

Our rabbis taught: You shall live (teshvu). The word teshvu teaches that one lives in the sukkah in the same manner as one ordinarily lives. To “live” in the sukkah, according to the Talmud, is to eat all meals in the sukkah, to study Torah in the sukkah, and — yes — even to sleep in the sukkah.

Above all, the mitzvah of “le-shev ba-sukkah” is to live in the sukkah with great joy and happiness. This mitzvah of joy is rooted in the Torah’s reason for the commandment to live in sukkot: “In order that future generations may know that I [God] made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43).

This verse teaches us that from a historical perspective, living in the sukkah is an expression of our joy and appreciation for the Exodus from Egypt, and especially for the shelter that God provided for us during our long journey in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.

My father told me the story — perhaps true, perhaps apocryphal — that a baron of Rothschild invited the queen of England to his sukkah. In preparation for her visit, the queen asked one of her officials to research the history and meaning of Sukkot. He told her that it re-enacts and celebrates the journey of the Israelites in the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt.

When the queen came to the baron’s sukkah, she was greeted with a red carpet and they ate a beautiful, multicourse meal with the finest china and silverware. During dinner, the baron asked the queen what her impressions of the sukkah were so far.

She remarked, “If this is the way your people lived in the wilderness for 40 years, they should have stayed in the wilderness forever.”

Beyond the 40 years of God’s shelter in the wilderness, living in the sukkah with joy is an expression of gratitude for the basics in life — food, water and a roof over our heads. In our own weeklong Thanksgiving festival, we live in simple structures whose roof must be naturally made, and through which we must be able to see the heavens, so that we remember that God who resides in heaven is our ultimate source for life, sustenance and shelter.

During Sukkot, we live in a sukkah to remind ourselves that no matter who we are, what position or title we hold in life, or how much material comfort we may have, the source for all blessing in life is God.

Sukkot is “zman simchateinu” — our season of rejoicing. It is a time to celebrate, to enjoy meals with guests, to sing, to study and to appreciate life. It is a time “le-shev ba-Sukkah,” to live life to its fullest — in the sukkah.

So remember, “leshev ba-Sukkah” does not mean “to sit.” After all, who would want to just sit through life?

Daniel Bouskila is senior rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, a Sephardic congregation in Westwood.


Mark the New Year with late summer harvest menu


A recent trip to Italy made me aware of the wonderful possibilities of growing your own lush, flavorful garden-fresh food. The villa where we stayed was entirely self-sufficient, with magnificent varieties of produce, eggs gathered from the hen house and the proprietors even making their own wine and olive oil.

 
If you have a garden, you know the pleasure of eating the freshest of salad greens, tomatoes, vegetables and fruits. And since the weather is still warm as Rosh Hashanah arrives at sundown on Friday, Sept. 22, take advantage of the healthy garden bounties and prepare a light menu featuring the late summer harvest of fresh vegetables and fruits to celebrate the New Year.

 
If you’re not a gardener, visit some of the local open-air farmers’ markets. The Wednesday morning Santa Monica farmers market is one of the largest, and there is an organic Saturday market as well, where the selection and variety is very impressive.

 
After a special round challah and apple slices dipped in honey, start the dinner with a simple salad of avocado and tomato slices served on a bed of pungently flavored arugula and dressed with a tangy orange vinaigrette. Hopefully, you will be lucky enough to make it with full-flavored tomatoes from your garden; nothing compares with vine-ripened tomatoes. If they are not available, your local farmers’ market will have a selection of the tasty heirloom tomatoes.

 
Arugula is not only trendy and delicious, but very easy to grow, and seeds are available at most nurseries.

 
Next, serve a chilled beet borscht, my version of gazpacho, and pass around bowls of chopped cucumbers, green and yellow bell peppers, and chives, for a colorful do-it-yourself garnish.

 
The main course is a whole roast chicken that has been butterflied and baked on bed of fresh vegetables — a combination of garlic, onions, celery, carrots, parsnips, squash and potatoes, and garnished with fresh herbs from your garden. With this dish we will drink a special toast for a peaceful year with a glass of young, fruity chardonnay.
 
For dessert, late summer pl
ums, arranged in colorful circles on a light pastry dough make a delicious eye-appealing tart. Serve a sweet late harvest wine or hot tea with lemon, and let the children choose their favorite fruit juice.

 
Cold Puree of Beet Borscht
4 medium-size beets, unpeeled
4 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Diced cucumbers
Diced green and yellow red peppers

 
Scrub the outside of the beets using cold water, place in a large pot and add enough cold water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer until a fork inserted in the beet is tender, about one hour. Cool. Remove the beets, but reserve the liquid. Peel the skin, which should come off easily, and discard.

 
Dice the beets and return to the liquid. Place half of the diced beets and liquid in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Transfer puree to a bowl and repeat the process with the remaining beets and liquid. Add lemon juice, sugar and salt to taste and mix well. To serve, ladle into shallow soup bowls and garnish with cucumbers and peppers.

 
Makes eight to 10 servings.

 
Avocado, Tomato and Arugula Salad

 
Usually avocados are served mashed or chopped. For this dish, simply slice the avocados and tomatoes, which enables them to harmonize with the pungent-flavored arugula.

 
2 avocados, peeled and seeded
Juice of 1 lemon
2 large tomatoes, sliced
3 cups loosely packed arugula, coarse stems discarded
Vinaigrette dressing (recipe follows)
Pomegranate seeds for garnish, optional

 
Cut each avocado into nine to 12 lengthwise slices. Sprinkle with lemon juice and set aside. Slice tomatoes and set aside.

 
Wash arugula and dry. Slice and mound arugula on chilled plates, fan the avocado slices around the mounds and arrange the sliced tomatoes in the center.

 
Spoon enough vinaigrette over each salad to coat leaves, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with pomegranate seeds, if desired. Serve immediately.

 
Makes six to eight servings.

 
Vinaigrette Dressing
1 tablespoon Dijon-style prepared mustard
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup walnut oil
Salt, freshly ground black pepper

 
Place mustard, vinegar, lemon juice in a processor or blender. Add oil in thin stream and blend until slightly thick and creamy. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

 
Butterflied Roast Chicken With Medley of Vegetables
1 (4-pound) or 2 (2-pound) whole chickens
1 onion, sliced and diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
4 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 parsnip, peeled and thinly sliced
1 medium potato, diced and steamed
2 tablespoons minced parsley
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary

 
Marinade
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon each dried basil, thyme and rosemary, crushed
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 to 3 cups dry white wine

 
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Split the chicken along the entire length of the back, removing backbone from tail to neck. Open it out, skin side up. With a mallet or the heel of your hand, flatten the chicken, fracturing the breastbone and ribcage, so it lays flat. Arrange vegetables on a foil-lined large roasting pan, and place the chicken on top, skin-side up.

 
Mix garlic and rosemary together. Working with your fingertips, separate the skin from the meat of the chicken, beginning at the neck end, being careful not to tear the skin. Place sliced garlic and rosemary under the skin, including the drumsticks and thighs. Mix together the olive oil and herbs and rub it on the top of the chicken and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

 
Pour the marinade over the vegetables and chicken and bake for l0 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees, and bake for 45 minutes to one hour longer, depending on the size of the chicken. Baste every 20 minutes. If chicken browns too quickly, cover it loosely with foil. If the marinade cooks away too quickly, add more. Remove the foil during the last 10 minutes, allowing the chicken to brown.

Shavuot Food : Turn Torah Fest into a Veggie Feast


Shavuot, which marks the receiving of the Ten Commandments by Moses, was often referred to as the Jewish Thanksgiving or the “Feast of the First Fruits,” a time when farm bounty and grains were brought to the ancient Temple. The harvest often included wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.

In modern times, Shavuot inspires the preparation of many delicious and traditional recipes that usually feature a variety of vegetarian and dairy foods. Milk, eggs and cheeses of all kinds are used in abundance.

Blintzes are the most popular of the Shavuot foods and can accompany other foods or be served as a main course. They are thin pancakes or crepes, filled with interesting mixtures. I have included a classic cheese filling, enlivened with sugar-glazed, crunchy apple slices. It makes a perfect holiday dessert. The same basic blintz can be made with a spinach-ricotta combination, and served with yogurt, which adds a perfect dairy accent.

Stuffed Eggplant Rolls are a wonderful choice for your Shavuot lunch, brunch or dinner. Thin slices of eggplant are rolled around a filling prepared with three cheeses plus beaten egg whites. The spicy, garlicky herbed tomato sauce is a perfect accompaniment.

Shavuot desserts are especially tempting and fun to serve family and friends. Desserts your family will enjoy include my Apricot Cheesecake, along with bowls of dried figs, dates and nuts.

Shavuot is a wonderful occasion to entertain informally and since this is an agricultural holiday, decorate your home or table with fresh plants and flowers from the garden. Some Sephardic Jews celebrate Shavuot as “The Feast of Roses” and use roses as the table centerpiece. As a treat for your guests, bake your favorite cookies and wrap them in rose-patterned paper for them to take home.

Blintzes (Savory or Sweet)

Basic Batter for Blintzes

3 eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
1 tablespoon melted unsalted butter
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt

Ricotta and Spinach filling (recipe follows)

or

Hoop Cheese and Apple Filling (recipe follows)

Unsalted butter, for frying

In a large bowl, blend eggs, milk and butter. Add flour, salt and herbs, blending thoroughly until smooth. Cover and set aside for one hour.

Lightly butter and preheat a 6-inch nonstick frying pan. Pour about 1/8 cup of batter in at a time to form a thin pancake, tilting pan and swirling batter to patch up holes. When lightly browned, gently loosen edges and turn out of pan onto towel or plate. Cool before filling.

Place 1 or 2 tablespoons of filling on browned side, in center of each blintz. Fold lower portion over filling; tuck sides; continue rolling to form a flat rectangle. Place on large platter and cover with plastic wrap until ready to cook.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large skillet. Cook blintzes on both sides, about three to four minutes, until lightly browned. Transfer to serving plates and serve immediately with sour cream, preserves or remaining Glazed Apple Slices.

Makes about 15 to 20 blintzes.

Ricotta/Spinach Filling

2 bunches spinach
2 cups ricotta cheese
2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 egg yolks
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Rinse spinach and remove stems. Place in salted boiling water and boil for 10 minutes. Drain and cool, then squeeze dry in cheesecloth; chop fine.

In bowl of electric mixer, combine spinach, ricotta, Parmesan cheese, egg yolks, parsley and basil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Cheese/Apple Filling

2 pounds hoop cheese, farmer or pot cheese
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs

Glazed Apple Slices (recipe follows)

In large bowl, combine hoop cheese, sugar, salt and eggs. Fold in 1 cup of the drained apple slices. Cover with plastic wrap and chill until ready to assemble blintzes.

Glazed Apple Slices

1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup orange marmalade
1/4 cup orange juice
3 Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
Juice and grated zest of 1 lemon

In large heavy skillet, combine sugar, marmalade and orange juice. Cook over medium heat, stirring until sugar and marmalade dissolve. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer two to three minutes, just until it begins to thicken.

Place apple slices in large bowl and toss with lemon juice to prevent them from discoloring. Add apples, lemon zest and lemon juice to syrup in skillet and toss to coat. Simmer, covered for 10 to 15 minutes, until apples are soft. Transfer to glass bowl and cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and chill.

Makes about 2 cups.

Stuffed Eggplant Rolls

1 pound Ricotta or hoop cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons minced parsley
3 tablespoons minced fresh basil or 2 teaspoons dried
2 eggs, separated
Salt and pepper to taste
8 ounces mozzarella cheese
2 medium eggplants
Flour seasoned with salt and pepper
3/4 cup olive oil
Tomato-Basil Sauce (recipe follows)
Fresh basil leaves for garnish

Cheese Filling: Combine Ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, parsley, basil and egg yolks. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Chill.

Slice mozzarella cheese into sticks 2 inches long and 1/2 inch wide by 1/2 inch thick. Set aside.

Slice eggplant in half lengthwise, 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. Dredge in seasoned flour mixture, shaking off the excess.

Heat oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat, and sauté eggplant slices on both sides until soft and lightly browned. Drain on paper towels. Cool.

Place 2 tablespoons of cheese filling across the narrow end of each eggplant slice. Press a stick of mozzarella into the filling. Roll up eggplant tightly around filling. Place rolls, seams side down, in buttered baking dish. Cover with foil at this point and store in refrigerator for one to two hours; do not freeze.

Spoon Tomato-Basil Sauce over each roll and bake at 350 F for 15 minutes, or until hot and bubbling. With metal spatula, carefully place one or two eggplant rolls on heated plates. Garnish with basil leaves. Serve immediately.

Makes about 16 rolls.

Tomato-Basil Sauce

3 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes with liquid
1 cup dry red wine
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper

In a heavy skillet, heat oil. Add the garlic, onions, red pepper and carrots and sauté until the onions are transparent. Dice the tomatoes and add with liquid, red wine, basil, parsley and sugar. Bring to boil and simmer on medium heat, stirring occasionally until thick, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour into food processor or blender and blend well. Transfer to bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Apricot Cheesecake

1 6-ounce package dried apricots
1 1/2 cups apple juice
1 1/2 cups sugar

Sugar Cookie Crust (recipe follows)

3 8-ounce packages cream cheese
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
Sour Cream Topping (recipe follows)

In a small saucepan, combine apricots, apple juice and 1/2 cup of the sugar. Bring to boil and simmer until tender, five minutes. Cool. Puree apricot mixture in food processor or blender and set aside.

Prepare Sugar Cookie Crust and refrigerate.

In bowl of an electric mixer, beat cream cheese and 1 cup of the remaining sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Blend in vanilla and 1/2 cup of apricot puree. Pour into prepared springform pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes, or until center is set and top is golden. Remove from oven; spread with sour cream topping and return to oven for five minutes. Cool. Remove from spring-form pan; garnish with apricot puree and serve cold.

Sugar Cookie Crust

1 1/2 cups sugar cookie crumbs (oatmeal, coconut or vanilla)
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup apricot puree

In food processor or blender blend crumbs with butter. Transfer cookie mixture to 9-inch springform pan and press down firmly. Spread a thin layer of apricot puree over cookie mixture. Refrigerate at least 15 minutes.

Sour Cream Topping

1 pint sour cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

In a small bowl, blend sour cream, sugar and vanilla. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

For more holiday recipes, visit www.jewishjournal.com/local/KosherEats.php.

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Cookbooks, 1988) and “The 30-Minute Kosher Cook” (Morrow, 1999) Her Web site is members.aol.com/jzkitchen.

 

Give Matzah a Hand


I still remember the first year we served shemurah matzah at our seder…. It was in the early 1960s and we were living on a ranch in Topanga Canyon. We received a letter from Chabad offering us a box of shemurah matzah for our seder, no charge, all we had to do was pick it up in Westwood. We had never heard of shemurah matzah, and thought that it was a wonderful idea. When we arrived to pick up the matzah, the Chabbad rabbi explained their meaning and that everyone at the seder should have the experience of seeing and tasting this matzah.

Shemurah matzah is matzah baked by hand from wheat that has been guarded from the time of harvest. This is to ensure that the flour does not come in contact with any moisture. The matzah is baked within 18 minutes. This is done to avoid any possibility of fermentation

Because we were having 25 people each night of Passover, we asked him for three boxes. He was so surprised, and said he thought is was wonderful that a young couple living on a ranch with five children were having that many guests for their seder. Every year since, we have included shemurah matzah for our seder. It is always interesting to hear our guests’ comments on which type of matzah they prefer. And it always brings on a discussion about the history and importance it plays during the Passover holiday.

After many years of getting our shemurah matzah from Chabad it has become available in kosher markets, as well as large supermarkets.

Another Oil Miracle


Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, is a time to recall the
miracle that occurred more than 2,000 years ago, and celebrate the discovery of
the small amount of oil that burned for eight days, the amount of time needed
to prepare pure oil from the local olive trees to rekindle the flame. That
miracle is the focus of the Chanukah celebration that begins at sundown Friday,
Nov. 29. Was it also a miracle that this event occurred at this time, since the
months of November and December are the usual time for the olive harvest?

In early November this year, we joined Faith Willinger, our
Florence-based food-journalist friend, on a trip to Naples and the Campania
area of Italy. One of the highlights of our trip was spending several days at
the hotel-restaurant La Caveja, located in the small village of Pietravairano,
just a one-hour drive north of Naples.

At our first meal, La Caveja’s owner, Berardino Lombardo,
placed a bottle of olive oil on the table and directed us to use it on almost
every dish. The olive oil was bright green, fruity and delicious. When we asked
him when the olive oil had been pressed, his answer was “early this morning.”
The next day, he invited us to join him to pick olives and watch the crush at
the local frantoio (olive oil mill). We were delighted and accepted his offer.

This small olive mill custom crushes olives from the nearby
area for small local growers. Families had brought their olives and were
waiting with their children, huddled in the cold, while their olives were
pressed into oil.

Then every shape container possible was filled with this
liquid gold. It was exciting to see all the activity.

When we arrived at the olive oil mill, our olives were in a
large wooden container ready to be processed. The olives were first washed,
then crushed into a paste. The paste was then pressed to produce organic extra
virgin olive oil. As the flow of newly pressed olive oil began to glow, a small
amount was poured into a pitcher, and Berardino brought out fresh bread to dip
into the oil. It was the first time we had ever tasted olive oil that was only
minutes old and it was absolutely delicious!

On my return from Italy, I was inspired, during Chanukah, to
serve our family several of the dishes that were introduced to us by Berardino.
They are perfect for the holiday as all these dishes use either olives or foods
fried in olive oil. Included are Potato Gnocchetti, Olive Fritte, Fried
Zucchini Sticks and Frittelle.

One of our family Chanukah traditions is to exchange gifts,
and this year we are giving each of our guests a bottle of fresh Italian olive
oil to take home.

Olive Fritte (Cicchetti)

36 pitted green olives

1 cup flour

2 eggs, beaten

1 cup fine dry bread crumbs (try mixed with Parmesan)

Olive oil for deep frying

 

1. Place the olives in a bowl, cover with cold water and
allow them to soak for at least 15 minutes to remove some of the salt. Rinse
the olives and dry them well.

2. Roll the olives lightly in flour, then dip in beaten egg,
and roll them in bread crumbs to coat. Transfer to a paper towel- lined plate
and refrigerate one hour.

3. In a skillet or deep fryer, heat 2-to 3-inches of oil
over medium heat. Place the olives in the oil and fry them, rolling them around
to brown evenly.

4. Remove the olives with a slotted spoon and spread on
paper towels to drain. Serve while still warm. They can be held for a few
hours, then reheated in a 250 F oven. Makes 36.

Fried Potato Gnocchetti

1 large potato (about 1 pound)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 egg

Salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon minced parsley

1 cup fine dried bread crumbs

Olive oil for frying

1. Peel potatoes and cut in cubes. Place on steam rack over
boiling water. Cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender when pierced with
a fork. Transfer to a large glass bowl, mash with a potato masher and let cool
slightly. Add butter, cheese, egg, salt and pepper and mix well. Cover and refrigerate
until cold. Add additional grated Parmesan or bread crumbs if potato mixture is
too moist.

2. To shape potato mixture, oil the palm of your hands and
roll a tablespoon of the mixture between your palms into an egg shape. Spread
crumbs on a shallow dish and coat gnocchetti lightly with crumbs. Place on a
paper towel-lined platter and refrigerate until ready to fry.

3. Heat about 1-2 inches of oil in a medium skillet. When
oil is hot, fry a few gnocchetti until they are golden brown on all sides, about
two minutes. Remove with the slotted spoon and place on paper towels to drain.
Transfer to a large dish and serve hot.

Fried Zucchini Sticks

4 medium zucchini, unpeeled

1 cup flour

1 cup bread crumbs

2 garlic cloves, peeled

6 fresh basil leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried basil

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 to 3 eggs

Vegetable oil for frying

Grated Parmesan cheese

1. Slice the zucchini lengthwise into quarters; cut in half,
crosswise, and set aside.

In a small, brown paper bag, place the flour and set aside.
In the bowl of a processor or blender, blend the bread crumbs, garlic and
basil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Place this mixture in another
small, brown paper bag and set aside. Place the eggs in a bowl and beat well.

2. Drop four to six zucchini sticks into the bag containing
the flour, shaking the bag to coat. Transfer to a metal strainer and shake off
the excess flour. Dip the flour-coated zucchini into the beaten egg and then
coat with the bread-crumb mixture. Place on a baking sheet lined with paper
towels. (You can hold them at this point for at least one hour.)

3. Preheat the oil in a deep-fryer or wok to 375 F.

4. Drop the coated zucchini sticks into the heated oil and
fry until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Transfer them to a
napkin-covered basket or platter; sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese. Serve
immediately.

Frittelle (Fried Ribbons)

11¼2 cups flour

11¼2 tablespoons sugar

Pinch salt

Grated zest of 1 orange

11¼2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

3 tablespoons milk

1 large egg

1 tablespoon orange juice

1 teaspoon vanilla

Olive oil for frying

Powdered sugar for garnish

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the flour, sugar,
salt and orange zest. Add the butter and blend until crumbly.

In a small bowl, beat the milk, egg, orange juice and
vanilla together. Pour the milk mixture into the flour mixture all at once and blend
until the dough comes away from the bowl. Place wax paper on work surface and
sprinkle with flour. Knead the dough into a ball, and divide in half. Using a
rolling pin, roll each half of the dough out very fine on the prepared work
surface until it is 1¼8-1¼4-inch thick. Using a scalloped ravioli cutter or a
knife, cut the dough into ribbons about 4-inches long and 1-inch wide.

Heat oil in a heavy deep-sided frying pan to 350 F, and fry
a few of the ribbons at a time very quickly — 20 seconds — until golden. Drain
on plates lined with paper towels, cool slightly and sprinkle with
confectioners’ sugar.

Variations: Twist the ribbon twice and pinch it closed in
the center. Or cut the dough into rectangles and make two parallel small cuts
in the center.  


Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (William Morrow & Co, 1999), “The 30-Minute Kosher Cook” (William Morrow & Co, 1999) and the “International Deli Cookbook” which is available at the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica. Her Web site is members.aol.com/jzkitchen.