Beverly Hills Peninsula Hotel gets Israeli flair

Like many good-looking newcomers to Los Angeles, Offer — with two F’s — Nissenbaum has a burning ambition.

It’s not to become a marquee idol, but rather, at age 50, to play goalie for one of the city’s amateur hockey teams.

That is, if he can break loose from his day (and frequently night) job as the new managing director of the Peninsula Hotel Beverly Hills, which is within shouting distance of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, owned by fellow Israeli army veteran Beny Alagem.

With 200 guest rooms, the Peninsula — one of an international group of five luxury hotels owned by Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels, Ltd. — is certainly not the largest hotel in the city, but it hosts more than its share of celebrities and A-list events.

“We are the only hotel in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills with a rating of five diamonds from Mobil and five stars from AAA,” said Nissenbaum, who came to the hotel nine months ago.

Like any other top executive in the hotel business — Nissenbaum prefers the term hospitality business — one of his key jobs is to sell the uniqueness of his enterprise to the community.

So his public relations consultant recently invited a reporter to drop in and meet both the managing director and his father; the latter was in town for a visit from Israel.

Joseph Nissenbaum is 80 years old, a survivor of the Holocaust and three Israeli wars, whose life and experiences have marked the outlook and careers of Offer and his two siblings.

“I think one aspect is that we were more driven and we matured earlier than most children,” the younger Nissenbaum observed.

Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation videotaped Joseph Nissenbaum’s story some years ago in Israel, and one purpose of this visit was to take a look at the four-hour interview.

To condense his long and dramatic story, Joseph was born in the East German city of Leipzig, and when he was 10 years old, his life was upended by Kristallnacht.

His father, a native of Poland, was arrested and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and the following month young Joseph was spirited out of the country via the Kindertransport to find shelter in a Belgian orphanage.

There he lived in relative safety, even after the German conquest, until 1943. But as the Nazi vise tightened, Joseph first worked in a factory and then lived underground with the help of the Belgian resistance movement.

Liberated in late 1944, the 17-year-old Joseph made it to Palestine, worked in a kibbutz, and in 1947 joined the underground Haganah. Fighting as a rifleman in the War of Independence, under the command of a young officer named Ariel Sharon, Joseph was shot in the leg.

The medic who bandaged his wound felt sorry for the family-less young soldier, invited Joseph to his home and introduced him to his sister, Judith. As in all good stories, Joseph and Judith were married shortly afterwards.

In 1956, Joseph was called up again, fought as a sharpshooter in the Sinai campaign, and picked up his rifle once more for the Six-Day War.

By that time, in 1967, Offer was 10 years old and he remembers vividly digging trenches and taping up windows in anticipation of the Arab onslaught.

Finally out of uniform, Joseph started to work for El Al Airlines, became a controller and was transferred to Toronto.

“The Holocaust shaped my character,” Joseph said. “I’m not completely sane; there’s a sense of guilt in surviving when so many others died. I find solace in being alone.”

In Canada, Offer picked up his accent-free English and passion for hockey, but knew nothing about his father’s experiences under Nazi rule. However, when his sister, Orna, now a television and movie producer, started questioning her father about his past, the story gradually came out and had a deep impact on young Offer.

“Being the son of a survivor, seeing your father’s struggles, affects you emotionally,” Offer said. “I once had to go to Germany on business, but to this day I will not buy anything German.”

In 1978, after studying hospitality management at an American college, it was Offer’s turn to join the Israeli army for three years with an elite intelligence unit.

After discharge, he left for New York to start his career. On arrival, a U.S. immigration official with an odd sense of humor made young Nissenbaum an offer he couldn’t refuse and added an “F” to the given name, “Ofer.”

In his first American hotel job, he worked for two years under the tyrannical Leona Helmsley, the “Queen of Mean,” notorious for terrorizing her employees. From that experience, Nissenbaum drew the lesson that “management by fear and intimidation doesn’t work.”

Nissenbaum, now a boss himself at the Peninsula, is a strong believer in a cooperative, counter-Helmsley management style.

“I think of myself more as a mentor than a boss,” he said. “I meet monthly with 25 different employees, from the managers to the dishwasher, to see how we can improve operations. Every employee has a special insight and I believe if you treat your staff right, they will treat the guests right.”

Last month, he personally barbecued all the steaks at an outing for his 420 employees.

In New York, Nissenbaum was active — and recognized by — the American Jewish Committee, Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces and American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

He intends to become equally involved in the Los Angeles community once he’s settled in and has organized his workaholic working hours. Nissenbaum, his wife and their three children, ranging in age from 3 to 12, live in the Benedict Canyon area and are members of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.

Asked about the effect of the floundering economy on his business, Nissenbaum responded that while no one was immune to the downturn, the impact on the Peninsula has been minimal so far.

“Most of our guests are of high net worth,” he said. “They may be a little more careful about ordering a $1,000 bottle of wine, but they’re not going to fly coach or stay at a motel.”

Sleepovers for Strangers

Patriarch Avraham sits outdoors, in front of his tent, recovering from his recent circumcision. Hashem visits with him, teaching and modeling for us the mitzvah of bikkur cholim — visiting the sick.

We are commanded to walk in Hashem’s ways, as the Talmud teaches in Sotah 14a. Hashem clothed the naked Adam and Eve, and so we too should clothe the naked and care for the needy. He comforted Yitzchak, who mourned Avraham’s passing, and therefore we should comfort mourners. He attended to the burial of Moshe on Mount Nevo, and so we should attend to the last needs of the deceased.

Avraham is in recovery mode, and yet he camps outside hoping to see wayfarers whom he can invite into his abode for something to eat; a reason to articulate an affirmation of thanks and gratitude to the one true Master of the Universe. Along come three men — messengers of Hashem, we are told by our tradition — and Avraham invites them in. But first he brings them water, inviting them to wash the sand and dust off their feet (Genesis 18:4).

Two of the three Divine messengers resume their trek and reach Sodom, their mission’s ultimate destination. There they meet Lot, the nephew of Avraham. Our tradition teaches that Lot was raised by his uncle Avraham after his own father, Haran (Genesis 11:27), died a terrible death in Nimrod’s fiery furnace. Lot invites the men into his home to spend the night, and further invites them to wash their feet in the morning (Genesis 19:2).

Although many customs and lifestyle nuances appear in the course of the Tanakh (our Bible), this business of inviting visiting strangers to wash their feet seems striking. Not only Avraham and Lot, but others in the Tanakh began their home hospitality by offering wayfarers water to wash their feet. Thus, Avraham’s Damascene servant, Eliezer, was offered water to wash his feet when he arrived at the home of Betuel, father of Rivkah, the young girl who he perceived perfect to marry Yitzchak (Genesis 24:32). We later see that when Joseph’s brothers were invited into his home, the home of the Egyptian viceroy, they promptly were given water to wash their feet (Genesis 43:24).

These are the traditions and niceties of a people who became proficient at welcoming wayfarers. The very act of inviting the traveling stranger into one’s home took on the aspect of religious observance, accompanied by ritual.

The water of foot washing is a hallmark of the house meant to welcome visitors, dining guests, even sleepovers. And we see that, in our tradition, not only is hachnasat orchim a central mitzvah — another of those acts of kindness from which one eats the fruit in this world while enjoying the principal in the world to come (Talmud, Shabbat 127a) — but it is one more defining practice of our people, and other Children of Avraham, that sets us (and, in this case, our Arab cousins) apart from much of the world.

Which brings us back to the foot washing. I imagine young Lot in my mind’s eye — Lot, the nephew, in the home of Uncle Avraham and Aunt Sarah. Guests arrive. And soon the bowl of water for foot washing was brought out.

“We have guests, and they’re sleeping over. Clean up your bedroom, get a towel and get them water to wash their feet.”

I see the same nephew growing into a man, years later. He has made some bad choices, is camped out in Sodom, married to a salty wife, with some daughters who have grown up in Sodom. It’s a bad situation, a bad spiritual place, and he is not the quality of man that Avraham is. But he’s got the foot water ready — because he grew up with the foot water. M’darft — a person simply has to have foot water ready for guests.

It passes along the family through the generations. Avraham sends Eliezer back to the land where Avraham evolved many of his early values, forbidding the servant from selecting a bride locally from among the coarse Canaanites. Eliezer finds Rivkah, is invited to spend the night, and is welcomed with the foot water. By the time of Joseph, the palace has foot water for the visiting brothers. And, even in the horrific story of the Concubine of Giv’ah, the elderly man — who unsuccessfully tries saving the wayfarers from the overnight doom that surely would have befallen them if they had camped outdoors in the town square — signals them with the foot water of hospitality (Judges 19:21).

Nu? So what about your home?

Do you host Shabbat sleepovers? Do you regularly host guests for Shabbat meals? And, if you do, are your invitations geared primarily to your own circle of friends? Or do your children see you inviting wayfarers, strangers visiting the community? Do they see you adding your name to your local synagogue’s Shabbat home hospitality list? Is yours a home open to strangers who contact your synagogue for a Shabbat meal?

Today, the symbols of hospitality more typically are the bedroom at the end of the hall, the face and bath towels, and an old blanket with pillowcases that don’t match. But that’s OK. Because if it is part of their childhood, your children will continue this wonderful tradition of hachnasat orchim when they have homes and households. They are watching you and learning. Just as you do what your parents did when you grew up. Just as Joseph. Just as Rivkah. Just as Lot. All continuing this remarkable tradition, so strangely unique in society, of housing unknown sleepovers, feeding them and footing the bill with joy.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rav of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine.

Just in Time

Jeff, the guy from the party rental place, left this phone message two weeks ago:

“Passover is March 31,” he said, “and, say Marlene, you always call us the last minute. Do you think you might plan a bit ahead this time?”

Jeff isn’t even Jewish, but his calendar was right. I always leave everything to the last minute, from making the gefilte fish to writing the annual haggadah. When my guests arrive, they typically find me grating horseradish, my eyes bleary with tears. Then they have to help set the table, collate the copies from Kinkos and arrange the flowers. Until this year, I thought last-minute hospitality was the pursuit of freshness, or otherwise part of my charm. After all, the children of Israel only had a few hours to plan for their liberation. Having more than a day to plan a seder seems like overkill.

Then, a week ago, I spoke to my friend Carrie.

“I don’t want to rush your calendar, but what are you doing for Passover?” I asked. But Carrie had her plans set in concrete.

Then I called my cousin Rita, who knew for certain that she was spending the first night with her sister-in-law, Mary, who already had her chicken soup in the freezer. The broth was only awaiting the matzo balls. Rita was making the potato kugel she was planning to bring with her even as we spoke.

It only got worse. I have been making Passover seders for 20 years, and I have a huge core crowd of extended family who wouldn’t go anywhere else but my home. But I always like to add new people since I too was once a stranger in a strange land. But all my favorite “strangers” this year were already accounted for. My friend Andy, an award-winning caterer, not only had his plans but he’d made his tzimmes and brisket last weekend. It seems that only I was still thinking that Passover was a big surprise party. The surprise was on me, who had not yet ordered my whitefish, pike and carp.

Maybe it is because I am a Baby Boomer and grew up in what was once called the Age of Anxiety, the post-Bomb era, that I have never been good at planning ahead. My husband, who was older than me by a generation, was even worse in this regard. Our first Passover together was memorable because Burton called his cousins at 4:30 to ask if we could attend their seder, which was starting at 6.

Even when it became a certainty that Passover was my holiday, just as Thanksgiving is my friend Marika’s, I still never got in the groove. I think it has something to do with the smells. I love the smells of the holidays, the rich aroma of beef and chicken and fish that come together just around 4 p.m. when the guests arrive. So that’s one reason I do almost everything at last minute.

Another reason is that, in contrast to Greta Garbo, I don’t really want to be alone. I only begin planning my Passover right after my parents declare they’ve bought their airline tickets. Cooking for Passover, to me, means cooking with Mom.

It wasn’t always like that. When I was young and newly married, my friends and I put together a gourmet Passover. The more esoteric the foods, the better. Some years we’d have lamb, others we’d be vegetarian. We were brave and creative –and nuts.

As I got older, I wanted my daughter to know a real seder. I needed real Jewish foods exactly as I had had them. At that point, my parents felt confident that it was safe to eat at my table, so long as my mother helped to cook. Rather than have her shlep three slabs of brisket from Florida to L.A., I left all the cooking until my mother arrived. I waited each year so she could show me for the thousandth time how she mixed together Hungarian paprika, garlic salt and oil into a luscious paste for baked chicken. Doing the work together made the day fly.

From time to time, my mother and father would stay in New York and Florida, so over time, my friend Willie began to share the cooking load. Willie, too, is a last-minute chef; she’d come to the house in the late afternoon, and make her renowned light-as-air matzo balls even as the seder began, spooning them into the rolling vat of soup.

But this year, my parents are staying in Florida. Willie and her husband are in Japan. I’m still having a table of 20, so what will I do?

The older we get, the earlier we begin. I used to think it is the labor alone that makes people start their holiday planning. But now I think we begin cooking and planning for Passover early because we need our memories to come alive, a testimony of faith in the present. We’ll be thinking about who isn’t coming this year, and who won’t be there next year. And soon enough, long before you need to, the big rush begins: You first buy the ingredients, then, what the heck, you might as well start making it. And before you know it, the soup is in Tupperware in the freezer, and the brisket is ready for slicing. So this year, Jeff got his order early. Who knows, if I do my preparing early enough, I’ll be ready for Passover, memories and all, just in time.

Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, will appear at Barnes & Noble in Calabasas on Sunday March 21.

Her website is

Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.comHer book, “A Woman’s Voice” is available through