Unexpected Israeli cuisine


I'm not sure what I expected. Hummus, certainly, but what else? Stuffed derma? Latkes? Matzah ball soup? As a native New Yorker with Ashkenazi roots, the foods I associated with being Jewish were the foods I associated with my grandparents. By extension, I suppose, I also associated these same foods with Israel, though those connections were more subconscious than explicit. 

Early last fall, I received a call. Israel’s Ministry of Tourism was organizing a small culinary trip, and it invited me to come along as a guest. I’d never been to Israel, and I suddenly had the opportunity, through my work as a food writer, to tour a country incredibly important to my religious and cultural heritage. I said yes. Six weeks later, I checked my preconceived notions of Israeli food along with my luggage and embarked on an unparalleled culinary journey. 

With me were Hugh Acheson, Ottawa native and current owner of three Georgia-based restaurants (as well as an author and television personality); Ben Ford, proprietor of popular Culver City gastropub Ford’s Filling Station and two new soon-to-open restaurants; Viet Pham, one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2011 and co-owner of the Salt Lake City restaurant Forage; and Maury Rubin, pastry chef, author and owner of six New York City bakery-cafes, including the flagship City Bakery in Union Square. Because I was traveling with four chefs, our itinerary was designed specifically to introduce us to Israel’s rising culinary stars and evolving cuisine, a cuisine steeped in the traditions of the Middle East but with notable European influences.  

It quickly became clear that today’s Israeli chefs take the region’s best-loved ingredients — the fresh fruits and vegetables, the tahini, the fish, the labne — and morph many of them into dishes with modern flair. In addition, the culinary phrases we Americans now bandy about so often are becoming a part of the Israeli food lexicon as well: “artisanal” oils, “farm-to-table” restaurants, “sustainable” aquaculture and viticulture practices, “foraged” herbs and plants. These efforts reflect both practices already in place (and, in some cases, in place for ages) as well as a concerted appeal to the sophisticated modern traveler.

Take foraging. We learned from Abbie Rosner, who has written widely about foodways in the Galilee (she has lived there since the 1980s), that Arabs have been foraging wild foods in that region since biblical times. This clearly touched a chord with chefs Ford and Pham, who forage regularly to procure produce, herbs and edible weeds for their respective restaurants. During our journey across Israel, they would constantly stop to pluck berries from branches or even gnaw on bits of the branches themselves, tasting as they went. Israel was a forager’s dreamland, and these old practices connected the country to two modern American chefs in a very special way.

Then there were the bakeries.


Croissants at the Port of Jaffa. Photo by Cheryl Sternman Rule

I personally loved our visits to Israeli bakeries, from tiny Ugata in Kibbutz Kinneret, to Dallal and Bakery 29 in Tel Aviv, to the most casual outdoor bakery cart in the Port of Jaffa, piled high with two-toned croissants. For Rubin, the baker in our group, these bakery visits were especially exciting. At Bakery 29, owner Netta Korin glowed visibly when Rubin introduced himself. A former investment banker at Lehman Brothers in New York, Korin (who was born in Israel but raised in the United States and Europe) was a devoted customer at Rubin’s City Bakery before she moved back to the country of her birth. In early 2011, she opened her small, quaint Tel Aviv bakeshop, specializing in cinnamon rolls and scones. Korin, remarkably, donates 100 percent of her profits to the IMPACT! scholarship program, which supports Israel Defense Forces soldiers who could not otherwise afford to pursue higher education. 

As for the restaurants, they spanned a wide spectrum. We enjoyed our first dinner high in the hills above Jerusalem at Rama’s Kitchen in Nataf. Run by Rama Ben Zvi (an Israeli Jew and former dancer with a doctorate from the Sorbonne), the rustic outdoor eatery gave us our first taste of Israeli-style communal dining, with each of us sweeping bits of pita through plates of pureed baked potato, garlic confit and olive oil; creamy labne; and chicken liver pate with roasted beets. Dishes of white balsamic aubergine (eggplant), rare filet mignon with green tahini sauce, and Jerusalem artichoke and sweet potato followed.  

We soon tasted the ebullient and colorful cuisine of Jerusalem chef Uri Navon at Machneyuda, his popular restaurant adjacent to the famous Mahane Yehuda Market; enjoyed a multicourse Lebanese- and Jordanian-inflected lunch at Ktze HaNachal restaurant in the Galilee; and experienced the handiwork of chef Moshe Segev, chef of El Al airlines, at his eponymous restaurant Segev in Herzliya. At one point, servers brought out a salad in a glass wine bottle that had been sawed in half and opened flat like a book; this was, by far, the strangest serving vessel I’ve ever seen.

Was every dish a home run, every meal worth raving about? Of course not. But many high-end chefs are pushing boundaries, taking risks and infusing old-fashioned dishes with modernist touches. Some succeed, and some fail — and to pretend otherwise, or to see the failures as disappointments — would be to miss the point entirely.

For me, the point is this: The cuisine of Israel is on the precipice of change, and much of it is not only fresh, but exciting. It’s like art, with hits and misses, highs and lows. Perhaps most telling was my favorite dish of the trip, at once both humble and almost absurdly transgressive in its simplicity. It was a whole head of charred cauliflower plopped, plateless, in the center of a paper-lined table at the cheeky Tel Aviv restaurant Abraxas North. Any country whose chefs have the chutzpah to serve diners a head of blackened cauliflower and expect them to pick off florets with their fingers is a country I’m glad I visited, and to which I hope soon to return.


Cheryl Sternman Rule is the author of “Ripe: A Fresh, Colorful Approach to Fruits and Vegetables” (Running Press: 2012) and the voice behind 5 Second Rule, named best food blog of 2012 by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Learn more at cherylsternmanrule.com.

A kiss of the grape — and other adult libations — in Jerusalem


Wine bars, a new twist on an old theme, are drawing huge numbers of clientele in most metropolitan cities. What about the Holy City? Although the selection in Jerusalem doesn’t quite compare to that of its American and European rivals, there are enough choices in the Jewish capital to erase the so-called vapid reputation of kosher wine forever. Kosher vintners have long been removing the stigma, but at these establishments, with fine wines available by the bottle and the glass, it is a much more distant memory. An evening exploring these wines, savory dishes (many of them finger foods) prepared by on-site, professional chefs de cuisine, and memorable desserts that pair equally well with certain vintages or spirits, are a definite recipe for relaxation. Check them out while you traverse the spiritual center of the universe at the New Year and all year. 

ADOM

In name and spirit, Adom, Hebrew for “Red,” embodies the pleasure of fine wines and fine dining. Tucked into the hip, bustling alleyway of bars called Rivlin Street, just off Jaffa Road, guests enter the picturesque gated patio. A quick peek at its retaining wall, studded with embedded wine bottles and corks, is a not-so-subtle introduction to what’s in store. An impressive list of 160 wines is paired with three seating areas, whose stone walls and curved arches warm up by candlelight. The rotating wine of the month enables guests to sample new varieties by the glass at a discount. And a menu of international bistro cuisine, including beautifully presented salads, meats, fish dishes and more gives way to a late-night menu of finger food after 11 p.m. Adom is clustered in the only area of Jerusalem where anything close to a wine bar exists, in the tight mix of restaurants between the light-rail tracks and the Mamilla and David Citadel hotels. This restaurant is not supervised kosher but it, of course, relies on Israeli products that are certified kosher and it does offer kosher wines on its extensive list, making it a great option for a stop on your tasting tour. It is admittedly a little tricky to find, but the search is worth it for its ambience and charm. Simplify your search for Adom by entering from Jaffa Road No. 31, near the light-rail stop. Head down an intriguing path lined with many other establishments that draw huge crowds on Thursday and Saturday nights. Pass through this maze of hopping joints and heavy foot traffic to the tranquil Feingold Courtyard. 

Adom, 31 Jaffa Road, Jerusalem. 972-2-624-6242. 

THE WINERY/MIRROR BAR

The gorgeous Mamilla Hotel is one big bite of eye candy. After you enter this modernist retreat, head upstairs to its long and inviting wine bar, simply called the Winery. Sure, there are many other lovely places to sneak away for a romantic gourmet experience in and around the uber-chic Mamilla part of town, but only here will you find a massive slab of beautiful green glass atop a long wooden bar. Behind the counter, the Winery is tricked out with state-of-the art chilled, nitrogen-equipped dispensaries. Request your wine on tap or from the enticing selection along the exposed cellar, facing you along the wall behind the bar. 

The Mamilla Hotel has staffed this unique bar with trained sommeliers who offer curated tasting experiences. About 80 Israeli wines, from larger houses as well as boutiques, are on the menu. If you’re hungry late at night, take note that the Winery serves only small, cold plates of meat and fish from 3 to 8 p.m. After the Winery closes, you’re in for a treat. The green glass functions as a mere navigational device of sorts. Continue past the bar to the inviting entry point of the chic Mirror Bar. After 8 p.m., it opens up to a large, dimly lit area with comfy seats, perfect for viewing the massive flat-screen TV. Or, along small bar tables and chairs, you can take in the sounds of a live DJ working his groove at the internally lit marble bar. Take your party outside on the balcony with a view of the stone-lined pedestrian mall below or slip inside the separately enclosed glass-walled cigar lounge for more indulgence. 

The short bar menu here is heavy on meat dishes — think scrumptious mini burgers on brioche buns. But it also features delicious ceviche with fresh citrus and avocado and focaccia with herbal aioli for vegetarians and those seeking lighter fare. Every option available from the Winery menu remains available here as well. So you’ll have your pick from the fabulous menu-within-a-menu “Cellar” selections. Our favorite was a Katzav’s Merlot, aged in French oak barrels and bursting with ripe, tart fruit. Ready to indulge more? The almond sachlav with coffee truffle is one cup of steaming, hot ambrosia worth every gram of its heavy caloric cost. Kosher. 

11 King Solomon St., Jerusalem. 972-2-548-2211. mamillahotel.com. 

SCALA 

Just in case you had any doubt, this tiny neighborhood is one of Jerusalem’s key centers of gastronomy, spirituality and hospitality. You’re only minutes from the Old City and a host of other fine dining — and drinking — establishments that have long hosted tourists, foodies, gourmands and more. 

As you exit the Mamilla Hotel, head up King David Street to the massive David Citadel. Take the elevator up to the Scala Restaurant for another celebration of the senses. This high-end establishment caters to a clientele made up mostly of non-hotel guests. One taste of its menu, and you’ll understand why. 

Scala boasts the romantic night out trifecta. Its extravagant combination of cocktail bar, restaurant and wine bar all in one leaves little wanting. A stunning glass wall-to-wall wine cellar boasts 60 select Israeli wines, yours for the choosing. The labels range widely in provenance, taste and price, with nearly every imaginable kosher option, including renowned wines from the distinguished label, the Cave, to suit whatever you order for dinner, and high-end spirits, such as top-ticket Johnnie Walker Blue Label, paired with decadent chocolate desserts. 

If you’re not sure which way to proceed, ask the wait staff or Scala’s talented resident chef for their advice on the best way to enjoy whatever libations you choose. Every dish on the menu, from the tapas to the entrees, has a drink-in-waiting. Our selections ran the full spectrum, and each dish, from salad and fish to chicken and beef, was worth a return visit. Ditto for the desserts. Swoon-worthy, surprising blends of flavors included a hazelnut and coffee cream. The Dark Chocolate Delight is an artful ensemble of hot chocolate lava cake with apricot sorbet, served with additional whipped hot chocolate pudding with brandy and rich dark chocolate garnishes. It all went down smoothly with a Yatir 2007 Merlot-Shiraz-Cabernet. Definitely an experience to be repeated. Kosher. 

Scala, David Citadel Hotel, 7 King David St., Jerusalem. 972-2-621-2030. scala-rest.com.

Lisa Alcalay Klug is the author of “Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe.” Her new book, “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe,” debuts in October. She is online at lisaklug.com.

Scientist is first Israeli to win World Food Prize


An Israeli scientist was awarded the prestigious World Food Prize, becoming the first Israeli to receive the award.

Dr. Daniel Hillel, who specializes in a new mode of bringing water to crops in arid and dry land known as micro-irrigation, was awarded the prize at the U.S. State Department on Tuesday.

The $250,000 award is given to an individual who has enhanced human development with innovative solutions to food quality. The recognition is an initiative privately sponsored by businessman and philanthropist Juan Roan of Des Moines, Iowa.

During the ceremony, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Hillel “a master of applying new thinking to old problems.”

“Food security is also fundamental to human security. Food scarcity can lead to social unrest,” Clinton said in her remarks, according to Haaretz. “When we strengthen food security and enhance cooperation we lay stronger base to promote human development. … It is up to up to us to save the next billion.”

In addition, Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, praised Hillel for his work for “maximizing efficient water usage in agriculture.”

“Dr. Hillel’s work and motivation has been to bridge such divisions and to promote peace and understanding in the Middle East by advancing a breakthrough achievement addressing a problem that so many countries share in common: water scarcity,” Quinn said in his remarks, according to Haaretz.

Israeli pastry chef makes it big as ‘Sweet Genius’


As the minutes on the clock tick away, the chefs run about their kitchens furiously trying to complete their Taj Mahal-themed desserts.

“What have I got for you now?” booms the thickly accented master pastry chef Ron Ben-Israel as he overlooks the chefs’ workstations. “Another mandatory ingredient—tahini paste!”

This is “Sweet Genius,” the hit Food Network show that recently began its second season.

Chefs compete to earn the coveted title, win $10,000 and impress Ben-Israel, the show’s host, judge and original sweet genius, who often asks competitors to include ingredients not typically found in desserts.

“When you talk about a level of skill and craftsmanship, the other cake purveyors in the city are in awe of Ron’s work,” says Ashlea Halpern, New York Magazine’s strategist editor. “He’s one of the best in New York. He’s perfected the model.”

Ben-Israel doesn’t like to focus on the genius moniker, however, and he was even a bit intimidated by the idea when Food Network proposed it, he told JTA in an interview at Ron Ben-Israel Cakes, his New York bake shop. He prefers to concentrate on the “sweet” part of the title and considers himself more like a guide to the show’s contestants.

For the few who impress Ben-Israel enough to also earn the title, the recognition—and prize money—can be a career booster.

When pastry chef Amos Hayon competed on “Sweet Genius” last season, he was on the verge of returning to his native Israel, having failed to make a living in the United States. After Ben-Israel crowned him a sweet genius and awarded him $10,000, things began to pick up.

Story continues after the jump.

In addition to traveling to food festivals nationwide, Hayon is a pastry chef at a restaurant on Long Island in suburban New York.

He calls Ben-Israel an inspiration both for his accomplishments as a baker and as a gay Israeli who realized his dream.

“He’s my guru,” Hayon says. “He gave me a lot of energy, power to do this. Somebody came before me, and I know I can do this also.”

Ben-Israel’s confections can be seen on the pages of Martha Stewart Living, People, New York Magazine and Vogue, and they are staples at such establishments as the Waldorf-Astoria, Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton.

Cakes have always been popular, says Ben-Israel, 54, but television has given bakers permission to make them the main attraction.

“In a bar mitzvah you do the candle-lighting ceremony with the cake. Every birthday the cake is the big moment,” he says. Now because of the growing pop-culture spotlight, “every cake-maker knows how important they are. I always knew it.”

The Food Network studios are a long way from Ben-Israel’s beginnings in Tel Aviv, and even further from his original career as a dancer.

He attended a Tel Aviv high school that focused on the arts, and then while he was serving in the Israel Defense Forces in the late 1970s, a friend got him interested in ballet. After completing his mandatory army service, he joined Bat Dor, an Israeli dance troupe.

Ben-Israel then began studying dance techniques across Europe, Canada and the United States. When he arrived in New York City in the mid-1980s, he says he knew he was there to stay.

“I really feel Tel Aviv has a lot, but everything in New York is just more,” he says.

In between applying for grants to fund his dance studies, Ben-Israel began picking up odd jobs designing store window displays and working in bakeries.

“Toward the end of my career, grants were drying up and I needed to support myself,” recalls Ben-Israel, who had grown up watching his Viennese mother make fantastic desserts. “I was able to come in [to bakeries] and observe—and with my ego, tell them how to do it better.”

At the age of 36, after 15 years as a professional dancer, he began baking full time. In 1996, while on display in the windows of Mikimoto on Fifth Avenue, his cakes began grabbing national attention and Ben-Israel soon started receiving commissions from De Beers, Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf-Goodman.

The New York Times dubbed Ben-Israel “the Manolo Blahnik of cakes.”

In 1999 he opened Ron Ben-Israel Cakes in New York’s SoHo neighborhood with one oven and one mixer. As people fled downtown New York after the 9/11 tragedy, he was able to capitalize on lower rents and expand his operation.

Coming from a secular Israeli upbringing, Ben-Israel wasn’t ideologically interested in making his shop kosher, but for a caterer for some of New York City’s biggest hotels, it was a prudent business decision.

He chose OK Laboratories, the Chabad-affiliated kashrut organization headquartered in Brooklyn, which now certifies his shop’s pareve cakes.

The Chabad rabbis, Ben-Israel says, have a certain spirit that has ignited his own passion for Judaism. He never thought about owning separate Passover dishes while living in Israel, but now he owns a set, as well as a dozen Haggadahs, a shofar and a menorah.

“I became more sentimental,” he says. “It’s a matter of age, but also not being in Israel on a regular basis, I miss a lot of the traditions that are just natural in Israel and you don’t even think about it because you’re surrounded by Jews. So I had to distinguish myself.”

Jewish and Israeli cultures have certainly influenced the master baker. Challah, he says, is one of his favorite things to bake—but he doesn’t do just any challah.

“My version has olive oil, semolina flour, honey, and I make six braids,” he says. “It takes the whole day.”

As the son of Holocaust survivors, being Israeli and Jewish are sources of pride for Ben-Israel.

A “textbook second-generation survivor,” Ben-Israel remembers listening to his parents’ stories and realizing an emptiness within them that has trickled down to him. The creativity of baking helps fill that emptiness, he says.

“My parents were artists, so my salvation was to make pretty things—and ultimately delicious things at the same time,” he says.

In 2007, Ben-Israel designed a cake celebrating the 100th anniversary of New York’s Plaza Hotel, which the Israeli conglomerate Elad Properties had purchased earlier in the decade. The connection quickly raised his profile in his homeland. The chef tries to return to Israel at least once a year, and he would love to do an Israeli version of “Sweet Genius.”

While Ben-Israel no longer votes in Israeli elections—he doesn’t believe it’s right for him to vote if he doesn’t live in the country—he maintains a strong sense of pride in Israel and its accomplishments, especially in women’s and gay rights.

Still, he says, there is a long way to go.

“I always admire people in Israel who come out because it’s such a small place and everybody’s looking at you,” Ben-Israel says, noting that while he himself came out in Israel, being openly gay was common at the art school he attended.

Between running his cake shop, hosting “Sweet Genius,” and teaching at The International Culinary Center, founded as The French Culinary Institute, Ben-Israel appears to have time for little else. Still, he continues to seek new challenges.

Perhaps peacemaker?

“The Palestinians do cakes with the same products,” he says. “I’d be open to bridge the gap with sugar and cake.”

Table for none?


It was to be the restaurant that would change kosher dining in Los Angeles.

In December 2006, the Prime Grill, a branch of the popular New York kosher steakhouse, opened its doors in Beverly Hills promising a new experience in kosher dining. “There’s never been a kosher restaurant like this in Southern California,” Samuel Franco, the restaurant’s director of operations, told The Journal at the time. “New York has always been ahead of L.A. in certain ways. With the Prime Grill’s opening, L.A. now catches up.”

But little more than a year after it opened, rumors spread that the luxurious restaurant on Rodeo Drive was about to close.

“There is absolutely no truth to this rumor,” general manager Mikael Choukroun said in January, noting that the restaurant was adjusting its menu to more moderate pricing.

But by February, the doors were closed and a message on the voicemail said, “The Prime Grill regrets to inform that due to rainwater damage from the recent storms, we will be temporarily closed.”

Numerous calls to the New York restaurant management (including owner Joey Allaham) have not been returned, and the Beverly Hills locale now appears closed for good, its phone line disconnected.

And the Prime Grill is not the only kosher restaurant that has closed in recent weeks. Mamash, an Asian fusion restaurant in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, also closed in March, after opening only last December. And Pico Boulevard’s 15-year staple, the Yemenite restaurant The Magic Carpet, has closed, as well.

Why are all these kosher restaurants closing? What does it take to make a successful kosher restaurant in Los Angeles?

Prime Grill’s problem, many say, was the prices. The owners seemed to recognize the problem and began offering lunch and happy hour specials toward the end of the restaurant’s short run. Others say it was the location — off the “strip” (Pico-Robertson).

But the Prime Grill’s downfall also might have been the image presented as its selling point: its outsider status.

“The bottom line is that owners have to be there — you can’t manage a kosher restaurant from New York,” said one successful kosher restaurant owner who asked that his name be withheld. “Restauranting is a passion — it’s not just a business.”

New York cannot be duplicated in any market — and that includes the kosher restaurant business, said Errol Fine, owner of Pat’s Restaurant, a high-end kosher venue on Pico that has outlived others for the last 15 years.

“The market is different here,” he said.

“I think it’s more common to go out to dinner in New York than it is in L.A.,” Fine said, because New York has 10 times the kosher population. “There’s a saturation point. Maybe there’s not enough population to support all these kosher restaurants that have sprung up — there’s only so much of a kosher pie that gets divided. People have to make their choices.”

Most agree that the kosher restaurant business in Los Angeles is not easy.

“It’s a really hard game — the community is a really hard community to satisfy,” said Warren Bregman, an architect and contractor who was one of the three partners at Mamash. “Overheads are the killer — that’s what killed Prime Grill, too.”

He said location wasn’t the problem — Mamash was situated on the south side of Pico Boulevard near Doheny Boulevard — but finances were. The restaurant practically closed before it opened, the partners having underestimated costs. And kosher restaurants cannot survive on the kosher clientele alone, Bregman said.

“If you’re going to do high-end you have to do more corporate involvement,” he said. They’d planned to attract the Fox Studios and Century City crowd in their more than 160-square-foot space.

Every restaurateur seems to have a unique economic plan to make it work. Mamash’s owners thought they would draw the corporate clientele; Prime Grill hoped for celebs like Paris Hilton and Larry King. The Magic Carpet’s Nili Goldstein believes it’s all about catering.

“A kosher restaurant has to establish a catering business,” she said, because it has to be closed on Friday evenings and Saturdays — the main profit days for non-kosher restaurants.

“You lose Friday and Saturday, you’re left with Sunday, and you take away Jewish holidays — it doesn’t leave much for the owner to survive,” she said.

When one of her three business partners died three years ago, she cut down on catering — which should ideally be 15 percent of the business.

“There are a lot of non-licensed people operating catering businesses,” she said — non-restaurant owners who provide food at shul and private events — cutting into restaurant profits.

But the poor economy, difficult parking situation and increased competition also made her eager to sell. With the Pico-Olympic parking proposal, which would limit evening parking and hurt businesses like Magic Carpet, Goldstein decided it was time to get out. She sold her business to an Indian restaurant.

Even as she did, Delice Bakery opened its own restaurant across the street. It was perfect timing.

Julian Bohbot had been trying to buy the lot next to his French bakery since he opened Delice in 2001. He finally secured a 40-year lease and opened the Delice Bistro in March. The French steakhouse is centered around a faux Eiffel Tower that disappears into a circular crevice painted to look like the sky, and the dim lighting and close seating — fitting 80-85 people — give the place a bustling but cozy feel. It’s haimish — warm; kind of like the two restaurants Bohbot ran in Paris.

Although it’s too soon to tell whether Delice Bistro will be a success, in the weeks before Passover the restaurant was full. Bohbot said he pays attention to the menu — and prices.

“I am the cheapest kosher restaurant in the U.S.,” he claimed, noting that his steak is priced at less than $30.

L.A. Jewish girl joins the African Jewish matzah dance


My Pesach preparation, like that of so many Americans, usually involves walking to my local supermarket and loading a cart full of Manischewitz products … you
know, the chocolate-covered jellies, the matzah-pizza sauce and, of course, the kosher cheese that rarely melts. The hardest part of the process is simply choosing between the egg and onion or the butter-flavored matzah.

But preparing for Pesach this year was a bit different. Living in the village of Gonder in Northern Ethiopia and teaching Hebrew music, dance and culture to eager students, ages 6 to 20, has been an enormous blessing. I wake up each morning to pray with white-robed, modest Ethiopians who have moved from the surrounding villages to be a part of this unbelievable 14,000-person Jewish community. From morning services, I walk the rocky dirt path to the mud and straw school, which is decorated with vibrant paintings of the Torah, a shofar, Israeli flags and even a diagram of the body in Hebrew. It is alive with exuberant children skipping quickly inside to get a good seat on the wooden benches. They sing “Hava Nagila,” “Esa Enai” and “Hinei Matov” with every ounce of power in their lungs and with a groovy boogie in their brightly colored foam-sandaled feet. Meanwhile, some of their older cousins and parents are busy suiting up in matching beige aprons preparing for the coming holiday.

Almost 400 miles away from the nearest “supermarket” — not to mention one that sells kosher food — the members of Gonder’s Beta Israel Jewish Community have to make all their matzah themselves, resulting in the production of 300,000 matzot in an outdoor, 18-minute-or-less whirlwind, just in time to replace the injera (traditional flat, sour, bubbly pancakes — the staple Ethiopian food) for Pesach.

As a Los Angeles-bred city girl, I would have had no idea where to start if I were asked to hand-prepare fresh matzah. I probably would have plopped some bread dough on my head and hurriedly walked around outside in the sun, trying to mimic my ancestors leaving Egypt, hoping that it would somehow bake into a neat flattened square crisp.

But in Gonder, they have the process down to an art. More than 100 community members in kippot and hair coverings (for the women) work under the supervision of an Israeli Ethiopian named Getinet beneath the precious shade of a large green tree. Turquoise-, yellow- and cantaloupe-shaded birds gather on the branches to witness the operation, also providing a cheery tune on the breeze. The men face each other across long, spotless tables. They count down to the start of the 18-minute cycle with an excited Amharic “ahnd, hoolet, sost!” (And I thought that the ’90s cooking show, “Ready, Set, Cook!” was good.) As soon as the countdown reaches its climax and the time begins to run, they rapidly mix the flour and water, pound it out, roll it, puncture it with “the little hole making wheel” and cut out medium-sized circles.

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May this Pesach bring us all a little “Jewish matzah dance” of our own — or may it at least inspire us to enjoy the natural beauty and joy of Hashem’s creations. More importantly, may the fire of our souls inspire us to perform many mitzvot and celebrate the glory of our heritage that transcends continents, languages and cultures.

For more information about the program, contact the

Get ready to sing . . . Hatikvah!


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May Days!

There are a lot of holidays this month, and your school or synagogue probably has special activities for them. We’ve listed them below … but we’ve taken out the vowels. See if you can fill in the blanks and then match the holiday to the date we celebrate it on. Scroll down and see if you have the right answers.

1) L_G b’_M_R
2) M_M_R__L D_Y
3) M_TH_R’S D_Y
4) R_SH CH_D_SH _Y_R
5) Y_M H_SH__H
a) May 1
b) May 5
c) May 11
d) May 23
e) May 26

A Time to Celebrate

Israel turns 60 on May 14. Which, of course, means it is party time! On May 18, Los Angeles is having an all-day bash in the park. From 10 a.m.-10 p.m. at Woodley Park (between Burbank and Victory boulevards) in Encino, hear music, watch a fashion show, enjoy tons of food, play games, enjoy rides, buy Israeli products and wish the Jewish state a happy birthday.

The Jewish Journal will be there with our friend, Anne Marie Balia Asner, author of the Matzah Ball Books series, including “Shmutzy Girl” and “Noshy Boy.” Anne Marie will be signing her latest book, “Klutzy Boy,” so be sure to stop by our Readers Lounge and take a break from the heat. Yom Hooledet Sameach Yisrael!

For more information, visit

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, November 5

Santa Monica Playhouse Youth Performers perform some tikkun olam and a musical show all at once. This weekend, the 10- to-14-year-olds present “Drempels, aka: The Short but Happy Life of the Drempel Hieronymus Aloisius Plonk.” The musical comedy imagines a make-believe mischievous species called Drempels that live underground. Proceeds from today’s and tomorrow’s shows will benefit The Jenesse Center Hurricane Relief Fund in South Los Angeles, which is currently housing more than 300 Katrina evacuees.

7:30 p.m. (Sat.), 5 p.m. (Sun.). $20 (donation). The Other Space at Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 394-9779, ext. 2.

Sunday, November 6

In the Israeli film, “Joy,” the title character and her family are anything but. However, with the help of her favorite reality TV show, Joy Levine hopes she might be able to change her family’s lot by reconciling her parents with the estranged friends who pulled away from them after a mysterious event some 22 years earlier. The film screens on Nov. 5 and 6, as part of AFI Fest.

6:15 p.m. (Nov. 5), 4 p.m. (Nov. 6). ArcLight Hollywood, 6360 Sunset Blvd. R.S.V.P., (866) 234-3378. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Monday, November 7

Veteran newsman Mike Wallace talks with ABC News’ Judy Muller this evening at Temple Emanuel. Having worked on “60 Minutes” since its 1968 premiere, Wallace’s list of interviewees includes American presidents, world leaders and classic entertainers. He reveals some of the stories behind the interviews in his new memoir, “Between You and Me,” and with any luck, tonight at Emanuel.

7:30 p.m. 300 N. Clark Drive, Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (310) 335-0917. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Tuesday, November 8

Simms Taback offers up the differences between a schlemiel and shlimazel, and other vital Yiddish lessons in his book, “Kibitzers and Fools: Tales My Zayda Told Me.” He’s at Children’s Book World this afternoon for storytelling and a booksigning.

Ages 6 and up. 1:30-3 p.m. 10580 1/2 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 559-2665.

Wednesday, November 9

Bi now, gay later? That’s the question in Dan Rothenberg’s new one-man show, “Regretrosexual.” The neurotic Jewish guy is ready to propose to his girlfriend, if only he can get up the guts to be honest with her about his gay-curious sexual past.

8 p.m. (Tues.-Thurs.), through Nov. 17. $18. The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 969-4790. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Thursday, November 10

Every holiday finds us overeating or fasting, but professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett takes the analysis a few steps further today. The USC Casden Institute presents her lecture on “Recipes for Community: A History of the Jewish Kitchen,” which explores the Jewish relationship with food from the 19th century until today.

5:30 p.m. Free. USC campus. R.S.V.P., (213) 740-3405. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Friday, November 11

Being a celeb super couple can be tough. Consider how it feels to be Bennifer in Adam Goldberg’s new film, “I Love Your Work.” At turns somber and self-mocking, the film addresses the culture of celebrity through the story of a movie star who goes crazy trying to cope with his fame after marrying an equally famous starlet.

Regent Showcase Theater, 614 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 934-2944.

Community Briefs


L.A. Officials Honor Israel

Senior City of Los Angeles officials, visiting Israel under the auspices of the L.A. Jewish Federation, presented a proclamation from the L.A. City Council to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai praising Israel as a “bedrock of stability, democracy and modernity with shared common values of pluralism and cultural diversity.” (From left) City Council President Alex Padillo, Huldai, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and City Councilman Jack Weiss. Photo courtesy Israeli Free Sun

Kuehl: Anti-Hunger Groups Shouldn’t GiveUp

About 22 percent of Israelis suffer from the fear a food shortage called “hunger insecurity,” according to Los Angeles-based Jewish anti-hunger group MAZON. That figure is an increase from prior Israeli surveys on hunger.

“It’s a spike because of three years of terrorism,” MAZON Executive Director H. Eric Schockman told The Journal. Though Israel lacks regional food banks and other American solutions to hunger, Schockman does not believe in creating a new Israeli government hunger office but said that Israel’s 150 anti-hunger agencies must start communicating. “They don’t talk to each other.”

California’s various MAZON-funded anti-hunger groups met Nov. 9-10 in Santa Monica, and heard state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles) outline how she sees the new Schwarzenegger-run California government handling budget cuts, especially to social service agencies.

“There is very little else to cut but education and social services,” Kuehl said to about 100 nonprofit executives. “It’s always going to be a struggle. We have to be the squeakiest wheel we can possibly be.”

Kuehl also said that anti-hunger groups should never stop asking for state funds because, no matter how much money a nonprofit raises, “It will never be as much as I’ve got to give out.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Wolpe Recovering From Surgery

Rabbi David Wolpe was released from the hospital last week following a successful surgery to remove a brain lesion. Wolpe, Sinai Temple’s senior rabbi for the last seven years, first experienced a seizure on Oct. 23 at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was speaking at the dedication of a new Hillel House.

Wolpe is recuperating at his home and plans to return full time to his duties at Sinai and in the community at large. He and his family thank the community for their prayers, concern, calls, e-mails, letter, donations and most of all, love.

In lieu of flowers, balloons or food, donations can be made to Sinai Temple or Sinai Akiba Academy. Any inquiries, cards, or well wishes should be directed through Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90024, Attn: Tracy Schatz. — Staff Report

Israeli Cultural Attaché Resigns

The Israeli cultural attaché in Los Angeles, Moti Reif, resigned this week following a sexual harassment complaint filed against him in Israel’s Foreign Ministry earlier this month. Reif, a former model and TV producer, was appointed to Los Angeles some three months ago, amid heavy criticism from Israeli ministry officials who said Reif had no diplomatic experience. There are no current plans to replace him. — Staff Report

Bazel Draws Sabra Artists to Encino


Hanging out with a group of Israeli artists at a hot new cafe in Encino may not be the same as sitting on Dizengoff in Tel Aviv, but the conversation is as close as it gets for Los Angeles. Tempo is still great for Middle Eastern food and music, but now Cafe Bazel appears to be the spot for late-night carousing.

Named for a Tel Aviv street full of cafes like this, Bazel’s menu has Theodore Herzl on the front cover because it was in the Swiss town of Basel that he conceived the Zionist movement. The Bazel on Ventura, which has been open for six months, has shakshuka, beet salad, rugelach, tea with mint leaves, waitresses in tight black T-shirts and other women in tight black leather who arrive and sit right in front of the join and make you watch them eat. Long black limos are parked out front, facing off against a Lamborghini and a Mercedes on the other side of the boulevard.

Tonight we’re here with Roni Cohen, an Israeli artist who is telling friends about her new show at the Bank Leumi.

Cohen, who moved to Los Angeles in 1997, was a foreign press photographer during the 1973 war in the Golan and Sinai. An accident near the end of the war wrecked her leg and her camera and she went to study with Ran Schori at Bezalel Arts. She also studied in London and New York and began working in a variety of textures, showing at the Shafrai and Mabat Galleries in Israel.

In 1991, her house on Rehov Bialik in Ramat Gan was rocketed by a Scud missile (she wasn’t home, having escaped to Beersheva). With a damaged life and broken heart, she painted through waves of despair and hope. Working in red and black, signifying drums and explosions of not only war but of new energy, she began expressing what she calls "emotional and industrial landscapes."

Her show features abstract forms on large compressed felt rugs, acrylic and collage, and serigraphs and etchings of Jerusalem and Safed.

"I know the soul is here," she says pointing to her head. "I have a new life now, new friendships, new ideas — new everything."

Cohen teaches early childhood education at Stephen S. Wise Temple, and has a son in high school in Agoura Hills. She has had 11 solo shows in Israel and California and is a resident artist at the 825 Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard.

Back at Bazel, it’s after midnight and Israelis are still pouring in for dinner. The sidewalk tables are packed and the men’s bathroom has a widescreen television showing MTV. Deejays Shai and Ariel play Morcheeba and Zero 7 hipster beats behind the coffee bar. There is no alcohol here yet, but fruit shakes are popular. You can get Israel toast and Schnitzel Panko until 3 a.m.

"Tempo is forever," sculptor Uriel Arad says. But now this is his place.

Every time an artist comes to Los Angeles, like Israeli stand-up Naor Zion, who recently played the Wilshire Ebell Theater, "the place to be after the show is over is Cafe Bazel, for real," Bazel manager Nicki Zvik tells me. "This place will be jammed like it’s no tomorrow."

Cohen is drinking cappuccino with friends Eytan Rogenstein and Arad. Other friends of hers come to Encino from the newer Jewish communities of West Hills and Calabasas. One says the atmosphere at Cafe Bazel reminds him of being on Dizengoff because, "You see everybody."

But his friend disagrees.

"It’s the only place on this entire street," he argues, "so it doesn’t remind me [of] anything."

"Everybody and his opinion," says the first artist.

"Plus it’s too wide, Ventura," continues the second.

Cohen’s friend, the sculptor, also "works in construction, like everybody else."

Looking at the long black sedan parked near his table, he jokes, "I came in that limo." Then adds, "I’m driving it."

Directors, painters, football players, even actor David Hasselhoff comes to Bazel, according to Zvik. He says Hasselhoff claimed the warm chocolate cake the finest dessert he ever had in his life.

However, a shooting in the parking lot a few weeks ago slowed business for a bit.

"Ihiye b’seder" ("It will be okay"), Cohen tells Zvik at the coffee bar.

"It’s already b’seder," the manager assures her.

Roni Cohen’s art appears from Oct. 14 through Nov. 21 at Bank Leumi, 16530 Ventura Blvd., Encino with a reception Oct. 14, 5:30-7:30 p.m. Cafe Bazel is at 17620 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 728-0846.


Hank Rosenfeld is a folk journalist.

A Reason to Party


After Osama bin Laden demolished the World Trade Center, then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani made a point of dining out in Manhattan. Last week, after two more bombings, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert went one step further.

Olmert persuaded hundreds of citizens to join him for a fressfest in the downtown Ben Yehuda pedestrian street. Rock groups blared, lights twinkled, steaks sizzled, wines were tasted. Chefs baked the world’s longest challah and a kugel worthy of the Guinness Book of Records.

The four-day food fair opened, as planned, a few hours after five Americans and two Israelis were murdered in an bombing at a cafeteria at the Hebrew University. The opening was not callous commercialism, but a deliberate act of defiance.

Ilan Siboni, owner of the Darna Moroccan restaurant, was offering couscous, savory cigars and oriental grills from an improvised, open-air kitchen. On that first night, he sold out. He — and his customers — were refusing to let the terrorists win.

"We choose for life; they choose for death," said Siboni, who opened his first Jerusalem restaurant 27 years ago. "Despite everything, we decided to go out. If we do what they want us to do, we can just stay at home and be miserable. You see how Jerusalem people react. It’s what we have to do."

The food fair launched a nine-week summer festival of events designed to revitalize Ben Yehuda, which has been targeted by bombers and abandoned by shoppers. Future events this summer will include a local fashion week and a schoolbook fair. An advertising campaign — on television, radio and newspapers — is urging Israelis to take a break in Jerusalem.

The city fathers noticed that people preferred the suburban Malcha shopping mall because it was enclosed and guarded. So they enclosed and guarded Ben Yehuda, too. They erected barriers at all entrances and renamed the paved street the "Open Mall." Police checked everyone coming in. Paramilitary border guards, armed with automatics, patrolled the streets.

A young mother, Rena Schwartz, brought her 3-year-old son, Ben, to the food fair. "I was a bit afraid," she confessed, "but I trust the security. It’s lovely here. People are walking about freely. That’s how the summer should be."

Angels Bakery greeted them off Zion Square with the record 66-foot-long challah. The Israel Chefs’ Association, a quarter of whose 500 members are out of work because of the tourism slump, flaunted the biggest kugel and the biggest kubeh, a popular Middle Eastern delicacy.

Rafi Yefet, association president, revealed the secret of the distinctive, gigantic "Jerusalem kugel": 220 pounds of lokshen, 600 eggs, 110 pounds of sugar, 55 pounds of raisins and a gallon of olive oil. Bake slowly for five hours, three with a high-tech oven.

"Jerusalem Buys Blue and White" read a streamer across a side street. Old men licked cornets outside an ice cream parlor that had put chairs and tables back on the sidewalk. Yuppies nibbled goat cheeses from the Sataf Dairy’s stall.

Fancy French restaurants — Arcadia and Cavalier — offered quality dishes at knockdown prices: fillet steak in wine sauce for 29 shekels (about $6), "rostbif" for 25. The El Gaucho Argentine restaurant was grilling huge steaks alfresco. Shanti (Sanskrit for "peace") peddled vegetarian salads.

A Lubavitcher Chasid with a wispy white beard invited passers-by to lay tefillin. He had few takers. They had come out for fun, not devotion, to make a point, not to worship.

As Olmert, shadowed by his bodyguard and spokeswoman, put it: "This is the strongest and most relevant manifestation by the people of Jerusalem that nothing will break our spirit. This is where we belong. Nobody can force us out."

If the food fair was any guide, he was right about the people of Jerusalem. The rest of Israel seems in no hurry, however, to weekend in the lonely capital. And foreign tourists are still as hard to find as a silver coin in a Jerusalem kugel.

Mecca in the Valley


Deep red curtains, dark lighting, cushiony pillows and pictures of camels and bellydancers adorning the walls: That’s what you’d expect from a restaurant reputed to be one of the best Middle Eastern eateries in Southern California.

Instead, what you find is a bright diner-like atmosphere, with orange and yellow arches on the walls, in a strip mall in Sherman Oaks. Oh, and a long line of Americans, Arabs, Druse and Israelis.

Carnival’s green awning welcomes guests in Hebrew ("Bruchim Ha’baim") English and Arabic. Newspapers in three languages line the table of the anteroom, as people wait for a table or takeout on this busy Saturday night.

More than a month after the terrorist attack on America, when incidents of prejudice and hate crimes against Arabs — and people of Middle Eastern appearance — have climbed to a worrisome pitch, the restaurant seems largely untouched.

"The nice thing about this place is that everyone can intermingle and leave politics out the door," says Michael Jamal, 39, a Lebanese-American Druse from Studio City.

"One thing about the restaurant — you would think if all these people can sit and eat and enjoy without feeling guilt or tension, this should be an example for the whole Middle East."

Sharon Skolnik certainly didn’t come to talk politics or socialize. Skolnik, 26, who came to the United States six weeks ago from Israel, visited the restaurant with her boyfriend for the food. "It’s just known to have great food. Everyone knows about it," she says in Hebrew.

Some 50 percent of the customers are Israeli, management say, and the other half are a mix of everyone else.

Arlene Batchley, a native New Yorker who has lived in Encino for years, this time brought her son, Gary, who sports a number of tattoos and a necklace with a gold coin set into a Star of David.

"He said to me that after Sept. 11 no one’s going to come here," Arlene says gesturing to the long line. "He was wrong."

The attacks on America haven’t scared people away from this Lebanese restaurant which serves Middle Eastern food like moussaka, kibbeh, stuffed grape leaves, shawarma, hummus and baba ghannouj. If anything, say the restaurant staff, people have been friendlier and have gone out of the way to come here.

"There’s been no difference from our customers, everyone is open-minded," says Nabil Halaby, Carnival’s part owner and manager for the last 12 years. The restaurant was opened 17 years ago by its chef, Afif Al-Hakim, who named it after his first job, at a restaurant of the same name, in the thriving capital city of Beirut.

Halaby, 42, is a Lebanese Druse born and raised in Kuwait until he moved to America at age 16. At the end of a busy evening, he sits around the table with the waitresses, kibbitzing with them in a way that it’s unclear who’s boss.

"It’s not easy working with a mix of Middle Easterners," he says. "They all put their two cents in."

"But we don’t get anything back!" jokes Najwa Shaw, one of the waitresses.

"Seriously," says Aline Fahima, "A lot of our customers come in and want to talk about politics or the situation, but we don’t discuss it with them, really. Between ourselves, well, we’re like family."

Halaby adds his two cents: "Our customers too, we know 90 percent of them, their families, what they like
to eat. We see their kids grow up, so they’re like family too.”

To Live and Die in West Beirut


There have been a few Israeli films that dealt with relationships between Arabs and Jews (among them the superb prison drama “Beyond the Walls”), but rarely do we see an Arab movie that tells the story from the perspective of the “other side.”

If only to fill that gap, the screening of “West Beirut” is a welcome addition to the short list of foreign-language movies available to American audiences.

The film by Ziad Doueiri, a young Lebanese cinematographer making his directorial debut, begins in 1975, the beginning of Lebanon’s 17-year-old civil war.

The fighting quickly divides cosmopolitan Beirut, dubbed “The Paris of the Middle East,” into warring camps, with Christian militiamen controlling East Beirut, and the Muslims, West Beirut.

Three 16-year-olds, two Muslim boys and a Christian girl living in West Beirut, are the protagonists and, at first, the sporadic fighting is a lark. School is closed, parents are preoccupied with other problems and the three teens are free to roam the city, shoot Super 8 films, listen to American pop music and, perhaps most importantly, explore their sexuality.

In a memorable scene, they visit a legendary brothel in the Olive Quarter between East and West Beirut, the only enterprise still patronized by both Christians and Muslims.

The kids’ elders, too, try to shrug off the fighting at first. “It’s something between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” says one man. “It has something to do with the Israelis and the Syrians,” says another.

But as the war drags on, even the resilient teen-agers find the fun going out of their explorations. Food is in short supply, people they know are killed, the camera shop that developed their film is now in enemy territory.

Their parents think of emigrating, but, in a refrain with some resonance for Jews, no country wants Lebanese refugees. At the end, one father sighs despondently, “100,000 dead and the game still goes on.”

There are no professional child actors in Lebanon, and director Doueiri relied on amateurs, including his younger brother, to portray the teens.

Their inexperience shows at times, but the importance of the film lies in portraying the humanity of the “other”; in reaffirming the truism that even in war, people are mainly concerned with their mundane personal problems and pleasures; and in affording a candid look at the teen-agers’ world.

“West Beirut” opens at Laemmle’s Music Hall on Sept. 3.