Bar/Bat Mitzvah – Author-Baker Rises to Bimah — at Last


Joanne Rocklin is obsessed with food. On her 60th birthday, she began summarizing her life with the essentials: “I love to cook. I love to eat.”

But it’s her passion for writing that has enabled her to come to terms with her life and her faith. The author of 20 children’s books, including her renowned “Strudel Stories” (Delacorte, 1999), is about to complete a chapter in her own life that many young Jews today take for granted. Rocklin wraps up two years of studies with Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ adult b’nai mitzvah program when she ascends to the bimah for her bat mitzvah on June 24. As she delivers her d’var Torah, she will share with the congregation the ways her past life connects with the discoveries she’s made about her Jewish self.

Although Rocklin is a clinical psychologist by training, her desire to write proved disruptive early in her professional life. The opposing tugs of two careers left her feeling unable to immerse herself fully in either profession. Factor in a divorce and the death of her mother, and it’s easy to understand why Rocklin craved the serious life changes symbolized by her upcoming bat mitzvah.

“I look Jewish, I eat Jewish. I felt Jewish, but I didn’t know anything about my background,” Rocklin said.

Her search for a congregation led her to Temple Emanuel, where Rabbi Laura Geller encouraged Rocklin to learn the liturgy by singing in the choir of the New Emanuel Minyan. With husband Gerry Nelson, whom she’d met through a personal ad in The Jewish Journal, she also joined a couples havurah built around discussions over potluck meals. During one havurah get-together, Rocklin demonstrated her newly developing challah-baking prowess.

But even before she discovered Temple Emanuel, the kind of study that leads to career achievement was always central to Rocklin’s life. As a young woman in Montreal, Rocklin studied to become an elementary school teacher. After moving to California in 1976 with her first husband and two sons, she studied for a doctorate in clinical psychology and soon established a practice focusing on the needs of children and families.

Yet a love for writing continued to gnaw at her. Before long, she was juggling family responsibilities, turning out children’s books in the morning and seeing patients in the afternoon. When divorce left her a single parent who needed to earn a living, a high-octane lifestyle became all the more essential.

Soon after Rocklin and Nelson married, he persuaded her to ease back on her workaholic tendencies. So she followed her heart and became a full-time writer.

The inspiration for “Strudel Stories” struck one day while Rocklin was browsing through Joan Nathan’s “Jewish Cooking in America.” She spotted a reference to a Vermont woman who baked strudel with her children and grandchildren, sharing family stories while pounding and stretching the dough. The anecdote led Rocklin to invent a tale of three kitchens — one in czarist Russia, one in Brooklyn after World War II and one in present-day Los Angeles — in which strudel is made and stories are shared. Within this framework, Rocklin delicately introduced her young readers to Yiddish bubbemeises, Russian pogroms, the aftermath of the Holocaust and Jackie Robinson, as well as the joys of cooking with family.

Not long after the publication of “Strudel Stories,” Rocklin’s mother died. In her grief, she decided to make some changes. Rocklin told her husband it was time to move out of their condo and into a house. She also wanted a dog and a vegetable garden — and she wanted to join a synagogue.

Her b’nai mitzvah classmates include 14 women in various stages of life, from a young newlywed to an 83-year-old grandmother. They’ve studied Torah trope with Cantor Yonah Kliger, pored over the words of the sacred text with assistant Cantor Judy Greenfeld and rabbinic intern Pearl Berzansky, and even gone for a ritual dip at the University of Judaism’s mikvah to prepare for their upcoming rite of passage.

It’s only recently — since discovering the pleasures of Torah study for its own sake — that Rocklin said her workaholic side has truly relaxed itself.

In contrast to her former self, Rocklin no longer feels that a garden is a waste of time unless it produces vegetables. Instead of pouring all her energies into her writing career, she’s also embracing dawdling, taking tea with friends and playing with her cats. She’s begun a regular monthly volunteer stint at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center along with her golden retriever, Zoe, fulfilling the mitzvah of bikkur cholim (visiting the sick).

Last November, all of Rocklin’s new life lessons were put to the test when some suspicious spots were found on her lungs. There was a six-week period during which she made the rounds of labs and doctors’ offices, trying not to be overwhelmed by her glimpse of “another world … the world of the sick and dying,” she said.

When her chances looked bleak, before thoracic surgery confirmed that her problems were minor, all she wanted to do was bake bread.

Rocklin said she finds paying attention to the details of a bread recipe just as challenging and as fulfilling as the study of Torah. Following a 30-page recipe by La Brea Bakery’s Nancy Silverton, she has learned to savor each stage of the complex process that turns a homemade starter into a warm brown loaf. For Rocklin today, life is all about taking time to smell the challah.

Baking “slows you down,” Rocklin said. “Bread is an amazing thing. It’s just flour, water, and yeast … and it becomes alive.”

Taking the Schmaltz Out of Our Food


At sundown on Monday we usher in the happiest day of our calendar, Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. For the next 10 days we’ll be called upon to reexamine our lives — to wake up and not only smell the roses, but plant them for other people to enjoy.

The Days of Awe end at sundown on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when we’ll spend the day in temple fasting and praying. Our sundown to sundown fast brings us agony and ecstasy as we internalize how fleeting life is, promise to make amends for acts we’re not proud of, realize we have a whole new year ahead of us to make a difference.

As we hurriedly leave the temple with visions of chopped liver, lokshen kugel and our beloved cheese blintzes dancing in our heads, we know it’s just a matter of moments before we can eat.

Lately though, we’ve had to rethink this. Though it’s a beloved family tradition to break the fast with our favorite Ashkenazi dishes, we also know they contain ingredients that top the cardiologist’s list of no-no’s — red meat, schmaltz, cottage cheese, sour cream and butter. Fat, fat and more fat.

In response, creative Jewish cooks have been hard at work adapting these recipes. And, as rabbi and cookbook author Gil Marks says, with a laugh, "Healthy Jewish cooking is no longer an oxymoron."

Marks modifies traditional holiday recipes in "The World of Jewish Entertaining" (Simon & Schuster, 1998). He uses meat sparingly, as a flavoring instead of the main event. He also uses recipes from the Sephardim, who migrated to areas as diverse as North and South Africa, the Middle East, India and later to the Mediterranean countries of Spain, Italy, Portugal, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Their cuisine revolved around the three main ingredients mentioned in the Bible: grains, wine and olive oil.

As for our traditional Ashkenazi delicacies, which nourish our souls more than our bodies, Marks substitutes yogurt for sour cream in blintzes, kugels and borsht, uses olive oil instead of schmaltz for chopped liver — or even eliminates liver altogether in favor of a pate of mushrooms, onions and string beans. Instead of stuffing chicken with oil-soaked bread cubes, he suggests apples and spinach, traditional ingredients for the New Year.

Marks has also gone where few men have ventured before him — perfecting a recipe for whole wheat challah, which subtracts eggs and extra fat, adding whole wheat, wheat germ and honey for moisture. He sweetens dishes with fruits instead of sugar. But, he cautions, "Be smart with substitutions. Don’t serve a dish just because it’s low fat. Experiment until you’re happy with the flavor."

Since we’re trying to modify tradition, not break it, instead of asking a Jewish matriarch for our Break the Fast menu, we went to premier Jewish chef and caterer, David Rubell, who serves the Break the Fast Meal at Temple Shalom for the Arts in Los Angeles.

Rubell learned about "food from the old country" from the closest person to him — his Nana Willner. "On Yom Kippur, she’d shine," he says. "Because she knew she’d be in shul all day, and exhausted when she got home, she developed a technique that I, as a caterer, use to this day.

"Nana was meticulously organized. The day before Yom Kippur, she’d assemble her ingredients, then slice, dice, and, in some cases, partially cook, then refrigerate the dishes. When she got home from shul, she’d finish each recipe and have it on the table — piping hot or ice cold — almost instantly. Nothing ever tasted like it had been sitting in the refrigerator all night. Everything was always delicious.

"I learned another lesson from Nana," Rubell says slyly. "Seltzer water in matzah balls. ‘Most people use fat, eggs and too much matzo meal,’ she’d scoff, in her inimitable Russian-Brooklyn accent. ‘And they handle them too much. Of course, they’re like lead.’

"Not my Nana’s," he says. "Hers were always light as a feather. I used to laugh, because when we’d eat at my other grandma’s, Nana Rubell, her matzah balls were like sinkers. We never told her our secret.

"When Nana made blintzes she’d insist on filling them with pot cheese. When she couldn’t find it, she’d substitute Farmer’s. Of course, she’d grouse every time. The mystery ingredient in her sweet blintzes was salt. Just like the infamous spoonful of sugar, ‘A pinch of salt makes us remember who we are and where we came from,’ she’d tell me. ‘Life is not all sweetness and honey. Never forget that!’ This is especially relevant on Yom Kippur, which is all about that little dose of reality," Rubell muses.

As Rubell grew older and started working as a professional chef, his beloved nana took sick with pancreatic cancer. He trudged down to Florida and cooked her all of her favorite meals. "That meant more to her than anything," he says, his eyes welling up. It made him start thinking about lightening the traditional Jewish foods he’d grown up with.

Today when he’s doing a menu, he starts with the dishes she’d taught him, then replaces them with healthier variations.

For example, Rubell replaces the customary sour cream topping for the blintzes with fresh berry compote. Instead of sweet, heavy babkas that "will lay in your stomach for the next three days," he’ll serve a fresh peach cobbler. Since tuna salad with gobs of mayo is a staple on many buffets, Rubell created savory Chinese Seared Ahi Tuna Salad. Instead of the traditional sweet, heavy kugel, he’ll serve a vegetable frittata. According to Rubell, "We never forget our cultural traditions, but we’re reinterpreting them for today’s healthier lifestyles."

Have a happy and healthy New Year!


Recipes for taking out the Schmaltz from Jewish food

All recipes from Chef David Rubell.

Smoked Whitefish Salad (A favorite of Theodore Bikel’s)
Smoked Trout may be substituted for the whitefish.

1 smoked whitefish, approximately 2 lbs., carefully boned
1/3-1/2 cup mayonnaise (low fat or regular)
1 bunch scallions, green part only, sliced thin

Pulse all ingredients in food processor until just smooth. Refrigerate. Serve as appetizer with crackers or challah, or as first course with baby greens and tomato.

Serves 8 to 10.

Chinese Seared Ahi Tuna Salad with Mango

1/2 cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon wasabi
1 1/2 pounds, fresh ahi tuna
1/4 cup canola oil
1 One-pound package wonton skins
1 quart canola oil for frying noodles
1/2 Six-ounce package saifun or dry
bean thread noodles, broken in half
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1/4 cup dry roasted, salted cashews
1 head iceberg lettuce, sliced very thin
1/2 head Savoy cabbage, sliced very thin
2 bunches green onion, green part sliced diagonally
2 mangoes, peeled and sliced thin

For Dressing:
2 ounces pickled ginger
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 bunch scallions, white only
1 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup Chinese sweet and sour sauce
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup toasted sesame oil

Mix together soy sauce and wasabi. Marinate tuna in mixture for 20 minutes. Sear tuna in hot, nonstick skillet with 1/4 cup oil approximately 1 minute per side. Refrigerate immediately after removing tuna from heat. Allow to cool at least 1/2 hour before slicing for salad. Slice tuna into 1 1/2 inch pieces, reserving odd sizes to incorporate into body of salad.

Slice wonton skins into very thin julienne strips. Fry noodles in very hot oil in 3 separate batches, so as not to decrease oil temperature. Cook noodles approximately 1 minute, tossing constantly. Drain on paper towels.

Bring oil back to temperature. Fry saifun noodle halves separately from each other as they expand rapidly upon hitting the oil. Turn once, remove from pot; drain on paper towel. Repeat until all noodles are fried.

For Dressing:

Place all ingredients in blender and mix for 3 minutes.

To Assemble:

Reserving small handful of wonton noodles and nuts for garnish, toss with dressing, lettuce, cabbage, green onion, nuts, saifun and wonton noodles, and odd pieces of tuna. Place on platter; arrange remaining tuna slices and mangoes decoratively around salad. Top with additional noodles and nuts.

Serves 8 to 10.

Holiday Cheese Blintzes Topped with a Trio of Fresh Berries

(This recipe is from David’s beloved Nana Willner, who told him, “With every bit of sugar, you need a pinch of salt.”)

The pancakes may be purchased ready-made in the produce section of the supermarket.

For the pancake batter: