Challenge Kashers National Brazil Dish

The pleasant smell drifted not heavenward but into the O Shil Beit Chabad Itaim Synagogue, distracting the faithful from their prayers.

Next door, the Bolinha restaurant was gearing up for its usual barrage of patrons on Saturday, when Brazilians traditionally partake of their national dish, a black bean stew called feijoada. Unfortunately for the davening Jews, the recipe for feijoada includes pork chops, pork trotters, pork tails, pork ears, pork sausage and bacon.

According to some historians, feijoada was concocted by Brazilian slaves who transformed scraps from the big house into a slave-quarters delicacy.

But the owners of Bolinha, which is nationally famous for its feijoada, cite scholarly sources to make the case that the dish is really a Brazilian variation of European fare like the Spanish cassoulet and the Portuguese caldeirada.

Whatever its origin, feijoada stands as an important symbol of Brazilian heritage. That creates “tension between Jewish and Brazilian expressions of identity,” according to the anthropologist Misha Klein of the University of Oklahoma.

“Brazilians with a strong Jewish identity, including some who are somewhat religiously observant,” will indulge in the occasional feijoada, although it’s not kosher, Klein said.

But not the worshippers at O Shil, no matter how tantalizing the scent.

“As a counterbalance, we started cooking up cholent,” Rabbi Yossi Schildraut said, referring to the slow-cooked stew of meat, beans and potatoes traditionally served on the Sabbath.

Culinary habits aside, Schildraut and Bolinha co-owner Jose Orlando Paulillo maintained a good-neighbor policy.

“You’ll break down and have my feijoada,” Paulillo joked.

“Come over for our ‘feijoada,’ ” retorted Schildraut, referring to cholent.

Having reached a standoff, the rabbi threw down the gauntlet: “Make a kosher feijoada,” he dared Paulillo.

The restaurateur agreed, launching an eight-month quest for the perfect glatt-kosher feijoada.

Schildraut enlisted Sergio Eduardo Geigner of the catering firm Kosher Eventos to introduce Paulillo to kosher butchers. Geigner contributed years of experience of making just about anything under the Brazilian sun kosher, notably the West African-influenced cuisine of Bahia state, which is heavy on fish and seafood and features names like acaraje, vatapa and moqueca.

His motto: “If I can kasher something, I want to eat it.”

Paulillo, his cooks and partners jumped headlong into a stew of trial and error.

“When the traditional cut was from the stomach of the pig, we tried something from the stomach of the cow,” Geigner said. Paulillo and his head cook worked the day shift; Jose Mario Ribeiro de Souza, known around the kitchen as Mauro, took over at night.

“It was a challenge for [Paulillo],’ recalled Mauro, who is only 37 but has been working at Bolinha for 23 years. “They left stuff for me at night to evaluate for taste, cooking time, tenderness and seasoning. We tried several cuts of meat.”

His verdict on the kosher version: “It’s a little different. The taste of smoked meat comes through more, but it’s good. Sincerely, I really like it.”

The inaugural meal of kosher feijoada took place during Chanukah 2002 and was a reunion of sorts.

“There were lots of people there who used to eat pork,” Schildraut said of his congregants. Paulillo “kept recognizing former customers.”

Both sides claimed victory.

“We even got the Orthodox to eat feijoada,” said a beaming Paulo Affonso Paulillo, Jose Orlando Paulillo’s brother and a Bolinha co-owner.

Last Chanukah, the synagogue held its holiday feijoada feast at Bolinha.

“We kashered part of his kitchen — the pinnacle of pork!” Schildraut beamed.

Now Mauro troops over to the synagogue’s kitchen once a month to fix up a batch of 200 to 300 kosher feijoadas, enough to last shul-goers for a month. They’re not served at the restaurant but instead are frozen and distributed by Bolinha’s delivery service, through neighborhood shops, at delicatessens in Jewish neighborhoods and through the moderately upscale Pao de Acucar supermarket chain.

If given advance notice, Bolinha will heat up a kosher feijoada to be served in the restaurant. The waiter warns patrons that side dishes such as rice and collard greens aren’t kosher, but most people who order the kosher feijoada don’t mind — because they’re not Jewish.

“We receive many Muslims and Seventh-day Adventists,” Paulo Affonso Paulillo said.


An Insult to Our Soldiers

A German corporation that used slave labor to produce some of the weapons that killed American soldiers is now building a monument in Washington to honor the Americans who fought and died in World War II.

How do I know? I was one of those slave laborers. There were 30,000 of us constructing a factory that was to build jet planes for Hitler’s air force. My father was worked to death there. I was liberated by the U.S. Army at the age of 14.

Our owner was a German corporation, Philipp Holzmann AG. It used its profits from working for the Nazis and using free slave labor to accumulate enough capital to become the largest German construction company in Germany and one of the largest in the world. It also used this money — earned by the lives of Jewish slaves — to buy American companies. One such company, J.A. Jones of Maryland, was bought by Holzmann in 1979 for $75 million.

It was Jones, wholly owned by Holzmann, that was recently awarded the $59-million contract to build a monument to American soldiers who died fighting Holzmann’s employer, Adolph Hitler. And there is more. A few months ago, on April 13, a story in The New York Times revealed that the U.S. government (that is, you and me, my fellow-taxpayers) was cheated of several hundred million dollars by a consortium of European construction firms that submitted phony bids for construction projects in Egypt, paid for by our government.

And Holzmann was one of the major thieves.

It admitted its guilt and was fined $30 million for its part in the bid-rigging scheme. And then, as if in apology, our government awarded the contract to build the monument to the very corporation that cheated it.

I and a few dozen other ex-slaves tried to sue Holzmann for suffering, pain, lost wages. Our government didn’t like that. The courts were advised that these lawsuits were against the foreign-policy interest of the United States of America and should be dropped. They were dismissed. So what happened to the constitutional guarantee that I, as an American, have the right to a fair trial by a jury of my peers?

Why does the government seem to have a love affair with Philipp Holzmann AG? Officials there say they are patriots, good Americans, never used slave labor and have no ties to the Nazis. This is probably true. Still, where did Holzmann get the money to buy these corporations, if not from profits it made from slaves? And wasn’t Lucky Luciano, the infamous gangster, also a patriotic American? He helped the Allies invade Sicily during World War II. But does this make him less of a crook?

And should a memorial to our heroes be built by a company that is owned by a corporation that was responsible for more American deaths than the Mafia ever was? I think not.

But a contract is a contract, and there isn’t much that can be done after it was rushed through the General Services Administration and the American Battle Monuments Commission, right?

Wrong! It can be canceled, but first, there must be pressure.

The United States has recently canceled a contract. It was the contract for the black berets for the new uniform. It so happens that the berets were made in China, and after an uproar, the order was canceled, and the berets were manufactured right here in the United States. Tell your elected representatives that you resent this insult to the memory of the American heroes. Tell them that you want a real American company to build the monument — not an heir of the Nazi murderers. Tell them that you want Congress to stop this outrage.

To contact your senators, find them on the Web at Drop representatives a line by mail to Representative (name), House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515. Senators can be contacted at Sen. (name), Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510.

Feeding the Hungry

“We have slaves to help,” Jerry Rabinowitz, the Friday co-captain of the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry, announces. “We Jews know something about slaves.”

The “slaves” this morning are my sons Gabe, 13, and Jeremy, 11, who have a day off school. They are fulfilling part of a community service requirement from Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge. They are also fulfilling the Jewish commandment to feed the hungry.

Jerry, who has been there at 6 a.m. every Friday for the past 15 years, gives my sons a tour of the pantry, located in a small building belonging to First Christian Church of North Hollywood. The foods to be distributed are already packed, double brown paper bags filled with pasta, beans, rice, applesauce, canned fruit, canned vegetables and cereal. A Ziploc bag of frozen chicken legs, precooked, is added to each order.Jerry explains the procedure, “When a client comes, hand him one of the bags,” he says. “And ask if he’d like extra bread and a sack of vegetables.”

The bread is donated by Ralphs, Vons and Brown’s Bakery. Volunteers from the Encino B’nai B’rith pick it up seven days a week. The vegetables come from the wholesale produce mart downtown.

“One young man travels downtown twice a week, at 5 a.m., to bring back surplus vegetables for us,” Jerry explains. “Another lady brings us three 40-pound boxes of bananas every Friday, which she buys herself.”

“Here,” he says to the boys, “put two of these bananas in every bag, till we run out. And if you do a good job, we’ll increase your salary by 20 percent after the first hour.”

“I wish that would happen with my allowance,” Gabe answers.

But there are no salaries or raises at the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry. It is run strictly by volunteers, about 150 of them, from seven churches and two synagogues in the East San Fernando Valley. The pantry falls under the auspices of the Valley Interfaith Council, part of a coalition of 19 food pantries spread across the Valley.

“There is a big poverty problem in the San Fernando Valley,” says Eileen Parker, assistant director of community support services for the Valley Interfaith Council. “The homeless and unemployed are only a small percentage of the people we serve. Most are working poor, people trying to make ends meet on a minimum-wage job, sometimes two and three minimum-wage jobs. Or senior citizens or the disabled who are living on fixed incomes.”

The North Hollywood Pantry hands out approximately 180 bags of food every Friday and 120 every Monday, which feed a total of 4,000 people each month. About 12 percent of those bags are distributed to the homeless and include only ready-to-eat items, plus extra drinks and personal hygiene items.

“The average person really needs what we give him,” says Sarah Alexander, the other Friday co-captain, who’s in charge of all the government paper work.

“We never say no. We are not judges,” Jerry adds.

While the food is distributed at First Christian, it is warehoused, sorted and packed into bags in the basement of Temple Beth Hillel. There, primarily on Friday mornings, a group of 15 mostly retired men, ranging in age from 54 to 83 – who could be playing softball, tennis or golf – unload and stock about 25,000 pounds of nonperishable food per month, which translates to 600 to 1,000 cases of canned goods. Of this group, Jerry Rosenstock holds the longevity record of 14 years. “Life in these latter years has been good to my wife and me. We feel fortunate and would like to help people, especially children, hungry children.” Ted Field, the newest recruit, is starting his fifth week. “The rabbi [Jim Kaufman] shamed me into it,” he confesses.

The food comes from a variety of sources – the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, the Yom Kippur food drive at the two synagogues, the Post Office food drive, and donations from nearby public and private schools, including Grant High School, Millikan Middle School, the Oakwood School, Campbell Hall and Laurence 2000. Additional food is purchased with monetary contributions.

After unloading and stocking the food, the men gather in the Temple’s music room for coffee, sweet rolls and conversation. They begin with a prayer, which, this week, Fred Bender offers. “I want to thank God for this nice fellowship and for the opportunity to serve men and women. And for the health that enables us old-timers to work.”

The group worries about each other’s health and celebrates each other’s simchas. Today is Stan Goldman’s birthday, evidenced by a cake with two candles. “One for yesterday and one for tomorrow,” Stan explains. They also solve the world’s problems, assigning specific discussion leaders each week. Today, naturally, the topic is the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Co-leader Harry Gibson begins: “This is a hot topic. Where do you start?” But they have no trouble, giving their opinions as they go around the table in order, in an impassioned and occasionally feisty pro-Israel discussion.

The food pantry’s smooth operation also depends on other dedicated volunteers. Stella Kornberg and her group of helpers regularly pack the grocery bags. Volunteers from the churches cart the bags from the temple to the food pantry twice a week. One family supplies a truck and driver once a month for large pickups from the L.A. Regional Food Bank.

The North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry first opened its doors in March 1983, founded as an outgrowth of the Valley Interfaith Council’s Task Force on Community Emergency Needs and in response to the 1982-83 recession. The five founding religious institutions include Adat Ari El, Temple Beth Hillel, First Christian Church, First Presbyterian Church and St. Michael’s & All Angels Episcopal Church. Marge Luke, a founder and member of First Presbyterian, says, “We thought the recession of ’82-’83 was a temporary thing and that people would figure out a better way to distribute canned goods.” She pauses. “But the need never ended.”

And never has her involvement. Her position is community contact, which she defines as “doing the things other people hate to do.” She adds, “I’m 80 years old.”

“Go outside to that van and carry in those grocery bags,” Jerry Rabinowitz says to his “slaves” toward the end of their Friday morning shift. They get a physical workout lugging the additional 20- to 25-pound bags that have arrived from the temple.

“What happens if you run out of bags of food?” Jeremy asks.

“We go to the temple and pack more,” Jerry answers. “And if the temple ever runs out, which it hasn’t, I’d go to Ralphs and buy food.”

His answer impresses my sons.

“My father had a candy store in Brooklyn, and we lived and ate in the rear,” he explains. “I remember as a little child that most evenings my father would take a person off the street and bring him home to dinner. That person had to be fed before my father ate. That’s why I do this.”