December 13, 2018

Letters to the editor: Teshuva, Seoul food and a minyan a day

Tradition, Teshuvah and Trojans

I am a sometime Christian (more “some” than “time”) who relates perfectly to those Rob Eshman describes in this most excellent column (“What For?” Sept. 26). I totally agree that teshuvah “is not a Jewish thing; it’s a human thing [and that] Judaism (like Christianity) offers a way.” Needless to say I often struggle to find that “way.” I am married to a wonderful, spiritual Jewish lady, totally committed in heart and soul to her faith. She has taught me what it means to love and be loved. 

Ken Artingstall, Glendale  

Loved it, so spot on. I am one of those “holiday Jews” who goes for two reasons, maybe more that I’m not aware of, but I go because it feels good and sets a good example for my grandchildren. This year, my 8-year-old granddaughter was in the pop-up choir for Temple Isaiah and she asked me if I was going to come see her. I asked her if I have ever let her down. When she saw me in the audience and gave me that smile that only a papa and his granddaughter could feel, it said to me, as I wiped the tears away, that is God looking down on both of us.

What she didn’t know was as the services were held at Royce Hall at UCLA and I am such a big USC fan, that it was the first time I was on the UCLA campus … what a grandfather won’t do.

My wife makes me read Rob Eshman’s column each week, and I must say, he really has his hand squarely on the pulse of what’s going on in the world as well as the people he speaks for.

Allan Kretchman via email


Seoul Food

How clever to teach both about Judaism and multiethnicity via food (“What Roy Choi Can Teach the Jews, Oct. 3). Rob Eshman has given me a lot to think about as our organization continues to develop our interfaith work in L.A.

I’ll be referring to Reb Green’s list repeatedly as a personal guidepost. Tasty!

Shepha Schneirsohn Vainstein, president, reGeneration


A Minyan a Day …

Much gratitude to the Jewish Journal and Danielle Berrin for the wonderful Oct. 3 cover story, “Prayer: A Story for Yom Kippur. Berrin took us on her one-year odyssey as she said Kaddish for her mother at a daily minyan, in her case at Temple Beth Am. 

Her personal journey unfolded before us: from her being alone and afraid to understanding the power of saying Kaddish to finding the great gift of community made up of angels who attend daily minyans. Her writing was beautiful, insightful and moving, and Berrin managed to bring her insightful writing to the story as well as pour her heart and soul into her very personal story. Many thanks.

Susan Mishler, Beverly Hills


Exodus Complex

Severyn Ashkenazy did a magnificent job trying to sell present-day Poland to those seeking a “safe” country in Europe (“Safest Place in Europe, Sept. 26). However, the memories of the horrors committed in that country are still etched deeply in people’s psyches … and as my cousin Louis Begley (“Wartime Lies”) wrote in one of his best selling books, what was most shocking and hurtful was that his Polish neighbors, best friends, turned into bitter enemies of the Jews. Of course, there were many Poles who heroically saved Jews at great risk to their own lives, and are justly honored. 

Ashkenazy’s seemingly innocent reference to the “embattled,” “unsafe” and “overcrowded” Israel was meant to psychologically impact and dissuade Jews from going there, particularly should another en-masse exodus from Europe be necessary. And to toss out history so cavalierly is both hurtful and unwise.

He and the Jewish community at large can hold their heads up because there is an extraordinary Israel.

Cesia Bojarsky, Beverly Hills


Summer of War, Fall of Reflection 

I could only agree with everything this article had said (“5775: Old Conflicts, New Hopes,” Oct. 3). Arthur Cohn’s opinions on the war that took place this summer gave me another insight to understand what really happens in Israel as well as Gaza. The tragic kidnapping and murder of the three boys — as well as the death of many more — ended up saving the lives of many, a positive way to look at what happened to Israel. The sacrifices that were made prevented thousands of deaths. All across America, news reports continued to show heart-wrenching photos of dead children in Gaza without any implication as to what really happened, leading many to believe that the conflict was all Israel’s fault. This, many argue, led to a rise in anti-Semitism all over the world. Israel has seen Hamas’ endless building of tunnels, showing Israel what Hamas will continue to do in order to keep power. This summer’s conflict brought the civilians of Israel together in unison, relying on one another for strength, support and the will to keep living life as only the Israelis know how.

Melissa Lustman, via email

What Roy Choi can teach the Jews

I was sitting in Commissary, Roy Choi’s new restaurant on the pool deck of the Line Hotel in Koreatown, thinking about the secret of Choi’s success. 

It was my fourth time in the restaurant in the hotel Choi helped resurrect out of the dry bones of an abandoned Radisson.   

Choi transformed the place. He plopped down a giant fantasy of a greenhouse, filled it with rustic chic decor, and fashioned a menu that incorporates his beloved Korean ingredients with California, Mediterranean and Mexican flavors. The food is delicious; the place is always packed. These days, people even swim in the pool.

Choi revels in the hybridness, the mixed-ness of Los Angeles. Born in Seoul, he came of age in an L.A. that offered the tastes and sounds and colors of some 200 cultures, the most diverse city on the planet.

One fateful day, Choi combined the flavors of Korean barbecue with salsa roja on a soft tortilla, and the Kogi taco was born — and, along with it, the food truck craze that revolutionized American street food.

“There it was, Los Angeles on a plate,” he writes of that first Kogi taco in his new autobiography, “L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food.”  

“Maybe it wasn’t everyone’s L.A., but it was mine. It was Koreatown to Melrose to Alvarado to Venice to Crenshaw crumpled into one flavor and bundled up like a gift.”

How did he do it? Not just by blending but by standing out. And I’m not talking, of course, just about tacos.  

Last month, a new business and website launched, The Mash-Up Americans (mashupamericans.com), to celebrate the multiethnic, multicultural America and the fact that we’re not just meeting and mixing, we’re mating. Founded by Brooklynite Amy Choi (no relation) and Angeleno Rebecca Lehrer, the site reflects the reality that the fastest- growing category for race on the U.S. Census is “mixed.” The number of people who reported a mixed-race background grew by 32 percent — to 9 million — between 2000 and 2010. The single-race population increased by just 9.2 percent.

Amy Choi describes herself as a Korean-American married to a Colombian-Mexican-American, and as a mom to “a feisty Korombexican-American.” Lehrer is a self-described “Salvadoran-Jewish-American married to an American-American” — though her Salvadoran side is Jewish by way of Holocaust refugees. In any case, if their children don’t check the box marked “mixed,” the odds are their children’s children will.

“Increasingly,” Census official Nicholas Jones told Pew Research, “Americans are saying they cannot find themselves” on census forms.

Of course in the grand sweep of human evolution, mash-up makes the world go round. That’s why we Jews look more Belgian than Bedouin. Cossacks, Berbers, Templars and others splashed in our gene pool.  After all, is a Kogi taco all that different from a pastrami sandwich, which mashed together basturma, a dried meat that originated in Ottoman-era Turkey, with Eastern European rye?

None of this should surprise us, but it does pose a challenge. In an increasingly mashed-up world, how do we know what our roots are? How do we ground our children in an identity? How does “mashed” not become just “mush”?

Roy Choi has succeeded precisely because his work is founded in his Korean-ness. His embrace of his traditions, his flavors, is what made him unique — it’s what he brought to the party. 

Identity is, after all, not just a funny-sounding last name on a family tree. It is the things that name represents. Not just the foods people cooked, the stories they told, but most important, the values they lived by. What are the bedrock values that a strong Jewish identity brings to the mash-up? The ones that may get mixed but are too valuable to lose?  

This same week, I came across “Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Guide for Seekers,” by Rabbi Arthur Green. At just 100 pages, it speaks to members of the Mashed-Up Generation whose attention span has been calibrated by BuzzFeed.

But Green is a serious scholar, a kabbalist, and he doesn’t reduce, he distills. He manages to deliver what for me is the essence of Jewish teaching, the key values that shape a Jewish identity.

They are: 1) Joy. 2) The fact that we are all created in God’s image. 3) The idea of halacha — walking after a divine path. 4) Tikkun olam — the desire to heal the world. 5) Shabbat. 6) Teshuvah — our capacity for change; 7) Torah — the wrestling with text. 8) Love of education. 9) The embrace of life and death. And finally, 10) The idea of one God, the unity of all things. (I think he missed humor, but no one’s interested in a Top 11 list.)

Many of these values are not unique to Judaism. But taken together, they are what being Jewish stands for — our stories and rituals convey them, our holidays and traditions elevate them. And while we will inevitably blend and mix and mash in the free market of American love and ideas, we need to cherish this identity, nurture it, and offer it to our children and to others, bundled up, as Roy Choi would say, like a gift. 


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

‘Chef’ and the redefining of starving artist

Talk about food for the Seoul.

For decades, writer/director/actor Jon Favreau has been a staple in the film world, indie and beyond. All over the map, he appeared alongside Keanu Reeves in The Replacements and in other kooks like Daredevil, then turned around and directed the likes of Elf and Iron Man, leaving no waters uncharted.

But his 1996 breakthrough Swingers is responsible for launching him, alongside Vince Vaughn, into their celebrities today. Ripe with risk and resolve, Swingers is the cult classic that gave Favreau his early street cred. He wrote Chef in just a few weeks, about the same time he took to write Swingers, further mounting evidence that the most candid and sincere creations come from a free-flowing and unedited union of heart and mind.

He can also lasso a stacked cast — with Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Jr. gracing the bill. But that the powerhouses have only minor roles embodies Chef’s courage and refreshing self-esteem, further contributing to its multifaceted authenticity.

Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) is a renegade in the culinary industry, respected for both his expertise and fearlessness in the kitchen. His top-doggedness comes complete with a lovable and loyal staff, and independence the rule of thumb in day-to-day kitchen operations. He makes a decent living as chef de cuisine at a Los Angeles restaurant, serving upscale comfort food to patrons the majority of which are happy to fork over an extra $100 to substitute the green beans for haricots verts. As par for the course, he has an unrealized relationship with his son (Emjay Anthony) and a suggestive one with his hostess (Johansson). He’s divorced to a Miami mami (Sofia Vergara), but she isn’t bitter and they remain friends. Things are fine.

Until the most respected food blogger in the city, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), writes a review as hurtful as his reputation is oxymoronic. He calls out @ChefCarlCasper for his unapologetic neediness manifested in a caviar egg “meant to impress the country club brunch crowd,” and posits that his “dramatic weight gain is best explained by the fact that he must be eating all the food sent back to the kitchen.”

Chefs, as all artists, are a sensitive people. Despite Carl’s intuitive backlash against serving the traditional menu Ramsey is ultimately treated to, which included fan-favorites French onion soup and a filet, rounded out with true-blue chocolate lava cake, he let himself be convinced by the restaurant owner Riva (Hoffman) to “play the hits.”

But Ramsey can’t be bought with uninspired plates of yesteryear, so up went the review and down went Carl. Tweets were catapulted, ganache lava strewn and publicists summoned.

Chef is a movement, an homage to a punk-rock mentality where the only way to create from a true heart without constraints of the corporate stronghold is to burn down the establishment and start again with the ashes. Only when you’re truly lost can you start to find yourself — and Carl’s rude awakening from his safe and half-hearted complacency finds him rubbing his eyes open to a versatile domain without those constraints, with the people who matter most.

Growing up in an Italian and Jewish family, the film industry veteran has early emotional attachments to the romance of food. His inspiration was born from the inherent similarities between the restaurant business and the filmmaking business. If ever there was a clan of artists who lamented the value of commercial success over creative fulfillment as much as filmmakers, it’s the chefs. What begins as a journey of constant discovery and endless opportunity for growth, be it in the kitchen behind a saucepan or on set behind a camera, is traded in for a repetitive, mundane ride on the respective industry’s Lazy Susan. As Carl bemoans his restaurant’s creative rut, citing a menu that hasn’t changed in five years, Riva — the owner, the bank, the one who finances the kitchens and saucepans and sets and cameras — has a responsibility to minimize unnecessary risks. He and most others in his position didn’t get to where they are by fixing what isn’t broken.

So offers Riva, “Be an artist on your own time.”     

But all professions are shackled to a bottom line one way or another.  For Favreau, the more poignant comparison is both fields’ total dependence, intrinsic and otherwise, on the preferences and whims of others for success.

“All of their (chefs) happiness is linked to other people, same with filmmaking,” he said during a recent Q-and-A at the ArcLight Hollywood theater.

One of the most intimate, vulnerable gestures for an artist is to show their work and ask for feedback. To witness their labors of love stand trial is to withstand a whirlwind of simultaneous thrill and terror; all validation rides on the verdict. Nothing else matters to them except conveying their vision — for them, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, the perceived silence burns the whole forest down.

Facing unfavorable verdicts along the way is inevitable, and overcoming an incinerated ego left in failure’s wake is not an easy or pretty feat, as demonstrated by the fallout of Carl and Ramsey’s physical and cyber food fight. But positive feedback and the feeling of resounding encouragement is a powerful drug, and when it comes, the grind is avenged and pain of the past dissipates into a purple haze.

“I may not have been the best husband, and I’m sorry if I wasn’t the best father to you, but I’m good at this. I get to touch people every day with what I do. And I love it.”

The self-aware yet idealistically hopeful Chef truly is a class-act. Favreau wanted the respect of the chef community, explaining that only a small niche need appreciate the efforts to make those efforts worth it. He knew he couldn’t bluff an art form as specific and honest as cooking, nor did he want to, so he decided to undertake the transformation from passive eater to well, active feeder. And who better to show him the ropes than local culinary royalty Roy Choi, the man behind the elusive, gourmet Korean Kogi truck and one of the founders of the celebrated food truck movement. Choi’s food first entered Favreau’s life on the set of Iron Man 2 — Hollywood foodie Gwyneth Paltrow had called in the Kogi to feed the crew, and Choi showed his taste buds no mercy.

Soon after, Favreau rode along with Choi for a night on the food truck circuit, a night Choi, who joined Favreau at ArcLight, described as practice rounds of drop off the money, pick up the laundry a la The Sopranos. He’d taken a bite, and the bite bit him. He decided the film was a go. Choi then sent him to an accelerated French cooking program and he worked his way up the line, until he could prove to master Choi he was the real deal. Every last crumb, shank, pickled onion and parsley snip pictured was cooked — and eaten — on set.

With Choi acting as chief consultant on all things kitchen — from food prep to line cook lingo (Chef is rated R for language, Favreau was told any movie about cooking that has a PG rating is bullshit), from farmers market etiquette to a chef’s tattoos, the movie captures the rich culture behind the seasonings. John Leguizmo as Martin, Sancho Panza to Carl’s Quixote, is a deliciously executed side dish, and Bobby Cannavale brings a toned-down though no less-welcomed version of Cannavalian flair.

So few movies have the attentiveness required to convey the heart of our day to day. Chef devotes itself fully to that attentiveness. Visibly excited to get back to his Swingers roots, in Favreau’s case, sticking to the traditional menu doesn’t disappoint.