November 16, 2018

Eat Real, Be Real, Feel Real

Tarator. Photo from Wikipedia

January and February — I think I can speak for many of my fellow chefs when I say we don’t enjoy you very much. After the force-fed gluttony from September through December, I don’t think I’m the only cook who hears the words “detox” and “juice fast” a hundred times a day during these months. Like clockwork, each year I see dazed customers, men and women, confused by all the hype thrown at them from the multibillion-dollar diet industry that feeds on our insecurities about not being good enough if we aren’t a vegan marathon runner.

I watch our customers stare at our menu as if frozen, wondering what in the world they are going to eat for breakfast and lunch, trying to make sense of all the contradictory rules and regulations the USDA has thrown out in any given year: be a vegetarian, eat ­­­­­more grains, eat no grains, gluten free, meat free, egg free, nut free — it never ends.

After working in the food industry for more than 15 years, I can tell you that often these ridiculous starvation practices that include “all natural” powders and potions inevitably result in double helpings of doughnuts and chocolate cake.  As much as I love the profit margin on fruit smoothies, unless you enjoy being in the gym two-plus hours a day, spiking your blood sugar with pure fructose is probably counterproductive, to say the least, and is almost guaranteed to have you looking for another hit of sugar by 3 p.m.

I don’t want you to think I’m not a team player. I’ve chased some dogma down the street in my life, so far be it from me to be self-righteous about our ever-expanding diet culture and waistlines. But here’s the rub: Like clockwork, all the stress, anxiety and deprivation of this annual hysteria invariably make my sales of sweet indulgences increase markedly by Valentine’s Day. While my café in the American embassy may not be a controlled laboratory environment, my casual studies into human nature suggest that if you tell people they can’t eat something, often they start wanting it — more than anything.

My casual studies into human nature suggest that if you tell people they can’t eat something, often they start wanting it —  more than anything.

What should we do about this conundrum before mid-February strikes and all you dieters out there, nutrient deprived and sugar spiked from fruit and lack of protein, eat your weight in leftover Halloween candy from two years ago and those super chalky Valentine hearts? I’m no expert, but how about we take a word from our wise Jewish ancestors and just start eating real food again?

If I think back on my childhood, how my mother cooked, as well as my aunts and cousins, I see a definite pattern that almost without exception led to good health until old age. Until the advent of boxed convenience food, people cooked and ate unprocessed food with little to no additives. I’m still amazed by how energetic and youthful most of my family members in Israel are despite busy, frenetic lives and irregular exercise habits. Sure enough, sit-down meals are the norm in Mediterranean cultures. In Israel, most people still observe the Friday night meal with family as a fixed appointment on the calendar every Shabbat.

If you do have a New Year’s resolution to “get healthy” —  and by that, we all know you mean to lose weight — it is utterly imperative that you learn how to prepare a small rotation of quick dishes at home. People who eat real food enjoy many benefits beyond weight loss. Taking the time to nourish yourself, even if it’s 15 minutes, to sit down at a table and eat a healthy meal you prepared yourself, is not that much more taxing than going out to dinner. Consciously stopping to select what you want to eat, what your body is craving (and I don’t mean sugar), is a deliberate choice. Don’t tell me you are too busy — life today is more convenient than ever before. If I can prepare something after a 12-hour day cooking in Uganda, no Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s or even any other decent grocery store in sight, I know you can.

Maybe it’s time to stop getting food out of boxes and bags and take a break from the restaurants for a bit. Even if the only thing you can think of making for dinner is reservations, I promise that if you take a little time to rethink your food habits, you will discover new and exciting things to eat: food that will make you feel better and may give you greater mental clarity and more stable blood sugar — without having to struggle through an unsustainable diet or juice fast.

Here is my recipe for a revitalizing Bulgarian staple that most everyone in Israel makes on a regular basis. It’s usually thought of as a refreshing summer dish, but I eat it year-round as a starter or as a side dish with fish dishes such as tasty Sephardic salmon cakes, roasted zucchini and tahini (next week’s recipe) or even as a light supper with a side of scrambled eggs.

2 cups thick, plain yogurt, unflavored (Greek or Bulgarian)
2 cups Persian or English cucumber, or any firm cucumber, peeled and medium diced
2–3 cloves fresh minced garlic, or to taste
1/2 cup fresh herbs (dill, parsley, mint or a combination), finely chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
(optional or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
Cold water
3 tablespoons chopped walnuts (optional)

Mix all ingredients (except walnuts) with a fork, and thin with cold water to desired consistency — for my preferred consistency, I add ¼ cup of cold water. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up till overnight. Serve in chilled bowls and garnish with chopped walnuts, if using.

If you would rather have a thicker, more dip-like consistency to eat on the side of a fish dish, leave out the water, or you can strain the mixture through a cheesecloth or coffee filter to make it thicker still. If you want to use this as a side dish for grilled chicken, beef or lamb kebabs, use unflavored coconut yogurt, which is a delicious alternative to dairy-based yogurt.

Makes 4 servings.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

Rounding out a big year, JDate CEO has reason to celebrate

Last year was big for Spark Networks. At an open-bar mixer and comedy show in January to celebrate the re-launch of its flagship website, JDate, the company’s CEO was exuberant.

There was one metric in particular Michael Egan wanted to highlight when he took the stage at the Improv in Hollywood on Jan. 20: the number of Jewish marriages that have resulted from the service.

“We think we’re responsible for more mother-to-child conversations than any other website — we’re still trying to prove that one,” he told a room full of Jewish singles interspersed with a few JDate success stories invited by the company.

Since he took the CEO job in January 2015, he’s been in charge of JDate and ChristianMingle, which together form the bulk of the web company’s portfolio, and he’s had some figures to brag about. 

In particular, Spark Networks introduced mobile apps for JDate and ChristianMingle last year, growing to more than 318,00 active mobile users from virtually zero late in 2014.

That’s not to mention JSwipe users: Spark Networks purchased the upstart millennial-targeted Jewish app in October for $7 million, with a potential extra $10 million going to JSwipe’s four founders if they meet certain earning targets. (In July 2015, just a few months before acquiring JSwipe, Spark Networks had sued the app for infringement of its copyright on the name “JDate.”) Egan said the mobile app will begin pursuing profit strategies this year, but existing services will remain free.

Egan is neither Jewish nor single. Having been married 19 years, he’s never seriously used a dating app a day in his life. He uses the word “gosh” and speaks excitedly about building Internet communities, having spent a decade in Web businesses and another in crisis communications.

On a recent day at Spark Networks headquarters, which occupies the sixth floor of a Westwood office tower, the bald and wiry Egan wore a salmon button-up shirt and blue jeans with a sports watch and Oakley eyeglasses, ditching the blazer he’d worn at the Improv. 

“I missed this entire online dating thing,” Egan told the Jewish Journal. “And I told [Spark Networks] that when they were asking me about the job. I told them, ‘Look, I might not be your guy.’ ”

Spark Networks is a publicly traded corporation on the New York Stock Exchange valued above $90 million (its stock ticker is LOV). Just months before Egan was hired, a group of shareholders put up what he called a “proxy battle” and succeeded in replacing the board of directors.

In August 2014, the new board chairman, Michael McConnell, replaced the CEO of three and a half years, Greg Liberman, taking on the role of executive chairman. After a corporate restructuring, the company announced Egan’s hire in December 2014.

Since then, Spark Networks has hired a new chief financial officer, chief marketing officer and chief technology officer.

The company’s executive team isn’t all that looks different. Its two top websites have undergone re-launches aimed at streamlining features and integrating them into the same Web platform.

As Egan explains, the makeovers were part of the vision of the new management. For years, the company had used stable profits from JDate’s monthly subscribers to grow ChristianMingle, he said.

“But what started to happen was that JDate got a little old,” he said. “It had no mobile application, and we know that the world has shifted very heavily into mobile.”

Since 2012, the world has seen the advent of the dating app Tinder, widely popular with singles in their 20s, where users select or deny each other by swiping left or right on one another’s photographs. In April 2014, JSwipe launched as its Jewish counterpart. 

Spark Networks evidently had some catching up to do.

“The new board recognized that, hey, mobile is critical, we’ve got to reinvest back into JDate,” Egan said. “JDate is sort of the crown jewel of this company, and it’s been ignored for too long.”

In addition to JDate and ChristianMingle, Egan took charge of a host of Spark’s much smaller niche dating sites, including SilverSingles for older singles, LDSSingles for Mormons and Adventist Singles Connection for Seventh Day Adventists, along with JDate’s Israeli, French and United Kingdom counterparts. 

With the acquisition of JSwipe, Spark Networks received an additional block of users: At the time, the mobile-only platform boasted 450,000 downloads and 40 million messages between users. 

(Adding further drama to the incestuous world of the Jewish digital dating space, Joe Shapira, who cofounded JDate in 1997 and departed in 2004, last year launched a competing Jewish dating app, Jfiix, which operates like a cross between JSwipe and JDate.)

The acquisition of JSwipe also made Spark Networks’ Jewish user base a lot younger. 

Whereas about 85 percent of JDaters are 35 and older, 90 percent of JSwipers are 30 and younger, according to the CEO. 

JDate, Egan said, is “a more serious dating site — you come to us when you’re tired of playing the crowd and you want to actually settle down and find somebody to marry.”

Accordingly, the customer satisfaction surveys he implemented this year show that departing users either love JDate because they met somebody fabulous or hate it because they feel ripped off. Egan said the company plans on rolling out curriculum about dating and relationship building, such as webinars and blog posts, as well as live events, so that even those customers who don’t meet the love of their life can still feel as though they’ve gained something.

It was largely that category of still-single customers who attended the re-launch party at the iconic Melrose Boulevard comedy club on Jan. 23. 

One attendee, a divorced schoolteacher, said she’d gotten on the service because of a Black Friday deal. She wasn’t alone. One of the comics, Taylor Williamson, complained that JDate had cheated him by offering a promotional deal and then charging him full price, leading to the inevitable “cheap Jews” joke.

The prevailing mood of the evening, at least among the comics, was jaded and self-effacing.

“My dating pool is like a picked-over clothing rack at T.J.Maxx,” said Nicole Aimée Schreiber, the night’s emcee. “I’m a woman over 30.”

Then the crowd of Jewish singles watched gleefully as the evening turned in on itself, a PR event cannibalizing the product it intended to hawk.

When the night’s headliner, Adam Ray, pulled a victim from the crowd, he unwittingly picked a Spark Networks employee, proceeding to grill him about his love life and inadvertently turning the evening into an awkward JDate office party.

He asked the bespectacled employee’s name and received an extremely Jewish-sounding one.

“Really?” he asked. “Was Matzah Ball Circumcision taken?”

How two survivors found romance

In a way, their relationship began like so many others: a workplace romance.

Gabriella Karin, 85, was a docent at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH); Robert Geminder, 80, who goes by Bob, was on the museum’s board of directors.

His wife, Judy, died four years ago. Her husband, Ofer, passed away two years later. Neither one expected to love romantically again, but both seemed to understand that their long and fruitful marriages marked them as romantics.

“Is the pope Catholic?” Bob said. “I didn’t stay married for 52 years and she didn’t stay married for 64 years for no reason.”

Both are Holocaust survivors, deeply committed these days to a post-retirement career transmitting their stories to young people.

“We were trying to make menschin [upright citizens] out of young people,” he told the Jewish Journal. “We spoke in schools all the time — I did, Gabriella did — way before we even knew we existed.”

On Feb. 17, they’ll celebrate their first anniversary as a couple, on a speaking tour in Baltimore.

It started innocently. The two have known about each other for half a decade. They got to know each other a little better on the March of the Living, the annual youth pilgrimage to Poland and Israel, listening to the other’s stories of surviving the war.

(Both of their life stories have been recorded by Jane Ulman in the Journal’s Survivor series and can be read in full at

Soon, they began to notice each other at LAMOTH events they both attended.

“He asked me to save a place next to me when we went to some meeting, so I saved a place,” Gabriella explained. “Next time, he saved a place.”

Then came the act of fate.

At the 2014 annual LAMOTH Chanukah party, E. Randol Schoenberg, then the chair of the museum’s board, persuaded Gabriella to buy a raffle ticket. Sure enough, she won: two tickets to an opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles.

“I sit down with the ticket, and I ask him, ‘You want to go with me?’ ” she said. “He said, ‘Let me see.’ So he looks in his phone. ‘Yeah, I have time this day. Good!’ So he says, ‘OK, you have tickets, I’m taking you out to dinner.’ ”

The dinner at Bottega Louie on Grand Avenue was the first in a series of dinner dates leading up to Feb. 17, the day of their first kiss.

Since then, they’ve been visiting each other a couple of times a week or on the weekends. Mostly, he drives to her place from his home in Palos Verdes — where he walks his dog past the golf course he says is too expensive to play on but nice to look at.

She lives in the Fairfax neighborhood, close to LAMOTH’s home in Pan Pacific Park on Beverly Boulevard. They have no plans to move in together, instead cherishing the space and time they each need for their busy lives: “It’s great this way,” she said.

Last year, they traveled as a couple to Poland and Israel with the March of the Living youth trip, and they are going back in May for this year’s pilgrimage. They intend to go a week early, so each can tour the areas where the other rode out World War II.

Over a recent Saturday lunch, each waited patiently while the other dutifully shared stories of the Holocaust. Each has done this umpteen times.

Bob clammed up and stared fixedly at his lap while Gabriella told her story. She recounted in soft, accented English how she hid first in a convent and then in a one-bedroom apartment in Slovakia with her mother, father, aunt, two uncles and two family friends — across the street from the regional Gestapo headquarters, miraculously escaping notice.

While the Nazis and their collaborators thinned the ranks of Bratislava’s Jews, Gabriella watched her mother commit acts of daring for the Slovakian underground, accompanying her to warn Jewish families when their names appeared on deportation lists.

Bob cautions against drawing parallels between survivor stories, saying that each is unique.

But he also played eyewitness to his mother’s intuition and courage that mark her as the hero of his story. She sneaked him out of the ghetto on the way to work by hiding him under her skirt, while his brother scampered underneath her girlfriend’s skirt.

“Nobody saw that there were a couple of extra feet under the skirts,” he said.

Another parallel emerges: In both stories, a young couple proves a pivotal agent of survival.

The cramped one-bedroom apartment where Gabriella quietly hid for nine months belonged to her aunt’s boyfriend, Karol Blanar, a young lawyer whom she later successfully nominated to receive Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations award. Blanar brought food for the family and books for Gabriella to read so she wouldn’t fall behind in her education.

For Bob, it was a man who his widowed mother met in the ghetto who proved integral to arranging a place to stay in occupied Warsaw. Emil Brotfeld would later become Bob’s stepfather when he married Bob’s mother at a displaced persons camp in West Germany after the war.

Neither Bob nor Gabriella put much stock in the idea of fate, or in things turning out as they were somehow meant to.

Bob prefers instead to refer to luck: It was luck, he says, that resulted in his being at the back of the crowd at the Jewish cemetery in Stanislawow (now Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine) during the Nazi mass murder of Oct. 12, 1941. If he had been in the front, he might have been among the 14,000 who were assassinated, rather than the 6,000 who lived.

“We were in the first trucks — who knows why?” he said. “It’s not that we were smart to get on the first few trucks — we were pushed on.”

Bob is the talkative one of the two. Gabriella chimes in intermittently to add a detail or to gently correct him, and he treats her graciously.

“I never want to take more time than Gabriella,” he said. “When we speak together, she always gets the extra two minutes.”

“He’s just polite,” she said.

Bob has a curious habit of interspersing his survivor story with jokes. Describing how he scavenged raw eggs to survive while stowed away at a farm near Krakow, he pointed to his full head of hair that, despite his age, has not thinned out.

“Usually at this point I try to find a guy in the audience who’s bald-headed and say ‘See? Raw eggs,’” he said.

He doesn’t joke around to make light of his story, but rather to make it easier for his listeners to stay tuned in.

“It’s such a tense, terrible story for both of us,” he said, before launching back into the recollection. “Not that I want to add humor — I just want to add relief, so people can breathe and listen again.”

If he’s the funny one, she’s the creative one.

Gabriella had a career as a fashion designer before turning to sculpture and illustration, focusing her artwork on themes related to the Holocaust. (Her work can be found at She dressed for lunch in a gossamer blue blouse with matching pants and a necklace of her own making.

The two are not affectionate in public, but Bob seems to enjoy doting on her. When somebody set down a bowl of strawberries in front of the two, he turned to Gabriella.

“You don’t want any of these, I know,” he said.

“I’m allergic to strawberries,” she explained.

Later, he tried to pick the marzipan truffle from a box of chocolates to share with Gabriella but picked the caramel one instead.

“That’s not marzipan, Gabriella, I’m sorry,” he said. “We’ll put this one back. I didn’t eat it.”

On the second try, he successfully picked the sweet and split it with her.

Gabriella and Bob don’t exactly buy into the idea of a soul mate. But others who know them aren’t so skeptical.

Samara Hutman, executive director of LAMOTH, waxes poetic when talking about the new couple. She played a key role in their introduction.

“My mother always taught me there’s a lid for every pot,” she told the Journal. “They’re just the perfect lid for each other’s pot — just a perfect fit.”

She admits to getting a little warm and fuzzy about Gabriella and Bob’s relationship. For her, it speaks to the possibility of a second chance at love. But on a personal level, she’s proud of the museum’s role in bringing them together.

“Every time I see them together, my heart smiles like I’m an old lady, like they’re my kids,” she said.

In fact, Hutman was the architect of the raffle that first brought them together for dinner. (“Everything’s better with a raffle,” she said.)

She had known Gabriella for years, because Gabriella got involved with Hutman’s Righteous Conversations project, now under the LAMOTH umbrella, which brings together young people and survivors.

She remembers watching Gabriella care for her late husband when he took ill, after he had for years enthusiastically supported her work as a survivor-storyteller.

“He was as excited about her second career as she was, and when I would go there to visit, he would always give me a flower and a smile,” Hutman recalled. “He was just one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known; their relationship was just so beautiful.”

Hutman hadn’t known Bob all that well until he offered to drive her to the airport on her way to Jerusalem for work.

During that car ride, he unburdened himself to her about how his five-decade marriage had left him a student of loving devotion toward “a really special person,” and to keep her eye out in case she might come across such a person.

“He was kind of putting his soul out to the universe, to me on this drive,” she said.

Hutman is careful not to take too much credit for the relationship. But she said LAMOTH provides a loving community built around Holocaust education that contributed to their meeting. She wouldn’t say if she’s heard of other couples that have met through the museum.

“Are you asking if we’re running a dating service at LAMOTH?” she joked. “I’m not at liberty to say.”

Bob and Gabriella emphasize it was their shared mission of education, of teaching kids about resilience and respect for their fellow humans, that first bound them to each other.

A retired electrical engineer, Bob earned his teaching credential at the age of 70 and now teaches math as a substitute in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He recalled a moment when a student in his math class at a southeast L.A. high school told him he’d heard Bob’s story before in another classroom.

“He’s sitting in class, and he shows me a picture of he and I two years ago,” Bob said. “Do you think he’s going to remember algebra?”

When the lunch wound down, Bob stepped outside and escorted Gabriella to his car, a silver 2016 Corvette Stingray with the dealer plates still on.

“A present to myself for my 80th birthday,” he said.

Bob held the door as Gabriella slid into the passenger seat of the two-door convertible. They waved and then, with a roar of the engine, tore off under a cloudless Los Angeles sky.

For Valentine’s Day, a tender tale of love and meatballs

It's that time of year when a rash of stories appears to suggest, despite hard science to the contrary, that certain foods — oysters, chocolate or what have you — fire up the libido. A recipe, on the other hand, can have a different kind of romantic power. It might stir up memories or evoke our roots, allowing us to mingle, in a metaphorical way, with our ancestors. For some people, certain foods, whether pasta or potatoes, are imbued with symbolic meaning. The Umbrians, for example, link love and meatballs. Their region, coincidentally, is the birthplace of St. Valentine, the patron saint of lovers, affianced couples and happy marriages (not to mention beekeepers, plagues, epilepsy and fainting episodes).

The lore and lure of the meatball

According to the late Umbrian cookbook writer Guglielma Corsi in her classic “Un Secolo di Cucina Umbra” (“A Century of Umbrian Cooking”), it was once a custom among country people for a prospective mother-in-law to invite her son's bride-to-be for a home-cooked meal the day before their wedding and present her with a platter of meatballs. The future mother-in-law would offer her one, impaled on a fork, saying, “Daughter-in-law, may you be the joy of my home. Will you bring discord or union?” The bride was meant to answer, of course, “Union,” after which the mother-in-law would respond, “Then eat your polpettina.” A promise of domestic harmony, sealed with a meatball. It's perhaps not a surprising custom considering Umbria's Etruscan ancestors, those mysterious first settlers of Italy who, historians tell us, believed that every food harbored a spirit.

In the years since I first crisscrossed Umbria to study its traditions and foods, I, too, have come to believe that a good meatball is a talisman for domestic happiness. Thinking like an Etruscan, I can equate its plumpness as a symbol of abundance, its spherical form with wholeness, good health and the infinite potential of love. Who, in any case (vegetarians aside), doesn't love a good meatball?

Recipe variations around the world

As with everything else Italian, there is controversy about what constitutes a meatball's proper structure. For the tenderest meatballs, some say to add water to the ground meat mixture; others add ricotta. Still others swear by blending in sausage meat or pancetta — fat makes for both flavor and moistness. Signora Corsi's polpettine, a complex blend of three different fresh-ground meats as well as prosciutto, two kinds of cheese, egg, garlic, lemon zest, bread and marjoram, are probably as close to perfection as a meatball can come. But the Bolognese, who consider their cuisine unparalleled, like theirs “straight up,” with no fillers added to the meat, egg, and herb mixture. The succulence of their polpette is because of the addition of a healthy dose of minced mortadella. The Neapolitans sometimes add sultanas and pine nuts to theirs, a Baroque touch befitting their city. The Sardinians may use rice instead of bread, especially for meatballs that will be served at wedding feasts.

The meatball universe extends well beyond Italy. The Greeks spice them with cumin and oregano. A Colombian chef I know grinds together lamb and chorizo, then coats the meatballs with romesco sauce after cooking. A Spanish friend who runs a superb little restaurant near my house adds ground anise seeds to a mixture of beef, pork and veal, which he roasts in his wood-fired clay oven before serving the meatballs with a dollop of burrata in a puddle of tomato sauce. Persian recipes may blend yellow split peas with ground meat, pine nuts or dried fruits. Turkish mixtures are perfumed with cinnamon or saffron. And so on around the world.

I love them all, but the most tender is the result of a recipe I came up with one summer when the eggplants in my garden dangled from their vines ready for the picking, and I had just brought home a couple of pounds of fresh-ground lamb from the market. I roasted the eggplants until they were entirely collapsed and smoky, scooped out their flesh and plied the pulp with the meat mixture gingerly (overworking it results in a rubbery texture). I added scarce other ingredients besides garlic, rosemary and plenty of parsley — as anyone who is as fond of lamb as I am knows, the meat alone packs a big flavor punch. The eggplant sweetens and foils its gaminess.

No matter which kind of meatballs you make, there are many ways to serve them. Sometimes I offer them as an appetizer, threaded onto rosemary skewers. I might whip together hummus, Greek yogurt and cumin for a dip. Probably everyone's favorite is meatballs al pomodoro. The color red is a universal symbol of love, passion and happiness, so that's how I suggest you serve them on Valentine's Day, whether you are feeding kin, friends, or lovers.

Lamb and Eggplant Meatballs in Simple Tomato Sauce

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: About 40 minutes

Total time: About 1 hour 20 minutes

Yield: 20 meatballs


  • 1 medium eggplant
  • 1 cup day-old sturdy bread such as sourdough or country loaf, crusts removed and cut into 1/4-inch cubes (2 ounces trimmed weight)
  • 1 egg
  • Scant 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black or white pepper
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • 1 pound ground lamb leg or shoulder
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
  • 2 tablespoons fresh minced rosemary or 2 teaspoons dried crushed rosemary
  • Extra virgin or pure olive oil for frying
  • 2 cups homemade meatless tomato sauce of your choice



1. Preheat an oven to 400 F.

2. Grease a baking sheet lightly with olive oil. Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and place each half face down on it. Roast about 30 minutes, until it is entirely collapsed, soft and lightly charred on the cut side. Meanwhile, place the bread cubes in a shallow soup bowl and cover with water. Soak until moistened, several minutes. Drain and squeeze excess water from the bread.

3. When the eggplant is cool enough to handle, cut off the stem. Chop finely.

4. In an ample mixing bowl, whisk together the egg, sea salt, pepper and garlic. Stir in the prepared bread cubes. Use your hands to break them up until they are well blended with the egg mixture. Add the chopped eggplant, ground lamb, parsley and rosemary. Using your fingers, mix the ingredients together without overworking them. If you have time, chill the mixture before forming the meatballs; this step can help you shape it into perfectly round spheres, but it is not essential.

5. With wet hands, form the mixture into equally sized balls about 1 1/4 inches in diameter, no larger than golf balls.

6. Prepare a platter with two layers of paper towels next to the burner over which you will be cooking. In an ample skillet or frying pan, pour enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan and warm it over medium heat. Fry the meatballs in batches to avoid overcrowding; there should be plenty of room around each for proper searing. When they have developed a light crust and look golden brown, about 10 minutes, transfer them to the paper towels to drain. If necessary, drain off smoky oil and add fresh oil to the pan to prevent the bits that settle on the bottom from burning. Warm the oil once again and finish frying.

7. If you are serving the meatballs in tomato sauce, warm it in a saucepan over medium heat and slip the browned meatballs into them. Cook them through, about 20 minutes. Serve at once. If you plan to make the meatballs in advance, cool and store them, with or without the tomato sauce, in a covered storage container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Alternatively, freeze them for up to 3 months.

Valentine’s Day: An ideal date for Jewish weddings?

In December, around the time my wife and I were celebrating our 35th wedding anniversary, we received an invitation to an outdoor Jewish wedding to be held on Valentine’s Day 2016. Printed on a red postcard affixed with a heart postage stamp, the couple, Lena Silver and Aaron Wolfson, “joyfully” invited us to a “celebration of their love and commitment” in Palos Verdes, California.

“Please bring something warm to wear,” the invite advised, since it was being held near the ocean. And warm is what I wanted to feel — there’s a special kind of heat that’s generated at a Jewish wedding, with all the words, rings, glass breaking and guests dancing, encircling the couple and bringing them together.

Adding to that, the bride’s father and I have been friends since we were teens. I had attended his wedding, and he, as a young rabbinic student, had co-officiated at mine. Remembering how traditional the day was, a wedding on Valentine’s Day — with its murky ties to several early priests named Valentine — gave me pause. Would a Jewish wedding on Valentine’s Day be too corny, too cute, too out of Jewish context?

While clearly not a red-letter day on the Jewish calendar, for many Jews of my generation, Valentine’s Day always seemed like a secular and harmless way to express friendship — and later, love — beginning with the time-honored exchange of Valentines in elementary school. Since my teachers insisted we bring cards for every student, even the new ones, I realize now, looking back, that this probably was my first experience practicing the Torah concept of “welcoming the stranger.”

Still, handing out cartoon-character Valentines to classmates is far different a religious, and public, declaration of lifelong love. Checking online, I quickly found three other Jewish couples — two from Los Angeles, a third from New York — who also were planning to stand under the huppah on Valentine’s Day. Were other Jewish couples just taking advantage of Feb. 14 being a Sunday, a popular day for Jewish weddings, as it’s not Shabbat yet still the weekend? Or is this another phase in the continued warming of Jews to what was originally a Christian holiday?

For answers, I went straight to the couple whose wedding I’ll soon attend.

“It was all about Monday being a holiday,” said Aaron, who met Lena on OkCupid, an online dating service, while he was attending Boston University medical school in 2012.

The couple wanted to “maximize the amount of people” who were coming from out of town, and with Presidents’ Day on Feb. 15, having the wedding on Valentine’s Day was a “brilliant” solution, explained the soon-to-be groom, who was now in a cardiology fellowship at Los Angeles County Hospital and the University of Southern California.

“I was actually pretty embarrassed, but it’s a very convenient day,” added Lena, who was attending Harvard Law School when the couple started dating and is now an attorney with Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County. “First, we were going to ignore that it was Valentine’s Day, then we decided to embrace it.”

“It sure helped us to decide what kippah to have,” interjected Aaron, referring to the pink suede skullcaps adorned with hearts that will be given out for guests to wear.

The couple is also planning a Valentine’s Day craft table for their guests to make cards.

But that’s not all the crafting that has gone into this Valentine’s Day wedding. Together, Aaron and Lena have modified the Jewish wedding ceremony to incorporate what they feel is an expression of their loving, egalitarian relationship.

Instead of a traditional ketubah — the Jewish wedding contract that is signed before the ceremony — the couple is using a shtar brit, a covenant agreement.

Traditionally, a ketubah is  a “unilateral agreement” in which “the husband guarantees to his wife that he will meet certain minimum human and financial conditions of the marriage,” according to Rabbi Maurice Lamm in “The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage.”

Though today there are various forms of egalitarian ketubot, Lena felt that “they don’t really give couples an opportunity to explore more expansive commitments they make to each other.”

So instead, Lena and Aaron created their own contract. It’s adapted from a variety of sources, including Rachel Adler’s book “Engendering Judaism,” an article on Ritualwell by Rabbi Heather Altman and Heather Sapiro, and a shtar brit used by Lena’s cousin. The final document, painted by Lena’s great-aunt, “memorializes” the couple’s “shared commitments to each other in different facets of their relationship — economic, domestic, and personal,” according to the program the couple will distribute at the wedding.

They are also making changes to the ring ceremony by having a brit ahuvim, a lover’s covenant, a concept they also adapted from the same Ritualwell article.

The traditional Jewish wedding-ring ceremony, called kiddushin, is when the groom acquires the bride by giving her a small token — usually a ring —  and declaring “Behold, you are betrothed unto me with this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel.”

During the brit ahuvim ceremony, rather than each putting a ring on the other’s hand, Lena and Aaron will each put a ring in a pouch, symbolically joining their beings and possessions. As they lift the pouch, they will be making a commitment to their loving relationship.

“Why not just use two rings?” I asked, as my wife and I had done at our wedding.

“Both partners acquire the other through the ring ceremony,” Lena responded in an email. “We felt that rather than acquire each other — which means we/our bodies are the property of the other — a ceremony that represents the creation of an equal partnership was more representative of what we hoped to express though our wedding ceremony.”

Still, with all this businesslike discussion of contracts, covenants and who may or may not be acquiring whom, I started to think that my search for a romantic Jewish wedding connection to Valentine’s Day had melted like a box of candy left in the California sun.

There goes my thesis that a Jewish wedding on Valentine’s Day might seem more romantic than contractual, I said.

“I disagree,” Lena said. “I think entering into a committed equal relationship is extremely romantic.”

She was right, I realized. Better than any sentimental card or overly sweet candy, the soon-to-be bride gave me a new way to look at the heart of my relationship, 35 years after my wedding day.

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at

Recipe: Baked orange-flavored cheesecake with Indian spices

This Valentine's Day, as you look for foods besides oysters and chocolate to woo the object of your affection, consider exploring your spice cabinet.

You'll be surprised at the flavors' powers — as natural aphrodisiacs — to be found there.

To heighten the senses and set the mood, we need fragrance and beauty in our foods.

In fact, Ayurveda — the holistic method of medical treatment in India rooted in Hinduism — traditionally placed a fair amount of emphasis on aphrodisiac terminology. The intent was to ensure that people led healthy conjugal lives and the ruler appropriately produced the requisite heir. There is similar wisdom found in other ancient texts.

So, cull through this list of common spices for your Valentine's Day menu that also may help you spice things up — in other ways — with your Valentine.

First up is cinnamon, whose lustrous and sweet aroma can make you both happy and calm. (And, it's certainly good for your blood pressure.)

Right alongside, you might have cloves, whose essential quality is to uplift your mood and spirits. And then there is nutmeg, also known for its antioxidant and astringent qualities.

An aphrodisiac spice, says 'The Arabian Nights'

To complete the fragrant collection, we also have cardamom, which “The Arabian Nights” extols for its passion-inducing properties.

All of these will find its place in a good garam masala blend. And when meshed with saffron — the exotic spice of the gods — your Valentine's Day collection of aromas will be complete.

When planning your menu, consider a good one-pot dish such as a biryani that will bring to your table all of these spices and more. If that's too complex, try rubbing a chicken with butter and garam masala and serving it roasted to perfection, with saffron mashed potatoes on the side.

But don't forget the dessert. Fortunately, many Indian desserts bring together cardamom, saffron and rose. From the universe of puddings, halwas and burfees, I have dug up a Bengali specialty called the sandesh, which, when done right, can win over the most fastidious of hearts and palates.

A sandesh is a cheesecake of sorts, with the emphasis on a specific cheese: channa, or homemade white cheese. The art of the traditional sandesh rests in the right texture and handling of this channa. Although it is prolific in Indian confectionary shops, we're often hard-pressed to find good sandesh in commercial Indian sweet shops — mainly because of the relatively short shelf life of this delicate sweet.

Spicing up cheesecake the sandesh way

Ricotta cheese, if treated right, can be a substitute for channa. This recipe features a cheater sandesh, using ricotta cheese streaked with saffron and subtly scented with freshly crushed cardamom.

I have created this recipe for days when time does not allow for the making and draining of channa. It's a fairly good facsimile for the steamed sandesh known as bhapa sandesh that my grandmother used to make. In this sandesh, instead of cooking the channa over the stove top, it is steamed with gentle and continuous heat.

In my recipe, I bake it on low heat in the oven and then cool and shape it. If you wish, you can garnish these delicate morsels with pistachios, snipped rose petals and anything else that catches your fancy.

Serve them with some chilled saffron almond milk.

That's bound to warm the cockles of your heart and soothe your senses, all at once.

Baked Orange-Flavored Cheesecake — Bhapa Sandesh

Adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles,” by Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus time for cooling

Yield: 12 servings


For the cheesecake:

  • Clarified butter or ghee for greasing the casserole dish
  • 1 1/2 cups low-fat ricotta cheese (about 30 ounces)
  • 3/4 cup condensed milk (about 12 ounces)
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron strands
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly crushed cardamom (about 2 pods)
  • 6 tablespoons fresh orange juice or tangerine juice (about one medium tangerine)


For optional garnishes:

  • Orange sections
  • Slivered almonds
  • Chocolate shavings



1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

2. Grease an 8-by-12-inch cake or casserole dish and set aside.

3. In a mixing bowl, beat together the ricotta cheese and condensed milk.

4. Stir in the saffron strands and cardamom, pour the mixture into the greased casserole dish. The objective is to achieve a streaked effect rather than uniform coloring.

5. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.

6. Drizzle with the orange juice and cool for one hour.

7. Carefully invert the prepared cheesecake onto a flat surface. This can be cut into shapes using a cooking cutter, or formed into round balls.

8. If desired, garnish with orange sections and almonds, or roll or sprinkle with chocolate shavings.

9. Chill for 45 minutes or longer, and serve.

At a breaking point in Turkey: Should Jews stay or should we go?

The gold and gray city of Istanbul spent Valentine’s Day bracing for snow. Under angry clouds, Turkish couples huddled around tabletops in the cafe quarter of Ortakoy, a historically posh neighborhood along the Bosphorus Strait. Jewelry-makers had set up stands along the alleyways to sell gleaming valentine trinkets. Crowning the scene — visible from nearly every spot in the neighborhood — were the ornate minarets of the Ortakoy Mosque, one of the city’s proudest monuments. When the mosque’s loudspeakers blasted a Saturday morning call to prayer throughout Ortakoy, all cafe chatter paused for a moment; one got the feeling its holy vibrations could split ice.

If any of Ortakoy’s lovers noticed the line of well-dressed men and women who, meanwhile, were ducking through a miniature green door in a stone wall on the quarter’s edge — just across from the Shakespeare Cafe and Bar — they didn’t let it show. 

A guard at the green door checked IDs before ushering those men and women into a dark, airtight hallway. A keypad on the wall inside unlocked a second armored gate.

A small, armored door at the edge of Istanbul's Ortakoy neighborhood leads to a hidden synagogue.

Beyond the high-security passageway, the group entered a separate world invisible to neighbors — a grand courtyard and synagogue painted a fresh, Mediterannean white and dotted with stained-glass Stars of David. Inside the shul, Ortakoy’s resident rabbi, Nafi Haleva, belted the week’s Shabbat sermon in Turkish, tailoring it to the Western holiday that had captured Istanbul’s consciousness. 

“We’re not against Valentine’s Day,” the rabbi told the 100 or so Turkish Jews in attendance, seated separately by gender, as required by Turkey’s Orthodox rabbinate. “But it can’t just be one day of gifts.”

Haleva spoke on lasting love and marriage and the roles of a Jewish man and wife. “Women are superior to men,” he said. “Women and men have to be the same, so men have to study the Torah.”

Seated in the front row of the women’s balcony was a special guest: Amira Oron, 48, the newly appointed chargé d’affaires at the Israeli embassy in Ankara, Turkey’s capital city. Oron is the latest diplomat to stand in for a true Israeli ambassador since the position was recalled in 2010 following the infamous Mavi Marmara flotilla raid in which Israeli soldiers attacked a Turkish aid and activist ship heading toward Gaza, killing 10.

Oron had traveled hundreds of miles Feb. 14 to spend Shabbat in Istanbul — no doubt to mingle as much as to pray — and, looking poised in a pretty scarf and pixie cut, she listened patiently to the sermon, though she couldn’t understand the parts in Turkish.

The rest of the crowd was less attentive. Friends whispered noisily; children monkeyed across empty chairs. Men in robes at the front of the shul had to constantly shush the congregation back to attention.

“The new generation in Turkey doesn’t know anything about Judaism,” Abraham Haim, an Israeli-Turkish rabbi who makes biweekly trips to Istanbul, would later tell the Journal. “In Tel Aviv, you can take someone from Dizengoff Street, and he’s ultra-Orthodox by comparison.”

When the Torah had been tucked back into its cupboard, Ortakoy’s Jews spilled gratefully into their synagogue’s leafy courtyard. They picked from heaps of Turkish pastries, fruits and cheeses laid out on banquet tables. A few also indulged in a late-morning glass of raki — Turkey’s national anise spirit, served with a splash of cold water. Warmed by all those bodies and the breath from their conversation, Ortakoy’s sealed-off synagogue complex felt at least a few degrees more welcoming than the outside world. 

Denis Ojalvo, 64, a stout Turkish-Jewish businessman who lives in the hills above the synagogue, chose to skip Shabbat services Feb. 14. (“I’m more of a cultural Jew,” he explained.) Ojalvo instead waited along Ortakoy’s shoreline, in the glacial breeze that was whipping off the Bosphorous, for services to end — and for a close friend and a reporter to emerge through the green door and join him for an afternoon chat.

Ojalvo chose a restaurant so far down on the docks, it behaved like a houseboat. He ordered hot salep, a Turkish drink made from rosewater and ground orchid tubers. As he sipped, a Chinese freighter chugged by; the view felt huge, historic.

“You see how nice?” Ojalvo asked. “Can you leave such a country?”

A few nights earlier, though, speaking in his friend’s living room, Ojalvo described the dark isolation he often felt living as a Jew in Turkey. “Here, you are like somebody who watches,” he said. “You are not in the stream. Because even if we don’t want to admit it, here, we live in a Muslim country, and we are somehow second-class citizens.

“I mean, we have rights,” he continued. “But we are unable to take real advantage of those rights because we feel like we are under a … glass ceiling.” 

‘Hope is fading’

Turkish Jews often speak of the warm welcome the Ottoman Empire gave their ancestors when they were expelled from Spain some 500 years ago. But in the century since the strict secularist Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded modern-day Turkey, Jews and other ethnic and religious minorities have been subject to waves of severe discrimination — in terms of property rights, freedom of language and education, upward mobility and more. “Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire [in the 1920s], the transformation to a nation-state created a dynamic where non-Muslims were not welcome and couldn’t fit into this model of Turkish nationalism,” said Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College and Middle East analyst who splits his time among the U.S., Israel and Turkey.

When the Republican People’s Party (CHP) passed a discriminatory “wealth tax” in 1942, about 30,000 Jews reportedly fled the country. The creation of the State of Israel a few years later encouraged tens of thousands more to leave, and anti-Semitic riots and attacks in the following decades drew out the trend.

Today, only about 17,000 Jews live in Turkey, most of them in Istanbul — a sad sliver of the 500,000 welcomed from Spain by
Ottoman rulers and the 200,000 that remained at the turn of the 20th century.

Their numbers continue to shrink. Although no one is keeping an official tally of annual departures, community members estimated that their net loss is now up to 300 people per year, in large part because more Jews are dying than are being born.

Nearly 40 percent of the community’s college-aged demographic chose to study abroad last year — a figure twice as high as the year prior. 

“Since this summer, there has been more and more talking in the community about living in another country, mostly between the young Jews,” said 31-year-old Mois Gabay, who writes for Salom, Turkey’s Jewish newspaper. M. Namer, a 33-year-old Istanbul entrepreneur active in the Turkish Union of Jewish Students, said in meetings, “Everybody’s talking about, ‘Should we stay or should we go?’ ”

Both young men said economic opportunities abroad — coupled with the difficulty of starting a Jewish family in Turkey — are helping drive migration. “One issue is finding a partner, the other is feeling comfortable about your future,” Namer said.

Pervasive anti-Semitism in the public sphere also has played an undeniable role.

A poll commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) last year showed that around 70 percent of Turks harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. A grand majority of the respondents believed Turkish Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Turkey, that Jews have “too much power in the business world” and that Jews “don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind.”

“Most Turkish people will never ever meet a Jew in their life,” Fishman said. “That’s where their conspiracy theories can really take hold.”

In September, a cellphone store in downtown Istanbul hung a sign in its window that read, “The Jew dogs cannot come in here.” In November, unknown activists posted a mock demolition notice on Istanbul’s Neve Shalom synagogue.

In December, 31-year-old Sabay wrote in an op-ed for Salom: “We face threats, attacks and harassment every day. Hope is fading. Is it necessary for a ‘Hrant among us’,” he asked, referring to Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist assassinated in 2007, “to be shot in order for the government, the opposition, civil society, our neighbors and jurists to see this?”

Various other members of the Jewish-Turkish community told the Journal that within the past decade, and especially the past few years, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric from Turkish politicians and media personalities has become so constant and overblown — and vague in its distinction between Israelis and Jews — that they no longer feel comfortable in their home country.

“It’s so flagrant, it’s so visible, and we are not idiots,” Ojalvo said. “We can see it. We can feel it.”

Ojalvo is the rare member of the community who keeps close tabs on these remarks and criticizes them publicly: He writes an occasional column for ŞSalom, and leaves lengthy comments on anti-Semitic articles in pro-government papers he reads on the Internet. Sometimes he contacts the authors directly. 

“I don’t care; I say my name,” he told the Journal. “I don’t believe in anonymous people shooting from behind a wall.”

But among his peers, Ojalvo is the exception.

For 10 days in February, this reporter traveled between Istanbul and Ankara in search of rage and panic among the country’s remaining Jews. What was there instead was a profound and private sadness — one that Turkey’s last Jews dutifully carry among themselves but were hesitant to share with an outsider.

Most members of the Jewish-Turkish community contacted by the Journal did not wish to talk to the press. “We have enough people trying to exploit us,” one man wrote in an email, suggesting the Journal visit France instead. Another expressed frustration that foreign Jewish organizations such as the ADL have gotten involved in their affairs and subjected them to added danger.

Most community members who did agree to be interviewed didn’t want their names in print. They gave various reasons for this: A few said they didn’t want to stir internal drama within Istanbul’s tight-knit Jewish circle; others said they’d rather stay off the government’s radar.

“I don’t want to think I should be afraid,” a 55-year-old Jewish-Turkish textile manufacturer said, “but maybe I should.”

The man’s son and daughter, both in their 20s, are currently living abroad. “Young people at that age, they study in U.S. or in Israel, and many of them don’t come back,” he said. “As [the population] goes down, people are moving faster. The youth have less chance of meeting each other. Nowadays, it’s much easier to go to the States for studies, and they find good jobs, and they stay for two years, three years, 10 years — and then they just stay.”

In Bursa, an old green building across from Turkey's oldest synagogue was once the site of a thriving Jewish school.

‘Good luck’

A report published last year by the Hrant Dink Foundation, a Turkish nonprofit tracking anti-democratic sentiment in the media, showed that during Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza last year, a full half of media reports were flagged for “hate speech” specifically targeted Jews — up from around 25 percent in 2012. 

The foundation found that when discussing the war, pro-government newspapers such as Yeni Akit and Milli Gazete often used the words “Jews” or “Israelis” in place of “State of Israel” or “Israel Defense Forces.”

Just last year, in the span of a few months, Yeni Akit, the conservative and Islamist newspaper closely aligned with Turkey’s ruling political party, ran: 1) a column demanding Turkish Jews to publicly condemn Israel for its assault on Gaza or risk facing a pogrom like those against Greeks in the 1950s; 2) a crossword-style puzzle linking a portrait of Hitler with the slogan, “We are longing for you”; 3) an op-ed calling on Turkey’s Jews to be taxed for Gaza reconstruction; and 4) a headline blaming a deadly mine collapse in Turkey’s Soma province on the mine owner’s Jewish ties.

Burak Bekdil, a non-Jewish journalist and restaurant owner in Turkey who often reports on injustices against minorities for the left-wing Hurriyet Daily News, told the Journal: “For the government or for the average Turk, when I write the same things about [minorities such as] Alevis or Christians, they say, ‘You’re a stupid liberal.’ But if it’s about Jews, I’m a Zionist.”

Bekdil said that in the 12 years since the Justice and Development Party (known locally as AK Parti or AKP) came into power, he has watched anti-Semitic rhetoric edge into the mainstream.

Bekdil spoke to the Journal over a bottle of red wine in his Ankara restaurant, which he modeled after taverns on the Greek island where he now spends six months of every year laying low. Just before the AKP took parliament, Bekdil was handed an 18-month suspended prison term by Turkey’s then-powerful court system for “insulting the judiciary.” Although he has yet to be arrested by the AKP, the fear is always with him.

Bekdil said that compared to past decades, “This is a more dangerous thing that we go through today,” because all state power is in one set of hands: the AKP’s.

None of the myriad AKP politicians and pro-AKP newspaper columnists responded to emails and voicemails from the Journal requesting comment — with one exception.

Yasin Aktay, vice chairman in charge of foreign affairs for the AKP, invited the Journal to his stately office, located on a top floor of the new AKP skyscraper in Ankara, for a face-to-face interview. From the window in his hallway, visitors have a grand view of the president’s new, 3-million-square-foot palace.

“There is no realistic threat against the Jewish people in Turkey,” Aktay told the Journal over Turkish tea and chocolates. “And if, in spite of all this, they have some phobia — good luck.”

Aktay stressed his party has in many ways improved life for Turkey’s minorities since taking power of parliament in 2002 with a sweeping two-thirds majority.

“There is no realistic threat against the Jewish people in Turkey. And if, in spite of all this, they have some phobia — good luck.”
— Yasin Aktay, vice chairman in charge of foreign affairs for the AKP, Turkey's ruling party

For example, Aktay said, the AKP recently returned $2 billon in previously confiscated property to minority groups. “We are proud of this — and nobody can criticize us compared with the past,” Aktay said. “[Some say] we took steps backward. Just on the contrary: In all aspects, in all domains, in all feats, we advanced.”

The Turkish public’s sense of security at street level, too, is at a significant high. The AKP has managed to stave off another of the country’s infamous military coups, and has overseen an ebbing in the mass-casualty terror attacks that roiled Turkey in the early 2000s (including two horrific bombings outside Istanbul’s Neve Shalom and Bet Israel synagogues in 2003, in which 27 were killed and hundreds injured).

Many Turkish Jews who spoke to the Journal agreed with Aktay on this point. “We might not like [AKP] views, but stability is good, and there is no terror on the streets,” said the 55-year-old Turkish-Jewish textile maker and father who wished to remain anonymous.

However, to maintain this stability and to ensure the AKP’s own lasting power, party leaders, in the eyes of many, also have begun transforming Turkey from a true democracy into a shadowy police state. Party insiders told the Journal they’ve watched the AKP’s founding promise of nationwide reform slowly melt under the ambitions of one man: Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

New Turkey

Since rising from a small-town football star to mayor of Istanbul to Turkish prime minister and now president, Erdoganğhas earned a reputation among his adversaries as an aspiring “sultan” of his own Ottoman Empire.

Or, as he calls it, New Turkey.

More journalists were jailed in Turkey in 2012 and 2013 than in any other country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Erdoganğhas repeatedly blocked civilian access to sites such as Twitter and YouTube whenever he’s felt threatened by anti-AKP content. Dozens of anti-government rioters have been killed and thousands more injured by police under Erdogan’s watch. And now, a new “internal security” bill — currently making its way through parliament piece by piece — will give police the right to detain citizens “incommunicado” for 48 hours without a court-issued warrant, among a slew of other powers.

Erdogan also has achieved global fame for his increasingly wild rhetoric — which he more often than not aims at the nearby Jewish State of Israel, once a strong military ally.

“They curse Hitler day and night, but they have surpassed Hitler in barbarism,” Erdogan said of Israel at a July campaign rally. On a Latin American tour in February, the Turkish media reported him as saying: “As long as Israeli oppression and Israeli terror continue, the bleeding in the Middle East and the entire human conscience will never stop.”

Aktay insisted that his party’s anger is directed at Israel and Zionism, not Jews. 

“I am criticizing Israel because I am suffering from Zionism,” Aktay said. “I will safely and comfortably criticize jihadism. What is jihadism, and what is Zionism? In some terms, Zionism is the equivalent of jihadism. If jihadism is not good, why is Zionism good? And Zionism … really, it is murder.”

Can Özgön, head of the 30-person Jewish community in Ankara, Turkey, holds the only key to his childhood synagogue, now almost completely out of use.

Anti-Semitic social-media activity by AKP members drew global ire during the war in Gaza. Notably, Ankara mayor and AKP member Melih Gökçek, who has amassed almost 2.5 million followers on Twitter, responded, “I applaud you!” to a Turkish singer who declared, “May God bless Hitler.”

The local Jewish community also was shocked when, at a Holocaust Memorial Day event Jan. 27 in Ankara, parliament speaker Cemil Çiçek went off script to scold Israel for, among other crimes, committing a modern Holocaust in Gaza. 

Karel Valansi, a political columnist and former world news editor at Şalom newspaper, witnessed the speech. She wrote: “Don’t we have 364 other days and other platforms to discuss and try to find a solution to the problems of the Middle East, Gaza, Israel, Palestine and the Mavi Marmara incident that torpedoed Turkish-Israeli relations?” Meanwhile, on the same day in Prague, following a roundtable discussion with 30 parliamentary speakers from European countries, Turkey was the sole country that refused to sign a joint declaration demanding “zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.”

Presented with these examples, Aktay called them justified emotional responses to seeing “2,300 civilian people” killed by Israel. 

“All these reactions come after Israel killed the children in the beach,” he said, raising his voice. “They kill children. They are committing crimes against humanity.”

Asked whether Turkey has a responsibility to make its own Jewish population feel safe despite Israel’s actions, he said: “Actually, we are the guarantee of their life. And there is no problem about that. … The problem of anti-Islamism is more real. The problem of anti-Semitism is not real. Even in Turkey, there is none. It comes out as some reactions to [Israeli crimes].”

Aktay blamed Israel for the sense of insecurity among Turkish Jews.

“The policy of Israel is putting the Jewish people in danger everywhere,” he said. “That is a sort of provocation, and it puts the uninvolved Jewish people in danger because Jewish people become targets. Hopefully not in Turkey, of course. But nobody can protect them afterward.”

Aktay told the Journal that as long as Israel is oppressing Palestinians, the AKP will stay in attack mode. 

“When a city is being kept under a siege like a concentration camp, it is not different than the Holocaust,” Aktay said. “Someone should criticize very loudly, and we don’t see anybody [do this] out of Turkey. We are proud in the Turkish role in this — somebody should of course articulate the voice of justice.”

‘Words can be dangerous’

According to left-wing Turkish journalist Bekdil, anti-Israel rhetoric is an easy “vote catcher” in Turkey. “At AKP rallies, there are two flags — one Turkish, one Palestinian,” he said. “It’s not just Turkish Islamism. Even the Turkish left wing feels connected.”

But as Erdogan has swept the popular vote, he has simultaneously alienated many of the country’s secularists, intellectuals and free thinkers — including the last of Turkey’s Jews.

In 2013, when hundreds of thousands of young Turks flocked to Istanbul’s central Gezi Park to save it from Erdogan’s development plans, the riots soon grew into a larger, symbolic fight against the AKP’s authoritarian and Islamist grip on Turkish life. Responding to the protesters on Turkish TV, Erdogan shook with fury — and in the heat of the moment, he and other party members’ red-faced tirades devolved into Jew-bashing.

Erdogan’s deputy prime minister at the time was quoted by local media as blaming Gezi Park protests on the “Jewish diaspora.” And in a videotaped outburst, Erdogan apparently shouted at a protester, although his exact words were hard to make out: “Why are you running away, Israeli spawn?”

Both officials later denied making these statements. 

Brooklyn College’s Fishman stressed the importance, as an analyst, of “separating the anti-Israelness from the anti-Jewishness” in AKP rhetoric. However, he added, “Having said that, it’s becoming more and more difficult to separate the two.”

Israel’s embassy in Ankara, the target of a mob attack and flag-burning during last summer’s war in Gaza, closely monitors Turkish political speech and media reports, including for anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic bias. But in public statements and on-the-record interviews, embassy officials, as well as officials at the Turkish Jewish Community foundation, tend to walk on eggshells — careful not to damage the already fragile ties between Turkish Jews and their government.

“We don’t believe in microphone diplomacy,” said chargé d’affaires Oron from her office within the tightly guarded embassy compound.

However, warned the embassy’s spokesman and deputy chief of mission, Nizar Amer: “Words can be dangerous, especially words that come from high officials.” And, he added, “Turkish Jews should feel secure and comfortable in their country, regardless of relations between Israel and Turkey.”

Down the hill from the embassy in Turkey’s parliament building, a single politician from the opposing Republican People’s Party (CHP) has made it his core platform to fight for minority rights in Turkey.

In an interview in his cramped corner office, Aykan Erdemir, 40, an upbeat and outgoing parliamentarian who barely made the cut last election, told the Journal that the dangers of the AKP’s anti-Semitic rhetoric cannot be understated. “Reducing anti-Semitism to simple anti-Israeli sentiment is trivializing the extent of the problem we have,” he said. Erdemir called Erdogan an “anti-Semite, full stop” with “intentional, systematic, anti-Semitic core values that he built his whole career on.”

In recent months, Jews in Paris and Copenhagen faced the worst-case end result of growing anti-Semitism in Europe: deadly terror attacks by Islamist radicals against Jewish shops and synagogues.

In Turkey, on the other hand, Erdemir believes “state complicity” is the real danger. “The more an average citizen reproduces this anti-Semitic rhetoric in everyday encounters, the higher the likelihood of, let’s say, an attack against a synagogue or a Jewish citizen of Turkey,” he said.

“I’m concerned about the mainstream individual who is very reasonable in most of her outlook in life, but then has this strange set of core values that are full of hate, prejudice, discrimination, conspiracies,” Erdemir said. “Because, ultimately, I think it’s never the lunatic but always that average Joe who opens the floodgates for pogroms, mass killings and attacks. … They will support the climate that fuels hate.”

During his time in office, Erdemir has relentlessly denounced AKP actions that alienate minorities and has attempted to pass legislation to protect them, including a law against hate crimes.

“We have a half-baked hate-crimes law, which was AKP’s way of responding to pressure by the public — but it’s not comprehensive,” Erdemir said. “So we don’t have comprehensive institutional and legal protection [for minorities].”

Other sources in the Turkish parliament cited a recent surge of violence against women, including the widely protested murder of 20-year-old Ozgecan Aslan, as proof that sexist rhetoric from Erdogan is now taking itself out in the streets.

“Erdogan has sown so many seeds of hate in Turkish society,” Erdemir said. “It will be difficult to unmake it.”

‘If I were Jewish, I would hide’

There’s a word in Turkish used to describe the deep, stabbing — and quintessentially Turkish — type of nostalgia that overcomes an Istanbuli when he reflects on his life and his city: hüzün.

Hüzün is a descendent of huzn, the ancient Arabic word used in the Quran to mean “melancholy” or “sorrow over a loss.” In the present day, Turkey’s most well-known author, Orhan Pamuk, has attempted to redefine hüzün as it applies to his people. In Pamuk’s historical memoir “Istanbul: Memories and the City,” the author devotes an entire chapter to hüzün, which he calls, in part, a “cultural concept conveying worldly failure, listlessness, and spiritual suffering.”

Pamuk notes, however, that the country bears this special melancholy “with honor” — and that, for a Turk, experiencing a wave of hüzün can be as “life affirming” and insulating as it is painful.

“Now we begin to understand hüzün not as the melancholy of a solitary person,” writes Pamuk, “but the black mood shared by millions of people together. What I am trying to explain is the hüzün of an entire city: of Istanbul.”

A Westerner unfamiliar with Turkish hüzün, and that of its Jews, might mistake the mood for blank despair. But spend enough time within Turkey’s Jewish community and it slowly reveals itself as a communal, almost peaceful kind of resignation — the collective nostalgia of a community that has already begun to mourn its own demise. 

Leon Elnekave, 70, is the shul keeper and head of the remaining Jewish community in Bursa, the small port city on the Sea of Marmara where Sephardic Jews first arrived in Ottoman times. Only about 60 of them, all elderly, remain. In his office across the alley from Bursa’s 521-year-old synagogue, Elnekave used an index finger to trace the final remaining clusters of Turkish Jews on his wall map of the country. “Thirty in Antalya, 20 in Antakya, two in Çanakkale,” he said, matter-of-factly. Elnekave said the entire Jewish community has died off in many other towns, leaving their synagogues and cemeteries behind to rot. “Nobody is left,” he said.

Amid this soft fade, AKP’s insults are just salt in the wound.

“For the last maybe six months, whenever there’s news, I close the television, because I know what they are talking about, I know what they will say,” said Can Özgön, president of the Jewish community in Ankara, at his office in the center of town. Özgön had dressed his tall build in denim and corduroy, lumberjack style, and gelled his brown curls as best he could into an unruly pyramid. “Also, I will not take a newspaper,” he said. “Because I am nervous — that’s the reason. And I cannot do anything about it.” 

Last November, the AKP-appointed governor of Turkey’s far-north Edirne Province, near Bulgaria, announced that the historic Edirne synagogue, currently undergoing renovations, would be turned into a museum as revenge for Israel blocking Palestinian worshipers from Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque. (In response to widespread condemnation, the governor later retracted his statement and clarified the did not have the power to make this decision.)

When asked about the incident in Edirne, Özgön showed no signs of anger.

“What difference does it make? This synagogue is also a museum,” he said as he ducked beneath the hedge of brambles that obscures the entrance to Ankara’s abandoned shul. Once inside, Özgön, who holds the synagogue’s only key, proudly lit an electric Star of David, made of retro neon tubing, that hangs above the Torah’s ark. “Every chair used to be full,” he said, remembering the Shabbat services of his boyhood. Today, Özgön said, he has neither the resources nor the manpower to care for the building, whose roof leaks in winter and whose bathrooms are often trashed by the local homeless population. Surrounding homes, stately mansions once owned by Ankara’s well-to-do Jews, are now empty, their windows cracked.

When Özgön was small, his parents told him stories about growing up in a mixed community in Ankara. They said their Muslim and Christian neighbors would hand out matzah and sweets to Jewish children on Shabbat.

“But now,” Özgön said, “you cannot see anything like this. It’s finished.”

Turkish Jews are not alone in their hüzün for this small-town “mosaic” Turkey of old. On the tray tables of a new high-speed train from Istanbul to Ankara, inside a complimentary copy of the line’s official magazine, Rail Life, was an extended interview with Turkish movie star Cem Davran, in which he mourned the Istanbul of his childhood.

“Maybe we were the last happy children who had lived within the neighborhood culture,” he told the magazine.

And “the most important thing in the neighborhoods of ancient Istanbul,” Davran said, “was that many people from different faiths and culture were all together. Everyone respected each other’s faith. Moreover, they used to put extra effort in it so everyone could live their religion freely.”

Cihan Karayagiz, 25, a young Kurdish man on the train, read the passage. He gazed out the window for a spell — watching small, snow-covered villages dart past — before admitting to this reporter that he’d never met a Turkish Jew before in his life. His grandfather, though, had told him stories about this same “neighborhood culture” discussed by the movie star.

“If we have many colors, Turkey will be more interesting, it will be better,” he said. “If we only have one color, it will be dangerous. Now you can’t see any other religions. Or if they’re there, they hide themselves.”

Karayagiz thought some more, then added: “If I were Jewish, I would hide.”

Turn your floral bouquet into homemade potpourri

Who doesn’t love receiving a bouquet of fresh flowers, whether it’s for a birthday, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day or just because? The sweet smells always brighten your day and add a burst of joyful color to your home. It’s too bad, then, that arrangements typically wilt in about a week. But here’s good news: You can preserve the flowers so they last forever. Just dry them and turn them into potpourri. As someone who once thought that potpourri was just a category on “Jeopardy!” I was surprised how easy it is to make.

Step 1: Dry the flowers

Dry whole rose buds by hanging roses upside down for several weeks. 

I like the idea of preserving some of the flowers in their entirety as well as taking some apart to dry the individual petals. The combination of whole flower buds and flaky petals provides a gorgeous texture to the finished potpourri. It’s easiest to dry larger petals, like those on roses and peonies. For flowers with small petals, like carnations and chrysanthemums, I recommend drying the entire flower bud rather than just the petals.

To dry whole flower buds, hang the flowers by their stems upside down, tying them to a clothesline with string or twist ties. Allow them to air-dry indoors for two to three weeks. When  they’re completely dry, the buds will snap off the stems, and you will be left with beautiful flowers that have the look and feel of vintage paper.

Dry rose petals in a conventional or microwave oven.

Drying petals is much faster. Place the petals in a single layer on a parchment-paper-lined cookie sheet, and heat in an oven at its lowest temperature, about 180 F. Crack open the oven door to allow moisture to escape. After 30 minutes, turn the petals over, and heat for an additional 30 minutes. When oven-baked, the petals turn crispy, and their color actually intensifies. (Oven times vary, so if your petals aren’t completely dried after an hour, keep checking their “doneness” in 10-minute increments.)

If you’re in a hurry and can’t wait an hour for them to dry in the oven, you can also microwave your petals. Place the petals between two paper towels and microwave them at full power for one minute. Remove the petals from the microwave, turn them over, and zap them for another minute. Instant dried petals!

Step 2: Add botanicals and other elements

Dried herbs and botanicals complement the flowers in your potpourri.

Once your flowers are dried, it’s time to add other elements to create the potpourri. What you include in your mixture is completely up to your taste and imagination.

Start by looking in your own backyard for botanicals that are available to you for free. Think leaves, tree bark, pinecones and twigs. Rinse them well to remove dirt and bugs, and dry them in the oven for an hour.

Next, consider adding fragrant herbs like lavender or rosemary. I know when I’m walking my dogs, Fosse and Gershwin, around the neighborhood, I can never go by a rosemary plant without running my fingers through the stalks. I just love how it smells. Best of all, lavender and rosemary retain their shape and fragrance when dried, so they work really well in potpourri.

You can also raid your pantry for aromatic spices. Cinnamon sticks, star anise and cloves lend delightful fragrance notes to your potpourri while adding interesting shapes and textures.

When making potpourri, I also like to add nonbotanical filler elements. Costume jewelry, wooden thread spools, seashells, and even vintage keys help to personalize the potpourri and make it unique. Choosing modern and unexpected fillers (Legos, anyone?) can also help keep the potpourri from becoming too froufrou.

Step 3: Mix it all together

Once you’ve gathered your ingredients, place them in a large bowl and stir everything together with a wooden spoon. The proportion of florals to botanicals is up to you, but I like about three-quarters of my mixture to be flowers. The ingredients you choose probably already have some scent, but if you want to enhance their natural fragrance, select an essential oil that will tie all your elements together. Essential oils — with scents such as lavender, almond, orange and jasmine — are available in most health food stores. Just add several drops of the oil to the mix. Then display your potpourri in dishes and bowls throughout your home.

Making homemade potpourri is a great way to preserve your beautiful flowers, as well as the memories associated with receiving them. So the next time you receive a lovely bouquet, save the petals. Love may not always last forever, but the flowers certainly can.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” ”Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects on

‘Shamor L’Amour’ guide seeks to foster healthy romantic relationships

Talking about domestic violence may not seem like the most romantic way to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Nonetheless, Jewish Women International has timed the release of a new guide aimed at combating domestic abuse and fostering healthy relationships to coincide with the Feb. 14 holiday.

Called both “Rethinking Shabbat” and “Shamor L’Amour” (which roughly translates from Hebrew and French to “observe the love”), the guide, requested by over 75 synagogues in the United States, presents Jewish texts as a starting point for discussions about healthy relationships.

The guide is composed of prayers, songs and other Jewish texts accompanied by rabbinical commentary and discussion questions. An additional “Sermon Sparks” guide offers talking points for clergy sermons on the topic through a similar combination of Jewish themes and modern domestic abuse contexts.

Lorge and Deborah Rosenbloom, who is JWI’s vice president of programs and a co-editor of the “Rethinking” guide series, which includes three other publications, both emphasized that their campaign is more focused on promoting positive relationships than addressing abusive ones.

“The media brim with stories and analyses of unhealthy, and often dangerous, relationships,” an introduction to the guide reads. “Where are the conversations about how to create images and expectations of health and safety between intimate partners now, in our own time?”

According to a Centers for Disease Control study from 2010, more than 12 million Americans are victims of domestic violence in some form each year. Rabbi Ari Lorge of New York’s Central Synagogue, who is a co-chair of JWI’s Clergy Task Force To End Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community, said that Jews have historically not been vocal enough on this issue.

“For a while some of us thought that it wasn’t an issue in the Jewish community,” Lorge said. “Of course it is and always has been. There’s a misconception that we’re somehow immune to it.”

Lorge is optimistic about the guide’s potential but acknowledges that there is a long way to go in addressing domestic violence.

“It’s been a really good effort, but the sad reality is that the issue doesn’t go away,” Lorge said. “Talking about relationships for one weekend a year, while it’s great, doesn’t really address the issue. We’ll want to evaluate and hear from synagogues.”

Those interested can request a “Shamor L’amour” guide here.

Religion as romance

I met my husband in college, hobbling my way through campus on crutches. He touched my shoulder, shouted, “Tag, you’re it!” and ran away. I laughed and found myself looking for his lanky swagger everywhere I went. We were both 20, both experimenting with the contours of our personality. I studied political theory and art history, fancied myself a performance artist, and wanted to spend my free time at philosophy lectures. He studied mycology, hiked every weekend, and knew how to fend for himself by putting spoonfuls of sugar in plain yogurt and lemon pepper on canned string beans.

He didn’t really know much about my background. He didn’t know that I had attended Orthodox yeshiva, that I had only recently suffered from the loss of my faith, or that somewhere deep inside my newfangled hipness, I really missed synagogue and my Tanakh class.

Reality came to my husband in waves. He met my grandparents and learned that it was me, not my family, who was, for a time, religious. I had made my home kosher, tyrannized my parents over the rules of Shabbos, moved to Israel and transferred to yeshiva. Religion was never imposed on me. I chose religion. For years, I had this feeling of closeness to history and to God and then, one day, I just stopped believing in that closeness.

What at the time seemed like a crisis of faith was, in retrospect, just the beginning of a new form of religious feeling. I was in the process of creating a practice that no longer hinged on faith alone but rather on the value of a life immersed in communal rituals. I met my husband during this transition. To his credit, after some initial confusion, he accepted this.

My husband converted to Judaism because we found together a life of beauty in studying Torah and organizing our weeks around Shabbos.

Seven years after we met, my husband converted to Judaism. We had taken a yearlong beginners class together and then he found a rabbi who was smart, realistic and inspiring. My husband didn’t convert to Judaism for me. He is not a man capable of falseness. My husband converted to Judaism because we found together a life of beauty in studying Torah and organizing our weeks around Shabbos. We found shared passion in discussing texts and arguing over the purpose of kashrut. We haven’t always agreed on content but we have always agreed on the kind of argument we should have. 

Judaism is a space of romance for us. In the last few years, when money has been tight, he has learned prayers in lieu of a physical gift. He spent months learning how to say the Friday night Kiddush and now honors our Shabbos table with his sonorous prayer. When we moved to Columbus, Ohio, he arrived first to contact rabbis and get to know the Jewish community. His partnership in our religious life remains one of the strongest attributes of a marriage that, like all marriages, has weathered conflict.

My husband’s faith has been called into question. Not only by rabbis who doubt the verity or legality of his conversion, but also by peers and colleagues who don’t understand its purpose. His conversion has confused our children and been a point of serious conversation with family members. It has never been easy. In some ways it has even been hurtful. But how we have worked through this process has added remarkable depth to our relationship with each other and with the Jewish people. We know what it feels like to be rejected and to still show up, to give people the time they need to grow out of prejudice and into acceptance.

When I look back on the 15 years we have been together, I am awed by how my husband has come to express love through the language of Judaism. He is the one who suggested we call our rabbi when we couldn’t move past certain issues. He is the one who helped prepare the house for my grandparents’ shivahs. He rushes home so that I can go to Tanakh class and lifts our children in the air to make Shabbos magical at home. His relationship to Judaism is different from mine. He doesn’t yearn for closeness to God (a word that would probably even make him uncomfortable); he struggles with Hebrew, prayer and learning. But every gesture he makes seems to matter more to me than anything else I have ever witnessed religiously. Every day he opens himself to being new at something, to not knowing things that seem basic to other people, and he does it to give more religious content to our family life. He does it so that our children can grow up with a sense of their religion as a gift they have been given. A gift that requires practice and work. A gift their mother and father have both inherited and chosen.

The singles crisis: Let’s support singles for relationship success

We are now facing a genuine singles crisis. Lara, a successful 37-year-old chemist from San Diego, is concerned that her dream of marriage and a family will elude her. She rarely meets anyone for more than a few dates, and her only serious relationships have been long-distance ones. Jeremy, a 42-year-old good-looking accountant from Boston, has dated more than 200 women over a 25-year period and has just broken up with his fiancee after panicking for fear he had chosen the wrong one. For many singles, the best chance they have of coming home to someone else is if they have just had a burglary. Tens of thousands of Jewish singles in the United States are struggling to form and secure lasting relationships. Many are distressed and demoralized, further pressured by worried parents and grandparents. Jews, it seems, are not marrying. The former British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has noted that nonmarriage is now more of a challenge to the viability of our community than interfaith marriage. According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, Jewish marriage rates in the U.S.have fallen to a new historic low. I cannot imagine another cause of this magnitude that would receive such a tepid response.

[Five questions you may want to ask yourself if you are single]

Many singles experience a huge amount of pain and frustration as they struggle for years to achieve their most important objective of getting married and having a family. The deep sense of frustration many singles experience is compounded by a community that they feel judges and blames them. A communal rabbi recently provided me with his verdict: “I’ve come to the conclusion that most singles don’t really want to get married, or they’d find a way.” Knowing that this rabbi had a child with educational challenges, I responded: “Like telling a child with dyslexia that the reason they are struggling to read is because they cannot be bothered, for if they cared enough, they’d figure it out.” It’s true, some people are single because they do not wish to be married, or are disinclined to make an effort — which is their prerogative. However, the vast majority of singles I meet try enormously hard to find a life partner, throwing toward that effort inordinate amounts of time, effort and money. To tell these people that they don’t want it enough is ignorant and hurtful. They need our understanding and support, not our judgment and criticism. Blaming singles for their struggles just adds insult to injury. As Bella dePaulo, an expert and author on the topic who teaches at UC Santa Barbara, has argued, disparaging singles — what she terms “singlism” — is about the only form of discrimination still deemed acceptable in our postmodern era. 

What many singles need most is not someone else to meet, but to meet him or herself.

The truth needs to be told: Singles are generally trying their level best to succeed in relationships, but it’s not working out for many of them. So what to do? Let’s start by understanding the issue. Finding the right person is half of the dating challenge; being the right person is the other half. As a relationship coach, I am often asked, “Can you suggest someone nice?” as if meeting someone “nice” is likely to make the difference. The person who asks has almost certainly met dozens of “nice” people, so meeting one more is unlikely to resolve the issue. Many singles — and those whom they turn to for advice — are unaware that, most likely, some internal barrier is holding them back. Simply meeting a bunch of new people won’t wish that away. Arranging social events and providing matchmaking or dating services, while necessary, is nowhere near sufficient. Many people who attend singles events, though grateful for the opportunity, return home disappointed that it did not result in a meaningful chance at a relationship. Matchmakers, whether formal or informal, will tell you how frustrating it is making suggestion after recommendation only to be told that something or another is wrong, or doesn’t work. For someone who is struggling with some internal barrier, attending another singles event or being introduced to one more date is typically just another chance to experience failure. 

What many singles need most is not someone else to meet, but to meet him or herself. Most of the singles I meet are highly successful and attractive people who are high-functioning in pretty much every other aspect of their life, but for some reason are falling down in this most crucial pursuit. What they need are the awareness and skills to successfully manage the internal resistance or limitation that is holding them back from enjoying relationship success. As long as the issues that are at the heart of the relationship struggles remain unaddressed, continued disappointment is far too likely. 

A man approached me in a restaurant: “I’m looking for a beautiful, good Jewish girl; what advice can you give me?” In response, I quipped: “Try starting by being a beautiful, good Jewish boy!” So many people would have you believe that their problems are outside of themselves, and that if only Mr. or Ms. Right would show up, wedding bells would ring. If only it were so. Some of the people I work with have dated hundreds of people, and it is implausible that all of them were unsuited. We need to use education and coaching to encourage people to be Mr. or Ms. Right. Singles should know that while, of course, we don’t blame them for their difficulties, they can play a crucial role in improving their own chances for success. 

When I first discovered this issue, I contacted two of the most important relationship organizations in the English-speaking world and asked them what they could offer singles. The response: “We are a relationship organization, so we focus on people who are in a relationship.” In other words, if you are married and your relationship gets into trouble, you have a relationship problem. But if your issue is that you are having trouble getting into a relationship in the first place, you are fine, because your relationship is not in crisis. This would be hilarious if it were not so tragic. 

Determined that something had to be done, I became a relationship coach. I completed a doctorate and published a book on coaching psychology. Together with my brother Zevi, I established Jewish European Professionals, to provide high-quality events around Europe that would not only enable Jewish singles to meet, but also would provide valuable relationship education and coaching. Ever modest, I now provide relationship coaching under the banner of “The Singles Guru.” My practice and research with dozens of singles suggests that most people who are struggling to succeed in relationships are being hindered by a single key issue, of which they are generally unaware. With raised awareness of the nature of the issues and with support to devise personal strategies to cope with them, many people would be able to dramatically enhance their chances of relationship success. My learning from this journey is now the subject of my recently published book, “Relationship Coaching.” 

People are often unfairly labelled “commitment-phobic.” Jonathan, a 39-year-old graphic designer from London, had a history of entering into relationships and breaking off when things started to get “too” serious. Then he started dating Debbie, who everyone insisted was ideal for him. Jonathan, however, was experiencing his usual misgivings: “There are some things about her that bother me; I can’t go through with this.” The reasons were flimsy at best, and by Jonathan’s own estimation, Debbie more than met his key requirements. Jonathan questioned, if she was so perfect for him, why is he so resistant to marrying her? Debbie was ready to quit, having put up long enough with Jonathan’s endless prevarications. 

I helped Jonathan understand why he felt compelled to withdraw from suitable relationships — it is called “avoidant attachment orientation.” For various reasons, a person may develop an unhealthy relationship orientation, which sometimes manifests itself in an extreme fear of attachment. People who are fearful of attachment are ambivalent, desperately wanting closeness on the one hand, but afraid of it on the other hand. Thus, their relationships exist in a manic state of drawing close and pulling away. To their partners, this type of person appears highly inconsistent and unreliable, seemingly unable to stick to a relationship without escaping, often for contrived reasons, behaving as what psychotherapist Randi Gunther called a “relationship saboteur.” Jonathan was caught up in this cycle and was unaware of the madness that is running amok in his mind. 

Until a person is aware that this is happening, they are largely powerless to help themselves. However, once a person becomes aware, the matter often can be easily addressed. On their next date, Jonathan required three attempts over an hour and half, but he finally did propose! They are now happily married with a child. The problem for most singles is not that they are picky — they are stuck. If we are serious about making an impact on this issue, we need to help them become unstuck. It’s that complicated and that simple.

Rabbi Yossi Ives is an experienced relationship coach based in London, focused on helping singles find relationship success. He is the author of “Relationship Coaching” (Routledge, 2014) and is the co-founder of JEP, a European singles organization. Ives wrote this piece while visiting L.A. to set up a singles project in the United States. He can be reached at

Five questions you may want to ask yourself if you are single

Are you afraid of getting close? Do you follow a pattern of backing out of relationships once they get serious? If so, chances are that your relationships are fine, but you have difficulty with intimacy and attachment. Don’t give up the relationship; get help to give up your fear. 

[The singles crisis: Let’s support singles for relationship success]

Are your relationships like a roller coaster? Do you follow a pattern of getting super excited about someone you are dating, only to suffer huge disappointment? If so, you would do well to understand that you have a tendency to idolize your date and then suffer the inevitable disappointment when the bubble bursts. Your deflation does not mean there’s a problem with the relationship.  

Do you practice love by smothering? Do you find that people back away when they start a relationship with you? Perhaps you are squashing and overwhelming your love interest with your intensity. Twenty texts a day is exhausting and risks alienating the one you are so keen to draw close. Respect your partner’s space. 

Do you find it hard to fall in love? Do you meet lots of lovely people, but feel there is no spark or emotional draw? It could be that you have difficulty bonding. There may be nothing you can/should do to change that, but do not withdraw from a relationship when you have the issue. Learn how to connect meaningfully with another person.  

Are there actually two of you? Some people are conflicted and are actually looking for incompatible qualities in a partner. If so, what you need is bigamy! Otherwise, get real. Work out who the “real you” is and focus on getting that one married. Finding a partner often means giving up on unrealistic dreams. Good news: Once you wrap your brain around it, you can enjoy a long, happy relationship.

Palestinians embrace Valentine’s Day

This story originally appeared on

Despite financial crises, budget shortages and protests over funds withheld, West  Bank sales of flowers, perfumes,  and chocolates are expected to soar as Palestinians prepare to celebrate Valentine’s Day on Saturday.

It’s nothing new according to old-timers who recall marking “love day” every February 14th since the 1950s.

Nancy Sabra, 52, who owns “She and He,” a shop in the city of Jenin, was already adorned with a Valentine-red scarf when she told The Media Line that she’s been “preparing for this year’s event for a month.” But as a merchant, she fears it will be difficult to move her high-end merchandise because the typical Valentine Day buyers are “young people buying gifts for their lovers who are looking for something less expensive than last year.”

Mohaned Araaf, high school student from Nablus who was in the shop explained his own dilemma. “I am always asking what the perfect gift to celebrate Valentine Day is and I am really confused. This is my first Valentine Day.” Araaf finally he decided to buy his girl fiend a gold earring with a small heart inside.

Nevertheless, the public displays of Cupids, hearts and flowers do not sit well with everyone. According to Birzeit University sociology Professor Modal Casis, even though Palestinians have celebrated annually for decades, it is still being viewed as taboo for some families.

“Some people misunderstand this holiday and believe that it promotes forbidden relations between young men and women, forgetting that the expression of love is not limited to single men and women,” Casis told The Media Line, adding that celebrating  has become “unavoidable” because of the intensity of social networking sites promoting Valentine’s Day.

The Palestinian Bureau of Statistics predicts that this year’s Valentine Day sales will not exceed $26,000, a noticeable decline from last year.

A traditional Valentine bouquet of roses will be selling for between $10 and $15, while stuffed bears will bring anywhere from $7 to $85, depending on the size and quality, and boxes of chocolate are always in demand.

In Ramallah, the five-star Movenpick Hotel begins Valentine Day celebrations two days early with a gala event featuring a DJ and dance floor that will accommodate some 200 couples at what young Palestinians see at about $50 a head as an offer not to be missed. The hotel offers specials on accommodations as well, but that’s where the economic realities set in. Illustrating the point is the comparison to last year’s event for which 250 guests paid $100 each.

Ramallah Mayor Moussa Hadad has been married since the age of twelve. He told The Media Line that flowers are still the best gift for his wife. “This year, too, [the flowers] will make her smile more beautiful than usual. 

How we met: Love stories for Valentine’s Day

This Valentine’s Day, I am beginning a new series asking happy couples the age-old dinner-table question: How did you meet? I believe that, for those looking for love, there is nothing more inspiring than a real love story.

Ellen Abramson-Cohen and Jonathan Cohen 

Ellen is from New Jersey. When she was 14, she met a boy at summer camp named Jonathan. Jonathan was cool while Ellen was nerdy. Ellen spent her summer in love with Jonathan but he spent his summer in love with someone else. But they became friends and stayed in touch after camp ended.

When Ellen was 17, Jonathan invited her to Long Island for a visit. They watched “Caddyshack” and had “relations.” After that date, Ellen headed to Brandeis while Jonathan went to Buffalo State. They went on their second date two years later, while both were home from college and shared additional “relations.” Cut to more than 20 years later, Ellen was in Los Angeles working as a schoolteacher when a friend insisted she join Facebook.

Two days later, Jonathan sent Ellen a friend request. She accepted and he told her if she was ever back in New York City, where he now lived and worked as a TV news assignment editor, to let him know. Ellen got on a plane, and 25 years after their second date, they had their third. 

They caught up with one another, and Jonathan mentioned he was born at Doctors Hospital, which used to be across the street from Gracie Mansion. Ellen was born in the same hospital. Their birthdays are only 18 days apart. 

They had a great date.  After that, Jonathan went on a camping trip with friends while Ellen still had a couple of weeks of vacation in New York. He texted her nonstop. Jonathan was now the smitten one and couldn’t stay away from Ellen, who told her mother she was going to marry him. Her mom laughed and said at least Ellen could tell her kids she lost her virginity to their dad.   

Ellen asked Jonathan if he would ever consider moving to L.A. He said no way. Ellen returned to L.A., and they stayed in constant contact.  

Over the High Holy Days, Jonathan came to visit. Ellen was closing escrow on a condo. As they walked through together, Jonathan mumbled, “I could live here.” He returned to New York City, but came back for Thanksgiving. They watched Ellen’s beloved Giants lose their game, and Ellen paced in disappointment as Jonathan got down on one knee, holding his mother’s engagement ring. She didn’t see the ring and yelled at him to get up off the floor. 

He said he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Ellen replied, “Do you have something to ask me?”  He asked her to marry him, and she replied, “Duh.” It was beshert. Thirty years after meeting at summer camp, Jonathan and Ellen wed along the banks of the Hudson, followed by a reception in L.A.  Jonathan moved west, and they live in the home he once visited, giving up his New York life for the woman he loves. He changed his career to real estate, and his life began again, 30 years after meeting his bride.

Ellen has her favorite picture of Jonathan from summer camp on her desk, and students often ask if he is her son. She tells them he is her husband, and the kids are surprised by how young he is. It took them 30 years to get to happily ever after and prove you should never give up on finding your own love story.

If you have a love story to share please email Ilana at

My valentine to American Jewish men

On Valentine’s Day, I’d like to sing the praises of American Jewish men. I’m aware it’s a rather large group, but that’s the point: The United States is a sea of plenty for Jewish men. Whereas in Britain, where I grew up, there are only about 300,000 Jews. If you remove married men, women and children, you’re left with enough eligible Jewish bachelors to inhabit a synagogue or two.

There are, however, millions of men in the U.K. who look like Benedict Cumberbatch or Hugh Grant. Lovely chaps, all of them, but none embodied the stocky, dark, curly-haired Jewish types I longed for when I was growing up in the 1970s. Think Paul Michael Glaser, the guy who played Starsky. Or Tony Curtis. There were some in my Hebrew school class in London, but few had that sass, that chutzpah I was after. They were aiming to be languid and vaguely ironic, like Jeremy Irons.

My first encounter with a real-life Jewish American boy came when I was 16. I was on a summer Israel tour, that rite of passage, and one night, on the shores of the Kinneret, I met Lance from Michigan. I’d never met a Lance before. Only Jeremys, Howards and Simons. It was thrilling. He was stocky, with a “Jewish nose” and thick hair. We flirted, I fell in love, he left on an Egged bus.

I was left with the confirmation that yes, such beings do exist in real life, and a deep knowledge that one day we would meet again and marry. (That knowledge proved to be illusory, but if anyone knows a Lance from Michigan who went to Israel in 1979, please pass on this story. Maybe our children could marry.)

I’m sure my attraction to American Jewish men was a factor 10 years later when, at 26, I decided to move to New York. I’d like to say it was because I had taken a job at the BBC’s New York bureau. But in fact it was just that I knew I’d be living in a world inhabited by Jewish guys. And so I was. I would walk down the street on the Upper West Side (with a particular viewing point outside Zabar’s) and clutch myself in excitement at the Jewish Adonises around me with their deep, soulful eyes on their expressive faces. Could you be my prince? How about you?

My dating pool suddenly expanded. Jewish men were everywhere: waiters, dentists, squash instructors. It constantly amazed me. I would meet a guy at a bar or a party and their last name would be Rosenbaum or Cohen. Definitely not Clemington-Smythe.  My bubbe would have been proud. I was ecstatic.

It’s not like I hadn’t dated — or even been in love with — non-Jewish men in England. But I just found there was a level of comfort and warmth — heimischeness, if you will — with my Jewish tribesmen. And the American Jews also had an exotic assertiveness that thrilled me. They have a confidence in their manliness, in their heritage. They’re descended from the Jews who made it through harsh winters and pogroms in the shtetls. They’re risk takers and life embracers.

While it’s true that British Jewish men are descended from the same stock, more than a century of keeping your head down, fitting in and hoping no one will notice you’re avoiding the ham sandwiches at work doesn’t exactly make you want to stand out in a crowd. British society is wonderfully tolerant of multiculturalism — as long as you don’t make a fuss.

Jewish American men don’t try to assimilate. They don’t seem to rein in their mannerisms. They’re out and proud (at least in New York or Los Angeles). And they have broad shoulders and are, as my mother would say, “shtarkers” — they’re strong.

Of course, there’s the stereotype that Jewish men are nebbishy Woody Allen types — and some are! But what these men may lack in brawn, they make up for with their scintillating smarts. The few Jewish intellectuals in the U.K. stand out because of their rarity (Alain de Botton, Harold Pinter), while here you can find bespectacled Jewish men passionately expressing their views or fluently spinning bewitching tales everywhere in the media. Talk wonkery to me, Ezra Klein! Give me a driveway moment, Ira Glass! Paul Krugman, fill me with your finance talk! (Paul doesn’t wear glasses, but you get my point.)

One day seven years ago, after many years of happily wading through New York’s large Jewish dating pool, I was out for drinks with coworkers when one of the company’s vice presidents admitted to the crowd that he’d once considered becoming a rabbi.

I almost fell off my chair. This would have never happened in London. His name was Steve Holtzman. It was love at last name. The next day I rushed to talk to him. We compared notes on teenage years involved with Orthodox youth groups, and we’ve been together ever since.

Today, Steve shrugs off his Jewishness, but for me it continues to be part of the appeal. His maternal grandfather escaped the czar’s army by walking across Europe when he was 12. His father’s family comes from Pinsk. (I just like saying the word Pinsk). He’s smart, funny and cute. He has a big embrace. And a big heart.

So on this day of pagan/Christian celebration of love, I’d like to take this moment to make a toast to him — and to all American Jewish men. May you all continue to thrill this nice Jewish girl from London. And all Jewish girls, from wherever they are, throughout the decades to come.

(Suzanne Levy is a British-born writer and TV producer now living in Los Angeles.)


The Sephardic immigrants who brought flowers to L.A.

On Valentine’s Day, as you exit a freeway off-ramp or drive down the streets of Los Angeles, the people you see hawking red-and-white holiday bouquets on street corners may have more in common with you than you might ever imagine.

In the early 20th century, Sephardic immigrants, many from the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, as well as from Turkey and Syria, got their first scent of success in America by selling flowers on L.A. street corners. From poor beginnings, often speaking only Ladino, they, and eventually their children and grandchildren, would go on to establish flower shops dotting the southland, as well buy real estate, and climb the economic ladder.

Two brothers, Joseph and Robert Cohen, whose parents were from Syria and Rhodes and who started out selling flowers on corners, are among those who branched out into real estate. Leon Moskatel, from Turkey, started with a flower shop downtown that would expand into florist supplies.

Flower shop owner Victor Levy, whose parents were from Rhodes, would become an organizational leader in the flower business, and Perry Hasson, son of flower-selling immigrants, also from Rhodes, would hit upon an innovative way of selling flowers that is still with us today.

But long before that, for many Sephardic families, including that of my wife, Brenda —Perry Hasson was her father — the flower business meant rising even before the flowers opened their petals to trek downtown to the L.A. wholesale flower markets to start to move those carnations and roses.

Joseph Cohen, born in Los Angeles in 1927 and one of seven children, has strong childhood memories of his trips to the flower market with his father. “Afterwards, we would go have breakfast in the Flower Market Cafe. We would all get one giant order of hotcakes,” he remembered.

“When I was 12, on Sundays, my father had me run his flower stand on Long Beach Boulevard and Vernon [Avenue],” said Cohen. “One day he came by and saw me playing with the guys. I never worked for him after that,” he said. Cohen spoke from his office above his son Morris’ flower shop, Moe’s Flowers, on Melrose Avenue. His daughter, Rita Azar, ran the now-shuttered Rita Flora on La Brea Boulevard. 

In 1943, at age 16, Joseph Cohen’s desire for a car drove him back into the business. A buddy has been drafted into the army and was selling a 1932 Ford roadster for $135 that Cohen just had to have. “How you going to pay me back?” asked his brother Al, who eventually loaned him the money.

The answer: selling flowers.

After school, Cohen went to the intersection of Slauson Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard and sold flowers in traffic. “It wasn’t long before I could pay him back,” Cohen said.

Lou Hasson, whose parents, Joseph and Grace, came to Los Angeles from Rhodes in 1921, remembers how “Sephardic Jews would stand on street corners in downtown L.A. and sell flowers or shine shoes,” he said.

Hasson’s mother and his brother Perry, who was born in 1925 and died in 1963, ran Flowers by Pierre on Whittier Boulevard, not far from Home of Peace cemetery. Perry Hasson’s wife, Shirley Berko, (my mother-in-law) recalls standing on a corner selling mixed bouquets for 52 cents a bunch even when pregnant. “They probably felt sorry for me,” she surmised.

Soon after the Santa Ana Freeway opened in mid-1950s, Lou Hasson claims his brother Perry was the first to sell flowers at an off -ramp. “He hired two teenage Sephardic boys and dropped them off in the morning and picked them up at the end of the day,” recalled Hasson, a founding partner of Green Hasson Janks, a Los Angeles accounting firm.

Continuing in the family tradition, Susie Hasson Levey, a granddaughter of Joseph and Grace, sells flowers on Sundays at the Encino Farmers Market.

For Joseph Cohen, selling flowers in traffic proved too hard. In 1946, he moved up in the business by selling sweet peas on the corner of Cahuenga Boulevard and Riverside Drive. “I made $35 a day,” he recalled.

Joe Cohen, corner of Barham and Forest Lawn Drive, circa 1958. Photo courtesy of Joe Cohen

In 1950, Cohen opened the La Cienega Flower Shop. Finding the going tough, he also started selling roses, carnations and violets on the corner of Barham Boulevard and Forest Lawn Drive. An old hand in the business advised that to increase sales, he should pour a little cologne into the buckets holding the violets.

At La Cienega, after trying his hand at arrangements, Cohen realized he could do better simply by selling cut flowers. “I was not a florist, but I did know how to buy and sell,” he said.

“I used to love the flower market, that was my baby,” said Cohen, who enjoyed the business challenge, especially when flowers were scarce or the market was flooded.

“The biggest days were Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day,” said Cohen, who found a niche by putting out large, colorful displays for passersby to see.

In 1964, Cohen purchased a property at La Cienega Boulevard and Melrose 

Avenue, where he put up a new building. Eventually his purchase of a street corner in Beverly Hills for a flower stand led to an even larger development on the property. “My brother Bobby [also in the flower business] and I built the Four Seasons Hotel,” Cohen said. 

“I didn’t know anything else. I was just a kid,” Cohen said of his career in flowers. Today, he raises amaryllis on his nine-acre ranch in Malibu and remembers the 25 years of having breakfast with his brothers at the Flower Market talking about flower prices, fishing and girls as “some of the best times of my life.”

Other Sephardic florists parlayed their experiences differently. In the 1930s, according to “Sending Flowers to America: Stories of the Los Angeles Flower Market” by Peggi Ridgeway and Jan Works (2008, American Florist’s Exchange), Leon Moskatel, an immigrant from Turkey born in 1902, set up a retail flower shop on Wall Street in downtown Los Angeles, where, to supplement selling cut flowers he also began selling floral supplies.

After Sam Applebaum, his first cousin, joined the business, the two men shifted their focus to merchandising floral supplies. Eventually purchased by Michael’s craft supply stores after Moskatel’s death in 1962, the store remains to this day under its original name, Moskatels. 

“They were very generous to each other,” Ridgeway said of the Jewish immigrants who did business at the flower market. “Especially good to their own countrymen,” she added.

Victor Levy, born in 1927, recalls at least seven Sephardic-owned flower shops in Long Beach, some within just a few blocks of one another. “When one did well, others moved in; most were relatives,” said Levy, who opened Victor’s flower shop in Lakewood in 1954, and, over time, added locations in Cypress, Long Beach and Norwalk.

Levy, who was elected president of both the Florists’ Transworld Delivery (FTD) in 1980 and the Southern California Floral Association in 1973, said he “loved the flower business, working with nature and beauty. I didn’t have to wear a necktie,” he said.

“The flower business has been good to all us Sephardics,” said Levy, who retired in 1985 and whose daughter, Melinda Evans, carries on in the business in Long Beach. “It’s a way for immigrants, all immigrants, to get into mainstream America,” he said, noting that many stores have now been sold to Koreans. “The Koreans have taken over where the Sephardics left off,” he said.

Have a lead for an L.A. Jewish history story? Contact Edmon Rodman at

Calendar February 8-14



A clarinetist, an accordionist and a bassist walk into a temple — but there is no punch line here, just a great concert. Michael Winograd, Patrick Farrell and Benjy Fox-Rosen are three of the top klezmer musicians out there, and they have a new song cycle based on the master poet and songwriter Mordechai Gebirtig. “Two Worlds (Tscey Veltn)” combines traditional and new genres with the literary excellence of Gebirtig, whose experience of Poland before and during World War II makes for moving music. With a performance at the Kennedy Center recently under its belt, the Trio is primed for our humble little town. Sat. 7:30 p.m. $10. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Erika J. Glazer Family Campus, 3663 Wilshire, Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 835-2198. SUN | FEB 9


The Ma’aleh School of Television, Film, and the Arts presents Noam Demsky’s documentary about art’s power to reform, which follows at-risk Jerusalem teens who, as a part of a therapeutic program, create a play about the Eichmann trial. Demsky chronicles the relationships cultivated between these young people and the Shoah survivors they meet along the way. Named the Best Zionist Film of 2013 by Israel’s Minister of Culture, the documentary honors the power of unity over division. There will be a Q-and-A with Demsky following the screening. Sun. 11 a.m. $10 (general), $5 (student). American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel-Air. (310) 476-9777. ” target=”_blank”>

TUE | FEB 11


Coming of age is rarely easy, but it’s especially tricky when you happen to be a young Jewish boy in Manitoba, Canada, and you happen to fall in love with a Christian girl. With the help of the new rabbi in town, Max tries to reconcile his demanding parents with figuring out who he is and what he wants. Written by Phil Savath and Morley Torgov and directed by Allan A. Goldstein, the film features Saul Rubinek, Jan Rubes and Noam Zylberman. Tue. 1:30 p.m. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. ” target=”_blank”>

THU | FEB 13


With St. Valentine looming overhead, we’re due for a non-traditional version of love. Author and The New York Times contributor Liza Monroy details her walk down the aisle in an effort to save her best friend. Emir had tried every legal recourse, but securing himself a green card just wasn’t happening. Returning to a homophobic Middle East, though, wasn’t an option. Enter Liza, her Jewish mother who works as a State Department immigration officer and wedding bells. Monroy writes with humor and compassion as she shares a story almost too dramatic to believe. The kicker: It’s all true.  Thur. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. ” target=”_blank”>

FRI | FEB 14


Happy kvetching! This veteran comic is standing up so you can fall out of your chair laughing. He was awarded Best Male Stand-Up 2009, was honored with the Dave Broadfoot Comic Genius Award, won Best International Performer at the Sydney Comedy Festival—and that’s just in the last five years! He’s worked with Jon Stewart, David Letterman and Jay Leno and has had a triumphant run in Canada with his “Oh What a Miserable Tour This Is…” tour. The point is: He’s funny, and he’s nearby. Fri. 8 p.m. $20. Hollywood Improv, 8162 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. (323) 651-2583.


Rabbi shares her love of chocolate

To say that Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz likes chocolate would be a gross — or rather, delicious — understatement. 

For seven years, she’s traveled around the world and written about the delicacy, culminating in October with the publication of “On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao.”

This Valentine’s Day — not a Jewish holy day, to be sure, but one many celebrate with loved ones — the book is as close to edible knowledge as one can get (though, surely, a box of chocolates makes a nice gift, as well).

For Prinz, who lives in New York City but grew up in Los Angeles, the story began in 2006 when she kicked off a blog called, “Jews on the Chocolate Trail.” She had always loved chocolate, and when she traveled the world, she made sure to stop and try the local take on it. Her research included going to different regions and diving into history books. 

She turned her pursuits into the book, which goes into detail about how chocolate relates to Jewish culture and religion. It also covers the relationship that other groups — Catholics, Quakers, Protestants, the Mayans and the Aztecs — have had with chocolate. In “On the Chocolate Trail,” Prinz said that her Nancy Drew-esque “choco-dar — my internal, serendipitous radar for chocolate discoveries and experiences” led her to “uncover the stories of Jews, religions, and chocolate.” 

For example, did you know that a bishop in Mexico was once poisoned because he banned local women from drinking chocolate during Mass services? Or that chocolate gelt for Chanukah might be derived from St. Nicholas traditions?

Mainly, though, Prinz said she wanted to shed light on the connection between Jews and chocolate. 

“I wrote the book because it seemed like the story called out to me. It’s been ignored for a long time,” she said. “There was so much there that would excite, inform and tantalize people. It was a story that had to be told.”

Prinz is director of program and member services and director of the joint commission on rabbinic mentoring at the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. She’s been a rabbi for more than 30 years and served as the senior rabbi at Temple Adat Shalom in Poway, Calif., for nearly 20 of them. 

During journeys to countries like Spain, Italy, England, Israel, Switzerland, Belgium and Egypt, Prinz tasted and wrote about all sorts of regional chocolates. 

“Every place was fascinating,” she said. 

Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz

The history of Jews and chocolate dates back hundreds of years. According to the book, Jews on Christopher Columbus’ voyages are believed to have been some of the first Europeans to view cacao, the basis for chocolate. 

After exile from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1496, Jews continued to participate in international business and worked with cacao, opening up workshops where they made chocolate in various cities across Europe. The first coffeehouse in England was run by a Converso Jew who served hot chocolate there. 

In France, Jews had a strong influence in the chocolate industry as well. During the 1600s, they introduced the product through a port in Bayonne. Due to anti-Semitism and discrimination, however, Jews could not sell chocolate on Sundays or Christian feast days, and they had to leave the town every evening at sunset. Still, Prinz wrote that when she spent time in Bayonne, she visited chocolate museums that confirmed the importance of the Jewish traders.

Europe isn’t the only place where Jews and chocolate became intertwined. Prinz delves into the American Colonial period, and another part is titled “Israelis: Meshuga for Chocolate.”

Although much of the book is about Judaism and chocolate, Prinz said that the food is not celebrated enough in Jewish culture. 

“While there are chocolate customs for Chanukah and Passover, we could really throw in a lot more chocolate,” she said. Could you imagine chocolate-covered apples for Simchat Torah or chocolate-covered challah? We could go so much further with it.”

Not surprisingly, people love to ask Prinz what chocolate is her favorite. She said she has many — depending on which day you ask her. One that stood out during her travels and received mention in her book was bicerin, a special chocolate drink from Turin, in northern Italy. She wrote that she and her husband, Rabbi Mark Hurvitz, drank the layered drink made of hot chocolate, coffee and cream while feasting on torta di nocciole con cioccolata calda, a warm chocolate soup poured over hazelnut cake. 

“It was amazing to be able to drink bicerin [where it comes from],” she said. “That was definitely a highlight.”

Prinz said that those who exchange chocolates on Feb. 14 should be responsible and consider fair-trade items. 

“I hope that when people celebrate Valentine’s Day with chocolate to express love for their partners, they also think about supporting people in the industry and farmers who often don’t even taste the product they produce. They’re very, very poor,” she said. “We have to be mindful of the children and the slaves who labor to produce chocolates in some countries.” 

Despite the downside of producing chocolate, Prinz said that she enjoys just how much the upcoming holiday incorporates one of her most beloved subjects. 

“I love the fact that there’s a restaurant called City Bakery in New York City that offers a different hot chocolate flavor for the month of February to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Any excuse for chocolate is terrific.”

Valentine’s Day: Use what you’ve got

Valentine’s Day can be a tough time for a young Jew. Fancy restaurants do not cater well to our people. The last time I took a lady to a snooty eatery, the special was baked swiss-cheese-topped-pork stuffed into a lobster served on a picture of Jesus.

Why do we put ourselves through this fahklumpt meshugas? Why not treat your special someone to a romantic night right in your own home? What if you prepared this same sexy evening, from ingredients that you have left over from Jewish holidays? The possibilities, my friends, are endless.

Set the mood with candles. Hanukkah candles.

You’ve got a menorah just sitting on a shelf as a decoration? If that menorah had a Jewish mother it would get yelled at for being so lazy. Put it to work softly lighting the room, and watch your significant other marvel at your ability to create ambiance and your resourcefulness. If she asks why a menorah, look deeply into her eyes and say “because I never stop believing in miracles,” and kiss her, you smoothie.

What’s for dinner? What isn’t?

A romantic dinner comprised of Jewish leftovers from around the house could be any number of tantalizing combinations. When you think of a sexy dish, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Gefilte fish, I knew we were on the same page. What if you upped the ante and served up some Manischewitz-marinated Gefilte fish?  That latke mix box you’ve got lying around doesn’t make latkes, it makes, “salt-encrusted potato medallions.” You just created a fancy dinner and freed up pantry space (for more Gefilte fish).

Sukkot: The gift that keeps on giving.

What is the point of a gift like chocolates? They’re gone when you eat them, and then you forget about them. A gift should be something practical, something you can really use in your daily life. I say, take the wood and hammers you used to make your sukkah, and gift them to your lady. She’ll always have them as a reminder of your romantic gift-giving skills and thoughtfulness. Who knows what she could create with them? As long as she doesn’t build a chuppah, you can’t go wrong.

Sprinkle rose petals on the bed? More like sprinkle matzah.

Why would you waste perfectly good flowers creating a sexy atmosphere when you’ve got what you need collecting dust in the back of the pantry since last April? Keep those flowers in a vase and crumble (let’s be honest—it’s already crumbled) some matzah on that bed. What you lack in traditional symbols of love you will gain in the cute, uniting task of gathering all the tiny matzah bits when they get everywhere. And have you ever been with your lady on top of a bed of matzah? I won’t make a find the Afikomen joke here, but she will, and she’ll thank you for it.

Put all these steps together, and you’ve got yourself a sexy dinner for two followed by an intensely romantic evening. A successful evening and using all your Jewish holiday leftovers? Now that’s a good Tuesday. Just be sure to save the Purim noisemakers for some fun in the bedroom.

Whether a bed, or help figuring out what to do in one, some kosher options for Valentine’s Day

On Valentine’s Day, for a people tasked in the Bible with being fruitful and multiplying, what goods are good for the Jews?

Perhaps sex toys from an Orthodox-oriented website that are not supposed to make you blush? Or maybe your pleasure for these long winter nights is a new bed made in Israel that is as flexible and modern as you are?

Since the name of the Israeli manufacturer who makes the beds is Aminach, which in Hebrew means “my people rest,” we’ll take it easy and test their Sapapa line of contemporary beds first.

Its flagship store for the line, located in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Studio City, carries a variety of “extreme” day, trundle, adjustable and folding beds—designs that they promote as being “beyond the conventional.” As I walked up to the store, a sleek, cherry red convertible sofa in the storefront window caught me by surprise.

In the Bible, Jacob sleeps on the ground with a rock for a pillow. With that kind of design heritage, I expected these Israeli designs to be functional and utilitarian—but they were stylishly hot, too.

“It’s called Check-In,” said Hila, the store’s saleswoman, who demonstrated how with one hand the design went from couch to bed.

“Let’s try the mattress,” I suggested to my wife, Brenda, who had come along for just such a contingency.

We were both surprised at the firmness and comfort of the queen size mattress. “In Israel, everyone prefers hard mattresses,” said Hila, who had grown up on a kibbutz, adding that “Aminach is Israel’s third-largest employer.”

Sapapa is a pun—a play on the Hebrew word for couch, sapa, and an Arabic word, sababa, which roughly translates to “cool.” According to the brochure, the beds are cool, hot, exciting and extreme. All of that goes for $2,000, not including set-up and delivery, for the Check-In model.

Looking around the showroom, the Freedom design immediately raised my sleep number. Wrapped in red, and equipped with a hand-controlled mechanism that raised and lowered both the feet and the head, we couldn’t resist trying it out. On the $3,450 bed I played with the controller, eventually settling on raising both ends. If a good night’s sleep is the best aphrodisiac, then this design might be rated triple ZZZ. Given another moment, Brenda and I both would have fallen asleep.

Since some of the beds come equipped with blue lights and speakers in the headboard, I wondered about other add-ons. “Do they also come with vibrators?” I asked, for which Hila shot me a look of disdain. I had meant to say “massagers,” but perhaps the other nomenclature would be more appropriate for Kosher Sex Toys, the next stop on our journey to Feb. 14.

Before we examine this “kosher” collection of very personal gifts, let’s first consider the need for vibrators, stimulators, whips and shackles on a Jewish web site. The mission of Kosher Sex Toys is to “provide married adults with products that can help enhance their intimate moments without involving crude or indecent pictures or text.” The website promises that nothing on the site “will make you blush,” and product pictures do not feature models.

Get the picture? It’s everything you wanted to know about sex but were afraid to look at—but apparently not afraid to use. The business, located in Lakewood, N.J., a city with a large Orthodox population, would seem ideally situated to service this niche market in what Inc. magazine estimates is a $2 billion industry.

Many of the items available for sale—vibrators, lube and bondage gear are among the offerings – are sold as well on other sites.

“It’s our attitude and how it’s sold that makes it different,” said founder and CEO Gavriel (his wife made him promise not to use his last name).

“Handcuffs are on my best-seller list. I am surprised at how well the bondage stuff is doing,” he said. “Whatever makes people happy.”

At first blush, a sex toy web site operated by an Orthodox Jew might seem unusual, but Jews and sexual aids go way back. In the Bible, Rachel, the barren wife of Jacob, asked her sister Leah for some mandrakes, a root found in the Middle East that may have had aphrodisiacal qualities.

I was curious why a sex toy site was needed in the Orthodox community, so I contacted the certified sex therapist who takes questions on the site, Dr. David Ribner, chairman of the sex therapy training program at the School of Social Work at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

“While Jewish law and tradition have long recognized the centrality of sexual satisfaction to a successful marriage, only recently have we been witness to more public efforts to promote this goal. Kosher Sex Toys is a step in this direction,” Ribner said.

Not being Orthodox, but wholeheartedly agreeing with Ribner about the centrality of “sexual satisfaction to a marriage,” I perused the site’s wares. After examining the people-free photos and clinical text, I still wasn’t quite sure how a product called a Panther worked. I got that it was a $116.50 “dual stimulation” providing a souped-up handheld vibrator (four batteries required). But what about those beads? Was a letter to Ribner in order?

It wasn’t until I visited another site and watched a video of the Panther powered up and operating (but not in use) that I understood the full function of the device. My wife, who also viewed the site and the video, felt the same way.

One of the site’s advantages—unrelated to your denominational orientation or sexual proclivity—is that various products on the site are designated phthalate free. The compounds, which have been banned in toys sold in the United States, are plasticizers still often used in the manufacture of sex toys to soften PVC vinyls.

According to a 2011 news story on the ScienceDaily website, a Columbia University study suggests “that prenatal exposure to these phthalates adversely affects child mental, motor and behavioral development during the preschool years.”

Gavriel says he researches each of his more than 300 items but does not personally test them, adding that “I only want to carry things that are safe.”

The Goods: Items from under $10 and up.

Sapapa, with locations in Los Angeles, Brooklyn and Toronto. Call: (855) SAPAPA-5 for more information.

Don’t dismiss the Jewish character of Cupid

What’s Jewish about Valentine’s Day?

The day was first released from the purview of the Catholic Church in 1969, when Pope Paul VI declared that Valentine’s Day was no longer a saint’s day for universal liturgical veneration on the Catholic calendar. This restored Valentine’s Day to its original state, a traditional mating day of birds—and humans—in the English folk calendar.

But Cupid isn’t exclusively a pagan symbol.

Without trying to sort out the connections between the classical figure of erotic power and the biblical cherubs prescribed for the Holy Ark, there is interesting archeological evidence of Cupid’s Jewish character.

Cupid appears on Jewish sarcophagi in Rome, on paintings in Jewish catacombs in Rome and, most significantly, above the door of the synagogue at Capernaum in Israel—six of them over the main entrance, according to Erwin Goodenough in “Jewish Symbols of the Greco-Roman Period.”

Clearly, if Palestinian Jews of the first century found it fitting to go to a shul where they were greeted each time by Cupid’s form, the winged one is not to be entirely dismissed from Jewish religious consideration.

What, then, is the significance of this figure in Greco-Roman times? What might he be saying as he stands there, vivid in bas relief, above the entryway?

Cupids often are represented holding cups and associated with Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest, Goodenough explained in “Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period.” The suggestion is that love intoxicates.

Song of Songs, the biblical book sung by many Chasidic Jews every Friday night, sounds the same theme.

“I am faint with love,” writes the author. “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.”

E.E. Cummings agreed, writing that “Love’s function is to fabricate unknownness.”

Lest you think love is an indulgence, Cupid reminds that it is a necessity of life, not a frill. We need it to be released from the hell of isolation, the Greek philosophers wrote.

This notion is not only Greek. It is also long established in the rabbinic tradition. To live in isolation is to live “without joy, without blessing, without happiness,” the Talmud says in Tractate Yevamoth.

“It is not good for a man to be alone,” God says in Genesis.

There is even a rabbinic legend similar to the Greek one related by Aristophanes in Plato’s “Symposium”—that among the original forms of the human being one was androgynous, male and female, that was later cut apart and became separate male and female.

It appears in Bereshit Rabbah: “Said Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel: ‘At the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, created the primordial person, that person was created with two faces (one male, one female). That person was then cut in two, and separated.’ ”

The ancients believed the effects of love were not simply personal but social, too.

“The saving effect of love is not only that it makes men pleasant who were far from affable, but that it makes a ‘soul that is narrow, debased, and is begotten to be suddenly filled with understanding, a sense of humor, grace and liberality,’ ” Goodenough wrote, citing Plutarch Amatorius. “When we recognize the change, which is like putting a light into a house at night, we should exclaim with Telemachus, ‘Surely, some god is within.’ ”

This social element was apparent in the great lover of the Middle Ages, Peter Abelard, the 12th century French scholastic philosopher, theologian, logician and church father whose ill-fated lifelong romance with Heloise has long been legendary.

Abelard “was the only leader in the Middle Ages who ventured to attack, openly, the anti-Jewish tradition of Christendom,” wrote Malcolm Hay in “Europe and the Jews.” “He attacked the tradition at its root. He said the Jewish people were not responsible for the death of Christ.”

The ancient Greeks believed love was what made the world turn and what made life meaningful. This carries some weight in Judaism as well.

“Were it not for the libido [yetzer hara, or evil inclination], no one would build a house, wed, conceive and bear children, engage in trade,” Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman said in Bereshit Rabbah 9:7.

Small wonder, then, that the Cupid, a symbol of love, was placed above the main entrance of the synagogue at Capernaum.

In Gematria, the system that finds hidden meanings by assigning numerical values to Hebrew letters, the words “one” and “love”—“echad” and “ahava”—have the same numerical value, 13.

Once each year, then, might we not dare to translate the Shema differently, with a nod to this Gematria?

“Hear O Israel, the Eternal our God, the Eternal is Love!”

Happy Valentine’s Day!

(Rabbi Everett Gendler, rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanuel in Lowell, Mass., was the first Jewish chaplain at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., serving there from 1971 to 1995.)

Don’t dismiss the Jewish character of Cupid

What’s Jewish about Valentine’s Day?

The day was first released from the purview of the Catholic Church in 1969, when Pope Paul VI declared that Valentine’s Day was no longer a saint’s day for universal liturgical veneration on the Catholic calendar. This restored Valentine’s Day to its original state, a traditional mating day of birds—and humans—in the English folk calendar.

But Cupid isn’t exclusively a pagan symbol.

Without trying to sort out the connections between the classical figure of erotic power and the biblical cherubs prescribed for the Holy Ark, there is interesting archeological evidence of Cupid’s Jewish character.

Cupid appears on Jewish sarcophagi in Rome, on paintings in Jewish catacombs in Rome and, most significantly, above the door of the synagogue at Capernaum in Israel—six of them over the main entrance, according to Erwin Goodenough in “Jewish Symbols of the Greco-Roman Period.”

Clearly, if Palestinian Jews of the first century found it fitting to go to a shul where they were greeted each time by Cupid’s form, the winged one is not to be entirely dismissed from Jewish religious consideration.

What, then, is the significance of this figure in Greco-Roman times? What might he be saying as he stands there, vivid in bas relief, above the entryway?

Cupids often are represented holding cups and associated with Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest, Goodenough explained in “Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period.” The suggestion is that love intoxicates.

Song of Songs, the biblical book sung by many Chasidic Jews every Friday night, sounds the same theme.

“I am faint with love,” writes the author. “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.”

E.E. Cummings agreed, writing that “Love’s function is to fabricate unknownness.”

Lest you think love is an indulgence, Cupid reminds that it is a necessity of life, not a frill. We need it to be released from the hell of isolation, the Greek philosophers wrote.

This notion is not only Greek. It is also long established in the rabbinic tradition. To live in isolation is to live “without joy, without blessing, without happiness,” the Talmud says in Tractate Yevamoth.

“It is not good for a man to be alone,” God says in Genesis.

There is even a rabbinic legend similar to the Greek one related by Aristophanes in Plato’s “Symposium”—that among the original forms of the human being one was androgynous, male and female, that was later cut apart and became separate male and female.

It appears in Bereshit Rabbah: “Said Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel: ‘At the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, created the primordial person, that person was created with two faces (one male, one female). That person was then cut in two, and separated.’ ”

The ancients believed the effects of love were not simply personal but social, too.

“The saving effect of love is not only that it makes men pleasant who were far from affable, but that it makes a ‘soul that is narrow, debased, and is begotten to be suddenly filled with understanding, a sense of humor, grace and liberality,’ ” Goodenough wrote, citing Plutarch Amatorius. “When we recognize the change, which is like putting a light into a house at night, we should exclaim with Telemachus, ‘Surely, some god is within.’ ”

This social element was apparent in the great lover of the Middle Ages, Peter Abelard, the 12th century French scholastic philosopher, theologian, logician and church father whose ill-fated lifelong romance with Heloise has long been legendary.

Abelard “was the only leader in the Middle Ages who ventured to attack, openly, the anti-Jewish tradition of Christendom,” wrote Malcolm Hay in “Europe and the Jews.” “He attacked the tradition at its root. He said the Jewish people were not responsible for the death of Christ.”

The ancient Greeks believed love was what made the world turn and what made life meaningful. This carries some weight in Judaism as well.

“Were it not for the libido [yetzer hara, or evil inclination], no one would build a house, wed, conceive and bear children, engage in trade,” Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman said in Bereshit Rabbah 9:7.

Small wonder, then, that the Cupid, a symbol of love, was placed above the main entrance of the synagogue at Capernaum.

In Gematria, the system that finds hidden meanings by assigning numerical values to Hebrew letters, the words “one” and “love”—“echad” and “ahava”—have the same numerical value, 13.

Once each year, then, might we not dare to translate the Shema differently, with a nod to this Gematria?

“Hear O Israel, the Eternal our God, the Eternal is Love!”

Happy Valentine’s Day!

(Rabbi Everett Gendler, rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanuel in Lowell, Mass., was the first Jewish chaplain at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., serving there from 1971 to 1995.)

Israel [hearts] Valentine’s Day

Although many people today correlate St. Valentine’s Day with Christianity, the contemporary, commercial holiday of love is actually rooted in paganism. In honor of the goddess of marriage, love, fertility and women, Juno Februata, the Romans held a pagan festival in which girls and boys were matched for erotic festivities by drawing names from a box.

With the rise of Christianity, the priests substituted the girls’ names with those of saints. Scholars disagree about who the enigmatic Valentine may have been, but according to one legend, he was a priest who defied Emperor Claudius II by continuing to marry couples despite the edict against it during a time of war (single men made better soldiers). His purported execution occurred on Feb. 14, and in homage to his bravery he was given sainthood and honored during the St. Valentine’s Day celebration that still bears his name. Another version of the story claims that the emperor had Valentine imprisoned for life for his crimes. There, he fell in love with his jailer’s daughter. His supposed habit of writing her love notes signed “your Valentine” is one good explanation for the custom of exchanging Valentine’s Day cards that remains so popular in the United States today.

About 10 or 15 years ago, the celebration of this holiday began to show up in Israel. According to professor Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at Hebrew University, Israelis want to participate because it includes them in a larger cultural pattern.

“Just as English has taken over signage at the mall, be it English in English or English in Hebrew, Valentine’s Day offers an opportunity to connect with the West in a non-problematic and universalistic way,” he said. Despite being St. Valentine’s Day, Cohen explains that the holiday has become religiously neutral in recent years. Thus, it doesn’t conflict with Jewish identity for most Israelis.

So what spin do Israelis put on their version of Valentine’s Day? Other than sometimes writing cards in Hebrew, not much of an Israeli angle exists. On a smaller scale, the celebrations in Israel are almost identical to those for the Jewish day of love, Tu B’Av. And both love holidays so closely resemble traditions in the United States that one would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. The scads of nicely wrapped boxes of chocolate; the fuzzy, red-felt-pelted, stuffed hearts; the long-stemmed red roses; the ridiculous epithets for love in stock greeting cards; the expensive gourmet meals; and the couples-only, exclusive spa packages are no different.

Nevertheless, in a country associated far more with war than love, many Israelis are extremely proud to celebrate two days of love rather than just one.