Archive for August, 2010

Her Guiding Star

August 31, 2010

This article was first published as “Author’s journey to Judaism helped fuel book on interfaith relationships and hidden identities” in The Jewish Tribune. Click here to read it there.

Palo Alto, CA – Many people think back fondly about their college advisors, but Andi L. Rosenthal credits Dr. Sara Horowitz, director of the centre for Jewish studies at York University, for setting her on the path that would eventually lead her to write her debut novel, The Bookseller’s Sonnets (O Books, 2010).

Rosenthal is also certain that if it were not for the undergraduate class on Holocaust literature she took with Horowitz in 1988 at the University of Delaware, she would never have begun her journey towards becoming a Jew.

Rosenthal’s study with Horowitz, who remains a mentor to her, sparked an interest in exploring her interfaith family’s complicated religious past and in discovering and nurturing her innate Jewish identity that had gone unexamined during an upbringing in Catholic churches and schools in New York. She converted to Judaism in 2002.

This personal journey, together with a professional one at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in lower Manhattan (the novel’s setting) from 1999 to 2004, has resulted in a powerful fictional story of interfaith relationships and hidden identities spanning five centuries.

The Bookseller’s Sonnets chronicles the story of a mysterious package from an anonymous artifact donor that arrives at the desk of Jill Levin, senior curator at the museum. The artifact appears to be a diary written by Margaret More, the eldest daughter of Saint Thomas More, legal advisor to Henry VIII. As Levin works with colleagues to authenticate the diary (using clues from letters arriving to her from the Holocaust survivor who donated it), representatives from the Archdiocese of New York move in to lay claim to it in an attempt to prevent its explosive contents from becoming public.

Author Andi L. Rosenthal (photo: Julie L. Cohen)

Layered over this interweaving of curatorial sleuthing and historical fiction is Levin’s contemporary struggles with Jewish self-definition and Second Generation family dynamics (the character’s own grandparents are Holocaust survivors). Rosenthal skillfully makes these challenges, as well as the museum’s milieu and day-to-day operations in the years immediately following 9/11 very detailed, textured and realistic.

Rosenthal originally wrote the book in 2005, but it went unpublished until members of the outreach committee at her synagogue, Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, NY, took an interest in it last year and offered to shop it around to connections they had in the publishing industry.

Buoyed by the fact that pre-orders for The Bookseller’s Sonnets, which will be released Sept. 16, are strong as a result of social media and word of mouth marketing, Rosenthal is looking forward to a special launch event scheduled for Oct. 24 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and a book tour in early 2011 organized by the National Jewish Book Council.

“It’s really a case of dayenu,” said Rosenthal. “It’s been one blessing after another, and I am so grateful for each one.”

She is thankful to many people who have helped her along the way to realizing her literary dreams, but especially to Horowitz, who ignited the pintele yid in her. “She was my guiding star then and she still is today.”

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

She’s One Of Ours

August 31, 2010

This article was first published as “‘Being Erica’ TV character transfixes Toronto Jews” by JTA on August 31. Click here to read it there.

PALO ALTO, Calif. (JTA) — A young woman with long auburn hair sits surrounded by friends and family in her mother’s living room while holding a tiny baby on a pillow in her lap.

She is the sandek at the brit of her cousin’s son, having agreed to take on this honorary role — the one who holds the baby — to please her father, a Reform rabbi who is the mohel. But just as her father is about to perform the circumcision, the young woman faints. Her father moves in just in time, grabbing the newborn before she falls to the ground.

Meet Erica Strange, a bright and attractive Jewish woman in her early 30s living in a hip neighborhood in downtown Toronto and working in book publishing.

Erica is the fictional, time-traveling, eponymous lead character played by Erin Karpluk in the hit Canadian TV series “Being Erica.” The show begins its third season on CBC Television on Sept. 22.

With much of the character derived from the life experience of the show’s creator and executive producer, Jana Sinyor, this fictional 30-something Toronto Jew is resonating with many young Canadian Jews who see in her something of themselves.

“Erica is Jewish like I’m Jewish: It’s not in your face, but at the same time it’s not just by the way,” said Ramona Carmelly, a professional opera singer in Toronto. “You really feel her Jewishness, even though ‘Being Erica’ is not a Jewish show.”

But some Jewish viewers are irked by the Jewish portrayal of Erica. One viewer, Pearl Gropper Berman, said the laissez-faire way in which the show treats Erica’s dating non-Jewish men and her sister’s intermarriage is not representative of Canadian Jews.

“I believe the daughter of a Toronto rabbi would be more engaged in the Jewish community,” Berman said. “Toronto’s Jewish community is much more conservative, and the decision-making surrounding dating someone non-Jewish would be more prominent.”

Regardless of how accurate a portrait “Being Erica” paints of the contemporary Canadian Jew, it gives the larger Canadian viewing public some idea of what it’s like to be young and Jewish in Toronto — and that has inspired pride even among many of the show’s Jewish critics.

Erin Karpluk, left, who plays Erica Strange, with Being Erica's creator and executive director Jana Sinyor on location. (photo courtesy of Temple Street Productions)

Rabbi Erin Polonsky of Toronto’s Temple Sinai said she watches “Being Erica” despite her disappointment with how the show handles certain Jewish topics.

Berman also admitted to liking the show despite its Jewish shortcomings.

“It’s very cool to have a character on TV who is Jewish but also smart, pretty, complicated and funny,” she said.

Sinyor, Erica’s creator, said this was intentional.

“I purposely make characters as specific as possible in every way in order for them to be universally appealing,” Sinyor told JTA. “Everyone comes from somewhere, and I chose to make Erica Jewish because that is where I come from and what I know best.”

On the show, Erica deals with the ups and downs of romantic relationships, dramas with friends and lots of family mishegas. She sees a therapist who, rather than prescribing Prozac or employing standard psychoanalysis, uses time travel to treat Erica, sending her into the past, future and alternate realities to work through her issues.

Several episodes in the first two seasons of the show had heavy doses of Jewish culture, from one set on Yom Kippur to another that flashes back to Erica’s bat mitzvah. The way Erica’s Judaism is weaved into her identity is typical of modern Canadian Jews, some fans say.

Moshe Saadon, a sound technician in the film and TV industry who also happens to be a cantor, is one of several rabbinic advisers Sinyor has used to help her stage Jewish scenes and episodes. Saadon arranged for his historic Beach Synagogue to serve as a location set, supplied religious items, and played a gabbai and a rabbi in two different episodes. In one he officiated at the intermarriage of Erica’s sister.

Saadon said he is impressed by the earnestness with which the show’s actors take on the Jewish aspects of their portrayals. Jewish cast members have helped other actors with Hebrew pronunciations.

Sinyor emphasized that she is “not speaking for Jews as a whole,” but she said the show purposely addresses Jewish issues, such as interfaith dating and opposition to circumcision.

In the brit episode, Erica tells her father in an emotional outburst, “It’s awful! You’re cutting a baby without anesthetic for no good reason. I don’t get it! I should never have agreed to participate.”

Sinyor counts herself among the small percentage of Toronto Jews who refused to have their sons circumcised.

Marci Stepak O’Connor, a Jew from Toronto now living in Montreal and married to a Catholic, says she is a fan because Erica is not complacent about her Jewishness — or anything in her life.

“Being Jewish means constantly questioning,” she said.

“Being Erica” is distributed in the United States and 85 other countries through BBC Worldwide.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Update: This article was picked up by many of JTA’s client publications. Click here to see it in the Jerusalem Post.

How Israelis Spice It Up

August 31, 2010

This post first appeared as “Cooking With the Spices of Israel” on The Jew & The Carrot blog of the Forward. Click here to read it there.

“When it comes to Israeli cooking today, it’s not your mom’s kitchen anymore,” according to Ronit Madmone. She and her husband Shuli should know. As owners of Whole Spice, a large spice store in Northern California, a wholesale spice business and an online spice shop, the native Israeli couple keeps up on cooking trends in their homeland and around the globe.

The couple sells nearly 350 different herbs, spices, spice blends, salts and teas from 20 countries. That’s about 100,000 pounds of herbs and spices per year – all of them certified kosher, to boot.

Ronit Madmone

A generation ago, the only dry spices you would find in a typical Israeli home cook’s kitchen would be paprika, turmeric, cumin, za’atar (a Middle Eastern blend of thyme, salt, sumac and sesame seeds), and bay leaf with some fresh parsley, cilantro and garlic, as well. Now, international spices and spice blends are culinary staples in Israel. “Everyone is traveling these days,” said Madmone. “Young Israelis spend months or years in places like Thailand and India after the army, and they come back with a preference for the curries of South Asia and the tastes of the Far East. Specialty markets are opening up all over Israel selling these spices.”

“Our moms and grandmothers will never use a blend. They have their basics, and they are confident that they know how to mix them together and use them in the traditional dishes they make,” Madmone continued. But the younger crowd is more willing to try spice blends and to stock their kitchens with the spice mixes that various ethnic groups have brought to Israel over the years, including the more recently arrived Ethiopians and Russians.

To capture the flavor of Israel’s multicultural community today, Madmone recommends cooking with the following spice blends:

  • Ethiopian Berbere includes nutmeg, black pepper, coriander seed, cumin seed, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and paprika, chili, it adds a pungent earthy, spicy taste to dishes. It is like a curry that is used to season a thick, traditional Ethiopian chicken stew called Doro Wat that is eaten by scooping it up by hand with flat bread made with teff flour.
  • Yemeni Hawaj is a blend of tumeric, black pepper, onion, cumin, cardamom, and cloves, that is the base of seasoning for traditional dishes like Yemini chicken soup made with whole chicken legs, potatoes and onions.
  • Zhug also has Yemini origins. It can come dry, or in a paste and is for people who don’t shy away from super-hot flavors. It is made from chili Tianjin, garlic, coriander, cumin, salt, cardamom, cloves, and cilantro. It comes in a red sauce variety, usually referred to as charif, or spicy at falafel stands. Another kind is green in color from either green peppers or cilantro.
  • Moroccan and Tunisian Harissa is used as a rub for lamb, seasoning for sauces or as a condiment. It is composed of chili California, chili New Mexico, coriander, garlic, salt, cumin, chili Cayenne, and citric acid.
  • Iraqis like their Baharat, a mix of nutmeg, black pepper, coriander seed, cumin seed, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and paprika, chili. It’s traditionally used to add in a stew of okra, tomato and beef to give it an aromatic taste and smell.
  • The Russian community prefers Paprika, which exists in a spicy and a slightly sweet form. Eastern Europe countries are known for the brilliantly red powder which they use in almost everything they cook!

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.