The queen of kosher cuisine cooks up a new life in Israel
Jamie Geller, the bestselling kosher cookbook author and media personality, made aliyah with her family a week ago. She's still developing a taste for her new surroundings.
Jamie Geller, the queen of kosher cooking, is taking a break from the kitchen this week.
She happens to have a good excuse: The 40-foot container packed with all her household possessions has yet to arrive at the Ashdod port. The house that she, her husband and five small children are renting in Ramat Beit Shemesh is almost completely bare, save for a few plastic chairs, a fold-up table and a mini-fridge that a neighbor across the way has been kind enough to lend them.
But 34-year-old Geller, the bestselling kosher cookbook author and media personality, is definitely not dropping the ball on any of her other myriad projects. Geller almost single-handedly created a kosher food media empire in the United States based on the simple idea that kosher cooking doesn't need to be complicated ("I don't separate laundry, and I'm not going to separate eggs" is her motto), and she has continued to work around the clock since landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport barely a week ago on a Nefesh B'Nefesh charter flight.
Besides overseeing the latest edition of Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller, her year-old food and lifestyle magazine, which she says already has 100,000 readers, she spent most of Monday fundraising in Jerusalem for her newest project: a three-part series on PBS, to be shot in Israel, dedicated to Jewish holiday food (scheduled to air around Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, and Passover). In between, she steals a few minutes to review rough-cuts of the latest episodes of "Joy of Israel," an online documentary series she is co-producing with Nefesh B'Nefesh, essentially a blow-by-blow account of the trials and tribulations of moving a family to Israel -- in this case her own.
To say she's a bit overwhelmed would be an understatement. "I first started crying when we landed at the airport, and there was this incredible reception there for us," says Geller, probably the biggest celebrity to move to Israel in recent years. "Then I started crying when we set foot in this house, which had nothing in it but bare walls that echoed, and I started the thinking about the big home I'd left behind in Monsey, New York. Then I started crying because I've got all five kids in this empty house sleeping on bare floors and they don't even have friends yet that I can send them to. Then I started crying when I went to visit their school, and yes, I want them to be in an Israeli school, but this is going to take getting used to."
Don't get her wrong. Geller is absolutely thrilled to be in Israel. She just wishes the adjustment process were behind her already. As she steps out of the house, leaving her husband, Nachum ("love you" she tells him for the umpteenth time that day), and mother-in-law, Karen, in charge of the kids, a neighbor approaches and asks if she needs to use her washing machine. Another neighbor comes by with a pile of books to lend Geller for her soon-to-be second-grader, the oldest of her five.
"They're yours," the clearly star-struck neighbor reassures her. "You don't owe me anything. Just please remember to return them at the end of the year." Yet another neighbor, she reports, is making her way over with tonight's dinner -- a huge tray of lasagna. "It's amazing how welcome everyone here has made us feel," she remarks.
The Kosher Media Network, which Geller co-founded two years ago, combines traditional media (magazines, books, broadcast) with JoyofKosher.com, a social networking community for kosher foodies. She plans to transplant most of the production work from the United States to Israel once she gets settled in her new home.
Geller, who grew up in Philadelphia and attended NYU, became Orthodox after she left home. The former HBO and CNN producer today dresses according to the strictest standards of modesty, preferably all in black, and covers her hair with a long-tressed wig. It was when she was newly married, working as television producer and coming home at midnight, that the seeds for her first cookbook -- "Quick and Kosher Recipes from the Bride Who Knew Nothing" -- were planted. "What I was looking for was simply and easy recipes, " she recalls, and from the responses she received after her book was published in 2007, it turns out she wasn't the only one.
Once she gets herself unpacked, Geller says she's looking forward to spending time exploring Israel's produce markets and getting herself acquainted with local foodies. "I keep hearing how wonderful the food scene in Israel has become, and I'm dying to meet the people who are part of it," she says. "I've already begun trying out some of the cheeses here and the yogurts, and they're amazing."
Does she intend to adapt her cooking style to her new environs? "Yes, I do think I'll be putting a lot more emphasis on seasonal ingredients here, so there probably won't be orange slices anymore in my summer salads."
And what, if any, ingredients from America will she miss? "I've heard it's hard getting blueberries here. I've also heard that you can't get flanken, which is a cut of meat I use a lot. So I guess I'll just have to adapt."
Geller, who maintains she is not a "chef" but just a person interested in food who draws inspiration from those around her, says she is particularly excited to learn how to prepare different ethnic dishes from the pros. "To me, Israel is the ultimate melting pot when it comes to food," she says, insisting that she has nothing against adding extra spices to her recipes, which have traditionally targeted an American palate.
As a food writer, Geller has always stressed the importance of sharing her mistakes and gaffes with her readers. The same holds true of her experiences (albeit still very limited) as a new immigrant. "The other day, the cashier at the grocery store asked me for 10 agurot, and I gave her 10 shekels," she recounts. "I'm learning though."