Thursday, November 12, 2015

Ta Eem Grill with Rabbi Denise Eger

Ta Eem Grill
7422 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 944-0013

I've been planning for some time to feature Ta Eem Grill, an Israeli shawarma and falafel joint on Melrose, for my first post back from the long hiatus. For two reasons: one, it's so freaking delicious, and two, it would be a nice way to acknowledge my recent embrace of my Jewish heritage. After a life of disinterested secularism, some mild Zen Buddhism, and some hardcore radical atheism, I decided to look into the history and culture of my maternal ancestors. I took an Introduction to Judaism class (Much needed. Seriously, I didn't know Rosh Hashanah from a hole in a bagel.) I loved it. I learned so much, made lifelong friends, and have totally Jewed up. Best part is? I'm still an atheist by most definitions of the term, and Reform Judaism is cool with that.


[WARNING: this is a long post. They won't all be like this!]

Rabbi Denise Eger—full disclosure, my rabbi—is the spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami, an LGBTQ friendly Reform Judaism synagogue in West Hollywood, CA. She's also the first openly lesbian President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the oldest (founded 1889) and largest rabbinic organization in North America. Needless to say, she's a total badass, committed to championing social justice and equality for people of all races, nations, sexual orientations, and genders.

Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami.
Photo by Yahoo! News
She kindly offered to be the first guest diner for my rebranded blog. She was headed off the next day to deliver the benediction at last weekend's Biennial of the Union of Reform Judaism in Florida (maybe you read about it—they officially and warmly embraced the transgender community), but generously took the time out for a leisurely lunch.

We got in line to order at Ta Eem, which is just a few blocks from Kol Ami. "You've been here before, I assume?" I asked her.

"Oh, yeah, I love it!" she effused. (Rabbi Eger, like any good spiritual leader, is effusive). "It reminds me of Israel."

Ta Eem is indelibly Israeli. The proprietor wears a kippah, (hey, that's the Hebrew for the Yiddish yarmulke. I learned that in class!). The staff speak modern Hebrew behind the counter, and the cashier, on a previous visit, had my wife batting her eyelashes languidly over the "dreamy Israeli soldier boy." The menu is a simple array of chicken shawarma sliced off a vertical spit (the mediterranean version of the Mexican trompo, the source of true al pastor) a couple of other chicken, beef, and sausage dishes, and of course falafel, all served either as a sandwich (in either a house-made pita, on a baguette, or in a laffa flatbread wrap) with all the trimmings, or in a larger "plate" format with a side of hummus and greens and a selection of Israeli salads. One orders at the counter and takes a number, Carl's Jr. style, grabs a drink and takes a seat at one of the heavy oak tables, many of which are communal. It's not a quiet place: there's convivial Jewish chatter at every table, a cacophony of Hebrew, Yiddish and English. During the short wait for our food, Rabbi Eger riffs on the Hebrew numerological symbolism of our order number, 35. "In the Talmud there's a great story about the lamed vovniks, the thirty-six people who do good deeds, don't ask for anything in return, and are filled with unconditional love."

"But we're one short of that," I note.

"And that's good. Because anyone who says they're a lamed vovnik, who has so much hubris to say they're one of the thirty-six...they're clearly not."

The Rabbi's Schnitzel

The food arrives. She's ordered the chicken schnitzel plate, breaded and deep fried yet delightfully crisp and un-greasy.

Denise, as she is happy to be called, knows my proclivities for burritos, and giddily points out the similarities to Israeli pitas. "That's like your tortilla. They even opened it up so you can fill it with your hummus, your chicken, your veggies. And that's Israeli salsa," she notes, pointing to the small dish of red spicy, garlicky red and tangy green sauces.

Israeli Salsas
I dutifully make an "Israeli burrito" in one of the pieces of pita bread, which are fresh from the oven, and thicker than I'm used to. As I'm slathering it with salsa, there's a pause.

I'm new to this interview/conversation format, so I lamely segue to the newsy part of the discussion. "So how about those crazy Republicans?" This is the day that Ben Carson's theory of pyramids-as-grain-silos dominated the news cycle.

She sighs.

"We're in such an illiterate period in our country's life," she says. "I don't know if it's particular to Republicans or if they're just exemplifying it. But illiteracy is a serious problem. These people who try to claim there's no climate change, despite evidence and evidence and evidence. They simply refuse to believe anything."

"I'm not sure if it so much illiteracy," I say. "A lot of climate deniers, these people are actually smart. I mean, they write books, they're erudite. I think they're just so isolated, and living in so much of an echo chamber. I'm not sure it's illiteracy. I mean, they can read."

"The echo chamber is a problem," she says. "But I don't mean illiterate as in they can't read. I mean a denial of science. Almost a denial of Western values, in a way."

She points out that such cynicism is not the province of just Republicans. "Look at Bernie Sanders. He blasts Hillary for her change of position over the years on gay marriage. But he has an equally suspect relationship with gun control. Because he comes from Vermont, where there are hunters! I get that, but people get so jaded! I mean, that's his position. He's representing his constituency as best he can. Leave him alone."

"And at least Bernie gets some credit for telling Hillary that people are tired of hearing about her damn e-mails."

"That's right," Denise says. "And you can say the same of Chris Christie, who got questioned about fantasy football! Who gives a damn? And he called them out on it."

Not letting on how much of damn I give about Fantasy Football (A LOT!) I ask her how her food is. "Fabulous!" She looks around. A boisterous birthday party has taken over the large table near the back where we had hoped to have some quiet. "It feels like you're on a sidewalk in Tel Aviv or Haifa or Jerusalem. It's a good taste. As good as there."

I ask if, despite the country's small size, there are regional differences in Israeli cuisine. She laughs. "There are! In Jerusalem it's kosher, and in Tel Aviv, there's a lot of treyf," she says, using the Hebrew word for all un-kosher deliciousnesses like pork and shellfish. [Sidenote: I will not keep kosher. I tried and failed miserably. I will retain my unholy love of carnitas, lobster, oysters, and cheeseburgers, write about it here, and hope I don't get smote.]

Ta Eem makes me want to go to Jerusalem and eat the kosher sidewalk food. The mezze-style Mediterranean salads alone are worth the price of admission: four come with our lunch, one creamy purple cabbage, one tender beets, one yams, one potato. On other occasions there have been a heavenly eggplant in olive oil and an eclectic corn salad. There are perfectly thick-sliced baby could eat just the side salads here and walk out stuffed.

A Falafel Plate, with Israeli Salads
"So where do you go for lunch in this neighborhood?" I ask. "We're just a couple of blocks from Kol Ami [the synagogue of which she is the spiritual leader].

"Well, I haven't been yet, but my friend Susan Feniger [!], who runs Border Grill, and I go to Mud Hen Tavern, where Street used to be, for dinner a lot. And they opened a lunch window called The Blue Window, and they have a lot of banh mi." On the recording of our chat, you can hear me make gleeful, hands-rubbing-together sounds. "They're Street style," she qualifies. More like banh mi mashups, if you know what I mean."

I mention that my wife is currently at an acupuncturist in the San Gabriel Valley, and will be bringing home some real-deal banh mi from Mr. Baguette. Rabbi Eger hasn't heard of Mr. Baguette, and when I explain the mini-chain purveying Vietnamese sandwiches, she gets equally excited. We are literally bonding over bread.

Chicken Shawarma Plate
We both begin to slow down on our meal. I can't help but continue to pick at the chicken shawarma: the crispy crunch around the edges of the small shredded slices makes it almost like nibbling at chicken chips.

The conversation reaches its heaviest, having turned from her interest in my recently discovered Jewish genealogy to the subject that invariably comes with genealogy: death. There's a history of suicide in my family, and I mention that it's caused somewhat of a rift between me and my cousins: They simply don't want to talk about it. It freaks them out.

"People can't handle that stuff very well. Have ya noticed?" she says, dripping with irony.

"So many people," I say, "don't have a structure anymore [such as the elaborate death rituals in Judaism], for how to deal with the death of loved one."

"They don't," she agrees. "I don't know if you saw this headline, where white people ages 45-60 have a greater propensity for suicide?"

In fact I had. I even shared it on Facebook. It's worth a read. The depressing thing about it is that the statistics actually show that death among that group in the U.S., unlike any other demographic over the past hundred years, has actually increased. Mortality rates worldwide have, with almost no exceptions, only declined, but not among U.S. white males. And the increase isn't because of heart disease, lung disease, obesity, or the other things you might suspect: it's because of a spike in the numbers of suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol poisoning.

"That speaks to the fact that people don't have social support," Eger says. "Because of the secularization of society. They don't have family support. It's the 'rugged individualism' that we have, especially here in the West. You handle things on your own, you don't talk about it. It's very bad. That's a breakdown in social structure."

She believes such woes fall especially hard on men. "Men process differently than women. And that's good, but I think the pressure is still on men in society. Being the breadwinner. Even when they're cool in their relationships, there's still this silent code. I think for a lot of men who can't be in the marketplace anymore, who can't compete for whatever reason. They don't have— I mean, where do they make friends? Male friendships are usually built around the workplace."

"For me, that's a part of it, especially in the current outsource, work-at-home economy...throw in a little ageism, here in Hollywood, and you're sitting alone at home in front of the computer trolling political message boards."

"Yeah, it's very isolating."

We discuss the implications for those isolated people who are now 45-60, like me, often childless, as they age into their golden years. I mention that my wife, who was conceived in the house we live in, will never, ever, move into assisted living or a nursing home without a machine to pull her fingernails from her kitchen linoleum.

Rabbi Eger sees signs of hope, and is working for change in that very area.

"We started this program, with two other temples, Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills and Temple Isaiah in West L.A., to help people stay in their houses longer: 'Age In Place.' It's a 'village network,' where people volunteer to help people stay in their homes. So say Sadie Horowitz can't climb her ladder anymore to change a lightbulb, she can call the centralized number and have someone come and do that. And Sadie Horowitz is, maybe, the best chicken soup maker, so she can provide some of's a kind of barter-y thing."

"So wait a minute...somebody literally comes and changes her lightbulb, and they walk out with some chicken soup?"

"Right, exactly. Why not?!"

Mmm...Sadie Horowitz's chicken soup.

Ask Rabbi Eger if she's traveled recently, and you'll get more than just the details of a getaway to Catalina or Palm Springs.

"Last week I was in D.C., for the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East," she says. "The Cardinal of Washington D.C., the head of the Lutheran Church, one of the heads of the Armenian Church of America. I was there representing Reform Judaism, along with two other colleagues, two Reconstructionist rabbis, Episcopalians, and three of the major Muslim organizations in the was that level. And two members of the State Department. We're trying to urge Obama to get back involved in bringing peace between Israel and Palestine."

 A bigger and more intractable problem than even aging and death, I'm thinking. I say, "Okay, so now we get down to it. Peace in the Middle East."

"Not lookin' so good these days," Denise says with pointed understatement. "According to the representatives from the State Department, they're thinking they're not going to do anything for the next 14 months. They've kinda had it. They're frustrated. And we're trying to convince them that they haven't exhausted all avenues. Because lifelong diplomats tend to think only in diplomatic or political terms. One of things we've been talking about with Secretary [of State John] Kerry is to take seriously that religious leaders have a bully pulpit. Also, with our constituencies that we represent, to bring all kinds of pressure to bear both there in Israel and Palestine—because remember not all Palestinians are Muslims."

"Bringing pressure to bear there, who do you talk to? Because the Orthodox rabbis in Israel are intractable, right?"

"Not all of them. And you have to remember, they can't ignore the Jewish community in America. Israel knows that it can't function without the support of the American Jewish community. The North American Jewish community is very strong. This whole Iran deal thing? The lightbulb finally dawned over some of them that the message of the Prime Minister [of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu] was not playing so well in the US. They realized how big he lost here. So though Netanyahu will never admit that he's wrong, ever, the core of of the diplomats and politicians in Israel understand how much he squandered here in the US, in Congress, in the Democratic Party and among North American Jews. So they're just now starting to pay attention to us. They're beginning to realize that everything you give to the far right in Israel, to the Ultra-Orthodox, does not help you among American Jewry, because American Jews are only ten percent Orthodox. Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik, who's now the head of the Jewish Agency, has been able to help broker some very important conversations between north American Jewish leaders and Israeli political leaders."

"Obama and Netanyahu are meeting this week, aren't they? Is this going to be the make-up sex?"

"Yeah, I think they have to, as much as they don't really like each other. Obama has no more patience for him. Obama's busy building his legacy, as every President does at this [point in an administration.] I think there are some very serious issues in Syria that I'm sure will be on the table for discussion. Israeli air strikes against Hezbollah, our own special ops forces...and how there could be another war there, right?"

"People are asking, 'Is this Obama's Vietnam?'"

"I think that's something to be considered. But it's much worse than Vietnam. Much worse."

"Because there are more players involved? Higher stakes?"

"Multiple players involved, they're not all unified in what they want, and there are a lot of chemical weapons that Assad has already used and will use again. I think Obama made a strategic error when he retreated a couple of years ago, after the 'chemical weapons red line,' when he did not get rid of their chemical weapons. He just did not. And I don't have a solution. It's a very complex issue."

She tells the tale of meeting a Muslim Syrian at an Israeli hospital, who had brought his two and a half-year-old son across the border for treatment of a leg wound. "We asked the father, 'Why did you bring him to Israel?' And he said, quote unquote, 'Israel is the devil. But I also hear that they have great medical care, and I would do anything for my son." So he carried him to the border, where the IDF let him in, for humanitarian aid. They brought him to the City of Ziv hospital in Svat, in northern part of Israel, where the hospital has an entire floor of nothing but Syrians in treatment. They come back and forth across the border, for ongoing care, all kinds of serious surgeries. And who pays for that? Israel."

"And then it's, 'Thanks for fixing me up, I'm going to go back to Syria and strap on another bomb now.'"

"Well, here's the problem. They can't let anyone know they've been to Israel, because then they're murdered as collaborators. It's a no-win situation. And that's why sometimes religious leaders can bring to bear in a different way, the pressures to come to the table to stop incitement to violence. It's very complex, and fascinating to be involved with."

"I can't imagine being involved at that level," I say. "It must be both horribly depressing but also exhilarating."

"Horrifying on so many levels, how intractable it is. While knowing what the right thing to do is, and not being able to actualize it. We in America want to sit in our armchairs and say, 'It's so simple. This is Palestine and this is Israel.' Or, 'Let's just have one state. Can't we all just get along, Rodney King style? We'll have a secular constitution.' But it just doesn't work that way when you're over there. If there's one state, there's no Israel. So that's a non-starter. But it's also not so simple to just divide them. Because let's talk about the practicalities of providing security, and electricity. Right now, Israel provides all the electricity to Gaza and the West Bank. How do you divide infrastructure? There's a lot to be worked out."

"But over the years, they've gotten close." Yasser Arafat famously walked away from a nearly-completed deal at Camp David in 2000. "All that has been worked out before," I point out.

"It has! But what the Arabs want is 98% of their homes and farms. Including having part of Jerusalem as their capital. The reality is they don't really want a [separate] Palestine in that way. What they really want is the whole thing."

[Of course there's a flip side to this narrative, as I'm sure the comments here will reflect.]

"That's the dealbreaker," I say. "[Palestinians refusing to acknowledge] Israel's right to exist."

"It's going to take a while. It's so hard for all of us who care. On both sides, there are people who care desperately. I don't think all Arabs are bad, or all Muslims are bad. There are people who are really working for peace at a grassroots level. But it's hard."

"Hate speaks with a very loud voice, here and there." I say in an attempt at profundity. "Haters tend to scream, where we peacemakers are quieter."

"Yes," she agrees.

We close our conversation when I pose her one more ethical dilemma. News had just come out that Volkswagen diesel engines have been responsible, statistically, for 59 deaths in the USA alone. I drive a diesel Jetta. "How can I in good conscience justify driving that car at all, even just down to the store, when I know it's killing people?"

"That's a real challenge. How do you answer any ethical question? There's always a balance between the personal and the communal. The Christian golden rule is "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But the Jewish version is, "First, do no harm." So it's a serious question, and I'm not sure how your resolve it."

"I'm thinking of just taking Uber or Lyft everywhere and sending Volkswagen the bill."

"That's a great idea!"

"But even if we drive a 'clean' gasoline car, or a hybrid, there are still emissions. We're still killing people all the time. So what do you do?"

She shrugs rabbinically. "So you limit your trips. Do the least amount of harm you can do, given the situation. Be fair to yourself, be fair to others."

I'll do my best, Rabbi. And that, at the end of the day, is all any one of us can hope to do.

Rabbi Eger blogs at

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

L.A. Food Crazy is now BREAKING BREAD NEWS

It's been three years since I posted here. A lot has changed. Open Table, Yelp, Siri, and OK Google are full of ideas for where you should eat. FourSquare is still a thing. Or has it come and gone already? The world is melting. Donald Trump is being taken seriously.

There are a lot more food resources on the Interwebs than there were in 2012. You really don't need yet another self-appointed expert going on about the epicurean qualities of this or that chili cheese dog. That's what Yelp and a hundred other sites out there are for.

So sitting down today to relaunch my blog, I stared at it, and thought: "How boring and trivial. I have so much more to talk about than just food. I'm interested in politics, ethics, literature, film, TV, art, pop culture...If only there were a way to incorporate that stuff into a food blog."

Then it came to me: Food is about more than just ingredients, recipes and seasoning. Dining out is about more than value, preparation, and presentation. At its best a good meal is what we bond over with friends, loved ones, and colleagues while we talk about the news of the day and try to align it with our hopes and dreams for ourselves and for the world. As we order one or two more beers, glasses of wine, or cocktails, we talk ever more vociferously. We might argue. We might agree.

But at the end of the day, we have broken bread together. We've shared ideas and opinions, and perhaps even posited a course of action. We've reaffirmed that we're friends and fellow travelers on this careening orb.

So that's what I plan to focus on here.

I'll try to find interesting people to dine with, and I'll ply them for their views on whatever is making headlines, or perhaps inexplicably not making headlines. I'll still seek out and find new places and tip you off about my current favorite Mexican food truck, or dim sum place in the 626. But I'll also revisit places. Perhaps, with the new perspective offered by a different dining partner(s), or something new on the menu, there'll be a new insight or opinion.

If I dine alone (and I should do less of that!) I'll try to at least debate with myself  about the food, and discuss what drove me to eat out alone in the first place. If I'm dining with someone else, I'll discuss what we discussed: What we agreed on, what we disagreed on (be it the appetizer or US policy in the Middle East) and whether we were able to find room, even where we disagree, to open our minds and our mouths to new things.

Finally and most importantly, this is a conversation I want to have not just with myself and my dining companions, but with YOU. I hope you'll comment, complain, kibitz, whatever—just join the conversation, because we're all in this together.

If this sounds like something you might like, I hope you'll tell people about this blog via bookmark, share, follow, like, tweet, pin, tumbl—whatever it is you do to engage with the world. Sheet, you could even tell a friend about it over lunch!

Which reminds me...would you like to have lunch sometime? Dutch treat. ;-)

Look for my first "Breaking Bread" post on Thursday. Until then, good news and bon app├ętit!