From HBO to Ramat Beit Shemesh

Geller has gone from ‘Sopranos’ to author of kosher cookbooks, from 'New Yorker' to Nefesh B’Nefesh star.

By
October 7, 2012 10:32
Chef Jamie Geller with her family

Jamie Geller and family 370. (photo credit: Sasson Tiram)

 
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Making aliya is challenging for anyone – but making aliya while cameras document your every move only intensifies the experience.

Jamie Geller, 34, author of the hit cookbook Quick and Kosher – Recipes from the Bride who Knew Nothing and its follow-up Quick and Kosher: Meals in Minutes, and founder of the Kosher Media Network, which includes a cooking website and Joy of Kosher magazine, was already a demi-celebrity in the kosher-keeping world. In June, Geller expanded her media empire to reality TV, partnering with Nefesh B’Nefesh to produce and star in Joy of Aliyah, an online web series chronicling her move from New York to Ramat Beit Shemesh with her five children, ranging in age from one to seven, and husband, Nachum.

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Nearly 20,000 viewers watched Geller’s tearful goodbyes to her family, neighbors and custom-designed kitchen, her daughters’ return from their first day of school in Israel (Geller: Did you understand anything? Daughters: Nope), and the unloading of boxes from her shipment into her new house. Yet the move from American to Israeli isn’t the first major transformation Geller has undergone. Years before her aliya, she went from non-observant TV producer and marketing executive for HBO shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Entourage to an Orthodox Jew – wig and all – and acclaimed cookbook author.

In a two-part interview with The Jerusalem Post – two weeks before her August 13 aliya, and then a month later – the very gregarious Geller recounted all the changes in her life that brought her to where she is today.

If you look at your life a decade ago, and today, things are completely different. How did this journey begin?

In about 2000, I started to become religious. I was a producer, and I was going to the Oscars and MTV awards, but my mother insisted I go to singles parsha (weekly Torah portion) classes. I mingled, I met people, and I started to get interested, and that started it.

The Hollywood TV world is so different from reality. It takes 20 people 20 hours just to make something appear real. I was looking for values and a connection to the real world, and I became so inspired.



How did your new lifestyle affect your career?

I was working at CNN when I made the change. I suddenly had to say that I’m not available for live shows on Fridays and Saturdays, and eventually I just quit. I went to seminary in Jerusalem for three weeks, and while I was there, I got a call from HBO, asking me to work on The Sopranos. My dream was to work in television, and I didn’t want to stop, so I flew right back to the US.

I continued learning and growing while I developed my career. I came to the show religious, and luckily there were no conflicts with Shabbat. Every Friday I left between 12 and two in the afternoon, and kosher food was brought to the set. It was great.

For a long time I had two separate lives [in the TV world and the religious world], but as I changed personally, I became more sensitive. After all, I was working for HBO, not Disney. They were constantly pushing the envelope; shows had drugs, sex, violence. I started to think to myself: What am I doing here?

After I went on maternity leave, I decided to quit. HBO wanted to promote me and even give me a fourday work week, but I fell in love with my baby, and my husband encouraged me to write my book.

Where did you get the idea for Quick and Kosher? As the self-described “bride who knew nothing,” what inspired you to write a cookbook?

Growing up, I had a strong Jewish identity, but I didn’t keep kosher. My mother wasn’t very domestic, and she said she didn’t want me to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen! I had no idea how to cook, I just ate from craft service [food provided to employees on set] – I never had to leave the set.

My first year of marriage was a disaster. I couldn’t even boil an egg. I never had to do those things before! I didn’t have a background, and I didn’t have time to learn. At the time, all the kosher cookbooks I saw were so fancy, and all about presentation, like we were going to be Jewish Martha Stewarts. I asked around for quick and easy recipes, and people started saying my cooking is really good.

How did you make the jump from “good cook” to author?

I hired my own crew and staff, interviewed photographers and stylists, and paid for everything myself. It took years, but Quick and Kosher took off [after its publication in 2007]. It’s in its sixth printing, with over 30,000 copies sold. I even did a press tour in Israel a year and a half ago. Three years later, I put out Quick and Kosher: Meals in Minutes, and now I’m finishing my third cookbook, Joy of Kosher. It has over 200 recipes that can be dressed up for entertaining and holidays or dressed down for every day.

I’ve started my own media company [Kosher Media Network] and website, Joyofkosher.com, which gets up to 80,000 hits a month during the holidays, and a cooking show on the cable channel Jewish Life Television.

Why do you think your books made such an impact on the kosher cooking world?

I love to eat and entertain, even if I don’t love to cook. Food is a unifier, no matter where you are. People visit my site from Serbia, Peru, Brazil and Morocco, and they’re from all levels of observance. They want to learn about food and holidays and start a relationship with their Jewish identity.

You know, when people start to assimilate, food customs are the last to go. People hold on to that. They’ll have a Seder on Passover, even if they never go to synagogue.

That’s what inspired me to start the Joy of Kosher Foundation, which is an outreach effort to connect Jewish people through food, culture and Israel.

After becoming religious and switching careers, you made another change – from New Yorker to Ramat Bet Shemesh resident.

My husband dreamed of making aliya even before he was married. At first I said absolutely not, but I guess you can never say never. He’s been working on me for years! Inside, I’ve always felt connected. In 11th grade I spent a semester in Israel, and I have so many extended cousins here. I loved it when I came, and I wanted to stay, but then you leave and you forget. My husband didn’t though, and he couldn’t hold back the desire to live in Israel. He took me to Nefesh B’Nefesh seminars, until it became a real desire for me, too.

How’s life in Israel?


Amazing! It’s been overwhelming and such a whirlwind, but I look out the window at the beautiful view and I’m inspired and uplifted. The neighbors are warm and friendly, they brought us food and invited us for Shabbat meals. I had no idea how large the Anglo community is and how many people follow me in Israel. I can’t walk around without being identified! I really feel like I made aliya with a community. Plus, I’m excited to take my children on trips over the holidays. There are so many wonderful ways to incorporate learning about the land.

Making aliya isn’t easy. What challenges have you faced so far?

I wrote on my blog about sending my husband to get cornflake crumbs in the supermarket. It was a mess. We needed a supermarket tour, because all the jars look the same! I’m still getting used to my oven. It’s quite comical. There’s nothing I can’t laugh about. I went through all this before as the bride who knew nothing.

How are your kids adapting?

We came when they’re still young. I hope that school will expedite the social transition and teach them the language. No one speaks English in their school. I don’t understand the instructions on their homework or notes sent home, and I’ve been writing notes to the teacher with spelling mistakes – but at least I’m trying.

I would rather things be hard for me than for my kids. I have a basic grasp on Hebrew from school. People correct me, and my vocabulary isn’t as vast as I’d like it to be. I really want to go to ulpan, but I don’t see it working with my schedule. It’s hard to do everything.

Speaking of your schedule, how are you managing working from Israel?

This was really the right time for me to make aliya. Social media and the Web let me work no matter where I am; 90 percent of what I do is online. When I lived in the US, most of my work was at home, and that hasn’t changed, but now I have a much better view.

Israel is going to help me take my recipes, books and brand to a whole new level. Israel is in everything I do, every aspect of my writing and film. I can’t not put Israel in! My writing is so autobiographical.

What’s next for the Kosher Media Network?

I’m now working on the Hanukka issue of Joy of Kosher magazine, which is going to be all about Israel. It’s full of salads and pictures from the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem.

Before I made aliya, I shot the Hanukka episode of a three-part holiday special for PBS [the American public TV channel], which is entirely set in Israel and connected to the Joy of Kosher foundation. I wanted to do something valuable on a big stage to showcase Jewish food, people, culture, diversity and our land. There are all different aspects of Jewish cuisine – Moroccan, Ethiopian – plus new cooking trends, hot chefs.

Living here, it will be easier to shoot the other parts, but I’m having difficulty finding funding for the Pessah [Passover] episode. I’m not sure why this has been a problem, when I’ve had successes in so many other fields.

What made you decide to branch into reality TV and film your aliya experience?

I can’t help my TV producer self! I'm very visual; I see everything as a movie. I connected with Nefesh B’Nefesh Social Media Coordinator Laura Ben-David. We traded books, and I was riveted by hers [Moving Up: An Aliyah Journal]. It inspired me and made me think I can do that too – which was the goal of my books, to tell people that cooking is doable. I said it has to be made into a movie. A family moving across the world is a great story.

I think people really relate to TV online. It’s free and accessible. I hoped to inspire people and start a conversation. Nefesh B’Nefesh helped, and we demystified the process of making aliya.

How have people reacted to the webisodes?

People stop me at the gas station. They cry and say our experience was inspiring.

In December, the full series will be aired at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, with my commentary and a panel. It’s really exciting to be recognized.

Tell us a bit about the recipes you chose for Simhat Torah, and what you expect for the holiday.

The recipes I’m sharing with The Jerusalem Post have an autumn theme in honor of Simhat Torah.

I’m so excited to have a succa in Israel and look up at the stars in the sky. There are no words to describe the excitement of being here for the holidays. It’s so emotional; I cry sometimes thinking about it. Aliya is a challenge, but overall, it’s a positive, affirming experience.

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