A New Beginning for Kosher Chef Jamie Geller

The day before she made aliyah, Jamie Geller walked through her empty 3,400-square-foot home in Spring Valley.

Four weeks earlier, much of her family’s furnishings, pots and pans, dishes, clothing, and more had been crammed into a 40-foot-long ZIM container — the “lift” — to be shipped by boat to Israel. Other items — including a pool table, an elliptical machine, and infrequently used serving platters — had been sold or given away. What remained was packed into 14 suitcases and 7 carry-on bags, the on-flight allowance for her, her husband, Nachum, and their five children, who range from 10 months to 7 years old.

Geller walked for one last time through the luxurious, self-designed kitchen that had become a centerpiece of the kosher cooking empire she created: the Kosher Media Network, which combines magazines, books, and broadcasts with digital, online, and social media; Joyofkosher.com, a social networking community for the kosher foodie; a print magazine, Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller, and Quick & Kosher with Jamie Geller, a weekly cooking show on JLTV (Jewish Life TV) that is distributed nationally, airs on prime time, and attracts approximately 100,000 viewers a month.

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Jamie Geller will be cooking from Israel.

As a media-savvy entrepreneur, Geller decided to capture the highlights of her aliyah experience on camera. “The Joy of Aliyah,” a 10-part series that follows the family from the time Geller announced the decision on June 25, includes their preparations, emotional goodbyes, and arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport; the lift navigating Israeli government agencies; the first day of school; shopping at Machaneh Yehuda and the hardware store; visiting the Kotel and the mall, and setting up a new home and life.

“Aliyah was a dream I always had,” Geller said in an interview on the August Nefesh B’Nefesh flight that took the family to Israel. A Philadelphia native, she attended Solomon Schechter Day School. When she was a junior at Akiba Hebrew Academy, she spent a semester at Alexander Muss High School in Israel. “I called my mother on the pay phone and told her I wanted to move. She said, ‘Great!’ Then I went back home and life took over. When you are in Israel you feel it — you have to be spiritually dead not to — but it dims when you are away.” She graduated from NYU with a degree in broadcast journalism and Hebrew language and literature, worked at CNN, then became a senior writer and producer at HBO.

Geller, 34, said she had totally forgotten about making aliyah until she met her husband, who clung to that very dream. But Geller was “busy climbing the ladder,” and she resisted. In the past five years, she published two successful cookbooks, Quick & Kosher: Recipes from the Bride Who Knew Nothing and Quick & Kosher: Meals in Minutes. When the first book was translated into Hebrew in 2011 under the title Aruchat Shtayim, it became an instant bestseller. The Miami Herald even dubbed her the “kosher Rachael Ray,” reflecting her bubbly personality and the refreshing image of kosher food she projects.

Still, Nachum kept working on changing his wife’s mind, “like water on a rock.” She would watch videos of NBN’s charter flights landing and cry. “He said, ‘Why are you crying if don’t want to go?’ I decided to stop fighting it. The fire is burning again. I want to give my kids a future in Israel.”

Three of Nachum Geller’s six siblings already have made aliyah, and the children will have 15 first cousins in Israel. Geller herself has dozens of cousins in Israel, because her seven maternal and paternal great-aunts and uncles emigrated to Israel from Transylvania after World War II. Her grandparents heard life in Israel was difficult; their sisters and brothers suggested they go to the United States first, make money, and then go to Israel — but they never made it. “I feel I’m realizing my grandfather’s dream,” Geller said, adding, “In terms of sheer numbers of relatives, we’re going to more than we are leaving.”

Geller plans to build the Kosher Media Network into an international brand and is moving its production arm as well as her cooking shows to Israel. Though her new home in Ramat Bet Shemesh is half the size of her Spring Valley house, the fancy kitchen she left behind was the “gravy.” Israeli cuisine emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables and is a healthier, vibrant way to cook, she said. “It’s farm to table. There’s literally less time from the farm to your plate, so it’s that much fresher and seasonal.”

Jewish food, she noted, is the “original fusion cuisine,” based on the flavors of international cultures that served as home for Jewish communities. She plans to learn from Israel’s many ethnicities and without relying on packaged foods like kosher broth that are available only in the United States. And she has the challenge of retaining her signature approach — that her recipes be quick and practical.

“I will have a new focus to coincide with the move. I just figured out cooking in America and now I have to start again,” she said, only partly joking, citing the language barrier, the differences in cuts of meat, and measurements in grams instead of pounds. But she is reassured by the availability of a whole new group of family and friends as well as fans on Facebook and Twitter who offer advice and support, and she is excited by the cutting-edge food scene. “I’m looking forward to learning,” she said.

Geller’s brand was born, in fact, from her learning experience as a young bride. “I was a disaster on wheels in the kitchen,” she said. The cookbook recipes she followed assumed a certain level of knowledge that she didn’t have, so she began making “911 calls” to good cooks in her husband’s family. “They came over and cooked with me. And whatever they thought was easy, I made easier and easier. And it tasted good!” Her husband is now her partner in the business.

To pay tribute to the “unifying magnetism of food for people of every background and culture,” Geller founded the Joy of Kosher Foundation this past June. She hopes to connect people from every spectrum of the international community through the power of Jewish food. The foundation’s first project is a three-part PBS series about world Jewish holiday cuisine. The Chanukah show, to air this winter, was taped in her American kitchen, but the Pesach and Rosh Hashanah shows will be set in Israel. Her third cookbook, Joy of Kosher, to be published by William Morrow/Harper Collins, is scheduled for a fall 2013 release.

Nefesh B’Nefesh makes the aliyah process as seamless and streamlined as possible, she said.

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