The Sephardic Roots of a California Kitchen Classic
by Jenna Thornhill Dewitt
The life and work of Pearl Roseman, editor of "California Kosher" (1992).
Many Jews who came of age in the 1990s will instantly recognize it as a fixture of their childhood kitchens: the cookbook with the huge juicy orange eclipsing more than half of its cover, with a kosher-certifying "K" stamped on its skin. California Kosher, released in 1991, inaugurated a new wave of light, California-style Jewish cooking for an increasingly health-conscious audience.
The runaway success was authored not by a celebrity chef, but by the Women's League of Adat Ari El Synagogue in North Hollywood. Like many temple cookbook before it and since, California Kosher had been modestly conceived as a fundraising project. Yet, as an item in the Los Angeles Times described in 1992, an "ordering frenzy" had been sparked: the women had convinced the Nordstorm's store in the Topanga Plaza Mall to carry the book, the copies selling out immediately, prompting a second order which also sold out. Soon other Nordstrom's locations ordered California Kosher and within weeks, it was being sold in bookstores around the country. After selling out its first printing of 5,000 copies in less than a year, the Sisterhood ordered twice as many copies for its second printing to replenish the supply. Clearly there was a big market for their approach to Jewish cooking.
While Adat Ari El was no stranger to innovative approaches to modern Judaism - it had, for example, been the first Conservative congregation in the United States to install a female rabbi in 1986 - the breakout success of its Sisterhood cookbook lies in no small part to the volume's editor, Pearl Roseman. Roseman (nee Elias) was born in Los Angeles in 1920, the daughter of Max Elias, a Sephardic Jewish immigrant from Castoria Greece, and Catherine Caraco, from Bursa, Turkey whose family had deep roots in Sephardi L.A. When Pearl was born, the family lived downtown near the produce and flower markets where many Sephardi immigrants worked, and as she grew up they, like so many other Sephardi families, moved west. Pearl, her parents and her two twin siblings, Julie and Albert, settled in Culver City near the base of Baldwin Hills. In 1932, their synagogue, Temple Tifereth Israel, moved west as well, relocating from downtown to a new building on Santa Barbara Avenue (now Martin Luther King Boulevard).
In 1940, the family moved again to 6th Street near
Crescent Heights, close to the emergent center of the Jewish population, the Fairfax District. The area was estimated by the Home Owners Loan Corporation to be 60% Jewish, the Elias' block including immigrants from Syria, Romania and Poland who were also raising California-born children. Her father Max worked as a salesman at Peerless Garment Co. downtown while 19-year-old Pearl worked as an "office girl" at Abbey Rents Inc., a chair-rental company that later became the nation's largest party supply rental chain. She was also nominated by the Sephardic Sisterhood to be their representative in the local Jewish Community's annual "Queen Esther" beauty pageant in 1941.
In 1943, Pearl Elias married Edward Earl Roseman, who had moved to Los Angeles with his Hungarian-born parents as a teenager. The couple had three children together - Marshal, Susan and Clifford - and moved to the San Fernando Valley in 1962. Although she now lived further away, Pearl retained her ties to STTI and its Sisterhood: in 1971, she served as editor of Cooking the Sephardic Way, the Sisterhood's first ever cookbook, a collection of recipes compiled by Sisterhood members Reggie Arditti, Vicky Levin, and Fortunee Abouaf, with an introduction by Rabbi Jacob Ott. Years later, in the Temple newsletter, El Shofar, Roseman and other Sisterhood members recalled the monumental tasks involved: careful translation of recipes from Ladino to English and of nonstandard measurements like "a half eggshell of oil." Roseanne also served as the first editor of LASHON, a quarterly magazine of the L.A. Sephardic Home for the Aging, when it began publication in 1985.
Pearl (Elias) Roseman
So how did Pearl Roseman's experience as a member of Los Angeles' Sephardic community connect to the best-selling cookbook with the orange on its cover? As she described in an interview with the Forward on the 20th anniversary of the cookbook's publication, Southern California's similarity to the Mediterrean climate in which so many Sephardic foldaways developed had something to do with it. The cookbook, "celebrate[d] the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables available in California virtually year round and the diverse cultural and culinary influences [of] the Los Angeles Jewish community," she said. No wonder then that a Sephardi Angeleno, with both Turkish and Greek Jewish influences within her own family kitchen, would be the one to change the style of American kosher cooking - which had for so long reflected the tastes of the Ashkenazi majority. It is fair to say that Pearl Roseman and California Kosher paved the way for the plethora of diverse regional Jewish foodways found in cookbooks today.