Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.
Ever since Earl Hartman started keeping kosher and “frummed out,” as he puts it, he has missed being able to go out for an espresso and a pastry. Drinking coffee at a café is OK, but the pastry? Off limits.
Now, after a long career as an English-Japanese translator, Hartman, at 69, is soon opening his own kosher café at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.
“I figure it’s worth a shot,” he said, no pun intended. “My wife said as long as you don’t risk our savings on this harebrained scheme, you can do it; zai gezunt, you’re on your own.” (Then, he added, since she is of Japanese origin, she didn’t actually say the zai gezunt part, but something to that effect.)
Caffé Mediterraneum, named after the iconic Caffé Med on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley where Hartman worked in the 1970s, will be one of several kosher food businesses sharing space in the new Food Oasis. The name fits in nicely with the nearby Oasis playground, part of the JCC complex.
Hartman’s café will serve pastries made by Orit Hendler Leib of Déjà Vu (who happens to bake in the JCC), as well as some savory items, breakfast and light lunch dishes, kosher gelato and Italian sodas. Others in the group are Holy Sushi, a kosher sushi operation; the Ma’lawach Bar, run by Yemenite-Israeli-American Doreet Jehassi, who specializes in Yemenite Jewish breads such as ma’lawah and jachnun; and Matriarch Café, offering sandwiches such as brisket, shawarma, a lamb burger and, eventually, pastrami, and run by Spencer Brodie of Neshama Foods. He will also continue to cater.
Rabbi Joey Felsen, founder of the Jewish Study Network and president of Meira Academy, which both have their homes at the JCC, spearheaded this effort.
“For years we had to figure out how to get kosher food here,” he said. “Because Covid shut everything down, all of a sudden we had the possibility to think about what could be in that space.”
The space he is referring to was last occupied by the café Nourish, and it wasn’t kosher. While the JCC wasn’t necessarily looking for a kosher operator to take its place, Felsen proved to be rather persuasive. He started by asking if he could at least use it for kosher sushi, which would require only a countertop and one rice cooker. (Holy Sushi originally started at Meira Academy, and he has long worked with sushi chef Wilson He, whom he met at a local Mollie Stone’s.) Then Felsen said he’d take over the entire lease himself and find vendors.
Brodie was focused on growing his catering operation when the opportunity to open Matriarch Café came to him. “With the help of Rabbi Felsen, things just fell into place in a very exciting way,” he said. “I’m thrilled and honored to be part of this new endeavor at the JCC.”
Jehassi, who has been selling her products out of her home, is able to take her business to a new level.
“My aim has been to share my cultural heritage through recipes that have been passed down in my family for generations,” said Jehassi. “Achieving kosher status for the Ma’lawah Bar and getting to be at the Food Oasis at the Oshman Family JCC, I am thrilled beyond measure.”
“What’s exciting about this whole project,” said Felsen, “is that because they’re sharing a space, it’s a really subsidized rent comparable to what any of them would have to pay on their own.”
Hartman said one reason he never pursued the kosher café idea was because he knew he couldn’t make rent, especially in the South Bay. Now, he can.
All will be doing takeout after Passover; while Holy Sushi is fulfilling orders several days a week, and the Ma’lawah Bar was in soft-opening mode before Passover, Matriarch Café and Caffé Mediterraneum plan to open sometime soon. A small seating area will accommodate customers.
Hartman noted that many of those patronizing the JCC aren’t Jewish, so the food will have to be good on its own merits to succeed.
Felsen is confident that will be the case, and is happy there will be more options for those who observe Jewish dietary laws.
“I think it’s important that the JCC of Palo Alto be an epicenter for all Jews, including those who are more observant,” he said. “So having these places where people can come eat and feel part of a community is a very exciting undertaking.”