Five and a half years ago, Linda Zelda Neiman was a stay-at-home mom, doing lots of volunteer work and baking and cooking up a storm in her Lincolnwood kitchen. When she felt ready to go back to work, she opted not to go back to her old job in computer science and instead to follow her passion for sweets, opening Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe in Skokie.
The store, named for Neiman’s middle name, aims “to convey something a little old-fashioned but modern,” using quality ingredients to give customers that gourmet feel.
“[We sell] things you might expect your grandmother to make, but with a modern feel,” Neiman said.
Many of the recipes, like Zelda’s decadent Southern Pecan Pie, came straight out of Neiman’s kitchen, while others have been developed over the years with her staff. Along with the pecan pie, Neiman’s favorite items are her own brand of decorated Cookie Cuties ™ – they always bring a smile to her face.
In addition to offering hand-fashioned sweets, cookies and other baked goods, everything Zelda’s offers is certified kosher under the supervision of the Chicago Rabbinical Council (CRC).
For Neiman, who grew up in West Rogers Park, attended Ida Crown Jewish Academy and keeps kosher herself, keeping her products kosher was important, but equally important was to have chocolates and baked goods that would be as beautiful and tasty as their non-kosher counterparts.
“I felt that there wasn’t anything comparable and it’s really a shame, because it gives kosher a bad name,” she said. “The idea behind the store is to bring that gourmet product under the kosher wing. We want everything to be as beautiful as Harry & David and Godiva and taste as sweet as Leonard’s Bakery, but still have that CRC stamp.”
And judging by the many honors Zelda’s was awarded at the end of 2008, Neiman has been successful in her quest to deliver both the kosher and gourmet.
In November, Zelda’s captured four awards, including the top honor at Kosherfest 2008, the world’s largest international kosher foods trade show and exhibition with over 300 exhibitors from 14 countries. This year’s event, held Nov 11 and 12 in Secaucus, N.J., featured over 6,000 attendees.
Zelda’s, a newcomer to Kosherfest, was awarded “Best In Show” for its Southern Pecan Pie. The pie also won the “Best Dessert” category. Also awarded were Zelda’s Classic Caramel Corn and Chocolate Almond Toffee Caramel Corn for “Best Snack Food” and Zelda’s Barks, Brittles and Toffee for “Best Packaging/Design.”
Since Kosherfest, Neiman said they have had requests from nearly 20 locations on the East Coast wanting to sell their products.
“It’s very exciting,” she said. “It was a big boost to get that recognition at Kosherfest.”
Then, in December, Zelda’s was awarded another top honor at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago’s “World of Chocolate” event at the Hilton Chicago. Zelda’s caramelized banana chocolate took the “Hot Chocolate Award,” which goes out to the “hottest,” tastiest treat, a major accomplishment when competing against non-kosher products.
Amid all this success, in the past six months, Zelda’s opened a second location for production, down the street from its original retail and production kitchen at 4113 Main St. in Skokie. This year, for the first time ever, they will be able to have a kosher-for-Passover bakery open in their second location. Passover and Purim are the two busiest times of the year, Neiman said. Chicagoans can also find Zelda’s displays at JUF’s Walk With Israel in May and the Taste of Kosher Chicago.
In the past five and a half years, Zelda’s has come a long way from just the glimmer of an idea and a delicious dessert repertoire in Neiman’s kitchen. Today, products made at Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe in Skokie are available at food stores throughout Chicago, including Jewel, Sunset Foods, Garden Fresh and Potash Brothers, and at many locations throughout the East Coast.
But as far and wide as her products may travel, Neiman says she is most proud to know that every package and product says and is “made in Skokie.”
So what’s next for Zelda’s?
“Looking to Zelda’s future, what we’re really looking to do is expand on what we’ve started and spread to the West Coast.”
Learn more about Zelda’s Sweet Shoppe at www.zeldas.net .
It’s pretty safe to say that Deborah Fishman is passionate about Jewish life and Israel. As the Managing Editor of PresenTense Magazine, a grassroots, volunteer effort by hundreds of young Jews spread across four continents, she and her staff are dedicated to tackling the question of what it mean to be Jewish, and how being Jewish can add value to our lives. She is also currently pursuing a Masters in Jewish Professional Studies at the Spertus Institute and a mentor in the Write On for Israel program. She previously served as Program Director for the American Zionist Movement, developing educational materials to promote dialogue on the meaning of Zionism today. A 2006 graduate of Princeton University, Deborah now lives with her husband in Chicago.
So whether you’re interested in finding ways to express your Jewish creativity, have a relative who collects Israeli stamps or you too were seduced by the humanities, Deborah Fishman is a Jew You Should Know!
1. What is your favorite blog or website?
That would have to be www.presentense.org, of course. I also love to check out recipes at www.recipezaar.com or www.epicurious.com.
2. If time and money were limitless, where would you travel?
I would travel back and forth to Israel on a regular basis to visit the PresenTense Jerusalem Hub, as well as my family and friends in Israel. Though Skype and modern technology can do wonders, it’s never the same as being there in person. Besides, El Al flights are pretty much like being in Israel anyway, so you barely lose any time. I might also travel to meet with PresenTense’s contributors in some of the more exotic locales – Kazakhstan, Beijing, London and Budapest. It would definitely bring breakthroughs to the editing process.
3. If a movie was made about your life, who would play you?
I might write an autobiography someday – and the movie is never as good as the original book. If the movie were made anyway, Catherine Zeta-Jones could play me. It’d be an action movie.
4. If you could have a meal with any two people, living or dead, famous or not, who would they be? Where would you eat or what would you serve?
My maternal grandfather, Grandpa Burt, and my husband’s paternal grandfather, Saba Ami. Both had passions for Israeli stamps – Grandpa Burt as an American collector, and Saba Ami as an Israeli stamp dealer. Each passed away long before my husband and I ever met, but I nevertheless feel a special bond unites them, and by extension us. I sometimes dream about what it would have been like if they could have met, and would have very much liked to meet Saba Ami. I’d cook, of course. While I do miss the dishes Grandpa Burt used to prepare, I think it’d be unfair to make him do the work – though perhaps I’d incorporate some of the foods I most remember him for: beets, brisket and potato latkes.
5. What's your idea of the perfect day?
I wake up in my apartment in Jerusalem. I walk over to the PresenTense hub, picking up some borekas for breakfast on my way. There I meet with writers, editors and other Jewish innovators sharing a common workspace. Lots of creative ideas are flowing as I’m immersed in a creative and stimulating intellectual environment. In the afternoon I go to Mahane Yehuda and pick out an assortment of exciting and delectably fresh fruits and vegetables for an upcoming Shabbat meal I’m hosting. In the evening my husband and I meet for dinner at a cute little kosher restaurant we have just discovered (and no one else has). Afterwards we go for a romantic walk down to the Kotel.
6. What do you love about what you do?
I love the exchange of ideas with all the people with whom I have the opportunity to work. PresenTense is an open-source network, which means that young Jews from all over the world and all religious/ideological backgrounds can pitch their ideas concerning new trends that affect Jewish life and its meaning in the here and now. Though we are a diverse group, each individual is extraordinarily passionate about his or her unique vision for the Jewish future. Together, we seek to express young Jewish creativity and these cutting-edge ideas, thus working to change the future of the Jewish People. What could be better than that?
7. What job would you have had if not the one you have now?
I entered college as a pre-med physics major. My destined path in life was probably evident when I spent a summer at the Weizmann Institute and, instead of finding the Higgs boson, I founded a literary magazine. However, if I hadn’t been seduced by the humanities, I might have become a doctor.
8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago? In other words, how do you Jew?
I love hanging out with the PresenTense community in Chicago – whether it be our Creative Zionist Circle meetings, where we work to solve the problems facing the Jewish world; “drunken” brainstorms, where we use our creativity and collective energy to come up with amazing ideas that we then use for the magazine; or cooking together for Shabbat dinners. While it’s incredible to be connected to an international network of people, I don’t believe there’s any technological means of communication that can surpass the support and potential for growth that can be realized in person, in the local community right here in Chicago.
Aaron Freeman recently added another line to his already lengthy resume: Torah maven, the traditional storyteller who translated the Hebrew Torah into local language. The comedian, radio personality and author says his latest professional incarnation is a natural progression of his love for all things Jewish. He wants to tell great stories, and there isn’t a better story than Torah, he says.
“We who spend a lot of time reading and interpreting the Torah see it as the most interesting, fascinating stories,” Freeman said on the eve of his first cyber performance in the virtual Second Life environment, where he’s known as Joyous Pomegranate. “And they are even more astonishing the third or fourth time you hear them. The story we thought we were telling three years ago could not be more different from the exact same story we’re telling today. Every year I go, ‘I can’t believe I missed that.’”
Freeman’s Second Life performance was part of Worldwide Storah, a weekend dedicated to the art of Torah translation. Storah is a method of bringing Torah stories alive through simultaneous translation from Hebrew into the vernacular – mostly English among the recent crop of Torah mavens. In addition to the Second Life event, Worldwide Storah hosted events in London, Jerusalem, Miami, New York City, L.A. and eight other cities Feb. 6 through 8.
Amichai Lau-Lavie, an Israeli-born teacher of Judaic literature and a performance artist, revived the lost art of Torah translation and re-imagined it in a twenty-first century way as Storahtelling. The roots of Storahtelling lie in the translations that accompanied traditional synagogue Torah services until the early Middle Ages. For almost two millennia, Hebrew was primarily the language of ritual, and congregations needed translators to convey the meaning of the passages.
Freeman, who was one of the first to adopt Storahtelling techniques, recently became a congregational Torah maven, the official Torah meturgaman (translator in Aramaic), at his congregation, Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in Highland Park.
Storahtellers bring their own skills and preferences to the translation. Freeman, who composes his own translations, treats each portion differently depending on the content. Sometimes he might involve the congregation, asking members to stand in for the pharaoh and Moses, for example. Other times, he takes a more direct storytelling approach, using intonation, facial expressions and gestures to help convey the meaning. Freeman also draws some inspiration from the Torah-based comic strip he created with his wife, artist Sharon Rosenzweig.
For his duties as a Torah maven, Freeman often wears traditional Persian garb in reference to the Persian roots of Torah translation. He couldn’t find a Persian costume in the virtual world, though, so his Second Life avatar – “a fairly athletic black guy” – sported dark blue Moroccan kaftan and trousers.
In his Feb. 8 Second Life ritual, Freeman used a pre-recorded Hebrew version of Parashat Beshalach, which tells about both the parting of the Red Sea and the first gift of manna. He then translated the text of the Torah portion. He guided his avatar using the keyboard and spoke into a microphone mounted on his computer. Although the figurine couldn’t recreate Freeman’s usual highly animated facial expressions, it conveyed some of the story via gestures Freeman assigned to it. Freeman says guiding the avatar is akin to performing a marionette show.
Even when he doesn’t have to guide an avatar, Freeman finds each Storahtelling ritual demanding.
Biblical Hebrew provides a unique challenge: Jewish sages have debated the meaning of certain Hebrew words for centuries, so some interpretation is always necessary.
“Every translation is a commentary,” Freeman says. “There is no such thing as a literal translation of biblical Hebrew.”
Humor and a basic belief in positive outcomes help overcome some of the challenges, Freeman says. An observant Jew who grew up Catholic, Freeman has forged a steadfast connection to Judaism because “Jewish observance ameliorates the worst aspect of American life for me. The consumer culture makes us endlessly aware of what we do not have without counterbalancing it with gratitude for the mind-numbing bounty that we enjoy,” Freeman says. Jewish observance requires the constant expression of gratitude for everything – from a glass of water or a piece of bread to having woken up and being healthy. That makes Freeman “guaranteed to be happy; you can’t be grateful and pissed off at the same time,” he says.
Freeman is also grateful for Fridays. “How can you not love a religion that has a mandatory party every week? For the Jews, eating drinking and partying every Friday is not just a good idea, it’s the law. Got to love that!”
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- Nominations now open for the fifth annual Chicago Jewish 36 under 36 list
- New play ‘A Splintered Soul’ explores moving forward in America after the Holocaust
- Have you been personally inspired by a Holocaust survivor?
- ‘Nurture the Wow’ focuses on the spirituality of parenting
- Third annual JCC Chicago Jewish Film Festival opens March 10