Gourmet retreat cooks up a feast for the intellect

On Sunday's brisk, sunny morning in Sonoma County, two groups huddled in and around a grapevine-hung sukkah.

Taking in the evergreen aroma of the California autumn, they discussed Jewish history and philosophy, as well as their favorite subjects — food and wine.

The event that brought them there was the four-day "Sukot in Sonoma," organized by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa. Although most of the 50 participants were Californians, some traveled from as far as New Jersey, Kentucky and Illinois to learn about Jewish culture from a gourmet perspective during the final days of the Jewish harvest festival.

Helene Zukof, who came from Louisville, Ky., with husband Walter, said she particularly enjoyed discussing Jewish culture while meditatively kneading challah dough during one session.

Taking in the sun between study groups, she noted that "the absence of pews and the presence of blue jeans bring a whole different dimension to prayer."

The weekend of indoor and outdoor study included Jewish cooking demonstrations, a storytelling class, a glass-making workshop, Shabbat services, and plenty of spiritual and philosophical discourse.

Some studied "Food and Wine in the World of the Bible: Biblical Kashrut and Eating as Sacred Acts." Others took a holiday cooking class and learned to prepare salmon gefilte fish and lamb shanks with portobello mushrooms and dried cranberries. Still others learned to build a breadstick sukkah or bake a challah.

Ernie Weir, owner of the Napa Valley's Hagafen winery, led a tasting of the gourmet gamut of his kosher wines and lectured on the process of kosher wine production.

The Saturday night tasting led into Sunday's discussion of "Wine and Jews: And Why Do We Drink That Thick, Sweet Wine?," an exploration of wine's role in ancient Jewish culture, with Fred Astren, associate professor of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University.

The retreat, nestled amid golden, rolling hills and grand young redwoods, was designed to slow life down — in a Northern California sort of way — and allow eating and drinking to become acts of sacred meditation.

Attendees bunked in the low, white bungalows of the hillside camp, which was originally built as a culinary training center for the merchant marine and was also once held by est, the most popular group in the human potential movement during the 1970s and '80s.

Larry Raphael, who organizes programs nationally for the UAHC, said the camp's wine-country location was a stimulus for the event. He wanted to use an overlay of good food and wine to lure people who might not otherwise have been interested in a more traditional academic experience.

"Our goal is to give them a taste of something, in a rich, Jewish context, that will head them in their own personal Jewish growth," he said. "There are people here who have never been in a sukkah, who have never held a lulav and etrog…in addition to others who have had a rich and varied Jewish background. Hopefully, they will use these opportunities to grow further in their synagogues and elsewhere."

The event was apparently a success in the eyes of participants.

For example, one man experienced an epiphany during Sunday morning's "Revelation and Bread" with Rabbi George Gittleman of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa.

As the group discussed the deliverance of manna in the Torah, the man said he realized that "manna" may not refer to bread at all, but to a more ethereal substance, of a spiritual nature. He added that he suddenly understood the meaning of the phrase, "Man cannot live by bread alone."

Gittleman also discussed the "ultimate goal of ha'motzi," the prayer over bread.

"When I can slow down and say motzi with real intention, and appreciate what I'm eating, and make that a religious experience, and not just a consumptive experience, I feel like I'm a better person," he said.

"It not only leads me to appreciate my place in the world, but also leads me to be more responsible in the way I am in the world. That's the ultimate goal of bread and Torah, and their connection — that we can transform ourselves and the world around us."