Aspiring Jew blends his tea and heritage

How do you like your tea?

At Black Pearl in Palo Alto, the drink special of the day is always tea, but it can be orange-pineapple milk tea blended with ice and strawberry ice cream. This cafe serves pearl milk tea, a cold drink that contains "pearls" of black tapioca. Invented in Taiwan in the early '80s, the chewable beverage is hugely popular among Asian communities in the United States.

"It's not just a drink — it's an experience," says Alex Rosten, the 24-year-old proprietor of Black Pearl on California Avenue.

Rosten would seem to be an ideal person to bring this import to a broader audience. Half-Asian, half-Jewish, Rosten is a cultural crossover himself — and clearly has energy to spare.

On a recent afternoon, Rosten was taking orders and making frothy pink, purple and green drinks for a line of customers, while calmly fielding questions from a health inspector paying a surprise visit. The grandson of Leo Rosten (the celebrated author of "The Joys of Yiddish") has spiked, bleached hair and drives a "rice rocket" — a blue Nissan Maxima that has been lowered and outfitted with a DVD player and three TV screens. He is also in the process of formally converting to Judaism.

"I get a kick out of it," says Rosten, when asked about juggling these various identities. "It's American — it's the melting pot. I'm not trying to be different for the sake of being different, but this is me."

Growing up, Rosten had a fairly mainstream upbringing in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood of West Los Angeles.

His father was a non-practicing Jew, and his mother was Cantonese, but from a family who had been in California for several generations. "We ate rice with forks, and we didn't take our shoes off inside the house," as he describes it.

He has fond memories of his grandfather, who was "a great storyteller" with a penchant for exaggerating and elaborating about almost anything. But Leo Rosten lived in New York, and the family didn't see him that often.

It wasn't until his college years at Stanford that Rosten connected with a large Asian community. He joined an Asian American fraternity, where he was introduced to such icons of that culture as rice rockets and pearl milk tea. During those years, he was also dealing with the death of his father, who succumbed to lung cancer right before his son's freshman year.

"When he died, a couple of people I knew tried to console me," says Rosten. "But I thought, if there was a God, why would he take my dad? I basically renounced religion as a a bunch of hooey."

More recently, however, Rosten has found a way to reconnect with his father's side of the family. After the events of Sept. 11, he was inspired to search for a religious faith — but one that wasn't about "a white man with a beard on a throne dictating our lives," he says. A cousin put him in touch with the Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

"I think being Jewish is really unique, because it's both a religion and a culture that have sustained people who have been nomads for years," says Rosten, who calls himself an "aspiring Jew," and plans on taking classes in order to formally convert.

"I've been impressed by the depth of his interest," says Beth Am Rabbi Janet Marder. "He's living the extraordinarily busy life of a young entrepreneur, and he's still found time to meet with me. I think we're both looking forward to a time when he can put more focus on his spiritual development and reclaiming his Jewish heritage."

But for the time being, Rosten's plate is full as he tries to get Black Pearl in the black. Catering to students and the under-21 crowd, the cafe is open until 1 a.m. on weeknights and 2 a.m. on weekends. The fledgling business requires grueling 80- to 100-hour weeks, where he is "manager, mailboy, mascot and everything else."

"Having a religion in your life helps you keep things in perspective," says Rosten. "It's given me peace of mind, and helped me accept things that are out of my control."

One thing that Rosten can't control is the crippled economy, which has cut foot traffic in the area — a secondary "downtown" about a mile and a half south of Palo Alto's main drag. But the cafe continues to find loyal customers.

"This is a nice, friendly place," says Aja Mathews, 12, looking with approval at the Xbox game machine in the corner and the black leather couches. She was in the store one recent afternoon with her mother, sharing a mango tea with pearls. "I'm definitely coming back."