Making the cut

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The people have spoken … and eaten and shopped and dated and davened. Finally, after weeks of counting votes, the results are in for j.’s first Best of the Jewish Bay Area readers’ poll. Some of those results surprised us, some delighted us, and some cracked us up.

But most of all, we were impressed with the approximately 1,300 ballots cast and the thought our readers put into this. We thank you — as do all our winners. We hope you find it as playful and had as much fun participating as we did making it up.

Everyone knows the Bay Area is a crown jewel in the American landscape. It’s likely that whatever you want, you can get it somewhere in the region. With so many options in so many categories (about 120 on the ballot), it couldn’t have been easy to pick winners. But pick ’em you did.

A few winners seemed preordained to take first place: Hadassah for best women’s organization, Chez Panisse for best California cuisine, Traveling Jewish Theater for, er, best Jewish theater. All overwhelming favorites.

Others were tough — and very close — calls. How does one chose between Scharffen Berger and Joseph Schmidt for best chocolate? One cannot, so one must consume mass quantities of both to decide. And then hastily plan a visit to the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, which won for best health club.

You want to talk about difficulty? Try picking the best JCC. Between San Francisco, Marin, the East Bay and the Peninsula, the Bay Area boasts what may be the top collection of JCC complexes anywhere. All winners, no losers here. Naturally, the vote was neck and neck.

As for best rabbi and best cantor categories — two more toughies. Doesn’t everyone think his or her rabbi and cantor are tops? This is a case where the phrase “God only knows” may truly apply. The Bay Area arguably has the finest clergy of any comparable region in the country, and there may be no objective way to choose winners (first place for the best cantor category, in fact, ended in a tie). But we let the votes decide anyway.

A similar pitfall pertained to deciding among Northern California’s superb Jewish camps, day schools and Judaica shops. So we ask that the results be taken with a bissel of salt.

Actually, many of our categories had to do with food. For cuisines such as Thai, Ethiopian, Japanese and Indian, diners will always cling to their personal favorites. There’s simply no unbiased metric for assessing lamb vindaloo or pad Thai noodles. But for Jewish foods, from brisket to chopped liver to chicken soup, more than a few voters voted for themselves. Everybody, of course, is an expert.

Some Los Angeles and New York partisans expectedly claimed that the best Jewish delicacies could not be found in the Bay Area, but only in those cities. We think Saul’s Deli (winner: best deli, brisket and chopped liver), Bar Ristorante Raphael (winner: best kosher restaurant, best kosher caterer, and four other categories) and Oakland’s Grand Bakery (winner: best bakery, challah, latkes and rugelach) would beg to differ.

We also received some rather amusing line-item commentary (we Jews do like to express ourselves). For best fast food, one reader said, “No such thing.”

In the best hangout category, the spectrum of responses proved deep and wide, from Borders Books to Peet’s Coffee to Tilden Park. Similarly with the best first date category, there was no consensus. Shabbat dinner, hiking on Mt. Tamalpais or strolling through Golden Gate Park, even the airport all got a vote or two.

Yet another date-desperate voter wrote: “Please tell me.”

For the best Jewish lectures category, one reader suggested: “Your mom or dad.” In the best mohel category, another offered: “The one that makes it hurt the least.”

Then there were the non-Jews that inexplicably drew votes. Best Jewish actress? Shannon Doherty was one person’s choice. Madonna, another’s. Best Jewish filmmaker? Someone chose Akira Kurosawa. Best Jewish politician? Al Gore, Gavin Newsom and Barbara Lee all scored a few votes, too.

Welcome to the tribe, guys.

Some of the most interesting entries (and psychologically revealing) were in the “What did we leave out?” section. This being our first poll, we were (and are) open to suggestion. And some of your new categories make perfect sense: Best Jewish library. Best wedding invitations.

Then again, others raised a few eyebrows. Best Jewish sex therapist? Best mattress? Best husband?

Best Jewish newspaper? Puleeeeze!

But hey, we loved it all (even the idea of correcting our mistakes next year). That’s what makes this thing fun. And we want more input and ideas from you the readers. What did you like about the poll? Perhaps more important, what didn’t work for you? Please send us a letter to the editor ( [email protected] ).

J. learned a lot from this maiden effort, and we promise that next year’s poll will be better. But for now, enjoy your results. Maybe you’ll discover some fabulous new restaurant not too far from your home, or perhaps you can check out services at one of the synagogues or businesses recognized here.

Come to think of it, it would be a good idea for j. readers to patronize all the winners, not just the champions. And you might just tell ’em you love the j. plaques we expect those winners will install prominently on their walls.

Whatever you do with this poll, we hope it serves to bring the Bay Area Jewish community closer together. Sound good to you? Let’s take a poll on it.

The Best of the Jewish Bay Area 2005