Rabbi Yosef Levin of Chabad of Greater South Bay doing his online cooking class. (Photo/Dena Levin)
Rabbi Yosef Levin of Chabad of Greater South Bay doing his online cooking class. (Photo/Dena Levin)

Rabbi’s online cooking classes served with a side of Yiddishkeit

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Not many online cooking classes start with a plea to give tzedakah. But then, not many online cooking classes are taught by a Chabad rabbi.

Rabbi Yosef Levin, director of Chabad of the Greater South Bay, is the latest to jump into this now-crowded field. He asks those watching his class not only to give tzedakah, but to do so several times a day, just as we now must wash our hands numerous times a day. Giving charity also brings blessing upon the food, he says.

Levin has a professional chef give him step-by-step instructions, as he is not a professional chef himself — and he sees that as a point of pride.

“I want to show others that they don’t need to be either to make great-tasting food,” he said.

On April 21, Levin debuted his series with shakshuka (a stewed tomato and egg dish brought to Israel by Tunisian or Yemenite immigrants), while his friend and congregant Shimon Abrahami, who was a restaurateur in Israel before coming to the U.S., talked him through it from his home in Redwood City.

The April 28 episode featured guest Margarita Peretz, who with her husband, Meni, owns the glatt kosher company Yes Catering. She taught Levin how to make arroz con pollo y platanos, a classic Dominican dish of chicken with rice and plantains.

Levin is planning to use the same format in each episode, with a guest sharing a favorite recipe and then instructing Levin on how to make it. Viewers can buy the ingredients in advance and cook along with Levin if they wish.

Levin said several Jewish sources stress the importance of food and cooking. In the Bible, Abraham and Sarah always offered food to guests as a sign of hospitality, and the idea that communal eating and drinking brings people closer together comes directly from the Talmud.

Levin also has had personal experiences connecting him to food and cooking, starting when he was a child in England. He remembers his family hosting many guests, who upon arrival were immediately offered something to eat and drink.

Later, when the family moved to France, Levin’s mother catered meals for schools and his father opened a butcher shop, where Levin helped out. And when he was at yeshiva, he and a few other students who knew about food were chosen to work as mashgichim (kosher certifiers). They often stepped in to help cook, too.

In the 1980s, when his wife was pregnant with twins, she couldn’t stand the smell of food for much of her pregnancy. The couple talked it over and didn’t want to stop having guests for Shabbos dinner, which is one of the essential functions of a Chabad house. So Levin took on all the cooking duties himself.

“On Thursday nights, she’d go to bed, and from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. I’d cook myself and wash dishes and clean from 3 to 4 a.m.,” he said. “I was doing a full Shabbos dinner for many guests every single week.”

Levin and his wife have 13 children and were empty nesters until their 17-year-old son was sent home from yeshiva in France due to the coronavirus. “My life is dedicated to teaching Torah and social services and raising my family,” Levin said. Professionally, “food is not a big part of my life.” However, cooking is something that he enjoys. “I use it very much as a relief. I like to encourage hospitality and bring people closer. I’ve always loved the creativity of cooking. You get into the kitchen and take some ingredients and turn it into something. It’s like a work of art.”

Levin’s assistant, who runs Zoom for him remotely while the rabbi cooks, suggested that he set up two cameras — the one on his laptop and one on his phone — so viewers could watch from two different angles, which gives the show a bit more of a professional look.

But any other attempts to try and professionalize his operation will most likely be rejected. He himself likes to “pochke” (play) in the kitchen — experimenting, adding a bit of this, a bit of that, and not doing things the same way twice. When his sister recommended that he chop ingredients in advance, he said no, he wanted to make the food in real time.

Levin allows viewers to unmute themselves at will, interrupt and ask questions or offer comments, leading to some unintentionally funny unscripted moments. When Abrahami suggested swapping fish for the eggs in the shakshuka, a viewer weighed in, sounding aghast: “Fish? In the shakshuka? That’s terrible, it will make gas!”

The result is totally haimish; Levin’s interest in his guest and that person’s story is genuine, and their banter is part of the fun. Levin intends to keep inviting kosher chefs from the Bay Area, and sometimes further afield. The May 5 guest chef will be Wendy Kleckner, a kosher catering consultant who ran Too Caterers for almost two decades. She will be teaching Levin how to make her famous lima bean hummus.

Look for him on Facebook Live on the Chabad of Greater South Bay Facebook page at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays.

Wendy Kleckner’s Lima Bean Hummus

Makes 4 Cups

  • 2 (10 oz.) packages frozen baby lima beans
  • 5 garlic cloves, smashed with side of a large knife
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 cups water
  • ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • ½ cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 3 Tbs. tahini
  • 4 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
  • 5 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • Can be served with toasted herbed pita crisps, sesame won ton crisps or your chip of choice.

Simmer beans, garlic, salt and water in a 3-quart saucepan, covered, until beans are tender, about 8 minutes. Stir in cilantro and parsley and let stand, uncovered, 5 minutes.

Drain bean mixture in a sieve and transfer to a food processor. Now add the cumin, 4 Tbs. lemon juice, 5 Tbs. olive oil, 3 Tbs. tahini and purée until smooth. You will most likely need to scrape down sides of the bowl a couple of times during the puréeing. Taste and see if the mixture needs more salt or possibly pepper and maybe more lemon juice. Also you might want to add another tablespoon of tahini.

Place in your serving dish and drizzle with a little olive oil.

If made ahead of serving time, this spread can be covered and chilled for up to 3 days. Best served at room temperature.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."