by Pam Rogow
Raised in four countries, Ronit Treatman knew early on that Ashkenazi, the dominant Jewish branch (Eastern European) in the U.S., was not the only cultural stream of Judaism to tap into. Now living in Germantown, Ronit, 45, is the publisher and food editor of the Philadelphia-based Jewish Voice, an online-only publication that attracts about 10,000 hits a month and has an international following, mostly among 18-35 year olds. (Visit blog.pjvoice.com) “We attract citizen journalists,” she explained. It’s a full-time and fully unpaid job that she loves.
Twice this month, Ronit will be in Chestnut Hill to present High Holiday foods from Sephardic communities. On Thursdays, Aug 15 and Aug 22, 3 to 6 p.m., at the Chestnut Hill branch of the Co-op, 8424 Germantown Ave., she and Weavers Way Executive Chef Bonnie Shuman will offer samples of foods that people can create at home or order from the Co-op for the High Holidays.
Born in Israel to a diplomat father of Bukharian parentage (from Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), Ronit spent several years in Ethiopia and then moved with her parents and two siblings to Venezuela for 12 years. Her mother’s family were Polish Jews.
In 1973, at age 18, she returned to Israel to volunteer to fight in the war of 1973, although it was not required of her. She saw combat for two years, then enrolled at Hebrew University, leaning toward international business.
Her family had remained in Venezuela while conditions there deteriorated, “even before (Hugo) Chavez came to power. It is one of those countries where the President can suspend habeus corpus and the basic rights otherwise guaranteed in their Constitution … ”
Pursuing a business opportunity, her father came to the U.S., and Ronit followed, enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania. At a campus Hillel (Jewish fraternal organization) party for Hebrew speakers, she met her future husband, Howard Treatman. Life unfolds: She gave up her plan to move back to Israel. She and Howard today have three children, now 18, 15 and 12.
Ronit is also the president of the Jewish Voice. “We put the ‘non’ in nonprofit, have volunteer writers and are almost completely funded by donations from readers,” she explained. The publication has about 5,000 visitors per month, plus active Facebook and Twitter accounts. It was founded by mathematician Dan Loeb in 2006.
“The Jewish Exponent is affiliated with the Jewish Federation. Five years ago, it had a right-wing editor,” she said. “Now they are very balanced, and the differences between us are less.”
Ronit also supported her husband’s campaign for City Council two years ago. Howard, a real estate developer, is also a former president of the Germantown Jewish Center. “There was no overlap between how my husband practiced Judaism and how we did. My family [of origin] wasn’t religious. It’s different in Venezuela; there was no Hebrew School. We were secular, but here I realized that I needed what Jewish institutions offered to support me.
“In Venezuela, it was insular. Almost all the synagogues were Orthodox, and the only divide was Sephardic (of Spanish, Portuguese or Mediterranean origin) and Ashkenazi. 50, 50. There was more diversity than in Philadelphia, however. There were Jewish sports, special stores and less intermarriage, which was thought to be incredibly shameful, not just a stain on the newlywed but the family.”
A stay-at-home mom for many years, Ronit felt early on that she was ill-equipped to teach her children about Judaism. “I began to develop creative ways to share the rich traditions of Jewish life. My girls and son all learned Talmud. No girl learned Talmud before in my family. Now I feel badly for Jewish kids who don’t have this.
“So I started a ‘Hands-on Jewish Holiday’ project where we made olive oil, for example. I found an organic olive farmer in California, and I had to convince him not to worry about the ‘standards’ of the olives we wanted because we wouldn’t be heating it. We had the olives flown in, and we pressed them. When the kids realized how much work it was just to make a tablespoon of olive oil that we could burn, suddenly the ‘miracle of the eight days of Hanukah’ made more sense.” That the oil in the story lasted long enough to sustain the Jews (Maccabees) hidden in caves and at a critical moment in the fight against Greek Hellenism is the crux of the story.
Among Ronit’s friends was one who raised Nubian goats and loaned several so that she could teach about Shavuout, a harvest holiday that also celebrates the anniversary that God gave the Torah to the Jews at Mt. Sinai. “There were no cows in biblical times,” she explained. About 150 people showed up for the event, which was held at the Germantown Jewish Center nursery school.
Ronit also led older students to build a biblical oven with cinder blocks. “Then we brought in wheat berries, so we could grind its flowers. We experienced the hard work of being a biblical Jew.” She laughs at the memory. “The surliest of the teenagers, without being asked, helped with fire. He learned to use the chimney and natural wood charcoal. Of course, what did they burn back then? Goat poop.”
Encouraged by her son, Ronit started HandsonJewishholidays.com several years ago. “I’m surprised about who goes to it,” said Ronit. “Jewish families with young kids, looking for stimulating ways to learn about holidays. Even homeschoolers. And inter-married couples … and African Americans, too. There is no accounting for who is speaking Hebrew.”
One day, her friend Dan Loeb asked Ronit to write about the many varieties of charoset for the Jewish Voice. “Charoset is the fruit and nut paste that may or may not have cinnamon, honey and other ingredients. After a year, they invited me at the Jewish Voice to be the food editor … and later, publisher.”
Her own family tends to eat Mediterranean style, largely vegetables and fruits. More than cooking, she likes the research, learning where foods came from. “Jews have been so diverse, living all over the world. It’s so cool to explore the different traditions … more than Ashkenazi … and bring in new flavors and ingredients. I love to try a restaurant to find out how the pros do things … And we even have vegetarians who also want to honor traditions. In my synagogue, for example, they make a yam shank for Passover.
“There is a need for ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ because there is a breakdown of community. People don’t have anyone to tell you how to do (ancient traditions) anymore. I am blessed that I have the opportunity to give something good to other people. If I can send out a little spark of light, the love of these traditions, that’s meaningful to me.”
More information about the Weavers Way food sample events at 215-866-9150 or www.weaversway.coop.