Ear­li­er this weekLev­ana Kirschen­baum blogged about domes­tic dis­putes and gourmet food and Span­ish choco­late-chip cook­ies. She has been blog­ging all week for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ings Vis­it­ing Scribe.

As a lan­guage enthu­si­ast I have often deplored the fact that lan­guages, against all wish­es, are not con­ta­gious or trans­mis­si­ble by any means. In the absence of some reli­able for­mal base, except for some lan­guage genius­es there is rarely ever a way to just pick up” a lan­guage, in the streets as it were, and I have often not­ed with some dis­may that Ara­bic and French, in which I con­duct many con­ver­sa­tions with my rel­a­tives in my hus­band and children’s pres­ence, remain hope­less­ly impen­e­tra­ble to them.

When I arrived in New York almost forty years ago, I set­tled in Wash­ing­ton Heights. To my mother’s ques­tion, Are you at least learn­ing a lit­tle Eng­lish?” I remem­ber reply­ing, with­out any sar­casm, Non, Maman. In New York no one speaks Eng­lish. They only speak Span­ish, and I am not learn­ing that either!” Almost noth­ing has changed in the Heights!

In my long years as a restau­ra­teur and cater­er, there was no miss­ing the fact that an over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of kitchen employ­ees speak Span­ish, and Span­ish only. We would step up the body lan­guage in cre­ative and often com­i­cal ways to com­mu­ni­cate our wish­es to our crew. But some­times even that proved not to be enough. Like the day Del­fi­na, a shy new girl, start­ed work­ing with us, mov­ing very slow­ly. I asked Flo­ra, who worked with me both in my kitchen and at my house, and who was some­what bilin­gual, to inter­pret for me. Explain to Del­fi­na,” I start­ed, the impor­tance of work­ing as a team, at a brisk pace, so no one is forced to pick up the slack, etc….”

The bewil­der­ing trans­la­tion of my lit­tle speech was a bru­tal jab in poor Delfina’s ribs, and a sin­gle word deliv­ered in a bark: Avan­za!”

That was the day I decid­ed to reg­is­ter for a ten-hour basic Span­ish course, just so I could give my own orders in my own kitchen in my own per­son­al style, thank you very much! Oh I wasn’t ter­ri­bly ambi­tious, and to this day I serve all my Span­ish verbs total­ly un-declined: Nature, as we say in French. I remem­ber our love­ly and very preg­nant Span­ishteacher, Martha, ecsta­t­i­cal­ly point­ing to her bel­ly for a vir­tu­al intro­duc­tion to named and unborn baby Maya, still in her mater­nal wrap­pings. On the last Span­ish class day, I brought a home­made apple cake (which I had smug­ly labeled Tor­ta de Man­zana”) and a tap­ing of the won­der­ful Hebrew lul­la­by song Maya,” which we played over our farewell break­fast. We watched Pro­fe­so­ra Martha go to pieces. I asked her jok­ing­ly why Flo­ra (bet­ter known as Foya” to my tiny son Yakov who was crazy about her: I can still see him rolling up her shirt sleeve to plant wet kiss­es on a choice plump spot on her arm) always said Djako, care­ful when you open the yar of pickles!”

Why couldn’t Yakov just open the jar of pick­les? Or why she always said to lit­tle Bel­la before she left for school, Bel­li­ta mi amor, habe a good tine!” why not just have a good time? That made Martha burst out laugh­ing through her joy­ful tears. Flo­ra and I were quite a team, at work and at home. One day when the hot water sup­ply was cut off for boil­er repairs, she urged me Oy Labana, Dio Mio, don’t inbent no more new dish­es today cuz we don’t got no hot water no more!!! Claro patrona?”

Claro Flori­ta!

Here is my Flo­ra-inspired recipe for black bean soup.

Quick Black Bean Choco­late Soup Recipe



1/3 cup olive oil
1 large onion, quar­tered
4 large cloves gar­lic
4 ribs cel­ery, peeled and cut in thirds
1 large red pep­per, seed­ed and quar­tered
1 bunch flat pars­ley, stems and all
1/2 small bunch cilantro, stems cut off
6 cups good qual­i­ty canned black beans (2 large cans), drained and rinsed
1/2 cup toma­to paste
2 cups dry red wine
3 table­spoons bot­tled hot sauce
6 bay leaves, or 1 tea­spoon ground
3 quarts (12 cups) water
2/3 cup grat­ed semi­sweet choco­late or choco­late chips
1 table­spoon ground cumin
1 table­spoon oregano


Heat the oil in a heavy pot. Make the sofrito: In a food proces­sor, coarse­ly grind the onion, gar­lic, cel­ery, pep­per, pars­ley and cilantro. Add ground mix­ture to the hot oil, and sauté until translu­cent. Add the beans, toma­to paste, wine, hot sauce, bay leaves and water, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medi­um and cook 30 min­utes. Add the choco­late, cumin and oregano and cook for 15 min­utes more. Adjust tex­ture and sea­son­ings. Serve hot. Makes a dozen servings.

Lévana Kirschen­baum has been blog­ging for MyJew­ish­Learn­ing and the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. Her most recent book,The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen: Glo­ri­ous Meals Pure and Sim­plewill be avail­able lat­er this month.