When my maternal grandmother wants to make a point, she uses Yiddish. The ‘mother tongue’ of Ashkenazi Jews, originating in the Rhineland (today, part of Germany) around the 10th century, Yiddish has been passed down through generations. For those of us who aren’t Orthodox and speaking it as a first or second language, it always seems to hit the nail on the head when the moment calls for an expression that says it all. Especially when you get all hot and bothered about other people’s business like my Nanny, bless her heart. The behavior of that mother with her screaming child at Publix? Gevalt! The nerve of that rude man who took the last parking spot in front of the beauty parlor? The chutzpeh!
I vividly remember hearing the Yiddish term mentsh in elementary school. Our Principal would give out a mentsh award at school assemblies. It was an award everyone wanted and few received. How cool to be recognized in front of the entire school for being a decent and righteous person? Like those of us who participated in ‘school patrol,’ helping younger students cross the street safely, mentshes were role models. It was a big deal to us back then, as it should have been, and the message still resonates now.
Mentsh is the word that came to mind when Chef Michelle Bernstein told me she was involved with a program called Common Threads, founding its South Florida chapter. Because it’s not often that people in the public eye take this kind of initiative to give back to those less fortunate with genuine feeling. And especially without desire for acknowledgment. At yesterday’s inaugural cooking class at Johnson & Wales University, I couldn’t help but notice (given my background in Public Relations) that there weren’t any cameramen from all four TV affiliates. Nor were there reporters with photographers from the local papers. If Chef Michelle had wanted it, she could have had it that way. But instead, she surrounded herself with an extended family to lend a helping hand, with nothing to detract from her first time with the people in the room who needed her undivided attention. The kids.
I spoke with Melissa Cala, assistant to the Chef and program coordinator here in South Florida, who explained that Common Threads aims to educate children on the importance of nutrition and physical well-being, and to foster an appreciation of cultural diversity through cooking. Headquartered in Chicago and with a growing presence in Los Angeles, the young organization was founded in 2004 and is the vision of Art Smith, who you may recognize as Oprah’s former personal chef and now chef/owner of Table 52 in the Windy City. According to its website, Common Threads currently serves nearly 1,000 children, ages eight to 12, and is supported by a very long list of celebrity chefs that participate in fundraising events and teach classes throughout the year in the active markets.
The first South Florida winter/spring session is receiving kids from William Jennings Bryan, a title one school nearby to Johnson & Wales. The University’s North Miami Campus is the host site for classes and a partner in the local program. Like yesterday, the same 16 students (each with free or reduced school lunches, making them the ideal income demographic to participate) will arrive by bus on Mondays afterschool for the next 12 weeks. Each class will cover a region or country and will feature ingredients sourced from local farms, as the Chef does at her Miami restaurants, Michy’s and Sra. Martinez.