Toby Klein Greenwald
“Kosher Queen” Jamie Geller, a Philadelphia native, is taking on a new challenge. The author of seven bestselling cookbooks and the founder and CEO of Kosher Network International, Geller is partnering with Aish Global to create a new media network.
The partnership was announced on Chanukah during a live candlelighting ceremony and concert viewed by over 100,000 people at the Aish World Center across from the Kotel.
Geller — whose personality-driven KNi, the parent company of jamiegeller.com and @jewlishbyjamie, draws millions of followers through a strong social media presence with thousands of recipes and viral how-to videos — attributes much of her success to her Philadelphia upbringing.
“I have such gratitude for my Philly background. There were so many successes that came out of it,” she said. “I grew up in a very healthy, robust, well-attended Conservative synagogue — ‘AJ,’ Adath Jeshurun.”
Geller went to Solomon Schechter Day School in Elkins Park, and then to Akiba Hebrew Academy (now Barrack Hebrew Academy).
“I had a strong background in [Jewish] education, and Zionism was preached and adopted there; there was a huge love for Israel.”
After attending New York University, Geller worked at CNN and HBO.
“I was on the sets of TV shows, on film sets, met celebrities,” she said. “My mother was so nervous that after everything she did — sending me to a Jewish school and shul and Camp Ramah in the Poconos my whole Jewish life — I would meet a non-Jewish guy.”
She needn’t have worried.
“I went to singles events run by Rebbetzin [Esther] Jungreis and to the Aish New York Monday parsha class, where they would try to make the parshahs relevant to your life,” she recalled. “I loved it and it moved me, and I went to an Aish Discovery Shabbaton, and it was 20 years to this year, on Parshat Miketz, that I decided I wanted to become shomer Shabbos. I knew all the davening, so I was comfortable in Hebrew, from school.”
After a decade-long career as an award-winning TV producer and marketing executive, Geller’s second career as celebrity chef was somewhat unexpected — especially given that before she was married, she used her oven in Manhattan for storage.
“We were newlyweds and my husband said, ‘What’s for dinner?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know. You tell me!”’ Geller said. “My grandparents on both sides were amazing chefs. One was a proprietor of his own unbelievable restaurant in Chestnut Hill.
My grandmother had a natural gift. On the other side, my grandfather was a butcher in Allentown and a tremendous cook; they called him ‘Chefu,’ not ‘Dad,’ which means ‘chef’ in Romanian. My parents emigrated from Transylvania to Pennsylvania in 1964.
“Then my husband taught me how to cook. He’s a dream, he worked in catering, his whole family cooked. To this day, he’s my sous chef.”
While she was on maternity leave from HBO, Geller wrote a cookbook at her husband’s urging. “It became an autobiography — how I married, made mistakes in the kitchen — and I needed recipes, so I wrote those after I wrote the book.”
That book was “Quick & Kosher — Recipes From the Bride Who Knew Nothing.”
“I had called a Jewish publisher but they declined a meeting with me because they were already committed to a different cookbook author, so I called Feldheim Publishers and said, ‘I’m a producer at HBO, can I have a meeting?’ and I got it. They printed 10,000 copies and they sold out in a few weeks. It’s now in its seventh printing, and has been translated to Hebrew.”
Now, many books and 1 billion video views later, Geller is known for being able to connect with a Jewish audience — which is precisely why Aish Global pulled her in and made her their chief media and marketing officer. The goal of the partnership, over the next 10 years, is to connect 3 million Jews around the world to their Jewish identity “through cutting-edge, quality, professional and commercially viable Jewish entertainment and edutainment,” Geller said. “The programs will be stratified — covering a diverse range of topics.” The visionary and architect of the plan, said Geller, was Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits, the rosh yeshiva of the Aish HaTorah Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
Gladwyne philanthropist David Magerman, the founder of the Kohelet Foundation, is a longtime investor in KNi. As a proponent of kashrut — he’s the owner of the kosher restaurants Zagafen and Citron & Rose Tavern — he’s excited about Geller’s potential to spread the word.
“I’m thrilled that she is partnering with Aish Global to continue promoting the kosher lifestyle,” said Magerman. “I can’t think of a better ambassador for kashrut than Jamie to represent the message of the beauty, simplicity and healthfulness of kashrut.”
Of course, keeping kosher will be just one part of Geller’s message with Aish Global.
“We hope to reach Jews who are so far living without any Judaism in their lives. Maybe they’re Jewish by birth, maybe they identify, maybe not,” Geller explained. “We see the enthusiasm for the [Netflix series] ‘Unorthodox,’ which wasn’t ‘sold’ to Jewish audiences. It all starts with quality content. … People will come if the content is compelling, creative and entertaining.”
Geller knows a bit about compelling content. Before she started KNi, Geller worked on some big hits, including “Sex in the City” and “The Sopranos.”
“Regarding ‘Sex in the City,’ I was a single girl living in Manhattan. It certainly wasn’t my life, but it spoke to so many, it had its finger on the pulse of culture and society and I think there was value for the culture in the society at that time. I learned a lot from that experience.”
Working on those projects gave her insight that she’d use later.
“When I became religious, I was crying, wondering, ‘Why did I waste 10 years of my life? How would this be relevant to me now?’ But it has been the most relevant professional experience, for everything I have done. That career and specific professional experience and expertise has opened every single door.”
Now, the Gellers don’t even have a TV in their home. “But I do keep my ear to the ground and make sure that I’m informed and watch elements of whatever is trending in streaming programming,” Geller said. “I often go outside of the Jewish world to my network of contacts when it comes to production and marketing.”
She will surely do some of that in her new role with Aish. The organization is looking forward to having Geller onboard.
“This is an initiative for and by the Jewish people,” Aish CEO Rabbi Steven Burg said. This isn’t about building up Aish. This is about building and improving the world.”
Toby Klein Greenwald is an award-winning journalist, theater director and editor-in-chief of WholeFamily.com.