South Philly’s Hippest Bakery Has a Yiddish Name

Opening a Jewish bakery with a Yiddish name in an Italian neighborhood sounds crazy, but it didn’t take long before Essen had a line of regular customers lining up for its fresh-baked challah on Fridays.

Tova du Plessis opened Essen, which means “to eat,” in South Philadelphia in April 2016 after stints as a pastry chef at some of this city’s top restaurants.

She set up shop on East Passyunk Avenue, a once-blue collar stretch that has undergone a food renaissance in recent years. These days, you can find Filipino, Nordic and French restaurants from top chefs alongside old-school red-sauce eateries like Marra’s, which has been in business since the 1930s. Intimate and cozy — there are just three small tables inside — Essen brings a Jewish, Eastern European accent to the avenue.

Essen means “to eat” in Yiddish. (Ellen Scolnic)

Jewish foods are having something of a renaissance across the United States, particularly in Philadelphia. Eateries from Zak the Baker in Miami to Shelsky’s of Brooklyn to Wexler’s Deli in Los Angeles are turning out fresh, modern takes on Jewish classics, with everything from pickles to gefilte fish receiving the “artisanal” treatment.

Here in the City of Brotherly Love, Michael Solomonov, the inventive chef behind Zahav, the Israeli restaurant often credited for popularizing Sephardic-style food in America, and Abe Fisher, a restaurant focusing on Ashkenazi food (among others), is something of a celebrity, having been awarded the foodie equivalent of an Oscar.

As for Essen in East Passyunk, “It was an odd location for a Jewish bakery, but I live nearby and I was excited to be a part of the neighborhood scene,” du Plessis told JTA. Many of her customers, she added, aren’t Jewish.

Among them is Cathy Frisoli, a lifelong resident of South Philly.

“I only knew about babka from ‘Seinfeld’ — the episode where he has to have a chocolate one,” she said. “So the morning of my husband’s birthday, I woke up early and went to Essen to get a babka before they sold out. I took it to our family celebration and all the aunts and uncles really loved it. For us it was a nice change from cannolis. Now I buy Essen’s babka all the time.”

Essen’s famous babka

Du Plessis, 32, grew up in a kosher home in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she enjoyed helping her mother make traditional Askenazi foods like gefilte fish, potato kugel and chicken soup every week for Shabbat. Her mother always put her in charge of dessert.

“She made it my job,” du Plessis said, noting that now, as a professional baker, “I look back and realize that she nurtured that.”

Du Plessis moved to the United States for college, earned a degree in biology from the University of Houston and was on the path to becoming a doctor. Baking was just a hobby until she spent a few days in Paris and found herself walking into every bakery she passed.

“I visited two or three bakeries every day,” she said. “I never had pastries like that in my life. I was drawn to the desserts.”

So du Plessis switched gears and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Northern California’s Napa Valley to pursue a degree in baking and pastry arts. 

“It takes a different kind of person to be on the baking and pastry side,” she said. “It’s much more exact than the culinary arts.”

It was there that du Plessis first met Solomonov.

“His food was phenomenal and I was intrigued by Zahav,” she said. “I was amazed that there was an Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia – not kosher and not marketed just to the Jewish community – that was doing so well.”

Solomonov invited du Plessis to intern at Zahav, where she worked as a line cook, and later hired her to open a kosher restaurant, Citron and Rose, in the Philadelphia suburbs (it has since closed).

“I was excited about the project,” she said. “We were reviving Old World cuisine but making it modern. Michael inspires me,” she added. “He’s embracing his heritage and not really feeling embarrassed by it. Kugel and chopped liver aren’t high end, but foods with that much memory attached to them are special – and you can put your modern stamp on it.”

Similarly, now in her own kitchen, du Plessis enjoys tinkering with recipes, especially those for bread. “You can make little tweaks in the mixing, proofing, shaping and baking and come out with a very different product,” she said. “Every culture has its bread. There’s Indian naan and Middle Eastern pita. For Jews it’s challah.”

The challah of du Plessis’ childhood, however, was big, round and filled with raisins, which she didn’t like. She remembers being annoyed at having to pick each one out, so it’s no surprise that she has updated her mother’s recipe.

“I spent a lot of time working on it to get it where I wanted,” she said. “At Essen, I actually use honey in my challah, which gives it a way better flavor.”

The challah at Essen comes in several varieties. (Ellen Scolnic)

Du Plessis also makes more savory varieties: one crusted with poppy, sesame and pumpkin seeds, and another topped with zaatar, a blend of Middle Eastern spices and salt.

Whether sweet or salty, du Plessis emphasizes that Jewish food connects Jews to their traditions. “Food has an emotional component,” she said. “It plays a huge role in keeping people engaged and involved, and helps us retain our Jewish identity.”

Seeing as she owns a heimische bakery that turns out treats like danish and rugelach, it’s probably no surprise that du Plessis’ most beloved Jewish foods are the desserts of her childhood. Her mother only baked babka for special occasions — du Plessis makes it every day in her bakery. Her chocolate halva babka has earned the highest praise; it’s a delicious example of how she has updated a classic.

Of course, with training anchored in French technique, du Plessis couldn’t have a bakery that did not sell croissants. Along with the traditional version, she makes one spiced with zaatar.

“I wanted the bakery to represent me – of course it has to have a Jewish slant – and to make products I really love,” she said. “I’m not a purist; I’m not trying to make old Jewish recipes. I see them more as inspiration, as a jumping-off point.”


We’re happy to share this story  we wrote about Tova du Plessis, the owner and baker at Essen  Bakery. It was published 10/27 by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the syndicate that provides copy for Jewish newspapers nationwide. So hopefully, Tova will be getting some phone orders from across the country! 


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Not Your Bubbe’s Honey Cake

Are you thinking about Rosh Hashanah and what to cook? We were –and we got thinking about why Jewish apple cake is so much more popular than the spicy, dry loaves of honey cake. We did some reporting and interviewed two Jewish bakers who have delicious versions of the holiday staple and we’re thrilled that our article was published today, September 14, in the Food section of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Here’s the article:

As we get ready for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year which begins Wednesday evening, Sept. 20 this year, our first priority is to entice our kids to come home.
“What can we cook for you?” we ask. Brisket. Aunt Jill’s noodle kugel. Jewish apple cake. Challah (no raisins, please), they tell us. No one ever asks for honey cake.
We’re not surprised. As we walk through the supermarket filling our shopping cart for the holiday, we spy the loaves of commercially baked honey cake, hermetically sealed in plastic, stacked high on the counter. These are the dry honey cakes we grew up with; the ones our mothers bought.

Honey cake has a place of honor on the Rosh Hashanah table because honey does: It symbolizes wishes for a sweet new year. Perhaps the most beloved tradition is to dip apple slices in honey, but honey shows up in other holiday recipes – honey-baked chicken, tzimmes (a sweet root vegetable stew), and round, sweet challah, among others. 

The younger generation of Jewish bakers has memories of honey cake, too. Tova du Plessis, owner of Essen Bakery in South Philadelphia, grew up in South Africa, where she ate honey cake once a year at Rosh Hashanah. “It was sooo dry,” she recalls years later. “I’ve found that this is most people’s experience here, too.
Old-fashioned honey cake recipes were intentionally dry, du Plessis explains. “That’s because the instructions called for you to bake the cake, wrap it up, put it on the shelf and age it for seven days. This does a lot for the flavor, but it makes a really dry cake.”

Montreal-based cookbook author Marcy Goldman, author of A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking and a half-dozen other cookbooks, doesn’t get depressed when she sees the prepackaged honey cake loaves in the deli.  In fact, she’s grateful that people still look for honey cake when they celebrate the holiday.

“We can all make a better honey cake at home, but that said, if you are going to buy one, it’s nice that you can still find a honey cake. It preserves traditions. It may be dry, but it’s a good cake to dip in tea,” Goldman says.

In ancient times, sugar was a rare commodity. But honey has been around since biblical times. References to bees and honey appear on 4,000-year-old Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform tables, and archaeologists found pots of honey when excavating an Egyptian pyramid.  But honey cake wasn’t always cake. It started out as yeasted sweet bread, Goldman explains. “They would use buckwheat honey, a lot of dark spices, and a low amount of fat, and it made for a very dark, heavy, spicy loaf.”

When baking powder was first manufactured in 1843, it revolutionized baking. “Bakers around the world went from using yeast to using baking powder. That changed the texture (of baked goods) and made things easier,” Goldman explains. It turned sweet bread into honey cake.

In the ensuing 150-plus years, “tastes changed, but honey cake never did,” Goldman said. “People make the same things for centuries, especially if it’s a traditional recipe, without ever really looking at it.”

Until now. Du Plessis, a 2017 James Beard Award semi-finalist in the category of Outstanding Baker, is on a mission to update Jewish dessert favorites. At her bakery Essen, the verb for “to eat” in Yiddish, her rugelach are Israeli-style with a layer of chocolate; her babka comes in cinnamon hazelnut and a “new-fangled” but amazing flavor combination – chocolate halva.

She puts grated apples and dark beer in her honey cake for a rich flavor. She sprinkles in a little cinnamon and nutmeg, “not a whole Thanksgiving spice mix,” she says. “And of course I use lots of honey, real honey. It’s surprising how much honey you put in; it’s a runny batter. The honey caramelizes and that’s what makes the flavor of the cake.”

“People are hesitant to try the honey cake, but when they do, they come back for more,” du Plessis says. Once, when she took honey cake off her menu for a short time, her customers missed it. “One man was so upset to see it go, that I had to sell him the one I had in the freezer.” Now she sells it year-round.

Marcy Goldman’s majestic honey cake

Marcy Goldman modernized and moistened her honey cake recipe by adding extra liquids: orange juice, coffee, Coca Cola (minus the bubbles) and a shot of booze. She brags that it has turned honey haters into honey cake fans; more than 17,000 people have downloaded her recipe. She says it’s an easy cake to make and encourages even novice bakers to give it a try.

At Essen, honey cake often sits side by side on a domed cake plate with Jewish apple cake. According to du Plessis, who spent some time in Israeli, Israelis always go for the honey cake; in America people favor the apple cake. “Everyone has a favorite Jewish apple cake recipe or a memory of one they really love,” says the baker.

traditional favorites at Essen Bakery

Baker Goldman thinks that we shouldn’t have to choose. In her Apple Honey Cake recipe, she combines the two. She tops wedges of chopped apples with sugar and lemon juice and then pours a honey cake batter on top. The apple wedges get nestled in the batter, and it bakes up into one delicious cake.

It took only a few bites of Tova du Plessis’ Honey Cake and a bit of Marcy Goldman’s enthusiasm to convince us that we could be honey cake lovers, too. We’ve updated our heirloom recipe and it’s good! We plan to surprise our kids with a honey cake on Rosh Hashanah. And just in case, we will bake an apple cake, too.

Tova du Plessis’s Honey Cake

Makes enough for two loaf pans

  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp Ground cinnamon
  • pinch ground clove
  • pinch ground nutmeg
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup honey
  • 3/4 cup canola oil
  • 1tsp vanilla extract
  • 200 ml (6.7 oz) Guiness or other dark beer
  • 3 Granny smith apples, grated and drained

Preheat oven to 350. Grease and flour two loaf pans. Combine dry ingredients in large bowl. Separately whisk the wet ingredients, excluding the beer. Add 3/4 wet ingredients to the bowl with the dry ingredients and mix well. Add the rest of the wet ingredients and mix again. Add beer and apples and stir to combine. Pour into loaf pans and bake for 30-40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.


Andy’s Scolnic’s Honey Cake

This recipe makes a lighter, golden honey-colored cake

2½ cups flour
¼ cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup orange juice
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 large eggs
1½ cups honey
1 cup vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Grease and flour (or use baking flour spray on) a Bundt or tube pan. Mix the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, combine orange juice, vanilla, eggs, honey and oil. Using a mixer, slowly add the liquids to the dry ingredients. Combine thoroughly. Pour batter into pan.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until the top is looks dry and the cake is browned around the edges. Let cool until the bottom is still warm to the touch. Turn out of the pan.


Marcy Goldman’s Moist and Majestic Honey Cake

Cake Batter
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
4 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 teaspoons cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 cup canola oil
1 cup honey
1 3/4 cups white sugar
2/3 cup light brown sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup warm, strong tea*
1/2 cup Coca Cola (c), bubbles stirred out
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup brewed coffee
1/4 cup rye or whisky (substitute orange juice or coffee)

Finishing Touches
1/2 cup slivered almonds (optional)

Basting Syrup, optional
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon Boyajian Orange oil

* I recommend King Cole Tea or a similar strong, black tea.

This cake is best baked in a high, 9-inch or 10-inch angel food cake pan that does NOT have a removable bottom.

 Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray the pan very generously with non-stick cooking spray. Line the bottom with lightly greased parchment paper, cut to fit.

In a large bowl or a food processor mixer bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves and allspice. Make a well in the center and add oil, honey, sugars, eggs, vanilla, tea, cola, orange juice, coffee and rye or whisky.

Using a strong wire whisk or an electric mixer on slow speed, combine the ingredients well to make a thick, well-blended batter, making sure that no ingredients are stuck to the bottom. If you are using a food processor, whiz the ingredients for 1-2 minutes.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle top of cake evenly with almonds. Stack two baking sheets together and line the top one with parchment paper. Place the cake on the prepared baking sheets.

Bake until the cake springs back when you gently touch the cake center, 65-80 minutes. If the cake is rising fast and browning but doesn’t seem set, lower the oven temperature to 325 F and let it bake longer. Give it the time it needs! Let the cake stand for 20 minutes before removing it from the pan.

Heat the Basting Syrup ingredients in a small saucepan and let simmer for 8 minutes. Cool to warm. Baste or brush over the cake.


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Where Have All the Seasons Gone?

We had to stop at Staples the other day and we were surprised to find the aisles jammed. Excited kids were begging for 3-D dinosaur pencil tins and  the extra-large pack of Crayola crayons — “It comes with a sharpener!” — as exasperated parents consulted their crumpled school supply lists. We were there to get a Medicare card laminated.

We had forgotten all about back-to-school shopping. It was not on our radar. Our children are grown, and so are we.

But we remember back when we were kids, this was the most exciting time of the year. We’d carefully choose a backpack — is the rainbow unicorn one cool? And then a new lunchbox, too. It had to be just right, not babyish, and not be passé by January.

Back to school always meant new shoes and new shoes meant sneakers. Back in the day, our choice was what color Keds we liked best. Our kids had Spiderman and Batman sneakers and then came all those light-up sneakers. Their feet grew so fast that it was hard to keep up. And after a summer of running around barefoot, it seemed that everyone was at least a size or two bigger.

Now, we don’t buy new shoes in September. We’re grown-up ladies. We browse when Nordstrom has its annual sale, and we buy when we get the DSW coupon in the mail. Thankfully we know what shoe size to reach for. Our feet are the only body part we can count on to stay the same size — and to stay right where they always were.

When we were kids, the seasons felt distinct, and we were excited when each one rolled around. Fall meant watching football and seeing our friends again. Winter meant snow days and sledding. Spring was for baseball, bike rides, and open windows. Summer? Weekends at the beach, chasing after the ice cream truck, and being allowed to stay up late.

Now the seasons seem to run together. Maybe it’s because the weather’s so unpredictable. Spring comes too late or too early; winter seems more like fall. Or perhaps it’s because sports no longer confine themselves to their “proper” season. Winter ice hockey ended on June 11 when we were having a summer picnic. You can watch Italian football on ESPN 872 in January.

Of course adults don’t enjoy all of the perks of the seasons that kids do. Grown-ups don’t get snow days; they have to make it in to work no matter what. When it snows, we automatically think of shoveling it rather than playing in it. Our kids’ saucer sleds still hang in the garage, but we know we won’t be pulling them out to slide down the hill with our husbands. We might wrench our back. Why risk it? Last winter we dragged out and cleaned off the old sleds and offered them to the boys next door, who gave us a funny look and said, “No one uses that kind anymore.”

While we still go to the beach in the summer, you’ll more likely find us on a lounge chair than riding the waves on a boogie board. We’ll go in the ocean when it’s low tide and warm enough.

Spring doesn’t have many benchmarks for us. We’re not tilling the field to plant a crop, migrating north to build our nest, or getting on the bus loaded with baseball equipment to go to spring training in Clearwater, Fla. We appreciate nature from a distance: “Oh, look, the robins are building a nest,” and “The daffodils are blooming.”

​These days, not only do the seasons fly by, but so do the years. A friend asked when was our last trip to Italy with the kids. “Five years ago,” we said, and then realized that the “recent” trip was in 2005. We took our camera in to get the lens adjusted and were surprised when the salesman told us it wasn’t possible. “Do you know your camera is 13 years old? They don’t make those  anymore.”

The years have flown by since we took our kids back-to-school shopping, and we miss it. We want to participate in the hoopla as much as we can. We’re going to buy some nice shiny notebooks and packs of pencils for the school supply drive, and we’ll buy ourselves a new pair of sneakers and enroll in a yoga class.

We’ll even treat ourselves to a brand new calendar and hang it in kitchen. We’ll mark everyone’s birthday, weddings, and trips, and the dates when our kids are coming home.

Perhaps if we take our time and turn every page, the year won’t fly by so fast.

This article also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, 8/24/17 

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Lessons Learned – We’re Back from Vacation

We’re both back from our summer vacations, and after years of traveling we’re still discovering what we like and what we don’t like about going on vacation. We remember the days of piling the kids in the car and singing songs (we liked) and then turning around to yell at those same kids to “Cut it out!” (we didn’t like). We keep refining our list of things we like so we can better plan for future vacations.

It wasn’t news to us that we love almost any kind of gelato from almost any gelato shop in Italy, but can you design a whole vacation around ice cream?  We’ve long known that we are not campers. We don’t even pretend to be. Joyce has “fond” memories of her last family camping trip – over 20 years ago  – when some outdoorsy friends from Lancaster suggested the two families meet for a weekend of camping at French Creek State Park. On Friday morning, when the weekend weather forecast looked bleak, Joyce called her friends and suggested spending the weekend at a nearby Holiday Inn instead. Indoor pool! Free breakfast! TV!

The friends laughed. They thought she was joking with them. Give up camping without even trying? So they stuck with the camping plan and woke up Saturday morning drenched; the water had leaked into the tent. The scrambled eggs were soggy. In the end, Joyce had fun, but not the kind of fun she ever wanted to have again.

We love a good hotel. In most of the world, a night in a hotel usually includes breakfast the next morning with local treats, such goat’s milk yogurt, fresh baked croissants, and figs from the tree in the yard etc. In some hotels, you can even sit in that yard and enjoy your breakfast al fresco.

Breakfast on the balcony in Cambodia: Dragonfruit and banana pastries. Yum. 

In a hotel, it’s nice to find hot coffee in the lobby first thing in the morning and even nicer to come back at the end of the day and find that someone has straightened the bed and left a chocolate on our pillow.

When you stay in a hotel, you get help, and we love a good front desk. We like to get a recommendation from the girl at the front desk for a great local restaurant, not the tourist trap on the waterfront with the chalkboard out front that reads, “Visitors much love you eat here.”

We like the free paper map the desk clerk gives us. She circles where we are in magic marker, where we want to go, and then points us in the right direction. “Go out the front door. Make a left and then a right.” We try not to get confused by the big blue “Mr. Bag” on the map; it’s a local leather shop that paid for an ad on the map, not our ultimate destination.

You are here.


We’ve learned that we’re not group-tour people. We hate being told what to do and when to do it. When the group zigs, we want to zag. If we like a place, we want to stay there – not get back on the bus by 3 pm. We don’t care if the bus is leaving. In fact in Morocco, when everyone went to take a guided walk, Joyce and Ted turned in the other direction. They have fond memories of that fun afternoon they spent on their own drinking mint tea, chatting – or trying to – with the locals, and wandering into the shops.

We are city folks. We’d rather be in Barcelona than in the Spanish countryside, in Boston rather than Cape Cod.  We like to walk around and window shop. We enjoy museums – big ones like the Vatican Museum as well as the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, one family’s private art collection housed in their palace.

We like it when there are many different activities to choose from. A jazz festival in town. A traveling craft show on the waterfront. A culinary walking tour that features local wines. We get shpilkes when we are stranded in the great outdoors with nothing more to do than look at the scenery. As Ellen and David realized after their summer excursion: “Seen one glacier, seen them all.”

A glacier . . .

. .  another glacier

There are certain places in the world that can only be reached by cruise ship – like Glacier Bay in Alaska. So when we’ve taken a cruise, we’ve made the most of it. But if there’s another way to get to a place, we prefer it.

We’d rather arrive in a little town on our own rather than with 4,000 other people all headed to the same souvenir shops to find tchotchkes. We love a good tchotchke, too, but we like to find it ourselves, like the time we wandered through Orvieto and bought Italian dish towels from a very undiscovered local linen store.

Shopping with the locals in Istanbul.

We do enjoy a good buffet, which is why a cruise is a bad idea for us. We need limits – when to eat and how much. When we were walking around the deck at 10 a.m. to see the mountains, it was disconcerting to bump into a kid with a huge ice cream cone. Should we be eating ice cream at 10 a.m.? Where’s did he get that ice cream?

Ellen and David’s recent cruise came with 15 drinks – per person! – a day. The first few days, they just had their usual glass of wine with dinner. But by the last day, Ellen felt compelled to drink her allotment – or at least try. She had a mai tai at lunch, a daiquiri at 1 p.m., a whiskey sour at 3, and wine at dinner. She was woozy when she texted her (adult) sons photos of the drinks and commented how excessive she thought her drinking was. They texted back, “Glad you’re having fun!”

So as we think about planning our next vacations, we’ll keep in mind the things we like: gelato, big cities, shopping and wine with dinner. Just not in a tent.



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Gulliver’s Gate: It’s a Really, Really Small World After All

We were in New York earlier this month to pick up two awards that our book, The Whole Spiel, had won. As we walked down 44th Street on our way to the awards party, we stopped in Dubai, Thailand, and the Panama Canal. Whaaat? We’ve gotten lost before, but never this farblondjet . . .

We weren’t really lost. We had just stopped to visit a brand new exhibition, “Gulliver’s Gate,” which features miniature models of the world’s most famous cities, buildings and sites.

“We have miniatures that represent some of the world’s greatest treasures, and as you go through you get this really unique experience of seeing the world in a way you’ve never seen it before,” said Michael Langer, co-founder, in an interview in USA Today.

He’s not kidding. We have never looked down on St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow or the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the world’s tallest twin structures. You have to strain your neck to look up at these sights. Here they were knee-high.

Joyce’s photo of the real Petronas Towers

The Gulliver’s Gate mini version








In Gulliver’s Gate, a 3-year-old could scale the Swiss Alps or swim across the tiny English Channel.

We appreciate the effort and expertise that went into creating this miniature world. Teams of architects, model builders, electricians and engineers from around the world worked for more than a year designing and building the models – assembling the buildings and lighting them. They made the mini trains and ski lifts run, the boats float down tiny rivers, and the cars drive along the inches long Champs-Elysees.

We chatted with an Argentine architect who had spent the past year at his workplace in Buenos Aires creating a creating a miniature Central America with 40 co-workers. The models came to New York in shipping containers; the architect was now on site in the Times Square exhibit to assemble his region of the world.

As we watched a model maker put the finishing touches of paint on a tiny canoe, we remembered playing with Polly Pocket dolls – their teeny tiny bunk beds and their wee little ponies. It was fun for awhile, but imagine doing that for more than a year.

As we wandered from India to Japan to Egypt we came across Israel. From the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv to the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, the Jewish State, which is relatively small in real life, occupied half of the back room. Why did Israel get such a prime piece of Gulliver’s Gate real estate?

mini Jerusalem

It turns out that the mastermind behind this project is an Israeli – Eiran Gazit. After spending 14 years in the military, he opened Mini Israel Park, a 1:25 scale model of the Promised Land, outside Tel Aviv in 2003. We read in the Times of Israel that Gazit loved building model airplanes as a child and had hundreds of them. Guess his mother encouraged his creativity – and it led to his life’s passion.

In 2005, Gazit moved from Jerusalem to the Berkshires in Massachusetts and opened a bed and breakfast with his wife, Michele. But evidently he wasn’t content with just baking mini blueberry muffins. The man obsessed with tiny architecture had another idea. We imagine that one morning he turned to his wife and asked, “Honey, is it okay with you if I build some more miniatures?”

We suspect that she didn’t say, “You’re meshugenah,” because $40 million dollars, 50,000 square feet and many years later, Gulliver’s Gate has opened. Obviously, the exhibits don’t include everything, and the landmarks are not situated like they are in real life. It was disorienting to stand next to the Brooklyn Bridge and see Central Park around the corner. But the exhibit is meant to entertain and amaze, not to teach geography.

The exhibit is 1:87 scale, which means a 6-foot-tall person would be less than an inch tall – and there are about 100,000 teeny, tiny people in Gulliver’s Gate. We spotted many of them but missed the miniature Beatles walking across tiny Abbey Road and the pianist on a balcony in the model of Italy’s Cinque Terre.

If we had wanted to, we could have become part of this crazy mini world. Visitors can pay to step inside a 3-D body scanner and have a model made of themselves. Then, you can add your mini-me to the exhibit. “Be sure to look for us. We’re standing by the canal behind the sheep in the rice paddy.”

We passed on that. Why would we let a stranger take our 3-D measurements? That’s just embarrassing!

In a New York Times interview, Eiran Gazit explained that he wanted to create a utopian world – an airport with no terrorists, roads with no car accidents, cities with no crime.  We agree. After all, if you get to create your own world, why not make it a happy one?

GULLIVER’S GATE, at 216 W. 44th Street in Manhattan, is open daily from 9 a.m.-10 p.m.

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Are We Too Old to Wear This?

Each spring, we bring our summer clothes down from the attic. We get reacquainted with the T-shirts and cotton pants that we lived without for six months. Could we live without them forever? Should we have ever lived with them?

The questions are monumental: Keep or donate? Passable or horrible? Can I get one more wearing out of this? Should I even wear it in public?

We realized we needed some advice so we turned to nonjudgmental Google: “Can short people wear capri pants?” The answer was yes, “if you can wear them with confidence.” If we had confidence, we wouldn’t have had to ask Google.

We tried again. “Are we too old to wear capris?” Google gave us a definite “maybe,” but we did learn that hair scrunchies, fishnet stockings and crop tops are definite no-nos for our age group.

Luckily, we both have adult daughters who care about how their mothers look more than Google does. If you can’t decide which clothes you should keep, you need a daughter. We’d lend you ours, but we need them. We wish our girls still lived at home, so we could know their opinion of our outfit just by the look on their face. But they don’t, so we have to text them a selfie of us modeling the questionable garment — a bright floral print blazer with the tags still on it.

We ask them: “Closet cleaning. Should this go?”

“Too Florida grandma,” came the reply. “And by the way, your mirror could use a good cleaning.”

Digging into the back of a closet is like carbon dating a fossil. You look for clues in the surrounding material. You try to pin down how old the item is by the things buried alongside it.



This dress was bought for a cousin’s wedding. She got married what, like three years ago? Well, her son is in middle school, so it was more like 12 years ago.

One of us has a beloved outfit – skirt, blouse and vest – that she wore to her son’s Bar Mitzvah 19 years ago. She long ago managed to part with the hippie patchwork skirt and matching blouse that she knew she wouldn’t wear again, but she still can’t part with the vest. “It’s not bad. It can go with anything. I just have to remember not to wear it when my daughter is around.”

We’ve browsed the book that says we should only keep the clothes that “spark joy.” But how can we predict if these platform wedges might bring us joy one day in the future? Better hang on to them.

We want to be stylish but age appropriate, and we walk the fine line between the two – in our comfy sandals with padded soles and Velcro closures. Through the years, our necklines have risen and our sleeves have lengthened. Still, we are wooed by new trends, like peek-a-boo shoulders and rainbow-bright stripes. Generally, better judgment prevails.

Even though we’d love to try that new green glitter eyeliner, we won’t go there. Kylie Jenner’s eyes looked great in green glitter in Teen Vogue, but if we’d tried it there would be glitter on our cheeks and all over our glasses.

But we don’t want to go too far in the other direction either. We had a tie-dyed shirt we thought was very cool – until we spotted a lady in her eighties wearing the identical shirt. Evidently, she also thought it was cool. We came home and promptly threw ours out.

We depend on our daughters not only for critiques but also to keep us up on what’s in style. They taught us years ago that our shirt and pants don’t have to match exactly; it can be an outfit even if you bought them at different stores. It’s okay to wear a scarf – maybe a thin, cotton, patterned one – even if you’re not heading out into a snowstorm.

We’ve lived long enough to know that what goes around will eventually come around again. If only we had held onto our Frye boots, wide-leg jeans and espadrille sandals from the early 1980s. All of these items are back in style. Our daughters are tired of us telling them that they weren’t the first generation to discover leg warmers, crocheted vests and rompers. We wore rompers in junior high school. They were navy blue with an attached metal slide buckle. We were required to change into them for gym class. Nothing about them was stylish.

Sometimes we are trendy, but it’s by accident. We know that jeans with rips and tears are very au courant. We even have a pair of old jeans that are worn out in the knees. Their rips were earned, not purchased, though. Back in the day, we fell for the ads that touted “a blouse that will take you from work to dinner date” and the easy care of a “wash and wear sundress.” Now when we go shopping, we fall for the bathing suit that promises you’ll “look 10 lbs lighter in 10 seconds ” and the “most comfortable pants you’ll ever buy.”

When you’re a kid it’s easy to know when to get rid of your clothes. Your mom does it  because your corduroys are ripped and stained from the playground and your favorite SpongeBob shirt doesn’t fit you anymore. When you’re an adult, if you find that you’ve outgrown your pants, it’s not good news. Nor is it good when you discover that you’ve been wearing a shirt all day with coffee stain right smack in the middle. Both go in the bag to donate.

All this purging has left us with some extra closet space. We’re not students, so we can’t look forward to back-to-school shopping. Our feet aren’t growing, so there’s no reason to buy new shoes. But we just saw an ad online for  “the world’s best versatile, wrinkle-free travel dress.” It will be perfect for our trip in August. We’re clicking to order it now.

This essay first appeared on Wednesday, 6/7 on, the online site of WHYY, Philadelphia’s public radio and TV stations

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“Just Wait Till You Have Kids!”

As we watch our young next-door neighbor chase her two little boys around the backyard, we can’t help but notice she’s clutching her always-present phone, poised to take pictures. Her candid photos will be posted on Facebook by the end of the day.


Ben and Samantha Eisenberg in 1990.

Twenty years ago, we took pictures of our kids at play, too, if we remembered to bring the camera with us. Now those old 4-by-6 prints are tucked into albums that we pull out only when we want to cry.

In the faded photos from our own childhoods we are posed — dressed up and smiling on cue. Cameras were bulky, film was expensive, and parents would take pictures only on special occasions — birthdays, trips, and holidays.

When we recall our childhood dinners, we remember salmon croquettes, Creamettes, and frozen green beans. In those days, there was only one option for dinner. No one was allowed to be vegan, lactose intolerant, or allergic to peanuts. Moms fell into different camps:

“If you don’t like it, don’t eat it.”
“I’m not cooking three different dinners tonight.”
“You can’t leave the table until you clean your plate.”

This last one was rough for stubborn kids who tried to outlast and outsmart their parents. Hiding peas under your knife never worked.

When we became moms, we vowed never to make our kids stay at the table until they cleaned their plates. That was such wrong, old-fashioned parenting! We’d even serve extra sides so each child had something they liked: a bowl of plain mashed potatoes — no chives, no pepper, no strange flecks on top — and a separate bowl of Tater Tots for the child who hated mushy things.

But like our moms, we would forget which kid liked what. When Michael came home from college, we’d proudly serve up a heaping bowl of creamed spinach only to be reminded: “I hate creamed spinach. Andy’s the one who likes it!”

When we went back-to-school shopping, our mothers insisted that we buy a blouse to match the skirt we wanted. Our socks had to match, too. “You need to have a whole outfit,” they’d say. We read Seventeen magazine and longed for blond hair but weren’t allowed to dye it, so when summer came we tried to lighten our hair with lemon juice.  A missing lemon we could get away with.

When we took our girls clothes-shopping, we didn’t even pause at the matching outfits. We let them pick leggings and comfy shirts. We didn’t care if they wore mismatched socks just for fun. And when the girls wanted to dye their hair purple, we decided it wasn’t worth a huge fight. After all, it’s only hair.

Now when we see a 7-year-old in a tie-dyed shirt, striped pants, and a tiara at the supermarket, we don’t even blink. We smile at the young mom and know that she gave up the fight over what to wear, too.

Back in the day, our moms read books and baked cookies with us, but mostly they sent us outside to play. “Go amuse yourself,” they’d tell us. “Play with your sisters.” They’d holler our names when it was time for dinner. We rode our bikes to the drugstore to buy bubble gum. We wandered into the neighbor’s yard to play. We were free range and we didn’t even know it.

When our kids were little, we would get down on the floor to build a Lego castle and dress Barbies with them. As they got older, we tried our best to remember their friends’ names. We made them tell us what they had for math homework and where they were going after school. We weren’t helicopter parents, but we did keep track of their arrivals and departures.


Michael, Jessie & Andy Scolnic, 2015

More than once, when they were exasperated, our mothers told us: “Just you wait until you have kids!”

And then we did. We’ve had kids for years, and we get it: Our mothers were doing their best and loving us when they helped us put on a puppet show or made us wear hand-medowns and finish our green beans. We get it because that’s what we were doing, too, when we whipped up the kale smoothie our teenagers liked, drove across town for Little League practice, and made them finish their Latin homework even though it was a “dead language.” It’s a revelation to young mothers when they discover that there are many different ways to parent. Sometimes we do things the way our moms did; sometimes we do the opposite. We do what feels right.

But on Mother’s Day and every day, we’re grateful to receive — and give — a mother’s love.

This essay first appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, May 14, 2017 – Mother’s Day. 

Posted in Dads/husbands, Jewish mothers, Mother's Day, parenting | 2 Comments