With her ‘Totally Kosher’ cookbook, Chanie Apfelbaum aims for a wider audience


(New York Jewish Week) — Chanie Apfelbaum’s newest cookbook, “Totally Kosher,” is filled with many inventive, flavor-packed recipes, like “Miso Matzo Ball Soup,” “Berbere Brisket” and “Pad Chai,” a shrimp-free version of the Thai staple.

But while the book is designed for kosher-keeping observant Jews like herself, Apfelbaum — who boasts 101,000 followers on Instagram and runs the popular Jewish lifestyle blog “Busy in Brooklyn” — had a larger audience in mind. Her first book, “Millennial Kosher,” published in 2018, is now in its sixth printing and is available in just about every Judaica store across the country. With her second effort, however, “I wanted to reach a larger demographic,” Apfelbaum, 42, told the New York Jewish Week. “I wanted to reach people that don’t necessarily know what kosher is.”

That’s how Apfelbaum ended up publishing “Totally Kosher” with Clarkson Potter, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group and publisher of cookbooks by culinary megastars like Ina Garten and Alison Roman. When Raquel Pelzel, the editorial director of cookbooks at Clarkson Potter approached Apfelbaum in 2019 about writing a cookbook — pitched as a “celebration of kosher,” as Apfelbaum recalls it — she immediately said yes.

“I was so excited,” Apfelbaum said.

“We hadn’t published a kosher cookbook in a really long time and, with Instagram and social media, there is obviously a massive kosher community,” Pelzel told the New York Jewish Week. “To not publish a kosher cookbook seemed like a huge omission and a hole on our list.”

“When I scout for authors, I look for someone whose recipes look delicious, original and creative and who has a really strong voice and is clear who their audience is,” Pelzel added. “Chanie certainly has all that.”

Apfelbaum’s decision to go with a mainstream publisher mean the book would appear in “regular”  bookstores — and not just Judaica stores — but the change meant some new challenges. One hurdle was the publisher’s decision to feature a large, color photo of Apfelbaum on the book’s rear cover — a decision that could be considered controversial in the haredi Orthodox world where many publishers refrain from showing photos of women in the interest of sexual “modesty.” (Apfelbaum’s photo does not appear anywhere in “Millennial Kosher,” published by Artscroll/Shaar Press, which serves the haredi market. A spokesperson for ArtScroll said that, to date, they have not featured any photographs of women in their cookbooks, but “we are not against putting pictures of women in our books.”)

“If my photo is on the back of the book, maybe the Judaica stores really won’t take it,” Apfelbaum recalled thinking when she was sent a mockup of the cover. “I called friends in the publishing industry. I called Judaica shops and asked if my photo is on the back cover, are you going to carry the book?” The answers, Apfelbaum said, were mixed.

And yet, she didn’t back down or ask for a change in the cover. “I was like — you know what? I’m doing this for my daughters, I’m doing this for the women out there,” she said. “There is nothing wrong with having a photo of a Jewish woman on the back of the book. I’m just doing it, and I stand behind it.”

Fortunately, validation came quickly. “When I walk down the street in my neighborhood [of Crown Heights], I pass Hamafitz Judaica and they have two books in the window — one of the front cover of my book, depicting my corned beef ramen, and one of the back.”

Apfelbaum’s mother, Devorah Halberstam, a prominent member of Crown Heights’ Chabad community, couldn’t be prouder. Her first-born son, Ari Halberstam, was killed in 1994 when a Lebanese-born man shot at a van filled with Chabad Lubavitch students, killing Ari and wounding three others. In the aftermath, Halberstam fought tirelessly to have his murder formally classified as a terrorist attack, which eventually happened in 2005. She was also a founder of the Jewish Children’s Museum, which was dedicated to the memory of her son.

Of all people, Halberstam understands the power of a photo. “At Ari’s yahrtzeit [anniversary of his death], I tweet things out,” she told the New York Jewish Week, noting that her son died 29 years ago. “I got 85,000 responses because I put his picture up there. Pictures make you stop. They make you pause.”

Photos, she added, “personalize everything. A story is not a story without pictures. It makes it real. It comes to life.”

Apfelbaum agrees, feeling that her decision to include photos of herself, her boys in their tzitzit (ritual prayer fringes) and her children around a table, is “a huge step in the Orthodox world.”

“I’m doing this because I think this is something that has to change,” she said. “Jewish women should be celebrated just like men.”

As a child, Apfelbaum said, she was a rule-follower who was drawn to the creative world. “I got very into artistic projects for school,” she said. “I loved drawing and craftsy, artsy things.”

Apfelbaum’s culinary journey began in 2002 when she was 22 and newly married. Apfelbaum’s mother had been the chef in the Halberstam home, and Apfelbaum was raised on what she calls “brown food” — matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, potato kugel. She came to her marriage skilled as a web designer but not knowing how to boil an egg. Her Syrian/Argentian/Jewish mother-in-law introduced her to ingredients like rosewater and dishes like empanadas, piquing Apfelbaum’s interest.

“When I started cooking, I was always very artistic and looking for ways to put color in my food and plate it nicely,” said Apfelbaum. “I would make my mom’s recipes. But when I started hosting friends and putting out a spread, with menus and plated meals, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is beautiful. Such a beautiful way to express my artistic side.’”

When Apfelbaum left her web design job after the birth of her third child in 2010, she poured her creative juices into her nascent cooking and photography skills, and her family encouraged her to start her own blog. In 2011, she launched “Busy in Brooklyn” — at the time she was raising three children under 5, running a home and teaching Hebrew while taking knitting and crochet classes.

Her first post, in January of that year, was for sauteed chicken cutlets topped with canned dark sweet cherries. Later that year, she gave her first cooking class for the teachers at her children’s school.

In 2013, she enrolled in a program at the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts (now closed). “I started to seek out different cultural dishes and put my kosher Jewish spin on it,” she said. She also took a photography class.

The following year, her recipe for “Drunken Hasselback Salami” — a whole salami sliced, coated in a sauce of jam, brandy and mustard, then baked until crispy — went viral. Later that year, she was featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal for her creative spins on the traditional Ashkenazi Hanukkah treat, latkes. In 2015, she made the first of many out-of-town food demonstrations, traveling to Montreal to prepare harissa chicken sliders with preserved lemon carrot slaw and a marble halvah mousse.

These recipes, among others, made it into “Millennial Kosher.” And although Apfelbaum swore that she would never write another cookbook because of all the work involved, that call in 2019 from Clarkson Potter made her rethink her decision. Apfelbaum’s global recipes — such as “Nachos Bassar,” nachos with hummus, Israeli salad and pickles — and how she “bounces off of trends that are happening in social media, in restaurants,” as Pelzel describes her, are what drew the mainstream publisher to Apfelbaum

“From the first time I met Chanie, I understood why she was the obvious choice to make kosher cool,” Apfelbaum’s mentor and fellow cookbook author Adeena Sussman told the New York Jewish Week via text. “She’s wildly passionate about her food and her Judaism, and makes no apologies for either.”

“Add to that her natural warmth, sense of humor and willingness to share the ups and downs of life with her followers, and you’ve truly got a recipe for success,” Sussman added.

And there have been plenty of ups and downs: After signing her book contract in 2019, Apfelbaum became a single mom due to divorce. She was also hospitalized with COVID-19 (as was one of her kids) and lost her sense of smell and taste, at a time when nobody knew that this was a side effect of the virus.

Fortunately, Apfelbaum has since regained her sense of taste and smell, and she remains very busy in Brooklyn — and elsewhere. In July, she is leading a food tour in Italy where her group will make gelato, hunt for truffles and taste olive oil.  She hopes to continue culinary travel in the future. She has just come out with a line of her own spices called TK (as in “Totally Kosher”) Spices; her first two products are the Yemenite spice mix, hawaijj — one for savory foods and one for coffee, which has a sweet profile. With “Totally Kosher” now in its third printing, she is looking to (finally) hire an assistant and find work space outside of her home.

“There were many times I said I don’t have the emotional bandwidth and strength to do this book — I wanted to give up,” Apfelbaum said. “My friends believed in me and pushed me and made it happen. When I look at this book, I see so much more than recipes. It was really a journey for me.”