For a little slice of Israel, look no farther than the Valley

There’s nothing worse than feeling homesick, especially when home is more than 7,500 miles away.

So it’s natural that the estimated 200,000 to 250,000 Israelis who are thought to live in the greater Los Angeles area — most of them in the San Fernando Valley — would take up the task of transforming their new city into a little slice of home.

From market shelves stocked with shampoo from Jerusalem to restaurants offering fresh laffa hot out of a tabun oven (served with hummus, of course), the familiar sights, sounds and smells are everywhere. Over the course of a typical day, it’s easy for sabras to feel like they’ve been transported back to Israel when shopping, living and eating along the Ventura Boulevard corridor.

9:15 a.m.: Gan Israel Preschool and Kindergarten, Tarzana

From left, Renee Hutchings, director of Gan Israel Preschool and Kindergarten, poses with educators Hadas Mizrahi, Gila Solomon and Orli Hershtik. Photos by Julie Bien

From left, Renee Hutchings, director of Gan Israel Preschool and Kindergarten, poses with educators Hadas Mizrahi, Gila Solomon and Orli Hershtik.
Photos by Julie Bien

If you find yourself knee-deep in bouncing, ringlet-crowned 4-year-olds wearing “Blue’s Clues” kippot, you’ve probably stepped into Chabad of the Valley’s Gan Israel Preschool and Kindergarten. The school, founded in 1978, has roughly 180 students — more than a quarter of them Israeli.

Israeli mothers decked from head to toe in Lululemon workout gear stand alongside Orthodox women donning long skirts and headscarves as they drop their children off before beginning their day.

“They really let everyone know that Israel and the Jewish calendar are beautiful,” said Sarah Ribuh, a mother who came to the United States from Israel three years ago. “This school and community have such a big heart, and I wish it continued for my daughter beyond kindergarten.”

Orli Hershtik, an Israeli teacher whose adult children attended the school, thinks it’s as close to being in her childhood home as any place in Los Angeles.

“We really feel like we’re in Israel,” Hershtik said. “We have a lot of parents from Israel. We sing songs in Hebrew, talk in Hebrew and have Israeli food like falafel and fresh-squeezed orange juice — just like in Jaffa.”

The teachers bring Israeli culture to the classroom every day. For instance, Gila Solomon, another Israeli mother-turned-educator, teaches the children all the Hebrew songs she grew up singing. Gan Israel also has a special Israel week every May.

“We take an ‘airplane trip,’ create our own shuk [market], our own Israeli restaurant … have a salute to Israeli soldiers and an outdoor expo museum where all the kids and teachers bring something from Israel,” Hershtik said. “We celebrate Israel, but we’re welcoming to everyone here. It’s really a melting pot.”

Noon: Capella Salon, Studio City

Shai Amiel runs Capella Salon in Studio City.

Shai Amiel runs Capella Salon in Studio City.

This hair salon run by Shai Amiel is a hidden haven catering to curly haired girls — which often means Israelis and their daughters. Young women with cascading coils occupy the chairs, while subtle music plays in the background and mirrors reflect polished concrete floors.  

On a recent day, Amiel’s client was a millenial Orthodox woman, nervous about finding a stylist who might be able to handle her long, brown curls. Before long, though, the two were engaged in the the easy chitchat of salon culture, and Amiel — twinkly eyed with a salt-and-pepper beard and beige bowler hat — had her at ease.

The more they talked, the more they realized how much they ran in the same circles. Not only had Amiel, 42, dated the woman’s cousin in high school, but he’s worked with her husband. What’s more, her father was the cantor in the Orthodox synagogue that Amiel’s father and uncle ran, Yosef Haim Congregation in Valley Village. 

Amiel realized he hadn’t seen her for years, not since she was a little girl. This wasn’t just “Jewish geography,” it was “Israeli geography” at its finest.

The salon owner’s American story began in 1985, when he arrived in Valley Village from Givatayim, near Tel Aviv, with his family to celebrate his bar mitzvah. His father’s family had lived in the area since the early 1920s, and his mother’s brother had been in Valley Village since 1973. Somehow, the vacation never ended, and the family ended up moving to the Valley permanently.

In some ways, what he found here doesn’t feel all that different from what he left behind.

“I love being here. I love going to the kosher market and waving at friends and clients and people I know from synagogue. It’s a big community, but it’s tightknit. I really love it here.”

1:30 p.m.: Super Sal Market, Dr. Sandwich, Encino  

Avi Brombart works at Super Sal Market in Encino. “Everything is kosher here, even the shrimp,” he said.

Avi Brombart works at Super Sal Market in Encino. “Everything is kosher here, even the shrimp,” he said.

The aroma of the shawarma wafting through the air is intoxicating. Though the Dr. Sandwich  restaurant is just a nook inside the Super Sal Market on Ventura Boulevard, the spread of condiments is enough to bring about visions of Israeli beachfront cafes: tahini, chug, Israeli salad, pickled vegetables, marinated turnips — all ready to be piled high on a baguette with sizzling curry-scented chicken.

Outside, a covered patio awaits, along with conversation about food — and whatever else — with the likes of customer Samuel Blum, an Israeli who fell in love with the States after falling in love with a girl. (The love affair with Los Angeles has lasted 26 years; the other did not.) He spoke of his American-born son who currently is considering joining the Israel Defense Forces. 

“I’m personally not very involved in the Israeli community here,” he said. “[But] when I had my son, I took care of the Israeli side and made sure he got a Jewish education. In eighth grade, he was in Chabad school. He was praying and all of those things. And he asked me, ‘Daddy, you send me here, but you don’t do what they say. Why not?’ I told him I was living my life, but that I wanted him to know that part of his identity so he could choose how to live his life from knowledge — not indoctrination. Whatever form you want your God to take is fine by me. Just don’t kill each other over it.”

Then a pause.

“Can you believe we started to talk about shawarma, and now we’re talking about Jewish philosophy?” 

Inside Super Sal, new employee Avi Brombart likes to boast: “Everything is kosher here, even the shrimp.”

The shrimp are imitation — made from fish — but they illustrate the varied and wonderful wares stocked on the shelves of this market that could have come straight off Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. Somewhat dimly lit, with Israeli folk music playing over the speakers, Super Sal is overflowing with imported Israeli goods, kosher meat and produce neatly piled like brightly colored gems — an Israeli microcosm in the Valley.

Brombart, who has lived in this country for more than 30 years, left Israel to go to college at the University of Washington. Eventually, a graphic design job offer brought him from Seattle to L.A., and he’s been in the Valley ever since.

“I’ve had a lot of businesses here. Israelis are very productive and entrepreneurial,” Brombart said. “And this community — everyone knows everyone.” 

Gal Kalderon, a part-time employee at Super Sal, stands in front of Dr. Sandwich.

Gal Kalderon, a part-time employee at Super Sal, stands in front of Dr. Sandwich.

Gal Kalderon, a 17-year-old Taft High School student and part-time employee at Super Sal, said working there enriches her life.

“I’m Israeli. I moved here when I was 6; we were from Haifa,” she said. “I really like how it’s a Jewish market, because at school I don’t really get to be around a lot of Jewish people. Here I get to speak Hebrew all the time, and it makes me feel really at home.”

The Israeli food is an added bonus. 

“I’m a sucker for tahini and chocolate Bamba with the chocolate filling. I could go on for hours about how much food I eat here each day!”

6 p.m.: Itzik Hagadol, Encino

Itzik Hagadol in Encino offers a host of Middle Eastern dishes.

Itzik Hagadol in Encino offers a host of Middle Eastern dishes.

It would be hard for the sensory aspects of Israel to be more explicit than they are at Itzik Hagadol.

First, there’s the smell emanating from the casual dining restaurant — authentic kebabs, hummus and other delicacies.

Then there are the sights. Upon entering, your eyes are drawn to a wall-sized mosaic of the Port of Jaffa (Yafo) made of small, brightly colored pieces of glass and rope — an homage to the location of the flagship restaurant.

Although the original Itzik Hagadol opened its doors in Jaffa nearly 20 years ago, the Encino location, now open for five years, offers a nearly identical dining experience, according to Yuri Stein, a full-time managing partner at the restaurant who married into the Israeli family that co-owns both locations.

“It’s as authentic as it can get. If you come to our Encino location, it will be 99 percent the same experience — less the yelling and chaos of Yafo,” he said.

Those telltale sounds — lively discussions of patrons chatting in Hebrew — still act as a constant reminder that you are in an Israeli establishment, however.

Stein, who is Russian, has found it somewhat culturally challenging to successfully cater to the Israeli community, but rewarding when he gets it right.

“You learn with time, because the Israeli clientele is very specific and particular,” Stein said. “But it’s fun.”

Arsenio Galvez, a cook who expertly works the fiery clay tabun oven, enthusiastically shouted out that the lamb chops on the menu here are the best. Stein agreed.

“I’m not saying this because it’s my restaurant, but I love to eat out, and I have yet to have better lamb chops or a tastier hummus anywhere else.”

Unless, maybe, you include Israel.

Feature/cover photo provided by IAC: Last year’s Celebrate Israel Festival in Rancho Park