Thursday, March 23, 2023

“You may be wondering how I got here. How did a high school dropout become the famous Cholent Champ? Well, it’s really a simple story involving a skateboard accident, the Egyptian language and kindness that was not meant to be repaid.”

This was how Akiva Jacobs, the now-world-famous Cholent Champ, began his speech at the 30th annual Heimish Hall of Fame induction. Akiva rose through the heimishe culinary ranks to become the world’s most successful cholent chef, selling a full line of products, cholent cookbooks and even Shabbos shoes (look for the ones with the tiny crockpot logo). So what was Akiva’s story? How did he get there? Akiva continued:

“As a teenager, I had one true love: skateboarding. I took my board everywhere and used all my free time to work on tricks. And I was getting good. Really good. A local paper called me the Orthodox Tony Hawk, but that wasn’t saying much, considering the competition. But in my own mind, I was that good. So good, in fact, that I dropped out of high school in 11th grade to skateboard full time. I was winning competitions and gaining publicity. Then, it all came crashing down. Literally.

“One afternoon I was out at the skate park, working on my laser flip, when a dog came racing through like it was being chased by a tiger. The pooch took me out, and the fall caused my right ACL and MCL to tear. Normally, this would not be a career-ender, but I just fell apart with nothing left to do but recover. In the beginning, I would hobble down to the park after physical therapy and just watch the other skaters. I would take notes and try to give out advice, but this wasn’t enough. I was just so discouraged.

“Fortunately, one person noticed my pain. His name was Martin, and he was, at the time, 80 years old. Martin had only moved in two weeks before, as his wife had recently passed away, and he wanted to live closer to his children. At the time, all I knew of Martin was what I just mentioned. He seemed nice, but that was it. One afternoon, my mother called me into the kitchen. She told me that Martin had called because he needed someone to help him with his computer. I headed over that afternoon to take a look. It turned out that the computer just needed to be restarted, and apparently, so did I. Martin asked me how I was, and I could tell he knew the truth. I still remember the relief I felt telling Martin about my troubles.

“Martin and I became fast friends, and I would spend some time with him at least twice a week. One Thursday evening, Martin asked me to help him prepare his cholent. The recipe he used was detailed and precise. It almost seemed like magic. The next afternoon I had a chance to taste the cholent, and it was the most delicious food I had ever tasted. After that, Martin and I became cholent scientists, trying out different recipes and recording our successes and failures. Together, we created the 25 recipes that make Cholent Champ famous. My sadness (and skateboarding career) was in the past as I began a new chapter in life.

“Ten years later, Martin passed away. By then, I had moved on from cholent, finding decent success in the world of finance. Before he passed, I would regularly send Martin money as a token of my gratitude. I found out later on that he forwarded all of my gifts to his children, but that was fine with me. However, after he died, sending money directly to his children just didn’t seem enough. I felt like something had to be done, but I just couldn’t figure it out.

“Then, thanks to Rabbi Tzvi Schiowitz’s drasha for Parshat Shemot, it hit me. Rav Tzvi explained that Moshe’s name was actually of Egyptian origin, as Pharaoh’s daughter did not likely know Hebrew. However, the Torah connects Moshe’s name to being drawn from the water for a reason. Hashem is teaching us that Moshe always lived with the knowledge that Bat Pharaoh saved him by taking him from the basket. Moshe’s Egyptian name was a constant reminder. However, Moshe did not repay Bat Pharaoh by staying in Egypt as her son. Instead, Moshe took her kindness and paid it forward, ‘drawing’ the Jewish people from the waters of the Yam Suf, and helping others in water-related situations.

“From that moment, I knew that I had to spread Martin’s cholent brilliance to the world. This honor is just as much Martin’s as it is mine. I’m proud to pay his kindness forward, one potato at a time.”

Yair Daar is the director of Student Life at Bicultural Hebrew Academy High School. He can be reached at [email protected]

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