By Toby Klein Greenwald
Media empire chief Jamie Geller is effusive in expressing her gratitude to Larry and Esta Gordon of the 5TJT and to their daughter Malkie Hirsch.
She was already an award-winning TV producer and marketing executive for ten years, which included working for HBO and CNN. But before she became the author of seven bestselling cookbooks and founder and CEO of Kosher Network International (KNi), Jamie Geller wrote a column called “Secrets of the 15-Minute Chef” for the 5TJT. It was 15 years ago and it ran for three years.
“Once I learned how to cook and I was on maternity leave from HBO, my husband said, ‘You should write a cookbook,’ and as I’m writing the book, I really wrote the story of my life. 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, the first of seven bestselling cookbooks, 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 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. Within a week or two, by Chanukah, there was not a copy left on the shelf. It’s now in its seventh printing, and has been translated to Hebrew.”
Before she was married, Geller says, she used her oven in Manhattan only for storage.
“We were newlyweds, and my husband said, ‘What’s for dinner?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know. You tell me!’ My grandparents on both sides were amazing chefs. My mother wanted the best for her daughters: education, careers. It so happened that she wasn’t into achieving ‘balabusta’ status for herself, so she never cooked. We did takeout or my grandparents cooked for us or the ‘help’ cooked. 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.”
Her personal story evolved into her first cookbook but, “I realized that nobody knows me.” The column in the 5TJT gave her name recognition. “I wrote for free, as I wasn’t known as a writer, but I feel that I won, because they gave me space and I built an audience. They were so good to me, and I felt that they made my name and my career. People would stop me on the street, and I became a local celebrity.”
Geller says that she wanted to make the book high-end and polished, as she was used to HBO production values. “Not only did Larry and Esta help me, but their daughter, Malkie, was an agent in Manhattan for photographers, food stylists, and more. I didn’t have that network. They connected me with her and she found me the best people. The whole family got my career started. Now Malkie, a.k.a. ‘Kiss the Kosher Cook,’ has quite a following on Instagram. Everything started with them.”
Today KNi is the world’s most-watched Jewish food network, with an engaged audience of five million people, one billion views, and still growing, with a vibrant online community. KNi is also home to JamieGeller.com and @JamieGeller, featuring over 10,000 recipes, and @JewlishbyJamie, featuring viral how-to videos.
New Jewish Media Network
“Kosher Queen” Geller, still married, the mother of six, and now living in Beit Shemesh, is taking on a new challenge. KNi and Aish Global are partnering on a massive new media network. Geller has been appointed chief media and marketing officer, and their goal is, over the next ten years, to connect three million Jews around the world to their Jewish identity. They plan to do it, she says, “through cutting-edge, quality, professional, and commercially viable Jewish entertainment and edutainment. The programs will be stratified, covering a diverse range of topics.” On Chanukah they announced the project during a live candle-lighting ceremony and concert viewed by over 100,000 people, at the Aish World Center across from the Kotel.
The visionary and architect of the plan, says Geller, was Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, the rosh yeshiva.
“Aish is a 45-year-old organization, founded by Rav Noach Weinberg, z’l, that 20 years ago created Aish.com, within months of the founding of Yahoo and Google. At that time, having a Jewish website was unbelievable. Now the organization began looking at what should be its next focus.
“Rav Berkovits has given marching orders that we need to reach three million Jews who will be learning Torah and Jewish wisdom in a substantive way, three million who are so far living without any Judaism in their lives. Maybe they’re Jewish by birth, maybe they identify, maybe not. There are, thank G-d, many organizations, but they are all focused on the low-hanging fruit, and we are interested in reaching the others through media, entertainment, content, and original programming.
“Aish is the perfect partner for this because they aren’t looking for ownership; they have such a spirit of collaboration and inclusion, and the idea and the goal is to find, to help, to support, and to partner with the talent that is out there. There is so much innovation and so much happening, and talent behind the screen as well who know how to serve up this content.” Geller says a high level of professionalism has to come into the Jewish world. “There will be a ‘proof of concept’ online in 2021, and by 2022 we plan to be ‘off to the races.’
“We’ll have an official call to action to discover and partner with these people. It’s global—for the Jewish people and by the Jewish people. Everyone is reaching out, and that’s exactly how we want it to be.”
How was the plan affected by COVID?
“Their restructuring was in place before the pandemic, but there’s no question that the pandemic has expedited or invigorated the team and created a scenario that we must do this now.
“Digital and social media are key to the outreach and success of this initiative. There is plenty of room across digital media for quality content that resonates and is based on Jewish principles.”
How do they expect to reach Jews who are “unaffiliated” — not members of synagogues, JCCs or Jewish organizations?
“We see the enthusiasm for the film Unorthodox, which wasn’t ‘sold’ to Jewish audiences. It all starts with quality content. We have to offer people content that is objectively good to the extent that mainstream publishing and streaming platforms would want the exclusive rights (we are not selling it to them, but that’s the bar!). With a two-pronged approach of short social (“micro”) content and longer form original programming (“pillar content”), we can produce content that piques the interest of and answers global curiosity around Jews and Judaism, content that could reach, G-d willing, millions of people.
“When ‘Challah in a Bag’ gets 37 million views, ‘Sabich’ (Israel’s darling sandwich) gets 41 million views, and ‘Middle Eastern Dips’ get 125 million views, these are conversation starters — not just about food, but about culture, identity, history, and ultimately the Torah.
“The intent is to create additional niche verticals (social media accounts or content series) as a way in. People will come if the content is compelling, creative, and entertaining. So we just have to produce, curate, and amplify content that touches on compelling areas of interest, pain points, and/or various lifestyle touchpoints that are of interest to the broadest cross-section of society.
“In addition to food, which is such a natural entree to Judaism, parenting, business, holidays, relationships, music, and more are all segments/points of interest that make the delivery of Jewish-themed content relevant and meaningful to a wide variety of people. We are meshing Aish.com’s success with the KNi food model to reach the very people you are asking about.”
According to Forbes, “Social media has become the main source of news online, with more than 2.4 billion internet users.”
“We plan for this project to be a ‘Jewish industry disruptor,’” says Geller. At this point, she says, no Jewish organization today has the digital infrastructure necessary to reach, entertain, and also educate and connect Jews all over the world.
Rather than compete with whatever is out there, this project aims to partner, include, support, and promote others with complementary goals, all under the same wide umbrella. This goal of inclusiveness, rather than competitiveness, is perhaps the greatest game-changer in the project.
From Rabbi Steven Burg, Aish’s CEO: “Aish’s history is one of collaboration and cooperation. Bringing together Jamie’s expertise and success with KNi, the best of all that Aish.com and our teams around the world have accomplished, plus the collaboration with other creative partners in the Jewish world is the next big step. This is an initiative for and by the Jewish people. This isn’t about building up Aish. This is about building and improving the world.”
Geller’s KNi brings to the table an arsenal of viral videos, and partnerships in the CPG and luxury industries with American Express, Hilton Worldwide, Marriott International, Viking, Nestle, Unilever, and Kraft Heinz. Jamie still appears on the morning show circuit and has been featured in The New York Times, Forbes, Family Circle, Cosmopolitan, and Yahoo, among countless others.
Aish.com is the most widely visited Jewish content website, with, according to their directors, an average of 1,000,000+ monthly user sessions and 500,000 email subscribers. It has published over 25,000 articles and videos on current events, spirituality and personal growth, dating, marriage, and parenting, Israel perspectives, and weekly Torah portion and holidays. Aish Academy offers courses in Hebrew ulpan, personal development, kosher, Jewish philosophy, Jewish history, and more. LiveChat Rabbis offers personal and real-time interactions with readers; Ask-the-Rabbi has answered 40,000 readers’ questions. There is a published series of anthology books, featuring Aish.com’s best articles and writers. A 24-hour live webcam from the Western Wall has logged 37 million visits and been featured on CNN, MSNBC, and in The New York Times.
Her Personal Story
Geller grew up in Philadelphia where she attended a Conservative synagogue and went to Solomon Shechter and to Akiba Hebrew Academy. “Then I went to NYU, and started working at CNN, where I covered the Oscars and the Emmys. I was on the sets of TV shows, on film sets, met celebrities. My mother was so nervous that after everything she did, sending me to a Jewish school and shul and Camp Ramah my whole Jewish life, I would meet a non-Jewish guy. It was the first time for me out of this bubble.”
She went to singles events run by Rebbetzin Jungreis and others. “I also went to the Aish New York Monday parashah class, where they would try to make the parashah relevant to your life. I loved it and it moved me. I went to an Aish Discovery Shabbaton and it was 20 years to this year, Parashat Mikeitz, that I decided I wanted to become shomer Shabbos. I knew all of the davening from school, so I was comfortable in Hebrew.”
Geller was an award-winning senior writer and producer in the marketing department of HBO which included such secular iconic TV shows as “Sex in the City” and “The Sopranos.”
Does she see social value in some of those programs?
“I think HBO was trendsetting and cutting-edge and ahead of the curve when it comes to programming, and they are the precursor to Hulu and Netflix. There were TV shows and films, and they created this world in between those two mediums, and delved into relationships and psychology. “The Sopranos” was set on the backdrop of a suburban mafia but you really watched it for the relationships, so it was very smart in that regard, and everyone could relate to it.
“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.”
Would she recommend those shows today?
For Geller, working on those projects gave her skills, expertise, and insight, being on the ground floor and learning how to push the envelope.
“Today I have a different goal and a different agenda, but I learned what it means to produce quality, creative, and strategic programming along with marketing campaigns to support and build audiences for that programming, and when I became religious, I was crying, wondering, ‘Why did I waste ten 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, including the last decade in food and building a media company. That career and specific professional experience and expertise has opened every single door.
“In every interview I did throughout my career, HBO always comes back … it’s the thread that has been a market differentiator for me, for being considered. People think, ‘Well she’s done it with HBO…’”
The Gellers don’t have a TV in their home. “I haven’t had a TV since we got married, 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. I watch it with a different eye for professional reasons. I would say one of the most pivotal shows today is “The Crown.” Even though The Crown was record-breaking in terms of budget and is of such high production value, the bottom line is still the relationships, the drama, and everyone is tuning in for that. But then it made you want to research the history at the time, the public figures, what was going on in the world. It’s an example of how entertainment can lead to education.”
Geller is still in touch with some of the professionals from her years of work in the secular world. “One of my former producers just reached out; I hadn’t heard from her in years. I do keep in touch and I often go outside of the Jewish world to my network of contacts when it comes to production and marketing.”
When Jamie made aliyah in 2012, Haaretz newspaper reported that as part of her religious practice she wears all black. She laughs. “It goes back two generations. My mother said black is a slimming color so she only wears black; I inherited that before I was frum and it has nothing to do with frumkeit. Sometimes I go crazy and wear navy or gray.”
That same year she told The Jewish Press, about aliyah, “I don’t think that’s a reason, just because I love blueberries, not to live in Israel.”
Now she can even get blueberries. And change the world at the same time.
Toby Klein Greenwald is an award-winning journalist, theater director and the editor-in-chief of WholeFamily.com.