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At her kosher restaurant, Steven Spielberg's mother embodies spirit of Hanukkah

Leah Adler is proprietor of the Milky Way, famous for being the best upscale kosher restaurant in Beverly Hills, and also happens to be Steven Spielberg's mom.

Amy Ephron

One for the Table

November 22, 2013

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By Anne Stein for Oneforthetable.com

The Hanukkah crown, to be worn by the person most representing the spirit of the holiday this year would have to go to Leah Adler, the proprietor of the Milky Way, famous for being the best upscale kosher restaurant in Beverly Hills, and because she also happens to be Steven Spielberg's mom.

Opened over 30 years ago, the Milky Way is in its second location, neatly tucked away in the Jewish strip of Pico Blvd., and is charming and inviting from the get-go. The dining room is fitted with comfy red leather booths, the tables are set with white tablecloths, and oversized, well-framed posters of her son's movies hang everywhere. Looking up from a yummy cheese blintz, you can see a picture of ET riding in the bicycle basket or Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler. Even without several dozen family photos crammed on top of the bar, the place would feel like you were visiting your favorite Jewish aunt's house for dinner.

One is awed by the life force of Leah Adler. She stands no more than 5 feet tall, and at 93 is as alert as her radiant eyes are blue. She has worn her hair shorter than Mia Farrow's ever was, forever. Short and still buttercup yellow, it frames the face of this beautiful leprechaun. Beaming her eyes directly into yours, she welcomes you to her restaurant the way she has for years, stopping at every booth to smile.

According to writer Ann Spielberg, Steven's younger sister and the eldest of his three sisters, her mother didn't keep a totally kosher kitchen while she was married to their father and raising the children. When her kids were grown, she divorced their dad and remarried. Leah and her new husband, a retired engineer, opened the restaurant and ran it together. Until his death, her husband took care of the business, while Leah's domain was the kitchen and dining room. It remains so today, with most of the same staff she's had since the beginning. Her daughter calls them all extended family.

She may not have kept a kosher house while raising her children, but Leah kept Shabbat every Friday night bringing the family together, lighting the candles, saying the Hebrew prayers and serving her famous Shabbos Chicken. Every Hanukkah she made the traditional potato latkes with homemade applesauce that are a staple on her restaurant menu.

One of the central values of Judaism is family: nurturing the family and being of service. The Jewish holidays are about remembering and keeping the rituals and traditions alive and well, passing them from generation to generation. Ann paints a loving picture of a nonstop doer on a mission to do everything graciously, but she gets misty-eyed talking about her mother's Shabbos Chicken. Kosher, non-kosher ... what matters is what's in the heart, and in the oven! Always, but especially during Hanukkah, a time of giving.

It is fantastic that this year Hanukkah is no longer riding in the back of the Christmas bus like it usually does. There will be no little girl looking around her block sad-eyed, wishing desperately for a tree, even the smallest, willing to settle for a plastic reindeer. It's absolutely perfect that the day Jews start celebrating the first full day of the Festival of Lights this year, commemorating their freedom from tyranny, collides with the day the pilgrims feasted giving thanks for the first abundant harvest in the land of the free and the brave. Lighting the menorah works well with saying "thank you" and holding an attitude of gratitude. Thanksgiving is about feeding, being hospitable. Leah Adler knows from feeding and being hospitable; it's her stock and trade.

After saying hello at the Milky Way the other day, and checking that the tuna melt was to my liking (great tuna salad, on perfectly toasted buttered rye with mozzarella cheese melted to a bubbly perfection), Leah was off to visit her first husband, the father of her children, who is 96 years old. They're very close friends. Their family is now back to its original core, with in-laws, kids and grandkids thrown in. Ann speaks excitedly about what an immense blessing it is that the whole family gathers at her father's house every Sunday. They visit, and then all eat together, including her dad's caretakers, who, like her mother's kitchen staff, are "family."

When Ann says that, I get a vision of her mother, this beautiful little woman at the head of the table, eyes aglitter, wearing the turquoise earrings she had on the other day that make her eyes seem even bluer. She's at the head of a long table laden with lox and bagels, several platters of smoked fish, latkes and bowls of sour cream and homemade applesauce, thick and chunky. Gold wrapped chocolate pieces of Hanukkah gelt spill off the table. Smiling at her kinder, bending to light the menorah, clueless that she wears the Hanukkah crown, Leah Adler totally embodies its meaning.

Shabbos Chicken from the Spielberg family kitchen

Serves 6-8.

1 kosher chicken

1/ 2 bottle of ketchup

Pinch of garlic powder

Pinch of onion powder

Pinch of pepper

Pre-heat oven to 400 F.

Take a whole kosher chicken (Empire is what Ann Spielberg uses) wash it and pat it dry. Pour ketchup on a plate and mix in the spices. Roll chicken around the plate rubbing the ketchup inside and out and in all the corners until it is completely coated. Be generous with ketchup and don't miss any parts.

Place chicken in a roasting pan, place it in the oven and turn it down to 350 F. Roast until done, usually 20 minutes a pound. Test after 45 minutes to make sure you don't overcook it. Cut into parts and serve.

Leah's Latkes

Makes 2 dozen small or 1 1/2 dozen medium-size latkes.

6 potatoes, peeled

1 onion, grated

3 eggs

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 cup flour

1 tablespoon oil

2 teaspoons baking powder

Oil for frying

Grate potatoes and drain well. Blend in onion, eggs, salt, pepper, flour, 1 tablespoon oil, and baking powder. Heat oil in a skillet on medium-high heat. Once oil is hot enough to sizzle, use a spoon or small ice cream scoop to drop latke batter into hot oil; brown on both sides, turning only once.

(Los Angeles-based writer Annie Stein has written for C and More magazines and the New York Times, and is a regular blogger on Huffington Post. She runs creative writing workshops for at-risk teens. One for the Table is Amy Ephron's online magazine that specializes in food, politics, and love. http://www.oneforthetable.com/.)

(c) 2013, ONE FOR THE TABLE. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.