People tend to be afraid of alcohol, of the unpredictable way it may or may not make them feel, but at Aqua Vitae Insitute, founder Ariela Yankelewitz tries to teach people how to develop a good relationship with liquor and why it should be celebrated, not shamed.
Booze. Cocktail. Swig. Hootch. Sauce. Spirit. Drank.
Whatever you want to call it, those names don’t particularly sound inviting.
But that’s what Ariela Yankelewitz, founder of Aqua Vitae Institute, is hoping to change.
People tend to be afraid of alcohol, of the unpredictable way it may or may not make them feel, but at Aqua Vitae — sitting by the corner of 17th and Race streets — Yankelewitz tries to teach people how to develop a good relationship with liquor and why it should be celebrated, not shamed.
The institute hosts classes where people can actually get behind the professional stocked bar and learn how to make healthy and unique drinks.
“We’re the only place where people can get behind the bar here and make drinks,” she said. “We really are the only center in the world that wants to make a change in the way people do alcohol.”
Since moving to the U.S. from Israel in 1992, Yankelewitz has since opened five bartending schools — one each in Cherry Hill, Bethlehem, Princeton, Center City and along City Avenue.
The Penn Valley resident said it was always her dream to open the schools and show people that there is no shame in alcohol.
“I wanted to bring more respect and good relationship with alcohol. If the people are already drinking — some people don’t drink and that’s OK and some people abuse drinking — but there is some 90-something percent of the population that drink and they’re actually responsible people,” she said.
She is working on a book with a ghostwriter, which should be completed in a few months, about accepting alcohol as well as its relationship to Judaism.
She talked to a lot of Jewish people for references for the book. She discovered that there’s still a lot of shame associated with drinking within the Jewish community, though drinking is more accepted in Judaism than other religions.
But when it comes down to it, it all goes back to biblical times.
Yankelewitz acknowledged several biblical stories that subtly illustrate how alcohol was used negatively — like in the story of Noah or of Adam and Eve (ever think that apple was actually a grape that was later used to make wine?) — but over time, culture and tradition brought out the light from the darkness.
“There are a lot of stories in the beginning of time that [alcohol is] really bad,” she said. “But what I love, it’s not the good or bad, it’s the fact that we trust the person with what he does.
“We want to always remember the dark, but we choose life,” said Yankelewitz, who goes to Chabad Lubavitch of Montgomery County. “In our religion, I see it as we honor the human spirit and the ability to choose.”
And wine, for example, is a symbolic part of Shabbat — Yankelewitz noted that the challah is covered on Shabbat but the wine remains open due to respect for the spirit — and saying l’chaim over the wine shows the honesty and openness one has for the libation and for oneself.
When you raise a glass, you are stating your intention — to life.
“It’s not telling you what to do, it’s offering you options and then you choose,” she said. “When you’re in joy, you can’t abuse anything. If you are happy or you’re connected to God or a holiday, you’re not overindulging.”
Yankelewitz’s son and director of education at Aqua Vitae, Ori Geshury, designs and coordinates many of the events and menus, working with a new contraption — juicer, snow cone maker, blowtorch — each week based on what’s trending.
One example: the shakshouka bloody mary.
“I love those flavors: I love za’atar, I love using egg in cocktails and freaking people out,” he laughed.
But health is another important factor.
“We want someone when they leave an event to be able to not just feel good about drinking because we talk about health benefits, how to prevent hangovers, some of the history,” Geshury added.
“People need to come to peace with the fact that alcohol is actually healthy for you,” Yankelewitz echoed. “There are American government statistics that tell you people live longer and healthier.”
It really just all depends on what you put in it. Vodka and gin are low in calories, whereas tonic water is fattening.
Shrubs, a current favorite at Aqua Vitae, are a simple healthy drink, made of fruit, sugar and vinegar and can be combined with several types of liquors.
“Every cocktail is a balance of three things,” Geshury said. “There’s always sweetness, there’s always astringency — so it can be bitter or sour — and there’s always alcohol.”
But Geshury emphasized again that it all goes back to the Torah, which he said includes many “unconscious psychological persuasion techniques.”
If you break your diet and eat a whole cheesecake — hopefully an unrealistic example — Geshury said there are two ways to look at it.
You can have the Catholic guilt outlook and condemn yourself, “or you can think of it in a Jewish way and say, ‘Well, it was Purim’ ” and continue celebrating.
The point is that indulging is acceptable every once in a while — and should be, if done safely — but Yankelewitz thinks it should be shameless.
“According to Kabbalah and Talmud, the wine is the tree of knowledge, so it can lead you in a good way or a bad way because it amplifies your emotions,” Geshury continued. “It’s very much about using it in the right way because there’s a lot of stories — not just in Judaism but in Greek literature and Roman literature — of what happens when you don’t drink at all, which is a metaphor for suppressing your human desires, and what happens when you indulge too much.
“So the thing that does all the good things can also do all the bad things. Judaism has always been about how can we channel this innate humanity that we have and use it to live the best life possible. The best metaphor for that in the present-day world is alcohol because … when you teach people to use alcohol in an intelligent way from a scientific perspective, from a historical perspective, from a dietary perspective, that can be a metaphor for them making the changes in their life, too.”
Growing up in Tel Aviv, Yankelewitz always had a positive perspective from her family when it came to alcohol.
She graduated from Tel Aviv University with a degree in archeology but always worked as a bartender.
“I saw that people had no respect for the industry,” she said. “But when you go deeper, it’s really the alcohol they don’t respect.”
Her family was open to alcohol, and it filled the cabinet — wine, whiskey, vodka — for special occasions, but the bottles usually lasted years.
Yankelewitz said it’s almost become a Jewish tradition to savor those bottles out of nostalgia and positive memories.
“The way I remember alcohol when I grew up was connected to holidays, to parties, to good things. So we connect the joy to alcohol,” she said.
“But I know that if you touch one of [the bottles] you’ll die because it was so old,” she laughed.
Some people enjoy drinking when they get home, she added, which shouldn’t be considered shameful either.
Like the Sabbath, “it separates the one time of the day from another and puts you in a different place.”
“As long as you feel good about what you do and you choose it, it doesn’t choose you, you’ll feel great,” she said.
Sweet and Sour Cherry Soda
A little bit of sweet, a little bit of sour. Together, it’s delicious enough to take your mind off the hot summer sun.
2 oz. vodka
¾ oz. vinegar (distilled or apple cider vinegar works great)
½ oz. Cherry Heering
¼ oz. simple syrup
Fill with soda water
Add all ingredients except for soda water into a shaker filled with ice.
Strain into a tall glass filled with ice.
Fill glass with soda water.
Garnish with cherries and basil.
Alternatively, replace Cherry Heering with a cherry shrub. To do this, add two cups of pitted cherries and two cups of vinegar into a jar. Mash them together. In a small saucepan, bring the ingredients together and bring to a boil. After it boils, place it into the jar and give it a quick shake. Cover the jar and place it in the refrigerator. Shake them every day for two weeks and then place it back in the refrigerator. After finished, add sugar into the jar.
Bring the mixture to a boil until all sugar has dissolved. Place the mixture into a new jar. Cool in the refrigerator.
Apricot Pineapple Pisco Smash — “Apps”
June is the season for apricots and pineapples. Why not celebrate the summer by drinking this delicious cocktail?
1 oz. Pisco
½ oz. apricot brandy
¾ oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice
¾ oz. fresh squeezed pineapple juice
Quarter of a lemon cut into two wedges, an ounce of pineapple cut
A dash of angostura bitters
In a shaker, muddle pineapple and lemon.
Add the remaining ingredients into the shaker.
Shake and strain into a rocks glass filled with crushed ice.
Serve with a straw.
Garnish with one or all: lemon wedge, pineapples and/or apricots.
Pineapple Mint Caipirinha
The Caipirinha is one of the most traditional drinks. Made with Cachaca, this drink has a slight kick that doesn’t normally exist in rum.
1.5 oz. Cachaca
¾ oz. simple syrup
2 oz. of pineapple chunks
3 -4 mint leaves
Muddle the pineapple, mint and sugar in a mason jar.
Fill the jar with ice and Cachaca.
Garnish with a few mint leaves or pineapple wedge.
Provided by Ariela Yankelewitz
1 lb. fruit
1 cup sugar, honey
or any sweetener
1 cup vinegar (use balsamic if mixing with berries)
Add a little of the mixture to gin, vodka or rum (2 ounces of liquor). Add the seltzer water and a mint leaf, and you have a perfect unique and fresh summer drink.
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