Jews and Muslims in Los Angeles don’t often get together for drinks. After all, religious Muslims don’t drink, and the two groups have had their differences.
But a new project aims to get members of both groups talking to each other, while crafting simple yet delicious non-alcoholic beverages, or “mocktails.”
On a recent Monday evening, about a dozen people gathered around a table at the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, as Howard Seth Cohen demonstrated how to make a drink called a mule – with ginger beer, but without liquor.
“What we’re doing is getting all the juice from the berries out, and we’re expressing out the oils from the mint,” Cohen told the group, as he slapped a handful of mint leaves together.
Cohen squeezed lemons and limes using a heavy-duty stainless steel bar press, poured the juice through a strainer into a mixing glass, placed a tin cup filled with ice on top, and shook vigorously. He then poured in ginger beer and added a spritz of grapefruit peel and twisted it into a garnish. He finished it off with an edible orchid flower on top.
The workshop participants scribble away in notebooks, but they were clearly eager to get started on their own drinks. They paired up and started mixing fruit and liquids, tasting the results, and adding sweet or sour elements to get the taste just right.
Paula Dromi, who is Jewish and lives in Koreatown, paired up with Maryam Saleemi, who lives in downtown LA. They made an orange-ginger mule with an egg foam.
“I’m Muslim, so I don’t drink alcohol,” Saleemi said. “So I love this, because whenever I go to the bar with my friends, I’m like, ‘I don’t really want another Coke, is there something else?’ And there usually isn’t. So I love this.”
Before long, the participants began to feel relaxed, and started sharing recommendations for their favorite qawwali singers (a type of Sufi devotional music) and offered tips on how to make the best hummus – and, of course, the best cocktails. Dromi and Saleemi asked Cohen if they could start drinking their concoctions.
“You should be drinking the whole time! What fun is the class if you can’t enjoy yourself, right?” Cohen said. “So you should be drinking, you should be sharing, getting other people’s opinions of the drink, think how can I make this drink even a little bit better?”
Danielle West combined muddled cucumber and mint with ginger beer, but said it didn’t taste like anything. So, with Cohen’s advice, she added ginger shrub (made of ginger, sugar and apple cider vinegar), agave, lime juice and grated ginger.
“Now it’s lovely, green, it’s spicy and it’s sweet and it tastes like cucumber and ginger,” West said. She came here with her friend and co-worker, Annie Cavanaugh.
“I actually don’t drink alcohol at all. I’m a Mormon and we choose not to drink alcohol and so when [West] found this I got so excited, because I love fancy glassware, I love fancy drinks but without the alcohol, and so this was everything I love,” Cavanaugh said.
This workshop has a somewhat inflammatory name: “72 Virgins.” It’s Cohen’s playful take on the idea – based on a mistranslation of a quote by the prophet Muhammad – that every Muslim martyr will be rewarded in heaven with 72 beautiful and pure companions.
“I thought it was absolutely kind of hilarious in my head, like, what if a martyr finds themselves in heaven and are presented with 72 virgin cocktails,” Cohen said.
The name also confronts the negative stereotypes that people have of Muslims.
“As a Muslim, and as a woman, and a feminist, it was always something that annoyed me and frustrated me because it was people taking the language away from what it actually meant,” said Saba Mirza, who organized the workshop with Cohen.
When Cohen first made Mirza a non-alcoholic cocktail – a tamarind sour – she said it was a revelation.
“It looked like the sunset and sunrise all at once, and it tasted like the best tamarind candy that you’d want to sip on and then chug down at the same time, but then you wouldn’t because you want to sip it,” Mirza said. “It was lovely.”
Cohen and Mirza created the “72 Virgins” workshop with a micro-grant from the nonprofit group NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.
“My husband and I were traveling to the Middle East, maybe five years ago, and we had all these fancy amazing drinks at one of the coffee shops. And we were like, this doesn’t exist in he U.S., it just doesn’t,” said Aziza Hasan, NewGround’s executive director. “And so that’s also kind of the appeal tonight, is to be able to experience really great drinks that have nothing to do with alcohol.”
Heavy topics like politics and religion didn’t come up the entire evening. The group was more focused on making delicious drinks.
“I happen to love to cook, so this is just fun,” Dromi said.
“But I’ve never cooked with someone I don’t know and I like this,” Saleemi told Dromi, laughing. “I feel like I know you more already!”
At the end of the workshop, everyone sat in a circle and described the last drink they’d made: ginger beer with hibiscus juice, a ginger cucumber mint soda, and sparkling tangerine juice with egg foam and an orange twist on it.
On May 25, there’ll be a ticketed “mocktail” party at the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, with past workshop participants making the drinks.
Cohen said his next project will be to get Muslims and Jews to square dance together. And, he said, you can bet there’ll be non-alcoholic cocktails served there as well.