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Kosher kimchee
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Kosher kimchee

The road from Seoul travels through New Jersey

Ziporah Rothkopf, center, at what she says is the only kosher kimchee factory in South Korea. Rabbi Osher Litzman, at right, is the mashgiach and religious leader of the Chabad Jewish community of Korea, headquartered in Seoul.
Ziporah Rothkopf, center, at what she says is the only kosher kimchee factory in South Korea. Rabbi Osher Litzman, at right, is the mashgiach and religious leader of the Chabad Jewish community of Korea, headquartered in Seoul.

The Hebrew name Ziporah means bird and perfectly suits Ziporah Rothkopf. With homes and offices in Lakewood and Jerusalem, as well as manufacturing facilities in South Korea, she frequently flits between continents.

Rothkopf takes to the air to oversee activities of her company, Kosher Korean, better known to consumers as KoKo Foods, a supplier of Asian specialties. Products are certified by OK Kosher
Certification.

“I’ve been able to adapt my favorite authentic Korean dishes and make them compatible with the laws of kashrut,” she said in an email interview with NJJN. “My goal is to make them available to Jewish tables around the world.”

Kimchee, a popular trend as it is considered beneficial for the digestive system, is her flagship product. A pungent, spicy side dish, it is usually made from salted and fermented vegetables, most commonly Napa cabbage and Korean radishes, with a variety of seasonings, including chili powder, scallions, garlic, and ginger.

Other products she sells include rice pastas and spices, such as misugaru and meju powder.

Rothkopf, 70, owes her passion for kimchee to something besides culinary curiosity and a sophisticated palate. She was born in Seoul, and her name wasn’t always Ziporah. She was born Bongja Kim. 

“My father was one of the first journalists working in Korea after it obtained freedom in 1945,” she told NJJN via email. “He was an intellectual who spoke three languages fluently, and he was involved in politics.

“My grandmother, who lived with us, was 75 when I was born. She had been a freedom fighter. My grandfather died before I came on the scene. He had been a palace physician, but eventually was imprisoned, and, after fleeing from the capital, was assassinated.”

Rothkopf said her grandmother raised her and six siblings in a “very strict” environment in keeping with the principles of orthodox Buddhism. At the same time, she emphasized, her father always encouraged an atmosphere of learning. “My sisters and I were always studying; we were very competitive about earning the best grades.”

By 1970, when she graduated from college with a degree in home economics, Rothkopf had already been married for about a year. She and her husband had a son and daughter who still live in Korea, where she has two grandchildren. Seven years later she divorced, and her father died that same year at 59. She decided she needed to make a change and moved to Las Vegas.

“I was very depressed and decided to leave the country and continue my education in the United States,” she said. 

When visiting friends in New York City she met a young Orthodox man named Moshe. “We hung out with my friends, and then he took me to see the sights,” she remembers. 

“I had never knowingly met any Jew before, but I found it interesting — enough so that I [was] determined to study Judaism.” 

Within a few months, she left Vegas and moved east. She picked up where she left off with Moshe, and major milestones lay ahead. She studied with legendary singer Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and converted to Judaism in 1981. She also spent two months at Neve Yerushalayim, a women’s seminary in Israel. 

She returned to the U.S. with plans to marry Moshe and seek permission from his Lakewood parents — Holocaust survivors, chicken farmers, and early supporters of Beth Medrash Govoha. Initially they did not approve of the mixed-culture union, but the couple wed on April 4, 1982, three days before Passover (Carlebach was in attendance). The Rothkopfs had two daughters, now in their 30s and living in Israel, and Ziporah said, “We were able to make peace with Moshe’s parents before his father passed away.”

She never lost touch with her mother, who recently died, and her siblings in Korea. “I am still very close to everyone, and they were always very supportive,” she said. 

Now in their 70s, the Rothkopfs maintain an active lifestyle. Moshe is an ophthalmologist and Ziporah is CEO of KoKo Foods. “I first had the idea for the business 36 years ago, and I never let go of the dream,” she said. 

The company manufactures all its products in Korea and sells them on kosherkorean.com, Amazon, and in local markets such as Seasons, Gourmet Glatt, and Shloimy’s Kosher World. 

Now Rothkopf has her sights on a new venture in Jerusalem. “We are hoping to open a kosher Korean restaurant in the Old City by early next year,” she said. “It will be called ‘Soul House.’”

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