Yes, I’m using my cookbooks! Whose cookbooks am I gonna use?” Passover is two weeks away and Zell Schulman is filling me in after meeting with the chef at her senior living community about menu suggestions. She’s hoping there will be “two items for lunch and two for dinner each day,” she says, things like salami and eggs, lamb chops, baked apricot ginger chicken—all recipes from Schulman’s 1998 cookbook, Let My People Eat. (It’s clever play on the book of Exodus line from Moses to Pharaoh: “Let my people go.”)
Suggesting she might use someone else’s Passover recipes is absurd because Schulman has published not one but four cookbooks, three on Jewish cuisine. She spent years writing food columns for the oldest English-language weekly Jewish newspaper in the nation, Cincinnati’s The American Israelite. All that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Zell Schulman. Turns out, after 93 years on this earth, she’s had a bit of a Forrest Gump–like life.
Never mind that she was likely the first Jewish student ever to attend Dixie Heights High School or that she once had a cameo in a pre-Twilight Zone Rod Serling production; she also knows the super-secret recipe for Frisch’s tartar sauce by heart, once served as hospital translator for German Holocaust survivors, and spent countless hours teaching inner city kids how to swim in her backyard pool. In 1975, she was also named a Cincinnati Enquirer “Woman of the Year,” which is funny because, when a staffer called to say she’d received the honor, Zell hung up on her not once, but twice—fully believing the paper had the wrong number. Maybe even the wrong person.
But anyone who knows Zell, who also happens to be a widowed wife of 50 years, mother of four, “Bubbe”—Yiddish for grandmother—of 11, and great-grandma of six, knows it was no mistake. In many ways, her life’s path resembles a how-to guide for those who want to do life right. You know that Hunter S. Thompson quote? The one that says life isn’t about “arriving safely” and untouched, but about skidding to the finish line “in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a ride!’ ” ?
Zell is neither used up nor worn out (in fact, she’s in better shape than many people half her age), but the “Wow! What a ride!” part is spot on. Bolstered by deep family roots and a strong Jewish faith, she’s spent the past nine decades wholly embracing life and blooming profusely wherever she’s been planted—TV studio, opera fund-raiser, food processing plant, and newsroom alike. But what others might see as a remarkable journey has always been, for her, business as usual. “What you see is what you get, honey,” she says today with a smile and a shrug. “It’s just me.”
Zelma Jeanne “Zell” Sharff entered this world a fighter. “I only weighed two-and-a-quarter pounds when I was born,” she says. “I spent the first three months of my life in an incubator at the old Jewish Hospital because they didn’t know what a preemie was in those days.” Eventually, though, she made her way home. Her mother, a “working woman”—highly unusual back then, says Zell—taught her daughter to love and appreciate the arts. Her father, a Russian immigrant who spent his career in life insurance sales, was a skilled cook who taught Zell everything he knew about food.
He also taught her about people. “Zelma,” she recalls him saying, “I want you to remember that money does not make your life. It puts clothes on your back, a roof over your head, and food in your stomach. But the people you will meet along the way—no matter what color they are, what language they speak or where they come from—the people will make your life.” It’s something she took to heart.
As a freshman at Edgewood’s Dixie Heights High School, Zell says she was “the only Jewish child of 600 students” at a time when cultural diversity was not embraced. “They called me ‘dirty Jew.’ They stepped on my Matzah sandwiches at Passover—it was not a good scene.” Thankfully that all changed when the principal brought Zell and her parents up on stage, called an assembly, introduced her family, and said something along the lines of, “If I find anybody treating her like they do not want to be treated themselves, you will no longer be a student at this school.” After that, says Zell, “people left me alone and I did have some really good friends.”
Zell’s first job out of college (she attended the University of Kentucky, studying physical education and secondary education) took her back to Jewish Hospital, where she worked as a translator for Yiddish-speaking German refugees who’d survived the Holocaust. Many of them stayed, she says, and “have become very important people who work and do things for our community.”
Later, she worked multiple behind-the-scenes jobs in radio and TV production—first in the offices of Fred Ziv, a Cincinnati- and Los Angeles-based TV producer known as “The Father of Syndicated Television” per IMDB.com, and then, in the early 1950s, at WKRC. There, she worked as a production assistant for Rod Serling, the future Twilight Zone creator, who was then the main script writer for a local weekly drama series called The Storm. “My mother kept saying, ‘When am I gonna see you on television?’ ” says Zell. “I tried to explain that I did not work in front of the camera but she didn’t understand. So one day I said to Rod: ‘Would you do me a favor? How about if I just have a walk-on in the first second of the show?’ He said, ‘OK, Zell, I’ll write you into the script.’ Well, what was I? An accident victim being pulled from the ambulance.” Her ecstatic mother flooded the studio with phone calls after the cameo.
Zell met her future husband, Melvin Schulman, through a young working adults’ group at Wise’s Plum Street Temple. On their first date, she was dressed in a T-shirt and shorts when he arrived in his parents’ big, flashy car, wearing a suit and intent on taking her to a fancy restaurant. “You can drive me in a car like that when you buy it yourself,” she said; then she drove him in her ’57 Plymouth convertible to Covington’s White Horse Tavern. Afterwards, they rode to the very highest point at Devou Park, where they sat on a bench overlooking Cincinnati. Rest assured, he took no “liberties,” says Zell, noting he was a “very sensitive gentleman.” By 1953, the couple was married. They’d stay married until Melvin’s death in 2003.
She gave up her TV career to raise four kids but even then worked extensively at Melvin’s family business, a food processing company in Roselawn called Food Specialties that made, among other things, Frisch’s tartar sauce. Zell says she “was the best onion peeler you could get for that Frisch’s tartar sauce. I peeled buckets of them. Buckets and buckets. I could peel an onion today and not a tear would come out of my eye.” She also knows the recipe by heart and has kept it secret to this day, much to the chagrin of the kitchen staff in her senior living complex.
Staying involved has been a way of life for Zell. In fact, once Melvin acquired automated equipment for the business and the couple’s kids got older, Zell redirected her energies toward volunteering for places like the Cincinnati Symphony, the Cincinnati Opera (one of her cookbooks, Planning Perfect Parties, was a fund-raiser for that organization), the American Music Scholarship Fund, and the College-Conservatory of Music. She also taught swimming lessons to disadvantaged city kids in her own pool. “What else am I gonna do with an Olympic-sized pool?” says Zell of the feature a previous homeowner had installed. As well, she hosted Russian immigrants, Asian foreign exchange students, and opera stars at her home for both everyday dinners and holidays. It bears mentioning that these were not things most people did in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.
By the time she’d reached mid-life, Zell’s generosity was clearly legend—hence her place on the Enquirer’s 10-person “Woman of the Year” list in 1975. The award is one of her proudest achievements, she says, but was also an honor that “was very hard for me” to receive. As more of a behind-the-scenes kind of person, “I didn’t know how to act,” she says. Giving back was just something she’d been taught to do.
Never one to rest on her laurels, Zell pressed on, tackling whatever life brought next. For decades, that included freelancing for The American Israelite as everything from a general reporter to a features writer who interviewed celebrities and first ladies alike. She was best known for her work as a food columnist, first with “Zell’s Bites,” then with “The Modern Jewish Cook.” When she officially retired in 2015, at roughly 87 years old, The American Israelite published a tribute, noting “Zell Schulman has been a household name in the Jewish Community of Cincinnati for nearly seven decades.” At the end of the piece Zell is quoted, saying something she still calls her mantra today: “Each day is a gift. It’s up to me to open the package.”