Israel

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Shalom! We grabbed our passports again just a week after visiting the beautiful Emerald Isle for a country that, although not as green, has long been known as the land of milk and honey. From delicious food and inspiring music to confusing politics and even a secret nuclear weapons program, the State of Israel would give us plenty to explore.

As we had done for Iraq and for Ireland, we decided to look for a high-quality recording of a musical performance to watch on Friday night in order to start things off with some contemporary Israeli culture.

“I think Ninet is a she,” Jess assured me, when I started to worry that this Israeli rock group called “Ninet” would be our third male performer in a row. Ah! So the word was a name, and the name was feminine. One of the themes for the weekend would turn out to be that the people can seem awfully American—until the Hebrew language reminds you that Israel sits halfway around the world.

The mix of acoustic and electric guitars was new to my ears, but I didn’t think about whether Ninet Tayeb and her band sounded particularly Israeli until I heard some vaguely middle-eastern riffs in “Superstar,” the final song in the set. After learning that Ninet was trying to break out of the Israeli market to succeed on the global stage, I began to wonder whether I was hearing a calculated marketing strategy. Sure enough, in his review for the newspaper Haaretz, Ben Shalev concludes that Ninet’s latest work is

a fusion of rock ’n’ roll dripping with grease and diverse oriental and Arab musical phrases. That’s very “Israeli” on the part of Ninet and her associates, and there may be a certain logic to it, as they are targeting primarily the global market. But to Israeli ears it will probably sound quite trite.

Should Ninet try to sound “Israeli,” or should she just try to be herself? Regardless of what the singer was up to, we enjoyed the music and hope to hear more of it in the future. That same evening, Jess was also busy making homemade labneh (she had already made the homemade hummus the night before) and cheese-filled bourekas to bake on Saturday.

For breakfast the next morning, Jess had learned that a now-traditional spread of dishes had developed in the mid-twentieth century for residents of the kibbutzim, the communal agricultural settlements that still dot the Israeli countryside. With just the two of us (for now, anyway) she didn’t need to make all of the recommended dishes, but between the bourekas, the hummus, and a colorful Israeli salad, it was tasty nonetheless:

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After buying some groceries, we had time to watch Geography Now, in which the host did an admirable job of summarizing the ongoing governance dispute between the Israeli and Palestinian people.

During my years at Brandeis University, a secular (non-religious) institution that was nevertheless founded by the American Jewish community in the same year that Israel declared its independence, I became acquainted with a handful of Israeli and Palestinian students (as well as plenty of Jews, Muslims, and Christians of other nationalities). You might think that this experience has left me with an enlightened perspective on the whole debate, but instead I gained a quiet terror of accidentally offending someone whenever the topic came up in conversation. I like to feel morally justified about my political views, but for an outside observer to determine who is “right” in the Israeli-Palestinian power struggle seems—at least on historical and legal grounds—to be an impossible task.

The same anxiety gripped me again when I realized that I would be the one to write this account of our weekend globetrot, but I think the video above (along with a similar synopsis from Crash Course World History that we watched immediately afterwards) provided a satisfactory overview.

Jess outdid herself this weekend in preparing homemade ingredients, also mixing some za’atar and ras el hanout, two popular Middle-Eastern spice blends that are often used in Israeli cuisine. I’d make use of both, later in the weekend. For lunch, however, Jess made an Israeli workingman’s lunch with pita, hummus, chopped vegetable salad, and scrambled eggs. (No word on what a typical workingwoman likes to eat.)

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After lunch, I tried making some of Israel’s famous chocolate balls—using a recipe from an Israeli bakery in New York State, no less—although my measurement conversions were a bit off and the results weren’t quite as spherical as they should have been.

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We also had time to watch an episode of Rick Steves’ Europe in which he travelled not to Europe but to Asia—that is, to Israel. (We had also seen a show that Steves filmed in Iran, but that was branded separately from his European series.)

Rick began the episode with the prudent announcement that the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians was “beyond the scope” of a humble travel program, but spent much of the episode talking about it anyway. Still, we learned a lot about the city of Jerusalem as well as various locations in Israel such as Tel Aviv and the Sea of Galilee.

I made a pair of savory Israeli dishes for dinner. The first was carrots roasted with Jess’s za’atar, to be served with the labneh she had made earlier, and the second was a vegan bowl of roasted eggplant, pepper, kale, and chickpeas topped with avocado, cucumber, tomato, and a thick lemon-tahini dressing. (We had learned on Geography Now that Israel has the largest vegan population per capita in the world.) Here’s the full spread:

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Our film for the evening was Lemon Tree (2008), the touching story of a Palestinian woman living in the West Bank whose new neighbor across the Green Line just so happens to be the Israeli minister of defense (himself named Israel). Tragically, her grove of beautiful lemon trees is ordered to be destroyed because of the perceived threat to the minister’s security. To my surprise, I learned later that the film is based on a true story. A preview:

The next morning, we had another kibbutz breakfast of Israeli salad, hummus, and bourekas, while listening to a playlist of music performed by the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra.

To prepare ourselves for a lunch out (below) we joined Mark Wiens for his “Ultimate Jerusalem Food Tour,” which was indeed rather epic in scale. Among other things, we learned about the particulars of hummus taste and texture while visiting some establishments that had been in business for hundreds of years.

Our main activity on Sunday was a stroll down the avenue to experience the first Great Buffalo Jewbilee, hosted for the first time by the Buffalo Jewish Federation at the Temple Beth Zion and the Jewish Community Center of Buffalo:

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The festival included food vendors, live music, cooking demonstrations, and tours of Beth Zion and the JCC. The fact that we were required to undergo a security screening before entering the grounds—unheard of at the popular Greek festival just up the street—was depressing but understandable. Soon after arriving, we visited the temple’s Cofeld Judaic Museum. Amidst the displays of Jewish cultural history, the collection included various artifacts from Israel:

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I don’t think the menorahs were from Israel, but I’m sure that the country has plenty of them around! The artwork at the top of this post is a detail from Shraga Weil’s Biblical Musicians: The Harpists, which we found hanging in the temple art collection.

Since it was lunchtime, our thoughts soon turned to the many food vendors whose booths lined the main festival promenade. None of the food seemed particularly Israeli, so we started with a roast turkey sandwich (for me) and some potato kugel (for Jess).

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We followed this later with a potato knish and some potato latkes with apple sauce:

 

 

 

 

 

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After an informative tour of the Beth Zion sanctuary itself (designed by the same architect who had designed the three denominational chapels at Brandeis) we wrapped up a couple of scrumptious rugelach and headed home:

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Our final activity for the weekend, before another delicious helping of carrots and chopped salad, was a short film about living on an Israeli kibbutz in the mid-twentieth century. These socialist communes are fascinating to learn about, and provided inspiration to the late Ursula K. Le Guin while writing one of my favorite novels, The Dispossessed. With many small countries (Israel is only the size of New Jersey) we have been hard-pressed to fill an entire weekend, but this was just another example of how much history and culture the State of Israel has to offer. L’chaim!

–Derek

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