There is not a lot of hope floating around the world of Israeli-Palestinian relations these days. We’ve got Hamas still in charge in Gaza, as dead-set against coexistence with Israel as ever. We’ve got Netanyahu in charge in Israel, forming ever more hawkish coalitions and sticking his finger in the eye of a two-state solution by moving ahead with massive new settlements in and near East Jerusalem.
But here is hope… in a cookbook.
My daughter had a job providing holiday retail help this past week at Rockridge Home, a hip, friendly gift store in our neighborhood. Yesterday she pointed me to a cookbook they sell called Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is a beautifully-produced hardcover recipe book with gorgeous photos of food and people from Jerusalem. No big deal, right? There are lots of beautiful cookbooks around. But Jerusalem is co-written by an Israeli and a Palestinian — who are warmly willing to credit the cuisines and cultures of the many peoples living in that disputed city.
This is in distinct contrast to the more common approach, which is to fight over who invented hummus and falafel. Jews invented it! No, Arabs! No, Jews! As if it’s not enough to fight over land, water and sovereignty, people even have to fight over sandwich fixings.
In any case, co-authors Yotam Ottolenghi (Jewish from West Jerusalem) and Sami Tamimi (Palestinian from East Jerusalem) work together as chefs and restaurants owners in London. They’ve both lived abroad for longer than they lived in Jerusalem, which perhaps accounts for their ability to collaborate like this.
The book has plenty of wonderful-sounding recipes from Jerusalem. Stuffed artichokes with peas & dill. Stuffed eggplant with lamb & pine nuts. Butternut squash & tahini spread. But more importantly, it acknowledges the central role that Jerusalem — its tastes, its smells — plays in the deepest hearts of both Jewish and Arab residents.
The flavors and smells of this city are our mother tongue. We imagine them and dream in them, even though we’ve adopted some new, perhaps more sophisticated languages. They define comfort for us, excitement, joy, serene bliss. Everything we taste and everything we cook is filtered through the prism of our childhood experiences; food our mothers fed us, wild herbs picked on school trips, days spent in markets, the smell of the dry soil on a summer’s day, goat and sheep roaming the hills, fresh pitas withy ground lamb, chopped parsley, chopped liver, black figs, smoky chops, syrupy cakes, crumbly cookies….
In a recipe for Roasted sweet potatoes and fresh figs, the authors describe how Sami as a boy used to sneak onto a neighbor’s roof and steal the sweet figs she was drying there. In a section on seafood, they describe ten-year-old Yotam’s first disgusted taste of gefilte fish — “sweet, gray and smeared with gelatinous gunk, it was perceived as a typical remnant of the old Ashkenazic world that was best left behind in eastern Europe.”
This is a book that acknowledges and cherishes those childhood memories. It doesn’t ignore the political conflict. But it seeks common ground — even where Jewish and Arab foods may be different, their emotional resonance is shared.
It also pays homage to cultural traditions in Jerusalem such as Russian, Greek, Armenian, Lithuanian, Bukharan, Yemeni and Ethiopian that are often overlooked in broad-brush discussions of Israeli versus Palestinian claims.
In this soup of a city it is completely impossible to find out who invented this delicacy and who brought that one with them. The food cultures are mashed and fused together in a way that is impossible to unravel. They interact all the time and influence one another other constantly, so nothing is pure any more. In facet, nothing ever was. Jerusalem was never an isolated bastion. Over millennia it has seen countless immigrants, occupiers, visitors and merchants — all bringing foodsand recipes from the four corners of the earth.
So why does this mean hope to me?
Certainly there is the inspirational image of the Palestinian and Israeli chefs as partners, collaborators and friends.
But it is also their philosophical approach — acknowledge the “other,” acknowledge the other’s deep emotional connection to this place, and use that common connection to build a partnership.
(Rather than continually trying to trump the other: We came first. We’re more oppressed. We’re more righteous. You don’t really count. In fact, you don’t really exist.)
This is what we will need in order to achieve a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians — enough people who accept the other’s deep ties to the land, who respect the other’s culture, who can perhaps even celebrate the commonalities.
Maybe it requires living in diaspora for this to happen, away from the daily body-blows of checkpoints and missile strikes, in a place with a melting-pot tradition like London or America, in a country where the damp, cold winters make a common longing for sunny olive-studded hillsides and fresh tomato-cucumber salads so much more apparent.
This is only a cookbook. And I haven’t even tried making any of the recipes yet.
But it’s also a tiny spark of hope.
Thank you Ten Speed Press/Random House for publishing this! At $35, it’s pretty pricey. But the production values are high, the pictures are beautiful, you can learn a lot about the cultures and foods of Jerusalem, and yes, your $35 buys you a little bit of hope.