Posts Tagged ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’

Hope in a cookbook

December 24, 2012

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 cover

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….

Jerusalem market, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / photo by Adam Hinton

Jerusalem market, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / photo by Adam Hinton

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.”

Hummus, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / Photo by Jonathan Lovekin

Hummus, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / Photo by Jonathan Lovekin

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.

Jerusalem-style bagels, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / Photo by Adam Hinton

Jerusalem-style bagels, from Jerusalem: A Cookbook / Photo by Adam Hinton

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.)

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

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.


Click here to order Jerusalem from an independent bookstore. Or click here to order it (at a discount) from Barnes & Noble. 

Silwan, Ir David and the Politics of Archeology

December 2, 2011

On my one free Friday in Israel, my old friend Danny agreed to play tourist with me and visit Jerusalem. We wandered around the Arab souk in the Old City, which was just as filled with smells of zaatar and Turkish coffee as I remembered. We tried to join a free guided tour, only to distract ourselves in conversation and lose the tour group completely within the first three minutes.

“Let’s visit Hezekiah’s Tunnel,” I suggested.

This was an archeological site that hadn’t yet opened when I lived in Jerusalem in 1984-5 — a 1/3-mile-long tunnel deep that had been used to bring water from a spring into the Old City around the year 700 BCE. My daughter had visited it with a Jewish American teen tour in 2010. My brother and sister-in-law had visited it with a tour group from their synagogue last summer. They all raved about it – what wasn’t to love about walking for a quarter of a mile with flashlights through a wet, dark, evocative 2,700-year-old tunnel?

When we reached the entrance to the Tunnel site, though, we found a couple of dozen people sitting on prayer rugs in the street with others gathered around them.. A TV truck. A man in a courtyard giving a speech in Arabic. And a banner  announcing a “protest tent against home eviction in wadi hilweh / silwan.”

Silwan protest / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Classic Jerusalem: A casual morning outing morphs into a dose of cultural conflict and duelling realities.

It turns out that the tunnel is part of an archeological/tourism complex called Ir David that is mired in Israeli-Palestinian politics. There is a legitimate, fascinating archeological site there – the excavations were done by professional archeologists over the course of the 20th century. But then management of the site was outsourced to a group affiliated with Jewish nationalist-religious settlers who are determined to turn Silwan, the poor Arab neighborhood around the excavations, into a Jewish neighborhood.

Dozens of Palestinian families living above or alongside the archeological site are facing eviction from their homes. One was due to be evicted a few days after our visit.

And the archeological site itself has been turned into an exercise in nationalist propaganda. We watched a 20-minute 3-D film (with Avatar-type glasses and snazzy special effects) that combined the most kitschy Charlton-Heston-style images of ancient Israelites with a self-congratulatory, triumphalist narrative – all about how Ir David was the ancient, beloved home of the Jews, how it was captured by King David in blood and bravery, how now children’s voices are heard again there “for the first time in 2,000 years.” (As if no children had lived or played on that hillside in all those centuries that Jews were gone!)

Danny and I continued on and walked part of the tunnel. It’s impressive and cool. But knowing that, above you, people are being evicted as part of a religious land grab tends to dampen the historical thrill.

Inside Hezekiah's Tunnel / Photo by Tamar Hayardeni

Walkways leading into Ir David excavations / Photo by Ilana DeBare

And this is what kills me, makes me absolutely furious.  American Jews visiting Ir David with an organized tour – my brother’s family, my own daughter — experience Hezekiah’s Tunnel as a great romp. An archeological theme park.

They have no clue about the nationalist agenda and the political subtext. They have no idea that there is another side to the story. They are being duped and manipulated by the settlers.

When I lived in Jerusalem in 1984-5, the fascination and also the heartbreak was that the city holds two such completely duelling realities. Each one has its truths, and each one has its propaganda and myths.

It kills me when American Jews go to Israel and see only one side of the story. Sure, each side has its propaganda. But that makes it even more important for people to seek out and hear the stories of the other side.

And archeology doesn’t have to be like this. There are ways to do archeology that respect living communities as well as dead artifacts. There are ways to do archeology that tell an inclusive story of all the peoples living at a site over the millennia, not just the story of those currently in power.

Poking around on the Web later, I found a cool site on archeology and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, called Emek Shaveh. There Raphael Greenberg of Tel Aviv University paints an inspiring vision of how archeology at Silwan / Ir David could be inclusive, people-focused and a force for peace:

Archaeology can provide a robust and viable alternative to nationalist and exclusivist readings of history. Jerusalem’s material remains are so varied and contradictory that only by ignoring large parts of them can a single narrative be offered. Once it is recognized that conflicting narratives can coexist, and that there is no unitary historical truth, then the stranglehold of the past on the present begins to weaken…. Far from the mere confirmation of prior beliefs, the best kind of archaeology challenges what we think we know about the world and about humanity. Perhaps a little less complacency — and a little more humility — about our past is what we need to give Jerusalem a viable future.

We can do so much better, so easily.