A PERFECT STORM

Today I had great plans to write a summertime food blogpost about the joys of the upcoming festival of Shavuout, the Feast of Weeks. All week long I’d been developing and testing lots of amazing dairy recipes. But life here in Israel got in the way. I can pretty much say that in the past 36 hours, life has changed drastically for my fellow Israeli citizens. I can pretty much state that we are now at war.

It was bound to happen. It was a perfect storm. We saw it coming on the horizon several weeks ago.

First, a huge thank you to all those who have reached out to check on us from the US, France and the the UK. It really means a ton to us that the world knows our situation. Many of you have been asking some really great questions, and several have sent newspaper accounts and TV news clips from abroad. I’m really not surprised (OK. still part of me IS surprised) at how much mis-information and downright inaccuracies are being disseminated. So I’ve been working on a chronological and factual (and as non-biased as I can be) account to share with you.

Things have been heating up here since the beginning of Ramadan, about four weeks ago. There have been calls from Iran, from Fatah (PA/Palestinian Authority)head, Abbas and from local imams to kill and attack Jews and to level Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Abbas, who is in year 16 of his 4 year term, just cancelled the upcoming election because he said Israel will not let the Arab population of East Jerusalem vote. This is unequivocally not true. Any Israeli citizen can vote. Those in the Judaea and Samaria areas (West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) who are Palestinian citizens are all eligible to vote in their own elections.

There is a power struggle going on. Two groups, Islamic Jihad and Hamas are vying for dominance over the PA. They see Fatah (the PA) as an old man who is quite feeble. They realize that the youth of the Arab areas are looking for heroes. Hamas – the word ‘hamas’ in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic actually means ‘violence!!’ – is trying to take over as legitimate leaders of the Palestinian resistance in order to show they are the ones who are willing to put themselves on the line to “stand up to Israel.” Theirs is both a symbolic game and a strategic political move.

Israel, at this time, has a transitional government at best. After four elections in less than two years, a new government made up of rival coalitions coming together is failing to be cobbled together for either unity or new leadership. Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party did not muster up enough seats to form a working government, so the mandate has been passed on to Yair Lapid. It’s been dysfunctional up to this point. We will probably be heading towards a fifth election this summer. It is a perceived sign of weakness.

Former US President Donald Trump, love him or hate him, was extremely favorable towards Israel. One of the things he did was to cut funding to Hamas, who used humanitarian aid to fund terrorism. Under the new US Biden-Harris administration, millions of dollars have already begun to flow back into the PA. This will help fund their “pay to slay” program which gives a nice stipend to the families of terrorists who have perpetrated attacks against the Jews. It’s working. Drive-by shootings, stabbings, and rock-hurling at cars and pedestrians has been on an uptick in the past two months. There have been several casualties over just the past week alone.

The phenomenon of social media: in the past month a new phenomenon has developed. Palestinian youths, mostly in East Jerusalem have been filming themselves slapping Orthodox Jewish youth on the Jerusalem light rail; slashing Israeli flags; throwing rocks at people; pushing down elderly Jewish men; taunting groups of Orthodox schoolgirls and posting it onto the TikTok platform. The video clips have not been taken down, and violence begets violence. Over-zealous Orthodox Jewish teens can be seen trying to engage and incite the Palestinian Youth between the Jaffa and Damascus Gates outside the Old City. It’s a mess.

The back story behind one flashpoint:the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem:

The legal case of the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood goes back forty years. It is not an example of ethnic cleansing as is being reported by the AP and Reuters. It is a protracted legal case. From the second century until 1948, it had been a Jewish part part of East Jerusalem and was known as the Shimon haTsaddik neighborhood. The great Talmudic scholar Simon the Righteous is buried there and the homes in the neighborhood surrounding his tomb was a Jewish enclave. In 1875, the land was officially sold to Jewish families by the Ottoman Turks who controlled the area. The Ottomans were great records- keepers and the deeds to the homes and properties are well documented both by the Jewish families that lived there and by old record books. In 1948, when Israel declared independence, she was attacked on all fronts by her Arab neighbors. The Arabs living in East Jerusalem (alongside their Jewish neighbors) were instructed to leave the area – and Israel – and flee to Jordan until after the war. When the area was Judenrein, they would be allowed back into Israel, and the Jewish property would be given to them. In 1948, Transjordan gained control of East Jerusalem, taking the Jews prisoner, killing most, and displacing many. The Jewish property was given to the returning Arabs.They renamed the neighborhood a mile from the Old City, Sheik Jarrah, physician to Saladin, who was buried there during the Crusades. Subsequently, the Old City of Jerusalem was closed off to all Jews and Christians who wanted to worship at their respective holy sites. Only Muslims were allowed into the area.

After the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel regained control of the Holy City and beyond into East Jerusalem, a law was passed allowing Jews whose families had been evicted to reclaim their property, providing they were able to demonstrate visible documentation of ownership. The legal case was first opened in the early 1970s in Israel. The Sephardic Jewish owners sued the Palestinian families living there and demanded their eviction. The Magistrate Court in 1982 ruled that the Palestinian families would enjoy Protected Tenant Status. They would be allowed to remain in the eight homes in question provided they pay a fair monthly rent to the Jewish ‘landlords.’ They never paid rent and since the 1980s have been carrying out what has been deemed as illegal construction to and adjacent to the properties in dispute. The case has come up in court on numerous occasions over the past forty years. This past February the Jerusalem District Court decided that in the absence of payment of rent, the residents must vacate four of the properties. The tenants appealed to the Supreme Court of Israel. Several of the Arab families wanted to reach a compromise, but were threatened by the PA with physical violence if they gave in to the Jews in any way. The final verdict (which has once more been postponed) was supposed to be delivered next week. It’s a flashpoint. Just this morning a friend from Los Angeles sent me the Reuters article with the headline “East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah becomes an emblem of the Palestinian struggle.” Needless to say, the article does not provide real historical details (of which I just detailed a few) and was filled with misinformation at best. It’s unfortunate.

We here in Israel are at an intersection of holy times for the various faiths.For the Jewish people, we are at the end of the spring festivals. We recently celebrated the Passover, and Independence Day. This past Sunday night/Monday was Jerusalem Day (celebrating the retaking of the Jerusalem in 1967 the and reopening of the Holy City to all faiths). The Muslims call it Naqba, or the disgrace. They call Jerusalem Al Quds. The Roman Catholic Christians recently celebrated Easter and were looking forward to their Pentecost (the Jewish Shavuot) feast this upcoming Sunday. Eastern Orthodox celebrated their Easter this week. The summer pilgrimage festival of Shavuot begins this Sunday. It marks the date Moses received the Torah and Ten Commandments on Mt Sinai. It’s also the late spring barley and wheat harvest festival and official start of summer. And for the Arabs, it’s the end of Ramadan. The sacrificial festival of Eid was yesterday. So, in a land of extreme religious and national fervor, one can see all these coinciding events as a powder keg waiting to explode.

The next series of stories were sent to me by friends in the UK and the US where it is being reported (the Guardian, NBC, CNN, New York Times, Washington Post) that Israeli police started the conflict by attacking innocent women and children worshippers at the Al Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount complex. That “the assault on Al Aqsa is a Jewish effort to suppress religious freedom.” Reading many of these articles, I’ve come to realize the narrative is about the story you wish to tell, not necessarily all the facts. So – here goes:

First, Israel is just coming out of a year-long lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority of the adult population have been vaccinated, but there are many that have not. Early on during Ramadan, the police forces on the Temple Mount tried to impose a limit on the number of people that could visit the Temple Mount at any given time. Masks were to be worn, social distancing observed and barricades to control entry and flow to be honored. This was deemed oppressive by the Muslims, so the restrictions were eased. Jews were not allowed onto the Temple Mount during Ramadan.

After the tragedy (45 deaths) at Mount Meron during the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer two weeks ago, barricades were set up in East Jerusalem at the Lion’s Gate, the New Gate and the Damascus Gate. This was for crowd control and safety reasons as well as for COVID social distancing. There were also crowd control measures put in place (extra police and barricades) at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for their Eastern Orthodox Holy Flame Miracle. These were tolerated by the Christians, but barely. There had been unrests and riots in the past two weeks in Jaffa (in Southern Tel Aviv) and Jerusalem by the Arabs there over perceived injustices; and also by the Jewish population who were protesting political events. When the riots in East Jerusalem -involving firecrackers, molotov cocktails and large rocks – threatened to grow out of control, the police backed down and removed all barricades. The damage (perceived oppression) had already been done.

Flashpoint Jerusalem:

This past Sunday evening marked the beginning of Jerusalem Day. Traditionally Jewish people from all across the country come to Jerusalem dressed in white and blue waving Israeli flags. There is a flag parade through the Old City and into West Jerusalem. There is much singing and dancing and entertainment. It’s a family celebration. It is also seen as a provocation to the Arab population. This year the end of Ramadan fell during this time. In the days leading up to the riots on the Temple Mount complex, Palestinians had begun stockpiling a large cache of rocks, slabs, fireworks and Molotov cocktails at the site, turning it from a holy place to a well-fortified citadel. This past Friday, a few hundred troublemakers from the thousands of Muslim worshippers leaving their morning prayers at the mosque, began pelting the Israeli police officers with rocks. Many of their targets were Arab Christian and Druze officers who choose to serve Israel in the military and police forces (this is seen as the ultimate betrayal). The Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the Dome of the Rock and their holy mosque with cameras ready to catch the moment the police entered, breaking down the barricades to arrest the perpetrators. Videos from inside the mosque show tear gas and stun grenades landing inside their prayer rooms. The video clips were leaked to news outlets and social media, going viral throughout the world.

The violence spilled over to Sunday evening, when the Palestinians started hurling large rocks onto the Western Wall Plaza down below, hitting and scattering Jewish worshippers there. The rioters launched a molotov that was supposed to go over the Wall onto those gathered below. Instead, it was launched into a tall cypress tree, setting it and two other neighboring trees ablaze above the Western Wall. The image of the Temple Mount ablaze was a portent of what was to come.

Two rockets were fired at 9:36 by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. One was intercepted by Iron Dome Aerial Defense. The other landed in an open field. At 11:34 two more rockets were fired from the strip which fell short and exploded inside Gaza. On Monday, thousands of Jewish people of all ages started to gather around the HolyCity for the celebrations to take place. Balloons with incendiary devices attached were sent over to Israel, setting many acres ablaze in the areas surrounding the Strip. The sirens started blaring by 06:24 Monday morning warning the residents of the areas surrounding Sderot, Ashkelon, and Beersheva to take cover in their bomb shelters. The barrage from Isalmic Jihad had started. By 6:30 pm, sirens had been sounded in Jerusalem, the first time since 2014. Seven missiles landed in the Judaean Forest to the south of Jerusalem as well as in fields in Beit Shemesh.

Iran issued their Al Quds Day message calling for the bombing of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and the murder of “Jewish Dogs and Polytheists” (Christians). The New York Times posted pictures of what they called “far-right Israelis marching on Monday outside the Old City.” It was, in fact, white-shirted, jeans-wearing B’nei Akiva youth group teens with backpacks walking to the Western Wall. It’s a very typical site in Jerusalem any day of the week. On Memri TV news, a public service announcement was made by a local imam instructing Palestinians to murder Jews. “A knife costs 5 shekels. Just 5 shekels. Sharpen the knife and use it to cut the artery at the back of the neck. (He displays how it should be done) Then cut the head off every Jew in Jerusalem.” The flames are fanned.

On my mobile phone, I have an app called red alert. It buzzes and vibrates every time a missile is fired into Israel pinpointing the trajectory. If the alert is for your area, you have anywhere from 18-40 seconds to run for shelter before it lands. Not much time. Think about it. Also, a loud warning siren goes off in the vicinity of the incoming rocket. Since Sunday night, my app has been buzzing nonstop all hours of the day and night. We live in the North, about two hours from the action. It’s idyllically quiet here. We had to drive down to Sheba Medical Center for my husband’s appointment yesterday. On the way to the hospital, just northeast of Tel Aviv, we saw where one missile had recently landed. From the upper story window of the medical building, I was able to see what looked like multiple contrails and then little white puffs of cloud coming from the Ashdod area to the south. These were missiles being intercepted by Iron Dome. It was surreal and horrifically mesmerizing at the same time. One after another in long lines. Contrails. Cloud puffs. Contrails. Cloud puffs.

The shelling has not let up. There have been over 1200 missiles fired at us. For the most part, many have landed in vacant lots or have been intercepted. Many have misfired and landed back in Gaza. So far, several homes and apartments have been hit, some destroyed completely. A school and a hospital have both received major damages. I can’t imagine all the civilians living in the area. How they are running to bomb shelters; hearing the sirens continually; hearing the loud booms and feeling the vibrations. All night long into the next days.

By the time we drove home, Hamas had expanded their target area North to Tel Aviv and beyond. I’m sure there are lots of videos circulating on the internet. It’s been hard to keep up. My son, at university in Herzliya, spent most of the night in the dorm’s underground bomb shelter. Children’s birthday parties and weddings were interrupted by the sirens. The barrages are going all the time, even as I write this. So far over 1250 rockets have been launched at us. A city bus was hit last night in Holon. Thankfully most people managed to get out before the blast, but seven were injured in that bombing. Babies are being born as women are going into labor prematurely from the stress. Yesterday a missile hit and exploded inside a home in Ashkelon. An Indian caretaker, Soumya Santhosh was killed because she would not leave the bedridden elderly woman she cared for. Both perished. I don’t have the name of the old woman, but Soumya had a husband and nine year old child back in India. A woman (name not released) was killed in Rishon LeTzion while running to a shelter last night. Ben Gurion airport has been temporarily closed to all incoming and outgoing flights due to shelling. 52 year old Halil Awad and his 16 year old daughter, Nadine were killed overnight in the Central Israeli city of Old by a rocket attack from Gaza. Most schools and businesses from Herzliya to Beersheva are closed today. Highways have been closed. Public transporation halted in those areas most likely to incur attack.

The IDF is currently operating in response to these attacks by striking terror targets and operatives in Gaza. It has been named “Operation Guardian of the Walls.” Two senior terrorists, Ayad Fathi Faik Sharish, the commander of the Hamas Militants and Samah Abdel Mamlouch, Islamic Jihad head of the rocket unit have been taken down. Unfortunately Hamas has been known to store their weapons, have their bomb factories and launch their weapons from the most heavily populated areas in Gaza: schools, mosques, hospitals and high density apartment buildings. Although many IDF Air Force sorties have been carried out, the unfortunate fact is there will most likely be a high occurrence of civilian casualties despite “Roof Knocking.” In roof knocking, one minute before an aerial strike, a dummy pipe targets the proposed structure to be bombed to allow any civilians to escape. I don’t know of any other army that does this. Still, the EU, UN Security Council, UN Human Rights Council, Canada, China, Iran, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the US administrations have already condemned or expressed deep concern over Israeli show of force.

In the meantime, we are praying a lot. A pray for an end to all violence. For immediate de-escalation. For no other fronts to open up. For peace and cooler heads to prevail. Over 5000 IDF reservists have been called up. The entire country is in a state of high alert. The barrages are continual, coming in spurts of 10-30 rockets. Sometimes there’s a 15-20 minute lull, then my red alert begins to sound again.Even in the North, we are under a curfew at dark. Last night there were demonstrations/riots in Acco, Sakhnin, Madj al Krum, Nazareth, Kana, and other neighboring Arab villages. Tensions are running high. John went out to run errands this morning and all seemed normal here. We’ve been sent instructions by the Home Front Command.

The Home Front Command is an army unit tasked with assuring the best level of local preparedness possible. They disseminate safety procedures, and instructions in all languages. They open up the public bomb shelters and stock them with water. We have been instructed to stay calm ad continue with our daily activities, yet be constantly vigilant and aware of our surroundings at all times. We have a well-stocked miklat (bomb shelter) in our basement. On my bedroom door I have a post it. On it is written in red Sharpie: Tamar- shoes, phone & charger, purse. John – shoes, keys, wallet, phone, dog. Not to forget to grab these items if we have to make a run to the miklat. It’s an interesting life. I shall keep you posted.

On a more humorous note: one friend who was texting us from CA last night wrote, “Do you have an escape plan? Can’t you just drive across the border to Lebanon or Syria and catch a plane from the airports there???? What is your plan B?” We were in hysterics. Thanks for the laugh, S…

Refreshing Israeli Salads!!

Now that spring is here with warmer weather and the wonderful Israeli holidays – tomorrow we will celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Independence Day, and our Muslim neighbors just started Ramadan, so fireworks and festivities and lots and lots of terrific food will abound. Just last week, we went on a field trip to the south with a great friend. On the way home, we stopped at a lovely Israeli restaurant in Beit Shean, and were treated to a glorious feast, which is completely typical of these little home-style eateries. Before we even received our menu, 18 small bowls of salads were brought out with the fluffiest, cloud-like pita. The dishes included smoked eggplant dip like a babaganoush; humus with olive oil and zata’ar; a spicy sliced carrot salad with hot peppers; corn salad with chives and dill and bell peppers in a simple vinegar; a cabbage salad with corn, dill, chopped pickle and a spiced mayo; bulgur salad; tuna salad; chopped tomatoes and cucumbers lightly dressed with lemon juice and olive oil; and tons of other savory salads. It’s absolutely amazing!

When we received our menus, the staff brought out four large green salads: a fattoush that was out of this world with fresh picked field greens (and I do mean seasonal wild greens from the field like arugula and dandelion and cress and mustards!); a parsley salad that I could eat all day long; a spinach salad; and a slightly grilled Arabic lettuce (Romaine) salad that was sprinkled with lemon and oil. Oh my goodness…. what else could one possibly eat after all that? We ordered a big plate of veggies on the grill drizzled with Ethiopian tehineh and a huge bowl of mejaddara, which is rice with lentils and fried onions and Middle Eastern spices. Plus they brought out fresh olives, a dish of hot mushrooms in a sweet sauce, and about five other things I couldn’t even taste. We were all so stuffed!!! Just roll us out. Please!!!!

So I’ve been busy in the past few weeks fixing a perfecting some “typical” Middle Eastern/Israeli salads to share with you. I do hope you’ll enjoy! we picked up the first fresh figs of the season, so my first is a fig salad with bulgur. I do hope you can find bulgur where you live, if you are reading this outside Israel. It should be available in the rice or grain section in larger groceries and specialty stores. Basically, it’s a parboiled cracked wheat that can be used straight from the bag or soaked in hot water to soften.

BULGUR SALAD WITH FRESH FIGS

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup uncooked bulgur
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped shallots
  • 2 TBSP apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
  • 8-10 fresh figs, washed, halved
  • 1/4 – 1/3 cup crumbled goat cheese or feta

Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add 1 1/2 tsp oil to coat bottom and add bulgur. Cook about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally until slightly nutty and golden. Add 1 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat. Simmer until liquid is absorbed. Place shallots in a small bowl and cover with water. Let stand 10 minutes. Drain. Combine remaining 1 1/2 TBSP oil, chopped shallots, vinegar, salt and pepper in a small bowl, stirring with a whisk. In a large salad bowl place bulgur, half of oil mixture, parsley, and walnuts. stir to combine. Top with figs, cheese and a few parsley sprigs. Drizzle with remaining oil mixture. Serve warm or cold.

FRESH PARSLEY SALAD WITH A CRUNCH

So easy to prepare!!!! Just chop fine 2 large washed bunches of fresh parsley. Add 1/4 cup green onions, chopped fine. In a medium bowl, combine

  • 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1/4 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1/3 cup sesame seeds
  • 1/3 cup sultanas or golden raisins
  • 1/3 cup peanuts, crushed or chopped very fine

Scatter this on the top of the salad and drizzle the smallest amount of canola or extra version olive oil on top. That’s it. Simple. Delish! Healthy! Vegan.

VERY ISRAELI FRUITED CAULIFLOWER BULGAR SALAD

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 medium large head of cauliflower
  • 1 cup bulgur
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped fine
  • 1/4 cup chopped dried apricots
  • 1/3 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/2 fresh lemon, squeezed, pits removed
  • drizzle extra virgin olive oil
  • tehineh (if a paste, mix with a little warm water to form thick sauce)

Pulse the cauliflower in a food processor until it resembles rice. Soak the bulgur in very hot water for about 15 -25 minutes to soften. Drain. Chop the parsley into a very fine dice, stems and all. In a large bowl, mix cauliflower, parsley, bulgur, dried fruit and nuts. Pour the lemon juice and drizzle the olive oil over the top. Season with a little sea salt and freshly cracked pepper, to taste. Place a large serving spoon full of the salad onto a plate. Adjacent to the salad, you a little tehineh. Mix together to eat. This is absolutely fresh and fabulous. High in fiber. Vegan.

FATTOUSH SALAD

This salad is light and easy, healthy and satisfying. a great spring or summer lunch or side salad. I add shredded feta (I buy a block of feta and hand grate it over the salad) to serve as a dairy lunch. You can keep it vegan or serve it as an appetizer or side salad and omit the cheese.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 3 large cucumbers
  • 4 medium tomatoes
  • 1 small red/purple onion
  • 1 small yellow or orange bell pepper
  • 1 cup toasted pita chips
  • sea salt, pepper
  • juice of 1 lemon, squeezed
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 TBSP zata’ar
  • 2 TBSP toasted sesame seeds
  • 1/2 cup shredded feta (or mozzarella)

In a large bowl, cut the veggies into bite-sized chunks. toss with lemon juice, oil and seasonings. The zata’ar is a spice that can be found in larger groceries, specialty or MidEast markets. It’s tasted wild thyme/oregano that is ground with sumac, salt and toasted sesame seeds. Toss the pita chips on top along with the grated cheese. sprinkle a little more zata’ar on the top.

Also, this is fresh garlic season here in Israel. I love this time of year. This year, I bought 100 bulbs of garlic. I braided 60 and have them hanging up and drying downstairs in the laundry/utility room. and I’ve experimented with the others. Peeling the fresh bulbs, I submerged a bunch in fresh olive oil. Those are in my fridge, soaking up the flavors for a month to be used in salads. With 5 peeled bulbs, I submerged them in a jar of olive oil with fresh cilantro and lemon slices. I took 8 bulbs, cut off the tops and roasted them in a low-oven for a couple hours. Those I will spread on breads. And then I pickled a bunch of the freshly-peeled cloves, by placing them in a Mason jar of red wine vinegar with pickling spices and sea salt. After these cure, I will use them as a side to cheese platters and to chop into salads (tuna, salmon salad) and stuff into olives.

Honey and Wine

Israel is a country that never ceases to surprise us. Last week was khol ha mo’ed, the intermediate days of the Passover holiday. It’s a time for hikes, picnics, barbecues, visits to friends, and tiyuulim, which is basically day-tripping. On the recommendation of a couple friends, John and I decided to visit a fairly local winery. Our friends had been raving about their rosé and white wines, so we set out for Jezreel Winery on the small moshav at Hannaton. Oh my goodness, it was packed!! Every picnic table was taken and all outdoor cafe and bistro seating was occupied. The sommelier told us there would be table service for the tasting of all their wines which included a cheese platter, but the wait could be up to three hours. We decided to return another less crowded week, and instead go somewhere else.

It was a beautiful day, the winter storms over, and every hill and roadside field was awash in a rainbow of floral colors. A great day for a ride. We were minutes away from another favorite haunt: the tiny moshav of Alonei haGalil (Galilee Oaks). On the road to my favorite antiques shop, I remember seeing a small, hand-painted sign for another local winery. And this is where the story gets good. We pulled off the single lane ‘main road’ onto a little dirt path and there it was! It had a very familiar fell to it: homey and reminiscent of my childhood in the southern United States. Under a large spreading oak tree was a log cabin! More like an old tobacco curing shack, the the of which used to dot the fields of rural Virginia/North Carolina. Not something one would expect to find in the lower Galilee of Israel. It was the tasting room of Meshek Ofir Wines.

As soon as we entered, I knew right then and there I’d found my new Happy Place. The tasting room was warm, cozy and inviting, and the young sommeliers spoke both English and Hebrew fluently. Besides a nice selection of wine, it was also the tasting room for all their local honey. Tamar, our hostess for the morning, ushered to a porch table under the oak canopy and brought us a flight of six wines to try – all generous amounts – and a gorgeous cheese platter featuring a selection of local goat cheeses, labaneh, pestos, tapenade, fresh veggies, nuts, dates, and because it was Passover, matzah.

There were only two other couples there. Meshek Ofir is a tiny, family-run business that is not well known yet. Their wines are not sold in stores, and they do not market widely. Anyway, as we were enjoying this delightful picnic, a beautiful young woman joined us ( I had mentioned I wanted to find out more about the history of this place for a possible article). Adva is the daughter of the owners. And she began the only-in-Israel story of her family, their history, and the log cabin.

Tzvika Ofir came from a family of beekeepers at Hogla, a small farming kibbutz between Hadera and Netanya. After his IDF service, he met Hadas, a lovely woman from another agricultural moshav. They fell in love and got married. After traveling the world for a year, they returned to Israel and made a home at a newly-started moshav, Alonei haGalil. The newlyweds started beekeeping in 1984 with a few hives from his father, Yishai, getting their own license to be honey farmers (which is now a closed profession here0. It’s one of Tzvika’s passions, and is a win-win endeavor for the farmer as well as the beekeeper. He gets up at 4 a.m. to care for the hives: he now has over 800, collecting the honey and moving the bee boxes to different locations throughout Israel. He smokes out the bees to keep them drowsy and transports the hives in his truck to different fields and orchards. His bees are the pollinators for the different plants, and depending on the flower, the honeybees produce different flavors of the liquid gold.

It’s now the end of citrus season, and soon the mango and avocado trees will be in full bloom. Tzvika’s honeybees produce the most amazing honeys I’ve ever heard of – besides clover and meadow flower, there is sunflower, pumpkin, watermelon, forest fruits, carob, squash blossom, and cotton blossom honey. All are organic and unique to the area, different in color, viscosity and taste – and all are absolutely delicious! And that jujube (Christ’s Thorns Bush) honey is hands down the most different and the best honey I’ve tasted. So I bought a couple jars. They are all so reasonably priced. But I’m skipping ahead….

Having apiaries was Tzvika Ofir’s main love and means of financial stability, but he wanted something new. In 1986 he began to deepen his roots, planting his first vineyard the day Adva was born. Shortly thereafter, two sons and another daughter arrived on the scene. As the family grew, so did the vineyards. Tzvika’s grapes were sold to larger wineries like Recanati, Kassel and other more famous Israeli wineries. The vintners absolutely loved the high quality of his grapes. after ten years, what started as a hobby, took on a new life as he decided to try his hand at making his own wines.

In 1999, Yiftachel Winery was established, bring the story full circle. You see, in this exact area in Israel, archaeologists have uncovered ancient Jewish settlements and villages, each with winepresses, dating from the first century, BCE. Taking on a professional vintner, Kobi Toch, and studying viticulture himself, Tzvika now produces 10,000 bottles a year under his own label (at first Yiftachel Wines, now Meshek Ofir). It is truly a boutique family winery. All four children, now grown, work in the fields with the vines and the bees, and also in the production and marketing end.

All of the wines we tasted were surprisingly good. Adva explained to us that the Sangiovese grape was native to the Jezreel Valley here in Israel. The Romans loved it so much (going back 2000 years), that they took vines back to the Chianti region of Italy, but it was originally an ancient Israeli plant, that grows well here. It’s a big, jammy wine, with a full body and fruity nose. Redolent of chocolate, cherry, and oak, we bought several bottles. Their unique “Marselan” wine is a red blend of Cabernet and Grenache. Aged in American oak barrels, it has a nose of berries, plum, and hints of sage. This is a lighter wine with a nice finish. It pairs perfectly with cheeses and lighter fare like pasta, and makes an excellent sitting-on-the-porch sipping wine. We bought several more of these. John and I sampled the Rosanne ’20, a grassy, citrusy, medium dry white. Also as part of the flight were their Shiraz ’16 and Merlot ’14. But for us, the star of the show was “Deep.” a dark, deep, full-bodied red. the nose has hints of violets!!!! With a rich mouth of berry and cherry and no unpleasant tannic aftertaste. This smooth wine pairs with meats and heartier foods, and it was, by far, our favorite. An amazing wine at a great price. So we bought a case-

Now, about that cabin: Adva was happy to tell us the wild story. It was, in fact, a transplant here. It’s named “Biktat Alan” or Alan’s Cabin. Alan Radley, a nice Jewish boy from the Shenandoah mountains of Virginia, came over to Israel as a Lone Soldier in 1973. He fought during the Yom Kippur War, and afterwards lived on a kibbutz where he made friends with Tzvika Ofir. Besides his love of Israel, he loved building log cabins. Upon his return to the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, he bought an old circa 1840 tobacco shack from a Scottish woman. It was in terrible disrepair, but had potential. Radley had it disassembled and the wood shipped to Israel in 1992. The logs were stored at Tzvika’s meshek (farm). After sitting there idle for a decade, Tzvika offered to buy it from Alan and build the visitor center. He contacted Radley, and for the price of a plane ticket and room and board at the moshav, Alan flew out. With the help of Tzvika and two other friends, had the main frame put together in one day. The logs are all locked together without nails just like Lincoln Logs. By 2004, the panels had been mudded in, windows added, roof put up and an oak plank floor installed. And almost as if it was planned – in Hebrew, alon translates to oak tree. So this oak cabin now sits in Galilee Oaks – thanks to Alan.

Tzvika Ofir, left, sitting with two friends & Alan Radley, right

Everything about this place is a labor of love. Aside from the great atmosphere, excellent service, and top-quality products, their prices are more than reasonable. It’s truly a small family business without pretension. Unlike many of the chi-chi boutique wineries here, Meshek Ofir is a gem and a real bargain. Plus, they offer club membership with a 10% discount on each case. Every Thursday evening Alonei haGalil hosts a local farmer’s market/shuk. The farmers bring their produce fresh-picked from the fields, all organic. There are also artisan cheeses from dairies in the North and artisanal breads as well. Before all the pandemic craziness, Ofir Family Farms hosted regular festivals throughout the year celebrating both the honey and the wine with live music on their sprawling grounds under the oak trees. Hopefully, these fun events will resume later in the summer. Until then, we just can’t wait to return.

Six Years In

It’s a bit hard to believe it’s been six years since we sold our home, packed up our lift, said our tearful goodbyes, and moved across the world to Israel. Six years. In some ways, it seems like no time at all has passed. In other respects, it was a lifetime ago.

In those six years, we’ve learned so much about our new country and about ourselves. We’ve had incredible experiences and have met some pretty amazing people. We’ve traveled the land of Israel from North to South, walking the pathways of our Biblical ancestors. In a land this old, history is all around us. Layer upon layer from Neolithic cave dwellers to Biblical patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). Greeks, Assyrians, Romans, Jews, early Christians, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Napoleon, Pioneers from Europe, they’ve all left their marks on this tiny country. We’ve toured so many different places and archeology digs, and there is so more still to see and do.

We’ve made new friends from all over the world as well as native Israelis. Until COVID hit, we hosted many visitors from the United States. We’ve seen far too many friends who have moved here return to the familiar lives of their native countries. Leaving behind family, friends, livelihood, and all that you once knew is more than difficult.

In order to fully integrate into a new culture learning the language is becomes a priority. I’m much better than I was six years ago. I can hold my own in a social setting, but am far from fluent. Next month, I am starting another Hebrew intensive course three days a week. Hopefully, I can lose my phone anxiety. Imagine making a phone call and getting plugged into a service loop in a completely different language. It can be terrifying. Reading and understanding bills is another interesting endeavor. Hebrew has absolutely no vowels given, so besides actually reading the words, recall and context are absolute necessities to deciphering the “code.” One can live and function here on just English, but it’s a peripheral life in society without Hebrew language skills.

Still, attaining some sense of competency is doable. You just have to be extremely dedicated – or young. Our son achieved a working fluency within two years. It’s been beautiful to watch him grow up and adapt to this new life. He served for over two years in the IDF in the Foreign Relations unit working on the Syrian border. For a parent to see their child take on entirely new skill sets and adapt, holding a job with responsibility, making friends, navigating the system – it’s a tremendous blessing. He’s now in university studying foreign policy and government and doing amazingly well, far above our expectations. We wish him only continued success.

I’ve learned a lot and have made many mistakes since our landing. Being too eager to get to work and start a successful business in the first months was a tactical error. Yes, I enrolled in a business class for new immigrants at the local community college, but still did not know enough about how a start-up works in a new country. Accounting, tax laws, business certifications, marketing to a different culture and the ability to communicate effectively are all things to fully know before venturing out on your own. It didn’t help that the Israeli culinary palette is completely different than the Anglo food tastes.

In the six years since we’ve landed, we’ve been able to taste many of the different foods here, learning all about dining in the Middle East; the different spices, food combinations and ways of preparation. Because breaking bread together also breaks down cultural barriers, it’s been fun to meet other immigrants (and locals) of various ethnicities and swap recipes. A great ice-breaker I’ve learned to use is at the grocery store or produce market. I don’t hesitate to ask what an item is and how it’s prepared and eaten. I’ll inquire where the person is from (telling them I’m a fairly new immigrant from the US) and ask how long they’ve been here. Many times I’ve gotten the invitation to the person’s place for a meal. I don’t ever remember that happening anywhere else.

I’m still not sure if it’s a Middle Eastern thing or not, but hospitality here is a way of life. We’ve had countless invitations to share meals with relative strangers. Even during business meetings (with our printer, our insurance salesperson, our auto mechanic), it’s typical for us to be ushered into the office and before any business is discussed coffee is made. Not typical American drip coffee, but a type of Turkish espresso with cardamom – or “botz” which is a little tiny demitasse of strong blackness leaving a muddy residue at the bottom. It is in very poor taste to decline for whatever reason. Along with this, coffee, pastries or cookies are usually served – or some type of sweet, and of course, the offer of a cigarette. It was strange a first, and of course, to decline the cigarette is perfectly acceptable (this is only done between the males. I’ve never been offered a smoke). It seems many of the males smoke. It’s ubiquitous here. Something that can be more than a bit off-putting for the Anglo.

A lot of unforeseen circumstances have happened since we first came to Israel. Who would have thought that both my husband and myself would be diagnosed with cancer within five short years of living here? We’ve learned to navigate the medical system. With socialized medicine, the prices are incredibly low, but bureaucracy and wait times for scheduling tests and appointments can be interminable. We have a whole new medical vocabulary down in Hebrew. And despite the difficulties, we’ve had access to some of the best doctors and cutting edge treatments in the world. In America, even with insurance, we would have had to sell our house and hock our kids to afford the care we’ve had here.

Before the ‘pandemic,’ we were able to travel a few times to Europe. The continent is only a 3-5 hour flight, and much more affordable. John and I have visited the Czech Republic numerous times, Hungary, Northern Italy, Switzerland, the French Alps, and Amsterdam. We spent two and a half glorious weeks in Scotland, traveling with American friends who now live near us in Karmiel. Hopefully, we can resume our travel adventures. We’d love to go to Greece, Southern Italy, and now that the UAE is open to us, Abu Dhabi sounds magnificent. Still, first on our list is a trip back to the United States.

It’s been over three years now since we’ve been back. And that’s probably the hardest part. We miss our kids something terrible! We have two grandchildren that we’ve only seen when they were first born – and a brand new granddaughter. We are missing one of our daughter’s wedding, which is something that is breaking our hearts. I’m so hoping our airport will be completely open and that we’ll be able to find a flight out later this summer. At this point, it’s impossible to tell what will be even in the next few weeks. Thank heaven for FaceTime and Zoom or we wouldn’t have been able to survive. We get to “see” the girls and their families just about every week through these virtual communications platforms.

Since being here, I’ve run out of many of my favorite American products: from dryer sheets to antiperspirant to cinnamon gum, Shout, and certain medications. Thankfully, every month, we find more of our familiar standby’s like zip-lock baggies, craft supplies, food items (like albacore tuna!!! and salsa and taco mix and shells!!!). For some things, I ask my daughters to make up a care package (cello sponges, flavored coffees, extra-strength Advil). I’ve learned to make my own salad dressings, barbecue spice rubs, pickle relish, garlic croutons, kombucha and focaccia. And just in the nick of time, last month we received the most thoughtful and wonderful gift box from a dear friend back in California: a box of Airborne, Zinc tablets, echinacea drops, thieves oil, Emergen-C packets!!! Oh my goodness!!! It cost an absolute fortune for her to mail this, but man oh man!!! Was this welcomed!!! And last year I found iHerb, which ships many food, beauty, household and vitamin products to us for free.

All things considered, I think we’re doing a pretty great job of acclimating to our new land. Although it’s been more than difficult at times, it’s been well worth it. Life is casual here. We have had many amazing adventures. We now have favorite places to visit, favorite music groups, new pastimes. We’ve made friends and attended a fare share of funerals and weddings and baby showers (that’s for another blog), which are nothing like their American counterparts. We’ve learned from our many cultural faux-pas. Through all of our ups and downs, and with our strong faith in G-d, our marriage has been tremendously strengthened. This has been one of the biggest surprises and blessings of all.

We look forward to see what the next six years will have in store for us. Hopefully, the skies will reopen and the tourists will be back. We will be able to go places again, both domestic and foreign. We will be able to entertain guests. We look forward to exploring new cities and ancient ruins. we pray that we will be able to enjoy the relative peace and safety of the past six years. In the meantime, we celebrate locally by raising a felafel in our honor –

Time for a Bit of Fun!!

Oh my goodness! Between elections, lockdowns, Green Passports, ankle bracelets for quarantines, and the news cycle in general – it’s time for a bit of fun. Actually, as a semi-new immigrant in a foreign land, there’s lots that can make you completely crazy – or absolutely uproarious. We choose to take the “let’s just laugh at it all and make fun of everything” route. So – let’s go!!

Let’s start with driving. Israeli style. Hold on to your seatbelts, because the lines on the roads (Israeli’s say “lane” for line and “line” for lane, so THAT’s always confusing!) – those lanes/lines painted in the middle and on the sides – well, they are put there as a subtle suggestion. We live way up North, in the perifery, where many of the highways are still one-lane in each direction. So imagine driving on this two-lane road, winding your way up a mountain. And you get behind a very large truck hauling a tank. Yes. A ginormous army tank. No biggie. Common occurrence. It’s very slow, but it gives you a chance to take in the scenery.

The cars behind you start honking like mad. This too, is a very common occurrence. Israelis talk with their horns: whether it’s to tell you that the light is about to turn green; to speed up because ‘I’m in my line/lane getting ktsat impatient’; or just to say shalom – the horn is there for communication. All the time. So the car behind that’s honking decides he’s had enough and creates a third line/lane right down the middle. The tank pulls waaaaay over to the side. You’re plotzing as you watch the oncoming car get waaaaaaay over without slowing down, and the new middle line/lane takes shape. Yikes!!!

So last week, for some weird reason (I think John did a California Roll instead of coming to a full stop), a cop pulled us over. Of course, at this point we are very nice and speak only English. Despite the policeman’s attempt at communicating in Hebrew, we understand NOTHING (wink, wink). So he switches to very broken English. And it happened again: “You need for me lessons,” he says. “Why do we need lessons? What’s wrong?” John asks. “You give for me lessons.” I’m trying really hard not to crack up. John responds, “I took lessons already.” “No. Your lessons. I not took your lessons.Take from me your lessons.” At this point, I interject -“OH!!! You must mean license!!!! Honey, the policeman wants your LICENSE.” He says, “Yes. Yes. Your lie-sense.” After minutes of back and forth, it’s pretty obvious he’s getting nowhere and lets us off the hook. Still – you had to be there. The whole thing was a complete comedy routine.

Parking: if you thought the rest of the Western world was bad in their parking abilities, then you’ve never been to the MidEast. Welcome. There are never enough parking spaces. This country was designed for only a few cars. Small cars. Miniature cars. So parking over the lanes/lines is just a thing. You’ll see cars half-on/half-off the sidewalks. You’ll see cars parked in places one would never dream of parking anywhere else. A few weeks ago, I went to the supermarket. And when I came out, this was my predicament. I had no idea who the wiseguy was (notice he pulled his side mirror in, a sign he does this shtick regularly). All I could do was shout “Un-be LEEEVE-able!!” five times – and take a picture. (I just notice: I am on the lane/line. Oops)

So I climbed around the other side. Speaking of climbing on/out, I’ve never before been to a country where the following happens: I’m driving on the highway…..the big one, Kveesh Shesh…. the one with three lines/lanes in each direction. And there’s a bus right in front of me that decides it’s time to slow down and then stop right in the middle of line/lane one. And a bunch of Ultra-Orthodox Jews hop off the bus. A whole bunch. Why? Because it’s time for afternoon prayers. And when it’s time, it’s time. So they hop off the bus and line/leyn (sorry, if you’re Jewish – pun intended) up on the side of the road, and in back of the bus, and whip out their prayerbooks and start to sway back and forth in prayer. With cars speeding by in lines/lanes two and three. Then they get back on the bus, as the cars behind me create a fourth line/lane, and drive around the bus blocking up traffic. It’s actually kinda fun to watch. Then there’s the Muslim contingents who stop, whip out their prayer rugs and pray on the side of the road. And it’s not at all uncommon to see the Arab contingent parked on the side of the road, taking a break under a tree. Because when it’s time for coffee and hookah…. they whip out their plastic lawn chairs, bring out the porto-hookah and mini camp stove to make Turkish coffee and take a break. Would I lie to you???

There’s one picture I just refuse to take. Something that totally drives me mishuggah. The men. Yup. The Middle Eastern men. They have this thing about stopping the car to jump out and walk over to the side of the road. They then proceed to whip out… well, you can only guess. ALL THE TIME!!!!! Watch the Seinfeld ‘Uromysetisis’ episode. It’s absolutely ubiquitous here. Un-be-leeeeeeve-able! And while we’re on driving, the road signs can be quite amusing. For one thing: Hebrew uses completely different letters than English, so all the English words are merely transliterations which can be spelled many different ways – like Tsfat/Zefat/Tzfat/Safed or Akko/Aco/Acre. Can be a bit confusing for the uninformed. And the Hebrew signs! This one, for the city of Bnei Brak, an extremely ultra-Orthodox place, announces that the entire freeway ramp leading into the city is blocked off from Friday afternoon- Saturday night because you ain’t gonna drive in this town on Shabbat – or holidays. So we’re just gonna shut it all down. So there!

This is a cool one: the place on the road sign reads “Ma’aynei HaYeshua” which means Springs of Salvation.

Religion here is a pretty thing. Taken quite seriously. So to see semis on the freeway with “Ayn ode milvado” in Hebrew, which means “There’s no other but Him” on the mudflaps is actually nicer than the naked girl on the flaps of American trucks. Yes, I’ve seen Scripture verses on the windows, verses that remind me to refrain from gossip “Lo lishon harah” which is a good thing for me to keep in mind. The city buses will even have Scripture and Shabbat or holiday greetings. Speaking of Shabbat, check out this guy. He reminds us “Keeping the Sabbath is a source of blessings.” Also nice.

This one is seriously funny. We see it in the Golan and it cracks us up every single time. It tells us not to enter the military training ground. Live fire. Feathers???? Obviously, someone needs spellcheck! Oh, and the deer – it’s not a hunting area. It’s the symbol of the Northern Command. No animals harmed here.

We don’t live too far away from the Jordan River. For the Christian tourists, it’s a holy place reserved for baptisms. For the Jewish contingent, it’s a great place to go river rafting and canoeing. There’s this great place for canoeing called Rob Roy. But their logo is a bit of a mixed metaphor. It’s the Jordan. Right? The JORDAN!!! And their logo features a Native American, because we all know Native Americans travel exclusively by canoe. And Rob Roy??? A Scottish highwayman who lived in the 1600s? I just don’t know about that one…

Back to driving with another example of terrible Israeli drivers. We had to follow this guy and snap a photo. What makes it so uproarious is that it’s the test car for someone who is trying to get their driver’s lessons. He was backing into a parking spot and totally hit a pole and tore off the back bumper, crumpling up the trunk. We think he needs more license!

O.K.This next one’s pretty funny. They built a new home here in Karmi’el. A beautiful, expensive, multi-million shekel home. But the builder made a very big mistake. He didn’t measure the owner’s car before he built the garage, which is just a few centimeters too short for the intended vehicle. Gotta get a photo of this one!

The next one is cute: in the neighborhood near ours, the women obviously take pride in their bus stop. For Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, they decorate it with a bamboo stalk roof, and palm branches and decorations. They have a light-up menorah and hanging decorations at Chanukah. Here it is in the summertime with framed prints of artwork. Community beautification. I love it!

I think the same group of ladies who decorate the bus stop are the ones who take care of the cats. Let me back up. In Israel, we don’t have squirrels roaming all over the place. We have cats. Feral cats. Lots of them. They are absolutely everywhere. Maybe that’s why we don’t have huge rodent problems…or squirrels? So these ladies (I’ve never actually caught them in the act, and I think all the old ladies in Israel do this…) leave out food for the cats. On paper plates. In foil pans. In empty plastic ice cream containers. Cans of cat food. Handfulls of kibble. Huge pieces of schnitzel, potatoes, green beans, couscous. Fish tails. Fish heads. Meatballs. Seriously. Go for a walk after dinner on a Friday night, and see what the kitties are feasting on. Not only that, but in the more upscale neighborhood, there are special kitty feeding stations for cats of privilege.

Heaven forbid, anyone should ever go hungry here! With all the Jewish mothers around…. and the cathouses. Yup you read that one correctly. Cat Houses. They are set up in the winter. Everywhere. In the parks. Under bushes. Behind rocks. With blankets. And pillows. And. of course, food. So they stay dry and warm. Everywhere. Because heaven forbid, a kitty should not be cold and wet. I kid you not. This is the WEIRDEST place!!!! We love it!!!!

Grocery shopping is always an adventure here, too. For one thing, to get the agahLAH, grocery cart, you have to put a coin in the slot to unchain it. It took a very long time, and a continually upset husband, for me to realize that the “nickel,” the five shekel coin that’s the same size as a US nickel…. (well it’s actually worth about $1.50) needs to be retrieved from the slot at the end of the shopping trip. And you never know what you’ll find at the store here. We’re always on the lookout for hard-to-come-by American imports, and like the typical freiers that we are, have been known to pay $12 for a box of Poptarts (I never ate them in the States, but hey…. nostalgia kicks in) or $9 for a teeny can of albacore tuna. And when you see that product (Brillo, mandarin oranges in a can, Brianna’s salad dressing, molasses, Crisco), you buy it all, because you’ve learned it’s a fluke and you’ll never see it again. Then there’s the fake news of American products which are usually made in Lithuania or Botswana or Upper Korindia. Beware!!

Some things are really fun. Like the Bazooka flavored milk. Israelis love Bazooka. Gum. Milk. Ice cream. Bazooka cakes. We have hot dog buns imprinted with fun slogans like “Summer’s here” and “Time for some Fun.” And the ever-interesting Russian cans of ???? The CIF jug is always my favorite. I have absolutely no idea what it is: laundry or dishwasher detergent? Floor cleaner? Windows? Toilets? Radiator fluid? Your guess is as good as mine. It’s the yellow jug below. But what makes this ultra hysterical (and I mean HYSTERICAL) for us is that Hebrew name. Hebrew is a language with no vowels. Your guess is as good as mine. Plus the letter “P” is also an “F” except when it’s at the beginning of the word, in which case it’s a “P” except for weird exceptions. So when we see that bright yellow jug, we ALWAYS shake our heads and say “Pants steak?????” But if you look closely, it actually reads “Fantastic!” as is fahn-TAH-steeeek. Every. Single. Time. Pants steak. Gotta love it!

Another fun thing you won’t see too often outside of Israel is this: An every day sight here:

It actually makes us feel really safe knowing there are always soldiers around (he’s probably an American lone soldier. He has a jar of Skippy. Maybe I should invite him over for Shabbat dinner?) I also took a picture of the t-shirt another gentleman in the next line/lane was wearing. He wasn’t American. I have this sneaking suspicion…

OR this one: 2021- the year spelling turned deadly –

We really haven’t gone to restaurants for over a year now, but here are a couple mis-spells to make you scratch your head:

If anyone knows what pettrejane is, please let us know. In the meantime, al snarkiness intent ended. The small salad is exactly as it sounds. Just that. A small salad. And don’t you dare ask for dressing!

History Comes Alive at Tel Dan

Come with us on another tiyuul (Hebrew word for field trip) to a most magical place in Northern Israel. It was another perfect day in Paradise, and everyone seemed to be out enjoying a respite from the strict lockdowns over the past two months and from the cold, rainy days of winter. I had always wanted to visit this site – between the natural beauty and Biblical history, Tel Dan more than lived up to our expectations. So, let’s go!!!

Situated at the foot of snow-capped Mt. Hermon and of Mt. Dov adjacent to the Lebanese, Syrian borders, is Tel Dan. In Hebrew a tel is a large hill (or small rounded mountain). First, an introduction to this nature reserve, which will set the scene for the history associated with it. The entire region is lush and verdant, fed by hundreds of underground springs which bubble up to the surface forming little brooks. The brooks run together to form streams, joining up to eventually form the mighty, rushing Dan River. These are the headwaters of the Jordan River which flows into the Sea of Galilee and down into the Dead Sea.

These springs and rivers create are teaming with fresh fish. It is a most fertile area for growing crops. The isolated tel forms a great strategic advantage, as it gives great views in all directions: one can easily see an approaching enemy. It is no wonder that early civilizations settled here. The earliest archaeological findings are of a city first built here in the early-Canaanite period, between 2700 and 2400 BCE. In Genesis chapter 14, we read of the first war in history: the battle of the four kings against the five kings, in which Lot (yup, the nephew of Abraham who later escaped the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah!) is kidnapped. “And when Abram heard that Lot was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them all the way to Dan.” Abram liberated Lot from the hands of his captors here. And it is here, that the ancient city was uncovered!!! Another hurrah for the historical archaeological excavations which confirm Bible history. It is the most remarkable discovery!!! The entrance to the city os formed by a 7 meter tall gate to the city, completely intact – with the earliest complete arch (one of three consecutive arches leading into the city) found in the world and still standing. Incredible to think that the walls and bricks are made of a hard, baked clay. The arches (all three) have been shored up and the entrance to the gate sealed for stability and dare I say, permanent, preservation of the structure. Once it was unearthed, it was subject to rapid deterioration. An impressive arched covering has been erected over the complex to prevent any further damage from weathering. Beautiful basalt steps lead up to the entrance of this ancient fortress/palace/walled city. And here it is, live and in person, thousands of years old. Living history!

This 3700 year old city was known as La’ish. It was also important as it was situated at the junction of trade routes. In the Bible, in the book of Judges, when the spies from the tribe of Dan were sent to La’ish to scout out the region, they saw “the people that were therein, how they dwelt careless.” The tribe of Dan conquered the city, renaming the place Dan, after their ancestor (Judges 18:27-29). Several meters beyond the immense gate (above) lies the ruins of the ‘more modern’ 2500 year old city of Dan. It was expanded during the First Temple period after King Solomon. Israel had become divided into two kingdoms: the Kingdom of Judah in the South (Jerusalem area) and the Kingdom of Israel in the North. During this era, Jeroboam, king of the Northern tribes, led a people’s revolt against the heavy taxes levied by King Rehoboam, the son of King Solomon. By setting up a large administrative center here, Jeroboam tried to draw the population’s attention away from Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. He established his own form of cultic worship here at Dan, going so far as to erect an altar upon which he placed a golden calf for the people to worship instead of G-d. Outside the main entrance to the city are the ruins of the alternate temple with its priestly chambers – and the altar itself!!! Bones of animals were found in front of the altar, and remains of incense and cannabis which were burned were also found on the stone altar itself. So sacrifices to the golden calf and pagan rituals were conducted at this site just outside the city walls. The whole story can be found in 1 Kings:12-13.

Thirty-six years after the reign of Jeroboam, the infamous King Ahab and his evil queen, Jezebel, ruled the area from this place. Ahab further expanded the city to over 50 acres, adding outer walls, storehouses and courtyards. The high walls are made of unhewn basalt rock and carved travertine blocks. The walled city is built right into the slope of the mountain, which also helped to preserve it as the soil and erosion from the top of the mountain downward covered the city over the millennia. The sloping open space that leads up to the entrance of the city, called a glacis, is still there, and it is all quite impressive. It is a huge ‘cobblestoned’ area, a bit like a large courtyard.

It is all quite magnificent. I can only imagine Queen Jezebel in all her make-up and finery, ordering her court necromancers and pretend priests, scheming against the prophet, Elijah. Looking out over the Hula Valley to the south, with all the vineyards, fields and orchards, I see King Ahab, who swindled the poor Naboth out of his vineyard there. I see the altar where the pagan sacrifices actually took place. And sitting high atop the walls of the city, I can only imagine this is the place where the ultimate karma happened and Jezebel fell to her death from a high window (1 Kings:16-21). Shortly after these events, the Assyrian army would sweep down from the North destroying the Kingdom of Israel and scattering the ten tribes into the far corners of the earth.

Another great example of realizing the tiny details of history that I had only read about is the perfectly preserved spot where the elders of the city and the king sat. Just a walk up the sloping cobblestone glacis and through the main gates of the city is an area lined with stone benches. Here sat the elders, ready to settle disputes and greet visitors and deal with the important municipal duties of the town. A little further up the promenade is a large stone dais. There are four ornately carved stones into which poles supporting a canopy would be placed. Under the canopy, the king would sit in a position of importance. The hole in the dais where the stone throne would have been can still be seen in situ. Incredible stuff!!!

Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit the museum at the neighboring Kibbutz Dan. It is here that many of the artifacts found at Tel Dan can be found. There are many tools dating back to Neolithic pre-Canaanite times, as well as incense shovels from the time of the First Temple. Pottery shards, coins, and many other artifacts were discovered during the many digs. Impressive sculptures and a fairly intact painted terra-cotta amphora from Hellenistic times are included in the exhibits there. The most fascinating piece found at the site, now in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, is the Dan Stele. It is a large shard of fossilized tablet dating back to the second half of the ninth century, BCE. In Aramaic is an inscription from King Hazael of Damascus boasting of his victory over the king of Israel and the house of David. It was the first time an actual piece of history with the words “house of David” was discovered from an extra-Biblical source, which testifies to the veracity of the Biblical stories.

All-in-all it was a lovely way to spend Valentines Day. Just being out in nature, hearing the birds (O.K. and the constant whir of drones as they surveyed the border to keep us safe) and the rushing of the waters and laughter of children was enough to feed our weary souls. In one area, the fresh water streams had converged into a little oasis that served as a wading pool. It was in full use by several families. In the heat of summer, the place is always packed with families seeking relief. In typical Israeli fashion, we passed several groups of hikers and of picnickers: Israelis are famous for their love of picnics! Throughout the nature reserve are trails ranging from stroller and wheelchair accessible to the most grueling of steep mountain trails. Everything is well marked and well mapped out. Well-kept restroom facilities are available at all ends of the park, and of course, there is a well-stocked gift shop and snack shop. It has everything needed for a perfect day trip.

Tu b’ Shvat: Fruits and Nuts Galore!

We’re smack-dab in the middle of the rainy season here in Israel. Our summers are hot and dry and much like Southern California, things go from golden brown to crispy rather quickly. We start praying for the early and late rains at the holiday of Sukkot, usually in late October. And we are rarely disappointed! We always get at least a sprinkle. The real rains come in November/December, and if we are fortunate, last until the Passover holiday in April. The hills and mountains and fields come alive again, and Israel begins to look more like Ireland, clothed in her beautiful bright green suit.

Tu b’Shvat is a non-Biblical, minor festival celebrated in January/February (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat) – the beginning of the agricultural cycle. In Biblical times, worshippers would bring their offerings of fruit to the Temple. Because the ground is now soft and pliant after soaking up all the rain, it is an optimal time for planting trees, hence the New Year for Trees (we were the first to commemorate an Arbor day or Earth Day). According to the ancient Jewish sages, from this day the fruits begin to flourish revealing their true potential, so these mystics and writers of the Talmud created a new tradition. These sages (in the mountain city of Tsfat, right up the road from us) created a Tu b’Shvat seder, a meal with a set order, much like a Passover seder. Fruits and grains associated with the Land of Israel are consumed along with special prayers and readings – and, of course, four cups of wine from white to rosé to red.

The Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) and Sephardic (Spanish) Jews celebrated this feast heartily from the Renaissance until modern day. For Ashkenazi (European) like me – well, not so much. In the depths of winter, when the ground is hard and frozen, who can plant? And who is eating fresh fruit? Tu b’Shvat was always a minor, minor, rather forgettable day, marked by sending money to the JNF to plant trees in the Holy Land in remembrance of a loved one. Living here in Israel has changed my mindset.

For one thing, it’s a time when all the citrus fruits are exploding off the trees. We are blessed to be renting a home with amazingly productive lemon, pomelo, grapefruit, mandarin and clementine trees, and I’ve been picking and preserving for weeks now! (Recipes to follow!!!) Between rainstorms, we go walking in the neighborhood park (that’s about as far as we’re allowed under lockdown) where I’ve been foraging for wild asparagus. Asparagus in the store is super expensive, with a small bunch running upwards of $12.00 for a tiny bunch. So this is the one time of year when we can totally enjoy roasted asparagus with a little olive oil and some grated lemon rind. I harvested enough to make a cream of asparagus soup last week.

We also have the most wonderful, huge concrete planters outside each window. I have each planter filled with different edible delights: kitchen herbs; edible flowers like rose geranium and lavender; and two garden boxes filled with different types of lettuces, which are going gangbusters right now. My husband’s favorite winter green is mâche (pronounced mosh) which I used to grow in my California garden. I brought the seeds with me when we moved. It has a light, sweet, slightly nutty flavor and is great in the salad below. I picked a pomelo off our tree, and assembled the ingredients for the whole thing in less than ten minutes. So here are a few recipes using our local produce to enjoy for Tu b”Shvat:

Mache Salad with Pomelo (serves 4)

Ingredients:

~ 2 cups washed macho leaves ~ 1 large pomelo, peeled, seeded and segmented with pith removed ~ 1/3 cup bleu cheese crumbles ~ 1/4 cup roasted, salted pecan halves ~ 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (the best you can get) ~ 1 Tbsp dijon mustard ~ sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Wash and dry the mache leaves (you might have to separate the little root) and place in a serving bowl. Sprinkle the crumbled bleu cheese on top. Arrange half of the pomelo segments on top of the salad. Sprinkle with pecans. Just before serving, our the dressing over. This is so fresh and delicious, I could eat it all day!

Dressing: Squeeze the juice from the remaining half of the pomelo. Place in a small mixing bowl. Add the dijon mustard, olive oil, salt and pepper. Whisk until a creamy emulsion is reached and pour over the salad.

My grandmother and aunts (from the Polish/Ukrainian shtetl) had the tradition of making the most luxurious eingemacht. They used to serve it during the winter months through the Passover holidays. Eingemacht is a Yiddish word for which there is no real translation. It’s kind of a cross between a chutney and a a preserve or conserve often made with dried fruits (available in the winter) and root veggies like carrots and beets and onions, simmered in honey and spices. Sometimes it would have nuts added in as well. Bubbe used to serve it on warm challah bread, and would use it to fill rugelach, the hamentaschen pastry for the Purim holiday, or spread over matzoh brie (a matzoh and egg frittata). I remember she always had a large crystal jar filled with eingemacht on the table. This is my version-

Eingemacht (makes about 4 pint jars) pareve

Ingredients: ~ 1 pound apples, peeled. cored and chopped ~ 2 cups dried apricots, chopped ~ 2 large brown onions, chopped ~ 1/2 cup brown raisins ~ 1/2 cup large yellow raisins ~ 1 large red bell pepper, chopped ~ 1 cup apple cider vinegar ~ 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar ~ 2 cups honey ~ 2 cinnamon sticks ~ 3-4 garlic cloves, minced ~ 1 tsp each, ground cloves, allspice, coriander, ginger ~ (optional) 1 small red chile or 1/2 tsp dried hot, red pepper flakes ~ 1 orange, rind grated, juice squeezed

Put all the above ingredients in a large heavy-bottomed pot or stainless steel saucepan. (I love my LaCreuset dutch oven for this). Slowly, over medium-high stove, bring to a boil, stirring to mix thoroughly. Let boil for about five minutes, then reduce heat to a low flame. Let simmer, stirring occasionally, on low for about 2 hours, or until a wooden spoon drawn across the base of the pot leaves a thick trail. Make sure to stir so that the mixture doesn’t burn on the bottom. It should begin to thicken and look glossy. Ladle into hot, sterilized jars and seal. You can then process in a hot water bath for 20 minutes. Keeps 1 year in pantry. Refrigerate after opening.

Lemon Curd (makes 3 half-pint jars with some left over) dairy

I’ve played around with this recipe until I’ve come up with a smooth, creamy, lemony sweet spread that we love on warm scones or with challah. I mix it into my goat milk yogurt in the morning and top it all off with a teaspoon of halvah granola for crunch. I’ve also whipped up a fancy and easy dessert that looks like you’ve been slaving in the kitchen, but is simple to make, light and elegant – all I do is buy pre-made tart shells, spoon a tablespoon of the lemon curd in, and top with whipped cream and a mint leaf. It’s also wonderful on the Passover or Easter brunch table.

Ingredients: ~ 4 large lemons, scrubbed and dried ~ 6 eggs, beaten ~ 8 Tbsp unsalted butter, diced ~ 2 1/4 cups granulated sugar

Finely grate the lemon rind and squeeze out all the juice, straining to remove pips. Place the rind (about 4 TBSP) and juice (about 1 1/3 cups) in a heatproof bowl (I use a pyrex bowl) which fits over a saucepan. Stir in the eggs, and add in the butter pieces and the sugar. Place the bowl over a pan of gently simmering water. Make sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture becomes thick and glossy and coats the back of a spoon. Spoon into hat, sterilized jars. Seal and store in a cool, dark place. Use within three months. Refrigerate after opening.

The History of Couscous

I don’t have to tell any of you this, but what a year is already blowing through! For everyone across the globe. Beside being in our fourth lockdown here in Israel, and all the other things we’re already faced with coming down the pike, I will try to keep this blog as uplifting, fun, and informative as possible. Because we all need a break from the “news,” am I right???? That said, let’s get into the real history of couscous. I bet it’s not what you think! And this food that is an Israeli staple, is ubiquitous here. Eaten as a hot side-dish with meat or veggies piled on top, as a breakfast food (really!!!!) or as a cold salad, you’ll get a few recipes and ideas here.

Although this side dish is used by every ethnicity here in Israel, we do not call what is labeled ‘couscous’ or even ‘Israeli couscous’ by that name. We call it p’tit-TEEM, or ‘little flakes.’ The photo below is most likely what you, living outside Israel think of when you hear the word couscous:

This is NOT Israeli couscous!

Yes, the picture above shows a fluffy, yellowish side dish fairly familiar in the United States. It actually comes from Italy. Made of durum wheat, it’s really a type of semolina – the part of the wheat that is separated out from the wheat germ and bran in the milling process. In Italy it’s mostly used to make pasta and polenta, but can also be steamed or boiled and simmered and then fluffed up. Then there is the larger product called “pearl couscous” in the States and throughout Europe. This is actually an ancient Middle Eastern side dish (mistaken for Israeli couscous) called Moghrabieh in Arabic, sometimes called maftoul. It is a hand-milled, cracked bulgur wheat product that is hand-rolled to the size of chickpeas. Moghrabieh is also popular within the Mizrachi (Middle Eastern), North African, and Portuguese/Spanish Jewish population – those Jews who lived under Muslim rule. Maftoul is boiled and for the most part, mixed with other ingredients and used as a stuffing for hollowed out vegetables, which are then cooked.

After the Israeli War for Independence in 1948, there was a huge influx of immigrants from all over the world. Many had never farmed, and in the early 50’s the country faced major food shortages. Food rationing was instituted. Importing basic supplies was cost prohibitive. Prime Minister David BenGurion contracted with the Osem Food Company to create a staple food that could replace the expensive rice. It had to be cheap, versatile, and easy to prepare. Called p’titim, or ‘BenGurion’s Rice,’ this new product was made from pre-baked whole wheat flour, water and egg yolks for added protein. The dough was extruded through specially developed machines in mass quantities and the rice-like flakes were then toasted to seal in the starch. It became an instant hit! Soon tiny, itty bitty little flakes, larger pellets, and different shapes like stars and hearts were introduced to appeal to children. Easy to prepare (recipes to follow!), the ptitim is quickly sautéed in oil; then after it browns, water or broth is added; the one-skillet wonderfood is brought to a rolling boil, covered, and left to simmer gently for about ten minutes and voilà! The grains remain firm and slightly chewy when eaten. They don’t get mushy at all. They don’t stick together because of starchiness. And they take on the flavors of the broth or other foods surrounding them. It’s absolutely Israeli comfort food at its best – home cooking, served plain or with meat, fish and veggies piled high atop. We used to eat it every lunch served to us in the army (when we volunteered). Usually alongside chicken schnitzel with ketchup.

In the early 1990s, Israeli chef Michael Sharon, who had a chi-chi, upscale restaurant in New York City, first introduced it to his patrons as “Israeli couscous.” It was a huge hit, and soon became served in posh restaurants on both the East and West Coasts as a novel ethnic dish. Trader Joe’s picked up on the trend and started mass-marketing this popular side as “Israeli couscous” or “pearl couscous.” It’s found in every shape and color here, with even gluten-free varieties. A bag of “regular” ptititim here sells for around $1.00-$1.75/pound with the fancier colors or shapes running a little higher. A small bag of gluten-free (about 3/4 pound) goes for upwards of $4.50.

As a very basic cooking lesson, I take about a cup of the “Israeli couscous” and sauté it in about 2 TBSP olive oil on a medium-high stove. It takes anywhere from 2 – 4 minutes to toast up to a nice golden brown. Do not let it burn! For every cup of the ptitim, use 1 1/2 cups of water or broth (veggie, chicken, or beef).

I also add a little salt and then the magic: as the liquid starts to boil, I’ll add a variety of spices. In this instance, I’m adding some raisins and dried cranberries; about 3 TBSP dried onion flakes; a few cut up dried apricots for a burst of color and flavor; and a handful of nuts- I used almonds, but you can use pecans, peanuts, pistachios, pine nuts or hazelnuts for crunch. Cover the skillet and simmer on low for about 10 minutes or until the liquid has been absorbed into the little balls. Garnish with fresh parsley. It’s delicious!

I have used the larger ptitim as a substitute for bread when making a stuffing for turkey or chicken. Following the above directions, toasting, then adding chicken broth to the grains, I then add the following:

-1 onion chopped and 2 stalks celery chopped – both sautéed until translucent -1 tsp each dried rosemary, sage & thyme -1/3 cup chopped chestnuts -sea salt & freshly cracked pepper, to taste – 1 chopped apple or pear

After it simmers down, I place this in a greased baking dish, cover with foil and bake for 15-20 minutes on 170*C/350*F.

Ptitim is so versatile. It can be served hot or cold. You can make an Italian version by adding: -1/4 cup diced sun-dried tomatoes in oil -1/4 cup halved, pitted kalamata olives -1small jar marinated artichoke hearts with the oil, chopped (about 1/2 cup) -1 TBSP dried oregano -salt & pepper, to taste

In the summer, I love to serve a cold ptitim salad with chopped fresh stone fruits – peaches, nectarines, cherries and almonds. I use my own cherry or raspberry vinaigrette (if you’re in the States, I highly recommend Brianna’s Blush Wine Vinaigrette) as a dressing. Then I place grilled chicken strips on top. It’s easy to prepare, elegant, and quite tasty – makes a fantastic Shabbat lunch as the ptitim is made the day before and refrigerated, and the chicken strips pre-grilled and ready to be laid atop the salad.

Among North African Jews, especially Moroccans living here, Ptitim with Seven Vegetables is a popular dish. It is made with the tiny flaked variety, simmered in a vegetable stock with 2 heaping TBSP turmeric and a heaping teaspoon of cumin after toasting. The turmeric gives the dish its classic, bright yellow color. Ladled over the grain is a stew of seven vegetables, typically onions, carrots, potatoes, pumpkin, whole chard leaves, zucchini and whole garbanzo beans or chickpeas. The veggies are simmered in a veggie broth laden with turmeric and other spices. Served hot, with pickles on the side, it’s an ethnic treat.

One of my favorite dishes can be served as a meal or a side. I prepare it in advance, stick it in the fridge to let the flavors meld together, and have it for lunch the next day. It’s bright, colorful, healthy, and amazingly yummy – a great combination of color, flavor and texture.

Middle-Eastern Shabbat Ptitim Salad

I use the smallest ptitim flakes, similar to “couscous.” Starting with one cup of ptitim toasted in 2 TBSP olive oil until golden brown, I add 1 teaspoon of yellow curry powder and 1 1/2 cup of water. Bring this to a boil and then power the heat to a simmer for about 10 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and let cool. After it cools down add:

  • 1 red bell pepper, diced fine
  • 1 small red (Bermuda) onion, diced fine
  • 1/2 cup currants or raisins
  • 1/2 cup chickpeas (canned, drained)
  • 2 green onions, chopped fine
  • 1/4 cup peanuts
  • the juice of 1 orange
  • a large handful of mint, chopped fine

This salad is so easy, so colorful and just loaded with flavor. I refrigerate it and serve it cold.

Lemon Mushroom Ptitim

This is a wonderful dish that can be eaten as a main course or a side dish. It’s a bit of a riff on a mushroom risotto, but much easier to prepare.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup large grained ptitim (Israeli couscous)
  • 2 TBSP olive oil
  • 1/2 pound mixed mushrooms – oyster, brown, bella
  • 1 lemon
  • 1/4 cup basil, chopped fine
  • 1/3 cup grated fresh parmesan cheese
  • sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

In a large skillet, toast the ptitim in olive oil until it gets golden, about 2 minutes. Do not let it burn! Add 1 1/2 cups water, bring to a boil, and then simmer for about 10 minutes. Brush any dirt off the mushrooms and chop into large slices. Sauté in a dry (no oil) pan for about 5-7 minutes, or until the shrooms begin to get juicy. Add the cooked mushrooms to the ptitim. Grate the lemon zest onto the mixture. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze onto the mushroom ptitim. Add the chopped basil, parmesan, salt and pepper, and gently mix just to coat the ptitim. You can drizzle a little more olive oil on top and garnish with basil leaves. Serve hot.

I hope you enjoy these recipes. You can also serve the ptitim for breakfast – toast the grains in coconut oil and then cook in coconut liquid (in Israel, they are not allowed to use the word ‘coconut milk’ because people might confuse it with a dairy product!!) and a little maple syrup. Throw in a chopped apple or a handful of dried fruit. Add a teaspoon of cinnamon as it cooks, and in 15 minutes you have a hearty hot breakfast. Top with sliced banana and some extra milk or coconut liquid. Let me know how these turned out for you if you do try them.

As always, thank you for reading. If you haven’t already please subscribe and be on the lookout for more Israeli life, culture, sights, and of course FOOD!!!!

What a Year It’s Been!

So long 2020!! Hello 2021! What a year it’s been for all of us!!! Pandemics. Quarantines and lockdowns. Face diapers. Isolation. Election fatigue. Fake news. We’ve all been through it. But, I prefer to look on the bright side. It’s not been ALL that bad. I even bought a 2021 calendar (probably my most wasted purchase of 2020 was my past years’ calendar).

Our first lockdown happened during the coldest, rainiest winter/spring I have experienced since moving to Israel, so being unable to roam the country freely wasn’t a huge sacrifice. There were books I read that had been stacked up beside my bed. Movies and shows to catch up on. Virtual museum tours and operas and Broadway shows. A few of our favorite musicians gave regular concerts via Facebook and Instagram Live. Such a treat! We watched friends in Tel Aviv spreading cheer through group serenades from their apartment balconies. That was fun. And our local mayor made sure to have the “fun wagon” blaring out music and inspirational messages from a loudspeaker as it slowly wound its way through every city street once a month. Things could be worse. At least people in Israel were not hoarding toilet paper – that was HYSTERICAL, Americans!!!! Thanks for the laughs, memes and jokes about that one!

Many of us started making our own bread and fermenting pickles and cooking up elaborate gourmet meals with the items we found in our fridges and pantries. Cooking classes. Crafts classes. Book clubs. We were never big drinkers, but a friend of a friend gave a free online professional bartending course, which was a blast! Later in the spring, backyard/balcony gardening became the rage. It became the Year of Zoom. Thank goodness we were living in 2020 instead of 10 years ago! Yes. Celebrating all those spring holidays over Zoom was a bit weird, but it was an adventure…. at least at the outset. Through the course of the year, we attended virtual Passover seders, virtual weddings, and virtual classes of all kinds. We longed for more ‘human’ interaction.

Six weeks to turn the corner turned into six months plus of marathon. We were “allowed out” on a limited basis this summer, so I was able to get in a few tiyuulim, or field trips. We celebrated my husband’s being cancer-free. What a celebration and a gift that is!!! We’ve learned that each day is precious and not to be taken for granted. We’ve grown closer to our children. Four are back in University, so John and I spent a lot of time editing papers. We really do need to be presented with honorary degrees at the time of their graduations. In a few weeks, we will be blessed with another grandbaby…. she’ll be joining the new gen of “Quaranteens” in a dozen years. Hopefully, we’ll be able to travel back to the States in 2021!

Our international airport has been pretty much closed to tourists and visitors since early March. It’s been surreally quiet without all the tourists and pilgrims. John and I have been able to go to holy sites in Jerusalem and be the only ones there – the Western Wall was strange with cubicles set up so there would be limited contact between those praying. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was completely desolate: no long lines and craning necks. The vendors lining the shuk (bazaar) are shuttered or emptied with occasional old men sitting outside their stalls playing chess or smoking on their hookah pipes. I must say, my heart breaks for all those who make a living off the tourist industry here: hotels, restaurants, bus drivers, tour guides, vendors. These lockdowns (we’re in the middle of our third, presently!!!) are beginning to take their toll on livelihoods and peoples’ patience everywhere.

And just as in the United States, people are showing signs of election fatigue – we’re in a similar situation here. Our “unity government” has been anything but. We are now facing our fourth election in just under two years! We, too, have had protests and marches – thankfully without the rioting and violence that has happened in the US. But we HAVE seen diplomacy at its best with the Abraham Accords. Who, even five years ago, would have thought any type of peace in the Middle East would be possible, much less a reality? This year, Israel has signed peace treaties and cooperation agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Bhutan, and Sudan. At least five other countries are ‘in the wings’ towards normalization of ties. That’s a miracle!!! Is a trip to Dubai on the list for us in 2021?

We have no clue what this next year has in store for any of us. I will keep writing my blog – spoiler alert: a lot more new (and ethnic recipes!) and quite a few archaeological and historic sites will be among my 2021 posts. I’ll share new towns we’ve visited; unique artwork; and hopefully some interviews with our diverse population (new immigrants; a nearby Arab farming community that has been using ancient techniques and growing heritage produce for hundreds of years in the same tiny valley; artisanal foods; local crafts). It should be quite the year.

Until then, I’ll be deleting much of my social media and game apps as of 1 January. They have become waaaaay too much of a black hole sucking up time. I WILL be keeping my Instagram platform. You can follow me there @eemahleh. You’ll be able to see my beautiful pictures of the Holy Land and all that we’re doing here. And if you want to keep in touch personally, just leave a comment after the blog – I’ll give you my email and personal contact info.

My prayer for 2021 is that all of this COVID-related lifestyle and concern will be a thing of the past. That we can all put aside baseless hatred for those who are different from ourselves in any way. That more people, groups and countries will put down their swords and pick up their plowshares. That we will be able to travel the world freely again. For an end to political wrangling. For health, for happiness, for peace and prosperity and freedom to reign supreme. Here’s to seeking out the True, the Beautiful, the Positive and for living each day to the fullest in Love, Respect, and Holiness. Happy Sylvester for those in Israel! Happy New Year to All!!!

Just Donut Tempt Me!!!

I’ve been a really, really good girl this entire Chanukah season. I’ve looked, I’ve ogled, I’ve photographed, but I haven’t touched a single donut!!! Until just now. You see, it’s the last bit of Chanukah here in Israel. And the main holiday food is sufganyot (soof-gahn-YOTE), or the filled donut. And my wonderful husband just came back from his errands around town with a Chanukah present: the purple box! Roladin sufganyot!

But first, before I reveal the surprise, let me backtrack. The sufganyot make their appearance right after the Sukkot holiday, typically in October. The ones in the supermarkets are typically more like a dense bread than their light, fluffy and sweet American cousins. Instead of exploding with jelly, they have maybe a scant teaspoon of filling… and frankly, we never shared the excitement over this humble pastry…. until last year, that is.

You see, over the past couple years, Israel has taken the art of the donut to an entirely new level. It’s become a high art form here, culinarily speaking. No longer content with the meager teaspoon of overly sweet, fake raspberry jam, pastry chefs have become more and more creative with flavors like coffee cream, strawberry shortcake, bananas foster, German chocolate, pistachio cream, birthday cake and lemon meringue.

The photos at top left and right are from the Roladin bakery chain. They have their game down. The donuts are light and airy, just the right foundation for the fillings…and toppings…and add-ons. I like that many have squirt tubes filled with chocolate, caramel, coffee, jellies, butters, and creams so you can squeeze in the amount of deliciousness you want inside your pastry. Some donuts are a mere platform for the bananas and caramel custard (bananas foster); chocolate ganache and marshmallows, topped with a layer of donut and finished off with caramel sauce (S’mores); whipped cream, fresh raspberries topped with a French macaron.

Feeling a bit more adventurous? Head to Tel Aviv, where sufganyah artistry reaches its crazy peak. In the picture below are three interesting examples: a tad more exotic, from Lehamim Bakery. The first uses etrog, the fragrant citron used on Sukkot. The inside is filled with a citrus custard and bits of citron. Then comes pomegranate, with pomegranate cream, topped with pomegranate arils – more sour than the expected sugar explosion. And a tropical passionfruit-mango version. Simple, and high quality, with a nod to the local produce. I understand their marzipan filled version is to-die-for. They are open 24 hours a day, literally to satisfy your donut dreams.

Boutique Central, with locations throughout the Tel Aviv area offers baked donuts, which are a bit more healthy??? than the normally fried version. Shemo Bakery also has baked sufganyot. Cafe Soho sells vegan varieties – egg and dairy free. With all natural fillings like almond butter and jelly, and tehine and silan (date syrup). They color their dough with beet, carrot and spinach juice (I understand it just imparts color, not taste). I’m really intrigued by the halvah variety, since this sesame paste/ honey candy is my absolute favorite. To have it as the filling for a donut sounds like heaven.

You see, it’s customary to feast on fried foods during the eight days of Chanukah. Mainly because we celebrate the miracle of the oil to light the ancient golden menorah/lampstand in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It was only supposed to last one day, but miraculously burned for eight days until new, pure olive oil could be brought in from the Galilee. So the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European descent make latkes, fried potato pancakes topped with applesauce or sour cream – which are out of this world. The Moroccan Jews eat svenj, a light puffy donut ball which uses goat yogurt as its rising agent (must say, these have become my favorite). Mizrachi Jews from the Middle East eat falafel, fried meats, and jachnoon, a dense rolled-up bread like pastry that is deep fried and covered in a sticky, sugary rose-water syrup.

Shall we go up to Jerusalem, where the Temple was rededicated over 2000 years ago and the Chanukah party is still raging? This year, I’ve heard that the latest fad is the “Abu Dhabi Donut.” The normalization of relations with UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Bhutan and other Muslim countries is our modern-day miracle. Who would have thought peace in the MidEast could ever be a possibility? To honor this new friendship, one bakery, Cafe Kadosh, has been inspired to create a date-filled confection, lightly dusted with sugar and topped with date cream and currants, sultanas, coconut and gold leaf. The dates were shipped to Israel by the local UAE Jewish community. Donuts in Israel usually sell for anywhere from $2.50-5.00 a piece depending upon where in the country you buy them (Tel Aviv – Jerusalem is always much more expensive than the periphery). The Abu Dhabi version goes for 22 shekel, which is about $6.75. And Cafe Kadosh is hard-pressed to keep up with the demand!

More creative varieties I’ve seen this year include plum-cinnamon; apple-vanilla-brandy; and brioche, which I understand is akin to the American “cronut.” The larger cities offer gluten free confections; children’s varieties topped with miniature toy “prizes” and gold foil-wrapped Chanukah gelt (chocolate coins); and one hipster Tel Aviv cafe is selling dognuts …. yup. You read that correctly. Donuts specifically made for your fur-baby in flavors like carrot cream cheese and peanut butter pretzel. There’s something for everyone.

So, what was in my special Chanukah box? Six melt-in-your-mouth balls of deliciousness. We had cookies and cream (Oreo topped); French kiss (raspberry cream with a raspberry syrup syringe, topped with Chambord glaze and a macaron; dark chocolate caramel (can’t wait to try!!); blueberries and whipped cream with a shot of vanilla syrup (I split this one with John. It was as if an angel from heaven floated down and dropped it into my mouth. Another Chanukah miracle??); mocha – also delicious – filled with a coffee cream, topped with dark chocolate ganache and crunchy amaretti; and one other which is white and mysterious that I shall save for breakfast tomorrow. Who can diet during Chanukah? I did my best! I was so good, but then temptation overtook. The diet will have to wait until New Year’s.

To all my readers celebrating Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanza and the New Year, keep safe, keep the faith, be healthy, be happy, be holy. Spread love and light. And may 2021 shape up to be far better than the past year. Oy to the world!!!!