It is a gift to be able to travel half way around the world to visit family, in particular, my daughter who is spending a gap year in Jerusalem. In 5 days, I get to spend lots of time with her as well as and with my sister in the Galilee. In an ancient, complex, alluring, overwhelming and perplexing political/social environment - I stick to the basics; love and food, a combination that is a universal language in this part of the world in spite of all the cultural and religious differences. It is the land where 'Eat, I love you' debuted.
Katie's program combines education with community service. The participants live in small apartments but cook/study/work communally. She casually invites me in advance to prepare a meal for her group. Naturally (and flattered), I agree. "And how many for dinner?" "53". I think lasagna and fresh fruits and vegetables; and pack full size disposable baking pans and several boxes of pre-boiled noodles with me. The kids, 18/19 years old, rotate cooking every meal - I am assured a volunteer staff will be assisting me. I land, drop my bags and head to meet Katie who I have not seen in 2 months, our longest separation to date. I scope out her apartment (which she shares with 5 other young women) and the local supermarket. It is typical of a non-affluent neighborhood market with lots of dry goods and cans but only fair in the fresh produce department. I don't know the shopping habits of the community, but I am certain the residents have a local "souk" (market) elsewhere.
The basic vegetables I need are all in season - eggplant, zucchini, onions, peppers, garlic, mushrooms and tomatoes. It is the cheese that I struggle with. It is in Hebrew and I can only guess what is what. Afternoon errands bring us to a second neighborhood - a bigger market - where we discover ricotta and mozzarella. Hallelujah. To the kitchen!
I meet Yochai who instantly becomes my right hand and speaks no English. My culinary Hebrew is poor but we quickly discover how to communicate with gestures and half-baked phrases. He mans the sauté pan and within 30 minutes, the vegetables are all ready. The cheeses are blended, the tomato sauce is mixed and the layering begins. It is a fun group effort.
Then onto vegetable soup, and lots of chopping for the green salad and fruit salad - juicy crisp alternatives to their typically higher starch meals. I am feeling good until a moment of panic sets in - these are all teenagers and they are hungry and excited about the meal ahead. Did I make enough? It doesn't take 25 years of high-powered catering to know the answer. Yochai saves the day with quick thinking as we toast bread topped with tomatoes, cheese and a divine basil/garlic chiffonade he whips up. We stretch the pot of soup and pre-slice the lasagna, a move that yields over 60 slices...whew. The not so fast oven finally cranks out the meal, the buffet is open and we all eat. Within 20 minutes, it is almost all gone. An unanticipated benefit? What a great way to get to know these young men and women. It is in the kitchen that we casually talk and exchange information. I leave that night so impressed by this very dedicated, unspoiled, warm group of emerging adults. I tell them to let their parents know a visiting mom cooked - this way, the challenge is set for future guest chefs and more 'home cooked' meals!
The culinary-tourism is not over until I am reunited with my sister in the kitchen, cooking meals for the Sabbath together. My brother in law is happy "second wife" is here and drops me off at their local supermarket where I have shopped many times and feel at home. The Butcher/Fish man and I successfully navigate my selections with gestures, though I still don't know the name of the fish I ended up buying. I load up on special salamis to haul home to NYC, while carefully perusing the aisles for interesting new products and trends. I love the seasonality of the food and the lack of 'absolutely everything under the sun'.
We cook up a storm together - my sister is a talented cook and the kind of mom who always accommodates each child's special requests and preferences. She has made two soups, chicken two ways and several side dishes including signature Mid-eastern salads. I feel the urge to cook a traditional Jewish comfort food that my sister's doesn't make and the desire to make something a little exotic and memorable. Stuffed Cabbage and Leg of Lamb. Add the inspiration for a couple of different salads; some fish for the non-meat eaters and a great series of meals emerges. I am practically bursting and go from meal to meal knowing that if I skipped eating, I would not feel hungry. But we keep gathering around the table, sharing stories, singing, listening and laughing.
When we are not cooking, we are out eating and enjoying local dishes or I am visiting markets with my camera. "Giveret" (Lady) one stall keeper yells at me, "This is not a museum. You like the vegetables, buy one!" It is the famous souk in the Old City, inside the Jaffa Gate, that both tempts yet frightens me. I am drawn to the colors, the faces, the blend of cuisines, the never-ending efforts to engage me in conversation and commerce, the genuine warmth and the subtle (or not so) distain.
If Cuba was complex, then the Old City of Jerusalem defies definition. And though I travel to Israel often, I do not even pretend to understand or judge a fraction of what is simmering on the surface no less the root causes of so much intractable hostility. With every taxi ride, I get another political perspective on topics ranging from housing to taxes to land-for-peace to Obama. And in sharp contrast to Cuba, there is no reluctance to share even the most radical political commentary. There is no shortage of expressiveness here.
But it is the breathtaking beauty of the country, the sounds and smells that shift swiftly, the abundant varieties of languages and religions, the soul of this ancient and tormented yet brilliant land that always leaves me longing to come back for extended periods of time that never seem to materialize.
Walking through Jerusalem Thursday morning, I see a construction worker in a t-shirt that said it all: Between Heaven and Hell.