Film Chat With Michael Solomonov

By Hannah Lee

Video — In Search of Israeli Cuisine

There were 700 people at the Gershman Y on Monday night for the Philadelphia premiere of In Search of Israeli Cuisine with the James Beard-winning chef Michael Solomonov as the Chef Guide.  The film captures the political culture of Israel during its major culinary revolution.  It takes viewers on a culinary adventure to over 100 locations throughout Israel, visiting top chefs, great home cooks, amazing wine and cheese makers, street food vendors, farmers, and more.

The director, Roger Sherman, has won an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, and two Academy Award nominations, among other honors.  The Restaurateur, a portrait of renowned restaurant owner, Danny Meyer, won the 2013 James Beard Award for Best Documentary, Broadcast Journalism.

In Search of Israeli Cuisine is a gorgeous film that took three years to produce and another two years for fund-raising.  Even Solomonov, a frequent visitor to his birth country, was surprised by the fabulous food and chefs that he met during the filming.  At the post-film Q&A, Sherman and Solomonov were asked what were their biggest misconceptions about Israel.  Sherman said his disillusion was that all Israelis keep kosher, when the reality is that secular, non-observant, non-kosher Jews are in the majority in the Holy Land.

Solomonov said that he thought all Israeli food is Middle Eastern.  His own greatest culinary influence was his beloved late grandmother, a Bulgarian Jew who spoke Ladino.  After Solomonov’s grandmother died, he could no longer serve bourekas in his restaurant, Zahav, because he was raw from grief and he couldn’t tolerate any potential criticism of the food.  When asked if he cannot separate the personal from the professional, Solomonov flatly said no.

As for the political ramifications, Solomonov said that we all approach a country through its food.  Sherman quoted the chefs he’d met and filmed who told him, “You cannot sit at my table and be my enemy.”

Asked why does he stay in Philadelphia, Solomonov said it’s where met his wife, it’s where he met his partner and co-author of his 2015 book,
“Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking,” Steven Cook.  This is home.

However, he and Cook will soon open another location of their popular hummusiya, Dizengoff, in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City  (75 Ninth Ave., at 15th St.; 646-833-7097).  Like the original on 1625 Sansom Street in Philadelphia, the restaurant will offer set meals of hummus, fresh-baked pita, salads, and pickles during the day.  But unlike the original, Dizengoff NYC will offer dinner.  Also new to New York are shakshuka served daily for breakfast, rotating vegetable salatim inspired by the half-dozen that start a meal at Zahav, and Israeli wines by the glass.

Solomonov keeps a heavy travel schedule promoting his book and the film, but he stills cooks four to five times a night in his restaurants.  It’s what he enjoys most, compared to speaking before an audience of 700.  The film is slated to be shown in 55 film festivals over the next year.

Food tours of the people and places mentioned in the film are scheduled for May and October of this year and January of 2017.  They’re organized by Florentine Films in conjunction with Avihai Tsabari’s Via Sabra, with guest appearances by Solomonov on the May tour.

Book Chat: The Archive Thief

By Hannah Lee

On Thursday, I attended a fascinating lecture at Drexel’s Judaic Studies department, where the guest was Lisa Moses Leff, whose new book, The Archive Thief, is about Zosa Szajkowski, who single-minded rescued Jewish books and documents from Germany and France, as an immigrant American GI paratrooper during WWII.  

Szajkowski brazenly used the U.S. Army free courier service to ship his parcels back– some two or three in a day— to New York, the last remaining branch of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.  He continued to steal Jewish documents after the war and he financed his own scholarship by selling them piecemeal to Jewish institutions in the United States and Israel; the two top buyers were the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Hebrew Union College.  He was eventually caught red-handed and he committed suicide in 1978.

When Dr. Leff,  Associate Professor at American University, interviewed the elderly librarians who’d acquired the documents, knowing of their sketchy provenance, she found that they were proud of helping to rescue Jewish written material from the Nazis.  However, some of the items were taken from institutions that survived the war, and there remain big gaps in the European archives.  Everyone knew of Szajkowski in the library and archive community, but he was never publically named. 

Ironically, the stolen documents have gained better care, having been catalogued and made available for scholarship.  Indeed, one librarian when asked about giving back the documents, he retorted that they– the European institutions— can better pay for all the years of care and storage!  Zosa Szajkowski, with his looting and his scholarship, singlehandedly established the field of Jewish historical research, using documents of ordinary Jews.  So, do you think the end justifies the means?


A Hunger for Learning

By Hannah Lee

On Tuesday night, I attended a viewing of the documentary film, Refugee Kids, about an American program set up for refugee children.  Run by the International Rescue Committee (founded by Albert Einstein to rescue Jewish refugees), the Refugee Youth Summer Academy transforms 120 kids speaking 26 languages from the world’s hot spots – Iraq, Egypt, West Africa, Tibet, Burma and Bhutan – from “tongue-tied newcomers into confident, savvy New Yorkers” over the course of the six-week program.

We meet Helen, a 16-year-old Burmese refugee, who effortlessly translated from English to Burmese to Chin to Thai to Nepali.  There is Tek Nath, who in his first six months in America, did more than most adults: He leased the family apartment, translated for the surgeons operating on his brother’s heart, applied for the family’s green cards, opened bank accounts, and tutored both parents and younger siblings in English – and all the while maintaining straight A’s in his school work.  And this from a 17-year-old who had spent his entire life in a rural Nepalese refugee camp where he had virtually no English instruction. 

We meet George from Liberia who lost both parents at a very early age and was raised in Staten Island where he was confronted with the brutality of gang violence but has still emerged as a student mentor, exhibiting leadership skills.  There are also the siblings who faced long separations from their families: Rigzin and Tashi from Tibet who are reunited with their parents in Brooklyn after eight years spent at the Dalai Lama’s refugee school in India; and Ida and Jennifer from Togo who were raised by their aunt and encountered an unforeseen family tragedy — fire and death of a young sister– upon their arrival in the Bronx. 

The directors, Renee Silverman and Peter Miller, added to their footage with interviews in the children’s homes and in their communities.  The children narrated their often harrowing back stories in hand-drawn pictures, which were animated by the talented Brian O’ConnellLiz Swados, the beloved composer, recorded an original score before her untimely death.  The editor Aaron Vega wove the many stories together into a cogent, short film as his last project before winning a seat as American state legislator where he now serves in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Refugee Kids is the second film by Silverman and Miller, following their teen Holocaust theater story, Sosua: Make a Better World.  Miller writes, “It’s something of a miracle that we were able to shoot, edit, and complete Refugee Kids for what might be the lunch budget of normal film, but we were blessed with generous and talented friends.”

The screening at Rodeph Shalom was sponsored by HIAS PA and the American Jewish Committee.  HIAS PA runs a similar summer tutoring program, and it welcomes volunteer tutors and donations of books.

In Celebration of Resa Rudney

Yesterday was the funeral for Resa Rudney and it was a happy time recalling the spirit and deeds of a woman who lived her life well and long.  Born in Jackson, Mississippi before the Depression, Resa was raised with a compassion for the underprivileged and a passion for social justice.  In her family’s store, they allowed black patrons to try on clothing before purchase, which was illegal at the time.  They posted an “Out of Order” sign on the single bathroom door, to avoid maintainimg  a second race-segregated one, and they offered its use to those who would not recoil at its use by black people.

After meeting and marrying “her Prince,” who was raised in a more observant family in Philadelphia, she moved up north.  Work at the family business and at home raising two children did not distract Resa from a concern for others.  After Hurricane Katrina, at age 78, she travelled to New Orleans to work with Habitat for Humanity.  She served in a variety of communal charitable organizations over her long life, but I met Resa when we arrived at HIAS in 2008.  We’d both read an article in The Jewish Exponent asking for volunteers.

Through Resa’s efforts, she initiated a partnership between Main Line Reform Temple (MLRT) and HIAS Pennsyvlania. This partnership encouraged the engagement of congregants in tikkun olam activities with refugees and to date has raised thousands of dollars’ worth of donations for refugee families.  Rabbi David Straus gave the project and Resa’s efforts his full-hearted support by promoting weekly bulletins requesting donations, the Men’s Club to deliver furniture, and the Sisterhood to fix up apartments.

In 2010, a member of MLRT generously helped to establish a new storage facility for HIAS Pennsylvania’s donations.  MLRT’s Sisterhood manages and organizes the inventory and the flow of donations stored. The previous storage unit was too small and not coordinated.  Nowadays, Resa’s two disciples, Linda Brock and Adele Margulies, manage the intake of donations and they keep it in spit-spot order, with items sorted and labelled.

Since 2009, she’s arranged for the refugees to benefit from the remainders of the annual rummage sale that MLRT Sisterhood has run as a charitable outreach effort.   Then, Resa stepped up the ante by hiring a bus to bring the refugees from their homes in South Philadelphia, so that they can select items to their desire.  Not content to rest on her laurels, Resa had another brainstorm: she will enlist the help of the dentists on the Main Line to offer pro bono dental care. Her first subject was her own dentist, who has agreed to care for her adopted refugee family, who call her grandmother in Burmese.  My favorite anecdote of Resa’s enterprising zeal was when she taught the refugees to make kippot and then pitched their sale the National Museum of American Jewish History.  What an unusual provenance for these kippot: authentically made by Burmese refugees!

HIAS PA will create a Resa Rudney Memorial Fund to launch an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program, an issue that Resa had lobbied for.  An apt celebration for a woman who  has dedicated her life for others.