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.

Living “I Can’t Forget”

The author Kazuo Ishiguro wrote in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal that he was beguiled by a recording of Leonard Cohen’s I Can’t Forget while he was writing his third novel, The Remains of the Day.  Ishiguro was intrigued by the lyrics: “I can’t forget, but I don’t remember what.”  He interpreted the words to mean, “he seemed to have something important buried deep in his memory, but looking back made the recollection fleeting.”

Sitting in the front row of the audience for a Yom HaShoah commemoration, I watched the survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants jointly light the six yahrzeit candles in the memory of the six million Jews officially tallied as having died at the hands of the Nazis and their allies.  I said to my friend, a Persian Jew, that there were other massacres.

I’ve long wanted to record the stories of my parents and those of my in-laws.  I was frustrated in this task, because either I didn’t ask the right questions, chose the right time, or that my respondents were not willing.  My father, in particular, is a reticent man.  He often deflected my questions by saying it’s all in the past.  My husband recently told me that researchers have found that forgetting a painful memory is a healthy response.  It may, in fact, be healthier than constantly re-living the trauma.

My 81-year-old father has been in the ICU in a New York City hospital since March 29th.  (If you are a praying person, please include him in your prayers: Peter Yu-Woon Lee.)  Walking with my mother the 1.2 miles to the hospital, I’ve had many more opportunities to talk.  She said that some people consider it shameful to talk about how they lived through war, famine, and water shortages.  I reassured her that we wanted to know and there was nothing shameful at all.  Throughout history, there has never been a nation that has not experienced war and violent conflict, so every family, indeed, can relate to the travails of survival against all odds.  Lest they willfully forget.

In the Pesach hagadah, the fourth son doesn’t even know how to ask about the meaning of Passover.  We Jews incorporate this phenomenon in our annual ritual of re-living the exodus from Egypt (or a spiritual enslavement, in the modern interpretation).  This differs from the question of the rebellious, “wicked,” son, because the one who does not even know how to ask has been excluded from his people’s history.  If you don’t ask, you cannot know.  If you don’t know, you don’t share in the glory and the grief.  This history is no longer your own.

Today is Yom Ha’Atzmaut, wherein Jews celebrate the day Israel became a sovereign nation amongst the modern nations of the world.  Israel has achieved so much— so many Nobel prizes for one: Israel’s 11 to U.S.’s 15— but it has also suffered more than its share of trauma and loss.  Today, let us shep nachat, take proud pleasure in Israel’s existence as a refuge for Jews the world over.  Am Yisrael Chai.


Film Chat: A Borrowed Identity

By Hannah Lee

The final selection in the 19th season of the Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia was Eran Riklis’s A Borrowed Identity, originally titled  Dancing Arabs, based on the 2004 novel by Sayed Kashua of the same title.  It’s a provocative film that sensitively portrays the alienation of Arabs living in Israel, as they’re subjected to legal obstacles, border crossings, and prejudice.  It’s also discomforting to watch Jews being the oppressor.  However, it is a well-crafted piece of art.

The protagonist, Eyad, is a young Arab Muslim boy who wins a scholarship to a prestigious school in Jerusalem, after a humorous incident in which he solves a complicated  riddle posed on an Arab show on cable television.  The social isolation and public humiliation of being an Arab in a Jewish state impedes his progress.  Along the way, he is assigned to visit a disabled Jewish boy, Jonathan, as part of the school’s community service requirement.

After an initial dismaying interaction, the two boys develop a bond for each other, as well as the mother for Eyad.  The conceit of the film is the boys are similar in looks— although not to us cinema viewers— so it’s a bitter humor that Eyad would face discrimination identifying as himself, but not as Jonathan.  It plays to the subtle point that Arabs and Jews are both descendants of Abraham (as made in one song sang on screen), so the negative traits attributed to each other are actually self-reflective.

Eyad’s first friend at the new school is Naomi, who sees the person behind the Arab name.  They eventually become lovers, but neither could declare their love openly, and especially not to their families.  Much later, Naomi reluctantly reports that her mother could sooner accept that she were a lesbian or dying of cancer than her Arab boyfriend.  In a tragic move, Eyad decides to withdraw from the school, so that Naomi could return.  This is after he learns that Jonathan is withdrawing from his school because of the stigma and humiliation of being confined to a wheelchair with an increasingly dire prognosis.

Eyad’s father kicks him out of the family home for this failure in resolve—  the father had been jailed and prevented from returning to his university studies because of his political activism (and bombing his school’s cafeteria)— so Eyad moves into his own place, with his mother’s help.  Eyad has to find work to support himself.  He learns that as Eyad, he can only get work as a busboy, but as Jonathan, he becomes a waiter (who could earn more in tips).  He continues to study on his own.  Eyal and Naomi re-unite but it’s ultimately futile, as Naomi cannot reconcile her family’s wishes with her love for Eyad.

Jonathan continues to decline, so his mother, Edna, invites Eyad to live with them, to mitigate her despair and to help Jonathan at night.  Eyad cares tenderly for Jonathan.  A high-power lawyer, Edna mistakenly opens a letter from the bank declaring the waiter-salary deposits being made in Jonathan’s name.  After much internal debate, she tells Eyad that no one needs to know of his deceit.  Eyad takes the final exams for himself and again for Jonathan.  They both graduate with honors, although the grades are lower in civics than any other subject.  (There is one classroom scene in which Eyad reluctantly articulates his view that Israeli novelists all portray a Jewish prejudice of Arab stereotypes.)

Eyad moves to Berlin to continue his studies and Jonathan dies.  When Edna picks him up at Ben-Gurion Airport, nothing is spoken of their plan: Eyad goes to the Palestinian Authority to report the death of an Arab boy, Eyad.  The burial is conducted in Muslim tradition, with the body wrapped in a white shroud.  The shrouds had been bought in Mecca by Eyad’s grandmother, but she was buried before he could return home to fulfill his promise to her.  Eyad assumes Jonathan’s identity with Edna’s discreet cooperation.

In a Q&A with the director, Riklis was asked why the original title.  He offered two explanations, although he’s not the author: (1) there is a Jewish saying that you cannot dance at two weddings, and (2) Arabs and other minorities always have to dance and weave their way through life in a dominant culture.  This is true for any immigrant community, but the political tension heightens the difficulty for integration of Arabs into Israeli society.  In defiance of a common Hollywood practice, he does not cast any Jew in an Arab role or vice versa.  As a secular Jew, the director made one error on screen: the scene in which Edna recites kiddush for the Shabbat meal, she then proceeds to serve the meal without reciting the ha-motzi bracha (blessing) for the two challot, which remain covered.

This excellent film deviates from the plot of the semi-autobiographical novel, which is very itself very moving.   Here is one excerpt:  “After a trip to Egypt, his father gives up on his dreams of liberation and statehood. He was stopped at a border crossing for hours and something in him broke. Now he doesn’t want to fight any more. He hates Arabs: “It is better to be the slave of your enemy than to be the slave of a leader from within your own people.”

I look forward to the 20th season of the Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia next March.

Film trailer

Book Chat: Like Dreamers

By Hannah Lee

The miracle of Israel’s Six-Day War in 1967 united a nation, and Jews all over the world celebrated its victory.  That members of the 55th Brigade of paratroopers who reunited Jerusalem then led lives that split its small nation politically as well as religiously is the heartbreaking saga on how we have not merited the Messianic age of global peace, Olam HaBa.

After 11 years of interviews and research on seven of these paratroopers, Yossi Klein Halevi has brought forth his newest book, Like Dreamers, to justified acclaim.  Born in Brooklyn, he first visited Israel that June of 1967 with his Holocaust-survivor father (who finally forgave God and re-gained his faith with Israel’s success) and he has lived in Israel for over 30 years.  The book’s title comes from Psalm 126: “When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion, we were like dreamers.”

While writing this labor of love, Halevi was troubled by the singular lack of voice; he thought it meant the book wasn’t speaking to him.  Then in an epiphany, he realized that the cacophony of voices from his interview subjects was what defined himself as an Israeli Jew, one with conflicting views.  He then constructed his book with alternating voices, allowing each central character to express his thoughts and views as they evolved over time.  He spoke on Sunday before a standing-room audience at Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr.

His cast of characters include the kibbutznik paratroopers and the religious Zionist paratroopers.  They served together and they exhibited a tremendous level of tolerance and cooperation.  One protagonist, the secular commander Arik Achmon, noted how the religious reservists, whom he’d ridiculed as dosim (religious nerds), were keen on proving their worth and how they rose a half hour earlier each day to pray.  Once when his soldiers were sent on leave but it was close to sundown that Friday, they chose to stay in camp rather than risk traveling on Shabbat.  He noticed approvingly that they didn’t ask to be let out early.  He then showed his respect by enforcing the kosher laws in the army kitchens (despite the paratroopers’ sense of being a law unto themselves), so that any soldier under his command would not feel uncomfortable.

The love was reciprocated: when a friend spoke about “religious paratroopers,” another central character, Yoel Bin-Nun, who taught Bible as a way to understand contemporary Israel, rebuked him, saying, “There are no religious paratroopers or secular paratroopers.  Only Israeli paratroopers.”  In another incident, when he was challenged by a kibbutznik, that if Bin-Nun could convince him that God exists and that there is a divine hand guiding the world, he was ready to become religious.   But if he succeeded in convincing the rabbi that it’s all nonsense, the rabbi would become secular.  “You’re asking me to give up my deepest beliefs,” Bin-Nun replied, with a smile.  “Let each person observe and interpret in his way, but the Torah belongs to every Jew.  Shabbat belongs as much to you as it does to me.”

The disastrous Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Israel was caught ill-prepared and lost over 2,500 men and over 7,000 were wounded, sobered the nation.  Some realized that Israel’s survival required moral renewal.  Two divergent paths emerged formed by those for whom annexing the territories of Judea and Samaria (captured from Jordan in 1967) was a part of the redemption process and those for whom withdrawing from the territories, termed by them the West Bank, was the hope for peace.  The liberators of Jerusalem were amongst the founders of the settler movement and the Peace Now movement.  Another of them, Udi Adiv, became so disenchanted with Zionism that he traveled to Damacus in 1972 to create an anti-Zionist terrorist underground.  He served 12 years in an Israeli prison.  Their narratives will in time coalesce into hardened political positions.

On Sunday, Halevi spoke of the two promises of Zionism: normalcy to end anti-Semitism and transcendence to serve as a light unto the world.  He sees the most interesting divide as the one from normalcy to utopia.  Thus, both the kibbutzniks and the settlers (who wish to populate the whole of Judea and Samaria) are in the same camp as utopians.

He then addressed the three failed dreams of Israel: the kibbutz movement, the settler movement, and the Oslo peace accords. Now Israel is bereft of a utopian dream.  Can it sustain itself without one?  My rabbi recently spoke about the Torah portion of parshat Vayeshev, in which Joseph is asked to interpret the dreams of his fellow prisoners, the baker and the wine steward.  The wine steward whose crime was a fly in the wine being served to the pharaoh was reinstated to his post, while the baker whose bread had a small stone was executed.  While a fly might be disgusting, it is not life-threatening, but a pebble would prove a choking hazard.  The lesson was that a threat from within could be greater than without.  A great challenge for Israelis now is to build unity from amongst their brethren.  When they respected each other and were united in their goals in 1967, they achieved miraculous results.  May Am Israel re-gain its sense of purpose and harmony and see peace in our times.

Chag Urim sameach.

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