The Israeli capital was really cooking this week as the first Jerusalem International Convention of Jewish Cuisine got off to a mouth-watering start Sunday.
Rather than kick off the five-day event in a hotel or convention center, opening night festivities took place in a neighborhood courtyard adjacent to the Machaneh Yehuda open-air market. To bolster its native Israeli authenticity, the organizers commissioned 30 local families to cater the event.
The families, who live in the ethnically rich neighborhoods of Zichron Tuvia and Lev ha-Ir, spent days in their kitchens preparing the feast. Using recipes originating in Yemen, Kurdistan and Morocco, they produced enough kubeh, couscous, felafel and stuffed grape leaves to feed a small army.
Still, the women in aprons and head scarves seemed a bit shocked when nearly 1,000 people turned up in their neighborhood’s central courtyard. The cool evening breeze and the promise of food seemed to attract everyone from Mayor Teddy Kollek to curious local residents, who brought out chairs and joined the festivities.
The event’s organizers, on the other hand, were far from surprised by the turnout.
“Israelis enjoy food, so we expected a large response,” said Sheryl Roosth, who promoted the convention. “What better place to enjoy the roots of Jewish cooking than in a real neighborhood in Jerusalem?”
“Food like this, and indeed all Jewish cuisine, is the food of our mothers. If we don’t preserve it, it will be lost,” said Zev Birger, director of Jerusalem Fairs and Conventions.
“The main aim of the convention is to study, understand and document Jewish cuisine from a practical and academic perspective. The recipes and the customs behind them are valuable historical tools, as well as a living part of our culture,” he said.
The convention has attracted an international array of Jewish food experts, including cookbook author Evelyn Rose, chef Shalom Kadosh and journalist Daniel Rogov, who will tackle everything from the political implications of food to cooking workshops.
The lectures address every angle of modern Jewish life, from kosher airplane food to rations in the Israel Defense Force. They also explore the numerous ways Jews around the world prepare food for Shabbat and the holidays.
Almost every Jewish community has its own version of cholent, for example, with its own distinctive ingredients and seasoning. The common denominator: a nourishing one-pot meal cooked slowly for almost 24 hours and served on Shabbat.
It is this kind of common thread that defines Jewish cuisine, no matter how diverse the food or culture, explained Rogov, who writes a newspaper column.
“When most people think of kosher food, they think of gefilte fish, kishke and latkes,” he said, “but this is only a small percentage of Jewish cuisine in the world.
“This is Yiddish food, Eastern European food, and it’s what you find in the U.S. Someone once called it ‘the heartland of nostalgia,’ but that’s only true for Jews of Eastern European origin.
“When you think about it,” he said, “Jewish cuisine is as varied as its people.”