A Gut Feeling For Israel


Jerusalem — It’s one thing to claim Masada as your birthright, or the Western Wall or the Dead Sea.

It’s quite another to be able to say that shakshuka — that iconic and palate-zinging Israeli egg dish — is now part of your cultural heritage.
But that’s exactly what happened this week for 48 participants on Birthright Israel’s first-ever culinary trip.

Earlier this week the hungry Birthrighters disembarked from their tour bus at Shvil HaSalat (The Salad Trail), a farm in the northern Negev, anticipating a meal featuring lots of homegrown vegetables.

An hour and a half later the group sat down to a lunch of brightly colored Mediterranean-type salads that could have been served proudly at any fine restaurant anywhere in the world.

While the food was delicious, what made the experience at Shvil HaSalat particularly special was the fact that the 22- to 26-year-olds prepared it themselves.
Divided into six groups and provided with a recipe, the young people, most of whom have no connection to the food industry, ventured into the farm’s hothouses and fields to pick luscious cherry tomatoes from the vine, gather fresh herbs or yank carrots out of the ground.

Assisted by the farm’s owner, Uri Alon, the participants — post-college working people, about a third of them from New York — made their first-ever shakshuka, a favorite Israeli dish that combines eggs, tomatoes, peppers, onion, salt and a dash of sugar. Others prepared pesto and four other mouth-watering dishes.
The result was a feast of ultra-fresh food, enough to feed participants and staffers, laid out buffet-style under a thatched structure that insulated against the oppressive 80-degree heat.

“It’s a good thing we’re eating lunch early,” said a staffer, sampling the cherry tomato salad. “Tonight we’re going to eat Moroccan food prepared by women in their own homes. We don’t dare go unless we’re hungry.”

Culinary Birthright is just one of many new Israel food tours that have been offered in recent years, with Mediterranean food enjoying widespread popularity and Israeli food increasingly recognized as being more sophisticated than the iconic falafel. Janna Gur’s “The Book of New Israeli Food: A Culinary Journey,” published in 2008 by Shocken, and Joan Nathan’s “The Foods of Israel Today” (Knopf, 2001) have also raised the country’s culinary profile.

It is also one of a growing number of niche trips being offered by Birthright Israel, which works in cooperation with tour operators provided with incentives to come up with novel programs.

Ada Spitzer, Birthright’s vice president of marketing, community relations and development, said that in the past few years the organization has been making more of an effort to reach young Jews “who ordinarily might not come” on a regular Birthright program.
These include young professionals trying to establish their careers.

“We tailor programs to the niche group,” Spitzer said, noting that the number of specialty programs has doubled in recent years, to 10 per season (summer/winter).
“We had a special program of physicians who went to various health-related places, such as a world-class medical simulator,” Spitzer said. “Unfortunately, Israel leads the world in trauma care, so the group learned quite a bit about trauma medicine.”

A trip for professionals interested in bioethics revolved around questions of ethics in medicine and law. A group of musicians from the former Soviet Union were immersed in music and performed a short concert with the Israeli musicians who accompanied them on the trip. A visit devoted to entrepreneurship focused a great deal on Israeli startups.

There have also been trips for teens with physical or mental challenges, such as cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. At least three groups of deaf teens have toured Israel with Birthright over the years, as have two groups of teens with Asperger syndrome.

Like other Birthright participants, the niche participants visit the Western Wall and climb Masada, dip in the Dead Sea and go camel riding. But the specialized trips — such as Just Dance! and the Israel Challenge, programs scheduled for summer 2010 through the tour operator Shorashim — revolve around a theme.

Much of the extra funding these trips require comes from the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, which has supported niche programs almost from Birthright’s inception.

Spitzer emphasizes that the extra funding goes into specialized staffing, not five-star hotels — or haute cuisine. Participants were taken to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda shuk and a grandma’s house for dinner, not the Terrace Restaurant at the King David Hotel.

“The goal is to show Israel from a culinary perspective. Israeli society is made up of so many ethnic groups and looking at their foods is a lens into Israeli society. Like music, food is international. It’s an icebreaker, a way to connect in a very visceral way,” Spitzer said.

“This isn’t a fancy-shmancy chef-y trip,” agreed Bill Frankel, educational director of IsraelExperts, the tour company that created the culinary program. “It’s about who we are as Jews and how [Judaism and culture] has affected our food.”

The trip “was intended to be down-to-earth,” Frankel said, and included visits to a small robotic dairy farm, an olive press and a boutique chocolate factory, for example.
Participants enjoyed some home-cooked kosher meals as guests of Jews and Israeli Arabs. Matsuda Suissa, who cooks for groups as part of a women’s empowerment project called the Culinary Queens of Yohneam, a Negev development town, told the group how in Morocco she had an arranged marriage at 16, made aliyah and, like many other Jews from Arab lands, was sent to live in the middle of nowhere.

“We had no running water, no electricity, no sewage system,” Suissa, a handkerchief-wearing grandmother, told the Birthrighters as they sampled her freshly made couscous, salads and chicken. “It was terribly hard. Then, when my first husband died, I had seven children, aged 2 to 12 and no way to support them. So I cooked for a living.”

As good as the meal was, what most impressed the visitors was Suissa’s volunteer work: for years she cooked food for new mothers every night, following her own 12-hour work shift.

Harris Sokoloff, a 25-year-old civil engineer from Demarest, N.J., said the food-oriented trip was a “great way to get to meet real Israelis” and “underscored Israel’s efforts to make the desert bloom.”

At Shvil HaSalat, gazing at the acres of greenhouses full of vegetables and flowers, Sokoloff described how the group had visited David Ben-Gurion’s grave earlier that day.
“Ben-Gurion’s dream was to harvest the Negev, and these are the fruits of his labors. Pardon the pun,” Sokoloff said.

Susan Halaka, a 25-year-old manager of a clothing store, said the culinary trip showed her a cultural side of Judaism she hadn’t known about previously.
The daughter of a Jewish mother and an Egyptian-born Copt, Halaka, from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, was raised Christian, but has been curious about her “Jewish side” for a long time.

“I knew nothing about being Jewish. Before this trip I had never experienced a Shabbat dinner,” Halaka said. “To be honest, I was petrified by the thought of going to a Shabbat meal. I have tattoos. I’d never prayed a Jewish prayer before. I thought people would judge me, but no one did.”

By traveling with young Israelis — all Birthright groups are accompanied by Israeli counterparts — Halaka discovered “that not all Israelis are Orthodox. I was under a total misconception.”

Halaka said she felt comfortable enough in Israel to contact distant Israeli relatives of her mother, whose parents were Holocaust survivors.
“I contacted them and they’ve invited me to stay with them, so I’ll be here another couple of weeks,” Halaka said, surprised and happy at the same time.