A New Year in the New World

dc treesThis New Year finds me in Washington, DC – a verdant city shaded by massive trees, with a great river, abundant rain and lush natural growth. To get here, I traveled from Israel, through Europe, passing from the Ancient to the Old to the New World.

Compared to the Ancient and Old Worlds, the magnitude of the natural resources I have observed on a simple drive from New York to Washington inspired rapture akin to that experienced by the 18th century American landscape painters whose works are hung in this city’s excellent museums.  After years in Israel honing my selective vision, I am able to see beyond the refineries and polluted waters, to marvel at grand stretches of marsh, forest, farmland and broad waterways. Looking back to the Galilee, the trickle of the Jordan River, the circumscribed rectangles of cultivated fields, and even the stoutest, most venerable olive trees are all dwarfed in comparison.

Celebrating the holiday in this context, with the chill of autumn already in the air, causes me to re-examine the rationale for starting the New Year in the autumn.  In the Ancient World, and specifically the Galilee, the first rains of the season appear at just this time of year. The profound significance of those first drops of precipitation, called the “yoreh” in Biblical Hebrew, cannot be over-emphasized.   Not only do they represent relief after the long, dry and oppressively hot summer, but much more importantly, they are the celestial birth announcement of a new agricultural year.  A softening of the sun-baked earth that opens a new cycle of sowing, cultivating and, if all goes well, a decent harvest.

I try and imagine the optimism, trepidation and wonder of the early farmers and herders at the start of a new agricultural year, praying fervently for the blessing of rain in its time that would ensure their livelihood and survival for another year. And here in the New World, from this place of extraordinary privilege, where existence is relatively secure and water is available at a turn of the faucet, my wish for the coming year is that the bountiful rains will soften our hearts in compassion and charity towards a world roiling in suffering.

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Americans for Peace Now published a wonderful review of my book “Breaking Bread in Galilee”, along with a short recorded interview.  Click here to read and listen!

 

The First, First Fruits of Spring

20150403_114715Early on in Arabic class, we learned the names for the seasons of the year, and one of the topics for discussion was, “what is your favorite season?”   Visiting in Kufar Manda to practice my lessons, I took up this conversation with Abu Malek and Um Malek. I like winter best, I told them. The Arabic name for winter, “shitta“, is a synonym for rain, and I related how I wait all year long for the onset of winter rains that call up a plethora of edible wild plants.

Um Malek got a dreamy look in her eyes and said, “Spring”.  Since she is one of the most energetic wild plant foragers I know, I was interested to hear her choice, and asked her to explain.  Because of the zaatar, she said.

For those of us who associate winter with hibernation and spring with reawakening and new growth, these seasons have a very different significance here in the Galilee.  Winter, with its life-giving rainfall, is the time when local plants emerge, grow and mature. Zaatar has been evident on the hillsides all winter long, but now its soft, hairy leaves are large and suffused with potent essential oil, ready to be gathered, dried, crushed and mixed with sesame seeds and sumac to make dukka.

Other local foods, however, just reach an initial stage of maturity with the coming of spring.  In the market in Nazareth this past weekend, I saw soft green almonds on sale.  And on my walks in the fields, the wheat is tall and robust, loaded with fat, mature kernels of soft green grain.  Green almonds and wheat – as well as the new chick peas that will soon be appearing – are a delight to eat in their fresh, spring state, or in the case of wheat, ready to be harvested and roasted to produce farike, but their main harvest will only come later, when they are dry and more utilitarian.

By Passover, the wheat in the fields and the flowers on the fruit and olive trees give the traditional Galilee farmer an indication of harvests yet to come, assuming they can survive the upcoming, volatile 49 plus one days of the Omer, with their alternating thunderstorms and blistering hamsin (Arabic for “fifty”) winds.

In the meantime, as we retell yet again the Passover story of exile and liberation, we can also recall that this was once a harvest holiday, charged with promise and trepidation, and that first fruits can ripen in successive stages.

Extending my best Spring Holiday wishes!

Abbie

pre pesach wheat field

 

Sweet as Carob Syrup

carob cooking 1For years I’ve wanted to observe how carob syrup is made.  Like many of the highly labor-intensive, traditional Palestinian foodways, carob syrup production is barely practiced anymore.  But several weeks ago, on a visit to Abu Malek in Kufar Manda, I saw an enormous pile of carob pods on the front porch.  Fall is carob season and the leathery brown pods generally accumulate under the trees; even though they are delicious to chew, few people find any use for them.  Less than a life-span ago however, in Arab villages of the Galilee, sugar was expensive and scarce and it was bread dipped in carob syrup that made life sweet.

Um Malek was busy with her field of okra and black eyed peas, Abu Malek explained, but someone had brought her the carob and she was planning on making syrup when she had some free time.  Please call me when she starts, I almost implored.  Over the years I have known this family, Um Malek has prepared carob syrup at least once, but I always heard about it after the fact, when I was gifted a small bottle of the precious, nutritious brown liquid. Um Malek uses carob syrup to make a kind of gelatin-like dessert – I love its dark earthy flavor for sweetening my oatmeal.

I was delighted to finally get the morning phone call from Abu Malek– “today Um Malek is cooking the carob – you are welcome to come over”.  When I arrived, at least half a dozen tubs were resting on the porch, full of coarsely ground carob which had been processed the previous day at a local mill.  In the yard, two large pots were cooking over open fires.  The first was filled with the ground carob covered with water. Periodically, she would scoop out the carob and discard it, then strain the brown liquid through a piece of cloth.  This distilled carob juice was transferred to the second pot, where it would slowly reduce for at least 12 hours.

to the fire

Making carob syrup, with whole carobs on the porch

straining

Straining the cooked, crushed carob

cooking pot

Cooking down on the fire

In spite of the heavy, late summer heat, Um Malek moved slowly and tranquilly between the rusty piles of carob and tending the fires.  She laughed off my offers to help, and was even more amused when I insisted on lifting the heavy pots.  Ever since she heard that my husband and I do the housework together, she is convinced I am hopelessly spoiled.

So many things separate our worlds – language, culture, narrative – but the friendship and trust between us rests on the things we share in common – a deep connection with the foods of this land and basic, human decency.

A few times during this awful summer, when the destruction, hatred and lost lives seemed too heavy to bear, Abu Malek and I would speak on the phone, reaching out of our pain to confirm and draw comfort from our friendship. The call to make carob syrup signaled that happier times are upon us.

The first rains will soon soften the stone-hearted earth in preparation for the miracle of rebirth.  As we settle into our seats for another round of the seasons, I wish that the coming year will be, for all of us, as sweet as carob syrup.

Back to the Batof

Last June, and seemingly a decade ago, I visited the cities of Sakhnin and Arrabe, for meetings with two NGOs.  At the time, I learned about the work being done by the Towns Association for Environmental Quality on behalf of the Arab farmers of the Bet Netufa Valley.  I was also treated to the wonderful hospitality of the women of the Afnan AlGalil Association for Social Development and Family Support, and had a very difficult time choosing among the beautiful traditional Palestinian embroidered handcrafts the members produce to raise funds for their organization.

Yesterday I returned to both places, determined that the grief, frustration and despair that hung so heavy in this summer’s air would not prevent me from confirming my commitment to maintaining an open, loving and productive relationship with my neighbors.

The Bet Netufa Valley – Sahel Batof in Arabic – is the grandest natural monument in the agricultural landscape of the Galilee.  An aerial map in the Towns Association offices shows the vast expanse of the Valley, demarcated into hundreds of small, rectangular and odd-shaped plots – the majority of them privately owned. On this land,  local Arab fellaheen and part-time farmers practice small-scale agriculture, growing wheat, vegetables, olives – the same crops have been cultivated in this intensely fertile land for thousands of years.  For me, this quiet, historic narrative of local subsistence is the most compelling story around.

One of the goals of the Towns Association is to provide professional and environmental guidance to the Valley farmers, while helping them preserve the traditional relationship between the land, climate and local plants – both cultivated and wild.  Hopefully, I will be able to contribute to this effort.

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See the article from Haaretz about my presentation on El Babour at Oxford

In Hebrew

embroidery

What I brought home from Afnan Al Galil. Thanks to Nabila Naamneh for the lovely visit.

Common Roots

Among all the countless tragedies and losses of this current war is the blow that has been dealt to the already fragile relationships between Jews and Arabs in Israel.  Even in the best of times, suspicion and distrust have been the default sentiments among most Israeli citizens about their “other” counterparts.  And it is against this background that I have, for years, been trying to present a more open-hearted alternative.

Crossing the cultural divide and finding a place in the lives of Palestinians, Druze and Bedouins living in Israel has been one of the most important and transformative efforts of my life – that makes me feel like there is some reason why I am living in this problematic country, instead of in the comfort of the United States.

From these acquaintances and friendships, I have come to understand and appreciate how genuinely connected these people are to this place – whose history and culture – particularly their culinary traditions, which stand out most to me – are rooted in this land.  This is where I find our common roots – because as foreign and religiously unaffiliated as I am,  I do feel a tremendous spiritual connection with this land that I can only explain as originating somewhere deep in my genetic makeup.

This common connection to the land, in fact, is what makes me feel, for example,  that my Palestinian friend Balkees and I are like sisters – that our roots are intertwined somewhere deep in ancient history.

The grapes, wheat and olives of this land grow out of earth that has been steeped in blood.  Yet for every pursuer of war, I am convinced that there are a hundred that would embrace peace with both hands if it was offered to them – no matter what side of the divide.  I pray that the day will soon come that that will happen.

cleaning sesame seeds

cleaning locally grown sesame seeds

What You Can Count On and What You Can’t

Let’s start with what you can’t.  Here in the Galilee, you can’t count on the rain.  You know, or at least you hope, that after what feels like an interminable, hot dry summer, eventually, the seasonal rains will make their dramatic appearance.  And usually, by mid-October or early November, they comply.  This year, our faith was challenged.  By the first week of December, my East-Coast American family was bundled up for snow, and we walked around in t-shirts, on edge in the brittle heat.  Then finally, the skies opened in all their splendor – rain, hail and snow – power outages, flooding.

And now to what you can count on.  That monumental soaking, followed by days of brilliant sunshine, has worked its magical re-appearing act.  Now you see brown, dry earth, now you don’t – replaced by rolling hills of tender, brilliant green filaments of wheat.  What a soothing sight that is.  And how unique for us here, that the advent of winter signals the start of our most primal, fertile season.

I can only imagine what it was like during the millennia when farmers of this land had no recourse to a water pipe.  The existential threat of rain that doesn’t come could wipe out entire clans or send them wandering, all the while trying to make sense of what you can count on and what you can’t.

Which brings me to my holiday wishes –new green that in  the year to come, may you  find  balance between the unpredictable and what can be relied upon – the regenerative cycle of the seasons and the transformative power of love, as welcome as  clouds on the horizon.

Roots are What Sustain Us

At this point in my life, birthdays are an opportunity to indulge in whatever I desire, and this year, not surprisingly, it was to spend time in the Western Galilee.  Maybe I was a Crusader in a previous life, or a farmer whose world view was bound by sage-redolent hills and the shining expanse of Mediterranean Sea.  Something about that landscape calls me back again and again.

We stayed in an extraordinarily lovely bed and breakfast place, where the owners treated us to home-made liqueur made from the green outer casing of walnuts, and their own excellent wine, distilled from Tempranillo grapes that they planted on the nearby slopes, and produced only for the pleasure of sharing with their guests.

We visited the Christian Arab village of Meilia and stopped at a small, family-run arak factory, where the chief distiller, who mastered his trade in his native Lebanon, carried more sorrow in his eyes than a sea of arak could erase. arak

At the peak of the village, among the crumbling walls of an ancient citadel, we picked figs and looked for signs etched in the stones.  

 stone carvings

figs in meilia

By the most fortuitous circumstance, we spent an afternoon exploring the nearby Arab city of Tarshiha with Amnon Gofer, one of the most knowledgeable guides in the Galilee.  Following his lead through the narrow alleyways of the deserted old market, where ironworkers once repaired the local villagers’ farm tools, he showed us fat swaths of tobacco leaves, picked ripe from nearby fields and hanging out to dry.  tobacco

From a lookout at the top of the city, our guide pointed to the crest of mountains that cuts off the Western Galilee at the border with Lebanon. This is not the natural border that delineates this region, he explained; historically and culturally, it is the Litani River in Lebanon.

The grapes for making arak and wine are harvested on either side, as are the Tsuri olives likewise cured and pressed.  For the Arab communities of the Western Galilee, whose ethnic and cultural ties are closer to their neighbors across the unbreachable border, at least the local foods they share in common are within their reach.

Making Hay

When I first started researching for my book, I had a conversation with a very distinguished food historian.  As I enthused about the marvels of wheat, she warned me that people who begin to immerse themselves in the history of grain tend to bore everyone around them, as inevitably, no-one finds the subject as fascinating as they do.  How right she was.

Bear with me. I am simply enthralled by the shaggy green-gold grain, thick on the fields and hills around my home.  It is the purest expression of this land in its prime, at the height of spring.

Over the past few weeks, the wheat harvest has been unfolding, as it has year after year for millennia.  Yet unlike in the past, the vast majority of the wheat grown in this part of the Galilee is destined to become animal feed.

Fields of tender green wheat have already been cut for making silage during the Passover holiday. And now, in other fields, wheat shorn by a combine and deposited in long strips lies drying in the sun.  Why is that wheat cut now, I asked Ron, the former dairyman, and left out for days on end?  To make hay, he answered.  It must dry before being collected into bales. Nutritious and easy to store and keep over time, wheat for cows offers many of the same advantages as it does for humans.

The danger, Ron went on, is rain. If the drying grain gets soaked, fermentation and rot can set in, ruining the entire crop. The gathering gray clouds suddenly seemed more ominous.  This, I realized, is the unspoken imperative of why one should make hay while the sun shines.

wheat for hay

Green Anew

How does one mark the arrival of spring when the entire winter is full of flowers?  With more flowers for one thing, and the late-night fragrance of citrus blossoms teasing into my bedroom window.  But there are other reminders that, over the thousands of years when survival for the people living in the Galilee was linked to agriculture, the advent of spring had more compelling developments.

In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond explains how the Mediterranean climate in the Fertile Crescent, in whose gracious curve the Galilee is set, created the conditions for the development of its indigenous plants.  Adapting for survival in the short, unreliably rainy winters and long, reliably hot, dry summers, these plants invested their energies into producing robust seeds encased in durable coverings that would protect them for as long as necessary until a sufficient rainfall called them into action.  The prehistoric hunters and gatherers of the area learned to pluck the nutritious kernels that were hidden in ears of grain, starting a millennia-long process of cultivation with ramifications far beyond this blog-scope.

Spring is the time when the seeds of many of these indigenous plants come into their own.  In the fields, the grains of wheat are fully developed, yet still green and soft – ready to be harvested to produce farike.  And the almond trees, whose blossoms settled like snowflakes just a few weeks ago, are showing their tender, fuzzy green seeds, which can be eaten whole, sour and refreshing.

In the months to come, the grains and the almonds will dry and harden, to re-enter the cycle in whatever form is their destiny.  But for now, we can savor their vibrant, green potential – encapsulating the miracle of rebirth in yet another spring.

Please accept my warmest wishes for a wonderful Passover, Easter and/or Spring.

green almonds

A Time to Pick Olives

Once again the olive harvest.  I like to speculate that not an autumn has passed since they were first cultivated, back in obscure pre-history, that people haven’t gathered olives here in this place that I live. Taking part in this ritual makes me feel like the tiniest link in a very long chain.

But the analogy goes further, or wider. A few days ago I joined my friend Balkees’ family as they harvested their olive grove in the village of Kfar Reine, outside Nazareth.  About ten men and women – Balkees’ brothers, sisters and sisters-in-law were at work when I got there mid-afternoon. They pulled tarps from under one tree to another and we circled the branches, pulling down their olives till they rained down onto the canvas.  The children ran from tree to tree, collecting olives in buckets, climbing in the branches, and sifting out leaves in an improvised sieve – the screen of an electric fan.  Everyone chatted, joked and laughed, all in Arabic, and I understood only a small fraction.

But that didn’t matter.  The conversation accompanied my work like the most pleasant background music while I focused on the olives – black, green and purple, fleshy and lean, plump and wrinkled, intact and bruised. I heard the muezzin calling and the children shouting. I felt the heat of the sun ease as the day wore on and the shadows of the trees grew longer.  I sipped a small glass of thick, black, cardamom-scented coffee, then returned to the olives.

But most of all, I felt a part of something larger – like I was woven into the fabric of village life that still endures in the Galilee.  Where the community depends on the contribution of each person’s hands, and rewards that effort not only with a year’s supply of olive oil, but with a sense of place, value, belonging and accomplishment.

How few are the opportunities in our modern lives to experience this.  I think my sister, who just pounded miles of pavement on behalf of the Obama campaign, knows the feeling well.

An ingenious sifter