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.


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!


Two Weeks into the Omer

farike making 1We are now almost two weeks into the Omer – the 49 plus one days that are counted between Passover and Shavuoth.  In a region that has basically two seasons – winter and summer, the Omer, which bridges between them, has always been a period of tremendous climatic uncertainty, with drastic implications for agriculture.

So far this has been a textbook Omer – Sweltering days followed by drastic drops in temperature. Thunderstorms, lightning and pounding rain, then dust storms that leave a yellow scrim over every surface.

Yesterday we joined Balkees and went to visit our friends who still practice traditional agriculture outside of Nazareth.  They had told her that, although they wouldn’t be out in the fields, we could go on our own and pick the peas that are now in season.  The matriarch of the family, Um S., whose domain is these fields, was home recovering from a torn cartilage, and her absence was obvious when we searched for the rows of peas.

dead peas

Dead peas in the pod

Amidst the undergrowth, all of the pea plants were dried up and dead, the result, Balkees explained, of the heat, followed by rain, followed by more heat – and of course, no greenhouse protection.  We salvaged a small pile of pods, but the peas inside of them, while still green, were bitter.


not yet mature chickpeas


fava beans

Nearby, rows of chickpeas seemed to have withstood the climatic onslaught unscathed.   Heartiest were the thick-skinned fava beans (ful), and we each filled our bags with them.

Following a plume of smoke, we drove across the rutted dirt roads to the wheat field where a man and woman were in the midst of preparing farike.  As I understood it, they had leased the field from our friends and were making their way through the green wheat, harvesting, drying and roasting the green ears at their own pace.

farike making

roasting farike

charred wheat in field

green wheat field and charred wheat

What had all this late rain signified for them, I asked.  For the wheat that’s still in the ground, no problem, they answered.  But for what was cut and laying on the ground waiting to be roasted, getting wet meant disaster.  They had had to spend 1000 Shekels on plastic sheeting to cover the wheat, just to protect their investment.  “I knew the rain was coming.  I look at the 3-day forecast,” the man explained.

We left the farike-roasters and continued to where our friends keep their cattle and goats out on the rocky open hillside.  Abu S. was milking the goats, by hand, taking over for his wife who usually does this work.  I was struck with wonder at the primacy of this way of life, based on unmediated interaction between indigenous animals and foods and intensive human effort, with only the barest traces of technology.  It was absolutely clear to me that this symbiotic and fraught relationship between humans and the land, maintained for thousands of years on these same hillsides, will not endure much longer.

We followed Abu S. back to their family home, where we sat in the living room, Um S.’s foot wrapped in bandages.  Besides the damage to the peas, what did the rains signify for the rest of her crops, I asked.  They are good for the tomatoes, she told me.  This profound soaking of the earth, I could imagine, boded well for summer vegetables that would rely entirely on groundwater for their growth.

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!


pre pesach wheat field


A Hannukah Olive Oil Miracle



Balkees in the branches

As you may know, we made plenty of olives this year – green and black – from our beloved Suri olive tree.  But making oil was not on the agenda. Until Balkees pointed out that, to leave the massive amount of olives on our one other tree, of the Barnea variety, would be a shame.  On Tuesday she and her teenage son Fares came over and, for the next five hours we picked the olives off that huge tree.  During that time I had two realizations: 1) picking olives is extremely hard work; and 2) Balkees is happiest in the top branches of an olive tree. 

On Thursday, we loaded up our cardboard boxes full of olives into the car, picked up Balkees and Fares, and drove to the village of Arrabe, near Sakhnin, to the press.  We chose this press for two reasons – 1) because it is the end of the season, most of the presses are already closed, and those that are still working will only take massive quantities. Even though we only had the equivalent of about 2 sacks, the press in Arrabe agreed to take us.  2) This particular press, in addition to operating a modern, industrial style milling system, is one of the last in the Galilee that still has the old-style millstone and press set-up.  This was something I have long wanted to see.

When we got there, we had a number of surprises.  1) weighing our olives, we found that we’d picked 95 kilos! (our most extravagant estimate was 70);  2) They will only operate the stone press if you have at least 300 kilos.  But undaunted, we poured our olives in the hopper, watched as the twigs and leaves were washed away and the fruit was crushed into a purple slurry (particular to black Barnea olives), and then positioned our jerrycan at the spigot where the oil comes out. 


into the hopper

  weighing the olives

Feeling optimistic, Ron had brought an 18-liter jerrycan with us.  And as we watched in amazement, not only did the jerrycan fill up entirely, but the owner of the press had to bring us 3 empty 1.5 liter soda bottles to contain the rest.  We hadn’t dreamed that we’d get so much oil from our work on this single tree!

Of course, as we were watching this, on what happened to be the third night of Hannukah, the parallel was inescapable.  Here was oil that was miraculously extending beyond all expectations.  And in the joyful atmosphere at the press, this was the best holiday spirit that anyone could ask for!

18 liter jerrycan

fresh Hannukah oil

Olive Harvest Fund-Raiser

arraf 2

Dr. Shukry Arraf talks about olives

The olive harvest in the Galilee usually starts after the first serious rain, which rinses off the dust and plumps up the fruit.  In the one year on, one year off cycle of olive trees, this is an off year, and the price of oil – more than $150 for a 16-liter container – reflects the paucity of this year’s harvest. 

In spite of the lean yield, I decided to organize a fundraising event centered around the olive harvest, to benefit my friend Malek Murad’s non-profit organization, in Kufar Manda.  Malek is Abu Zaki’s nephew (see my previous post), and I met him when he translated for his uncle in our interviews. Malek had recently established the non-profit, called S.K.A. (an acronym for sustainable humanitarian assistance), and if I would help him with fundraising for it, he offered, he would teach me Arabic.

 What Malek and several colleagues have created is a secular charity, which provides subsidized food baskets, legal assistance and dental care to people from their community in severe economic need. The food comes from Israeli food banks and the professional services are donated by local volunteers. While by mandate they provide assistance to anyone regardless of religion, race or sex, the majority of aid recipients are from the Arab sector in Northern Israel. Unemployment is a severe problem among Israeli Arabs in general, and in Kufar Manda in particular. S.K.A. aims to give that extra boost of help to get people into mainstream society.

 The program for the fundraiser we planned included joining the olive harvest in Kufar Manda, a short lecture on olive harvesting in local folklore, a festive harvest meal prepared by Malek’s mother, wife and other women involved in S.K.A., and finally, a visit to the olive press in town. A journalist who writes about food outings for Ha’aretz newspaper agreed to write an article which would publicize the event, and we began to get calls. 

meal 2 We had hoped for 40 people to sign up, and in the end we had 58, coming from as far away as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ashkelon.  Seniors, young families, children and babies spread out over the olive grove, picking from tree to tree. The day was beautiful, the meal was excellent and the trip to the press was unforgettable – our visitors mingling with the locals as everyone watched the fresh oil come streaming out, then dipping pieces of fresh pita bread into a dish of that fragrant green oil.

 After the success of this day, I’m going to plan an edible wild plants gathering day for next month…



The Wheat Harvest

Bucking tradition, I chose Spring to go into hibernation, focusing just about all my energies on my current project, which is researching and writing about wheat as one of the Galilee’s local foods.  And while I was buried in books and traipsing around from one fascinating encounter to another, the culinary landscape made its own dramatic shift.  In the local market in Basmat Tivon, the neighboring Bedouin village, where I purchase all my produce, the winter greens have been replaced by fresh green piles of grape leaves, miniature eggplants and zucchinis for stuffing, and tender baby okra. A pile of long-stemmed malukhiya stands on the counter, the leaves of which the Bedouin women use to make a kind of deep green, mucilaginous dish to dip pita bread in.

In the fields, we’ve enjoyed the ripening chick-pea crop – picking the green pods off the stalks and opening them to reveal perfectly formed blushing-green chick peas that are delicious to munch on.  The sunflowers and corn are pushing skyward at a breathtaking rate, and while I enjoy their vital beauty, they look like interlopers on the landscape…

wheat olives 1

But as I mentioned, it is wheat that consumes my attention this Spring – watching the grain in the fields transform from green to gold – both the cultivated and the wild varieties.  Studying the history of wheat in the Galilee, I’ve learned how fatefully central it was in the lives of the people who lived here since pre-history.  Stone-age men and women collected and ate wild grasses, setting into motion the millennia-long processes that led to their domestication – right here in this part of the Eastern world.  And once wheat could be systematically cultivated in one place, humans were free to shift from wandering gatherers to living  in a settled society.  And the rest is history….

I’ve been clocking countless hours and kilometers, visiting just about every corner of the Galilee to meet people whose lives are in some way connected to wheat.  I’ve been exhilarated by the exquisite beauty of the landscape in the late afternoon light – picking up the gold in the rust colored earth out of which a sea of silvery olive branches wave in the afternoon breeze; by the camel-colored wheat fields, so ripe that they hiss in the wind like rattlesnakes. 

wheat in handThe holiday of Shavuoth, which many people here are observing today, was originally a celebration of the wheat harvest.   My own harvest from this season has been notebooks filled with notes and one very rough draft.  Now I can only wish for the energy, time and inspiration that will leaven this lump of dough into a fine creation.