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 Limitations of Cultural Identity for Food

pat out bread

Baking hubez saj in Fassouta

I recently visited my old friend Ayoub in Fassouta up near the Lebanese border in the Western Galilee – one of the few Arab villages populated almost, if not entirely by Christians. Ayoub’s wife likes to use a certain kind of rennet for making cheese from the goat’s milk from their herd, and I had brought some back for her during my last trip to the US.

One of the formative experiences I had when researching for my book was a morning spent with Ayoub’s sister and sister in law as they baked bread in the baking room next to their house. Working in splendid coordination, the two women baked about 200 “hubez saj“, huge, wafer-thin flatbreads, on a concave metal surface called a saj, heated over a wood fire.

I thought about that morning during a conference I attended last week on Israeli food studies at the University of Haifa. One of the speakers, a professor in the Land of Israel Studies Department, challenged the audience with an Israeli food trivia quiz. A section of the quiz was devoted to “Druze Cuisine” and one of the questions was “what is a saj?”

While my knowledge of Israeli snack foods history was insufficient to answer most of the questions, I do know what a saj is. And I also know that it is not necessarily Druze. Sitting in Ayoub’s living room, sipping herb tea and savoring his sister’s ethereal honey-drenched semolina cake, I asked him if the saj has any particular association with the Druze, whose communities are centered in the Galilee and adjacent Lebanon and Syria.

He answered by way of a story, telling me that his sister’s saj was getting rusty and they wanted to buy a new one. After searching in all the villages and towns in the area, they eventually ended up travelling all the way south to buy one in Hebron, a city that is far from any Druze community and whose Arab population is predominantly Muslim.

Ayoub’s wife then related that their daughter, who is the only Arab employee in a high tech company, once brought some fresh hubez saj to share with her colleagues at work. “Druze pita” they told her, based on their familiarity with the Druze men and women who sell hubez saj baked on portable, gas-heated sajs at fairs and stands in shopping malls. But we’re not Druze, she explained.

Attaching ethnic identities to foods may be convenient, and in certain cases appropriate. But in this little slice of the Middle East, I think it has already caused way too much trouble. Flat breads in their various forms, farike and bulgar, and even hummus and falafel for that matter, are what people who live in a traditional relationship with this Levantine land and its local foods consume, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. The defining relationship, I believe, is between the earth, the farmer, the miller and the cook, not any religious or national orientation.

pile of elrif

Whose flat breads are these?

 

I could make ftayir myself

ftayer 1I have the recipe and all the ingredients. But preparing these little wild spinach filled pastries is one of those tasks that is more fun with a friend, and so I took the two bags of greens I’d gathered and went to visit one of my most esteemed culinary mentors, Um Malek, at her home in Kufar Manda.

In traditional local Arab cuisine, ftayir is the default application for wild spinach. The shapes and seasonings may vary, but the theme is same – a chopped spinach filling encased in savory dough. All of the cooks that I know here in the Lower Galilee prepare their ftayir in triangles. The coinciding of ftayir-making and Purim was too auspicious, and I was thrilled to have them as my three-cornered holiday treat.

I have never known anyone who is more connected to the land, the seasons and the local foods as Um Malek. For months now, she has been preparing meals for her and Abu Malek from the greens and mushrooms she gathers on her daily walks. And plenty of ftayir.

I hand over the spinach to Um Malek, which she expertly chops and seasons in one bowl; in another, she mixes the dough. Except for yeast and cumin, everything she uses – from the flour made of wheat grown and milled in Kufar Manda, to the sesame seeds, olive oil and zaatar – is locally sourced.

I could have made ftayir myself, but then I wouldn’t have sat opposite Um Malek, filling the circles of dough as she rolled them out, communicating more or less in my tentative Arabic, at peace in her company as she was in mine. It seems there is no currency to measure the value of the wild-spinach filled pastries I took home with me that evening, or the quality of grace that emanated from our hands.

chopping spinachmaking filling

Lo, the Fall is Here

     olive pickingOn a recent, short visit to the US East Coast, I was treated to the first signs of another brilliant autumn.  Now that I’m home, my feet are comfortably back in flip flops and the main indication that summer is behind us is the supplement of a jacket and another blanket at the end of the day.  Most of the trees in my landscape retain their leaves, and if they lose them, it is done with little fanfare.  Fall, in the Galilee, is felt, if not seen.

Organically, the people who lived on this land throughout most of its recorded history knew basically two seasons, winter and summer, or dry/hot and wet/cool.  In fact, the Israeli linguist Eylon Gilad explains that the terms for autumn and those of the four season cycle are relatively recent linguistic adaptations, reflecting phenomena more familiar to the European settlers of this place.

Stav”, the modern Hebrew word for fall, originally indicated the rainy season, as evidenced by its appearance in the (correctly translated) verse from Song of Songs 2:11: “ For, lo, the winter (stav) is past, the rain is over and gone…” .   Indeed, the passing of autumn as we know it signals the onset of the rainy season, and not its conclusion.

Looking at Hebrew’s linguistic relatives, the Aramaic and Arabic words most closely related to “stav”: “stava” and “shitta” respectively, both refer to winter.  Moroever, the Arabic word that has come to signify autumn, “harif”, closely resembles the Hebrew word for winter, “horef”.

Changes in weather are one way to define seasons – agricultural phenomena are another.  Since olives were first domesticated some thousands of years ago, autumn in the Galilee has been inseparable with their ripening and harvest.  The visual clue that autumn has arrived is the lively activity in the olive groves, where it is fruit, and not leaves, that are falling to the ground.