Living Lightly

handful of asparagusIt was probably the most beautiful day of the most beautiful season in the Galilee that I revisited my favorite wild asparagus stalking grounds. That March afternoon I was closing a chapter that extended over half my life, during which I was immersed in learning the timeless ways of this land, from the land itself and the people who know it so well.

There were so many asparagus, it took no time to fill my handful quota. I planned to prepare them my favorite way – roasted with olive oil and salt. But I ate several as is, just to savor the fresh bitterness and life-energy still in the stalks.

Unlike domesticated crops, beholden to humans for their propagation, as long as their environment is not disturbed, edible wild plants will generally appear in their season, year after year, whether someone comes along and snaps off their tips or not.  And as sad as I felt that day, this realization brought with it some solace.

I found myself identifying with countless generations of pastoral nomads who found sustenance in these Galilee hills, and then continued on their way. Now on my own nomadic journey, I felt the bittersweet unraveling of my desire to cling to this place and possess it.

If my travels bring me back to the Galilee in early spring, the wild asparagus will await me with gracious indifference. And I will know where to find them.

This Passover, I extend my best wishes for life lived lightly on this earth.

Abbie Rosner

 

 

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!

 

Advanced Arabic

It’s hard to believe its been almost a year since I registered for an Advanced Arabic course.  My original intention was to improve my communication skills with the many friends I made over the course of my research on the local foods of the Galilee. I wish I could say that I retained even half of all that I learned over those very intense fourth months.  One of the unanticipated outcomes of the program, however, was the inspiration to write about the process. Happily, Naamat Women Magazine decided to publish that piece, which I share with you here, fresh from the latest summer issue.

salim shows me

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.

chickpeas

not yet mature chickpeas

ful

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!

Abbie

pre pesach wheat field

 

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?

 

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

When the scales will tip

These are grim times here, where a disproportionate number of innocent people are enduring great suffering because of the actions of a few.  Nothing new about that, and yet it is heartrending every time.  In the pastoral Palestinian town of Arrabe in the Galilee near the Bet Netufa Valley, they are mourning a 14 year old who happened to be too close to the Syrian border as he accompanied his father to work on the first day of school vacation.  Another victim, another family’s tragedy.

I was just in Arrabe and neighboring Sakhnin last week, tagging along with a small delegation of bakers from France who are seeking local farmers to grow ancient varieties of wheat for them.  As we opened the day at the Towns Association for Environmental Quality, an NGO  in Sakhnin doing education and research on sustainable agriculture, the challenges of communication across the cultural divide were fascinating to observe.  The idea that these visitors actually wanted to grow wheat which produces significantly lower yields than the usual varieties was counter-intuitive, in spite of their assurances that they were prepared to pay significantly more than the market value in recognition of the quality of the product.

examining wheat varieties

examining wheat varieties

One of the bakers pulled out his Ipad to show the farmers photos of the artisanal breads he bakes, unaware that the elegant loaves on the screen did not correspond at all to the local perception of what bread even looks like.  But good will, courtesy and respect go a long way in overcoming these obstacles, and the groundwork was established for future cooperation.

After visiting the epic expanse of the Bet Netufa valley for a close-up look at the wheat fields, we came back to Arrabe, to the restored stone building that houses Afnan AlGalil, a non-profit for empowering local women.  Our hostesses served us a lunch prepared entirely from products grown in and around the Valley – bulgar in mejadre (with lentils) and shulbata (with vegetables and tomato sauce), farike, okra in tomato sauce, labaneh, stuffed grape leaves and zucchini and fresh, whole wheat pita.   The room was suffused with pride, dignity, generosity and hospitality – and we came away uplifted in body and spirit.

I just wonder when the scales will tip, and the forces of universal tolerance, respect and love will set the regional agenda.  IMG_3441afnan algalil

batof

The “Batof”