Forgetting the Bulgar

Learning Arabic is confoundingly difficult.  I have learned languages in my life – Spanish, French and Hebrew – but Arabic is something completely different.   I have never invested so much time and effort, with such meager results, as in my study of Arabic.

The rules of grammar, the vocabulary, the accent – each of them stubbornly elude my grasp.  The other students in my Arabic class, all native Israeli Jews, don’t seem to be progressing any faster, albeit having the advantage of a Semitic mother tongue.  The Tower of Babel comes to mind again and again.

The bright side of Arabic class is the homework – which provides a very good reason to visit my friend Abu Malek in Kfar Manda.   Abu Malek is a retired high school language teacher, and over the years he has patiently worked through my lessons with me, spicing them up with proverbs and tales.

Today we sat on the rooftop porch in the warm winter sun and crafted sentences from my list of vocabulary words – under, over, inside, outside, this far and no more.  Just as we finished our last sentence, Um Malek brought up a tray with lunch – a platter of bright green tabouleh.


I love the way tabouleh is made here, with its overwhelming emphasis on fresh parsley.   Um Malek doesn’t speak Hebrew or English, and I asked Abu Malek to explain to her that in the States, tabouleh is made with more bulgar than parsley. Here, I told her, there is so much green that the bulgar is barely perceptible.  She burst into laughter, and explained that she’d forgotten to add the bulgar.

And we all laughed together because each of us has forgotten the bulgar at some point, and more than once.  On that rooftop this afternoon, we modestly scaled our own Tower of Babel , celebrating what we have in common over what separates us, reaching out to each other through friendship, laughter and a meal lovingly prepared and shared.

Abu Malek


  Two auspicious developments regarding my book  “Breaking Bread in Galilee”:

  1.  A review recently appeared in the Jewish Review of Books, putting me in very distinguished company:

2.  The legendary Kitchen Arts and Letters bookstore in New York City just re-ordered copies of my book.  I am so pleased.

Pure Gold

One Friday morning a few weeks ago, I arrived at Kfar Manda for my weekly Arabic lesson, and as I climbed the stairs to my teacher, Malek’s apartment, on the porch/roof I noticed piles of wheat laid out on a canvas drying in the sun (where was my camera when I needed it?).  Um Malek (Malek’s mother) had made bulgar – which meant that she had acquired sacks of wheat from her brother – one of the few traditional farmers left in the Galilee – right after the harvest in June, taken it home and immersed it in a huge pot of boiling water for about an hour, then spread the grains out on the rooftop to dry.  After that, she would take the parboiled wheat to the mill in the village to grind it – coarsely for mejadra and finely for kubbe. 

Um Malek always joins us in our lesson at some point and she explained to me the bulgar-making process.  Um Malek is always busy, and her husband, Abu Malek assures me that that is what keeps her vital and healthy.  And last Friday, when I left my lesson, she was sitting at a table plucking the maluhiya leaves off their stems to make the soup that every home in Kfar Manda has for lunch on that day.  But before I could pass by, she reached down to her lap and handed me a bag of bulgar that she had clearly prepared for me to take home. 

I don’t know what this looks like to you, but as far as I’m concerned, it is pure gold.