Oct 27, 2011

Flavors of the Home(land)

Having been in Israel for two months now, I have come to appreciate the real personal interactions that occur in a country bubbling over with life! While many elements of Israel make me feel at home, the genuine feeling of family here represents a hallmark of my experience.   Upon walking down the street or sitting in a Tel Aviv cafĂ©, I routinely feel like I belong here.  When passersby on the bustling streets smile at me or when the cheese man in the shuk offers me a slice of feta to taste, for instance, I know Israel is my new home. 
When I came to Israel three years ago on a Taglit-Birthright trip with UCLA Hillel, I met Chen Abraham, one of the female soldiers accompanying our group.  The warmth in her chocolate brown eyes welcomed me into the country, and I felt safe, happy, and intrigued to know about her life.  My curiosity for cultures across the world often fuels many of my friendships.  For some reason, I gravitate toward individuals with diverse cultural backgrounds.  Chen, coming from a Yemenite family, told me about their vibrant traditions, and I hoped to be able to share those with her someday. 
When I landed on Israeli soil two months ago, Chen’s face was the first familiar face I saw. She greeted me at the Ben Gurion Airport after copious Facebook messages back and forth to coordinate our reunion.  I felt so happy to be able to spend time with someone I had kept in touch with for three years over the Internet. Finally, we were in the homeland together!
Last week, Chen graciously invited me to come with her family to the Yemenite beit kinneset (synagogue) to celebrate Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the completion of the five books of the Torah.  Overflowing with festive energy, the beit kinneset sparkled as the men danced with pride carrying the Torahs around the beema.  As they circled around, the sounds of cheerful singing and clapping emanated as the women and children joined in the celebration.  Adorned in a blue velvet cover, the Torah glimmered with its ornate jewels.  Parents put their children on their shoulders and engaged their young ones in the festivities.  

Inside the Yemenite beit kinesset

At the beit kinneset, I met Chen’s grandma, Mazel, who happens to be even sweeter than apples and honey! She welcomed me to the synagogue, gave me a hug, squeezed my cheeks, and immediately made me feel at home. After partaking in the celebration at the synagogue, Chen’s family and I walked to walked to Mazel’s house where Chen and her grandma began preparing one of the most delicious things I have tasted in Tel Aviv thus far—malawach. This traditional Yemenite bread (similar to a fried bread pancake) seeps with oily goodness.  Mazel served this tasty, fluffy bread with handcrafted tomato paste to add extra flavor.  (Example recipe link: http://baking.food.com/recipe/malawah-60282) Key ingredient: Ahava...

Mazel's malawach - traditional Yemenite bread

Family bonding: Chen & I devoured the malawach!

While dining out in Tel Aviv’s enticing restauarants provides insight into the culture, there is no better way to engage in Israeli life than by spending time with a family.  Knowing the people behind the food allows us to translate the language of Israeli cuisine.

Wishing you a week of family, friends, and fun,

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