images of israel

I’m back home, but still dreaming.  Travel will do that. Linger relentlessly, populating your dreams, disturbing your sleep patterns. Syracuse is folding into spring rather reliably, but I am slow — crawling, not skipping, back into normal life.

Here are some of the things that stick. I know I owe you a recipe or two, but please, let me indulge for just one more post.

Pistachios rolled in light crispy nests that crumble between your teeth and have just the perfect amount of sweetness. I didn’t take the chance to ask their name, I was too busy digging in my pockets for more shekels. 

In North America it seems our sweets are always trapped behind glass, meticulously arrayed on delicate plates and boasting of extravagance. In many of the places I’ve visited — Africa, India, Israel, to name three — sweets play a different role. They’re part of everyday life, not an “sinful indulgence.” Vendors display them in the open air, as if making offerings to the gods. For less than a dollar you can buy just enough to satisfy, and on you go.  

Dried things and bins of mysterious staples. Everywhere food mingling with the everyday. Walking to work between buckets of olives, children playing beneath tables of butter-smooth dates, women stopping to stock up on wine and Challah bread for Shabbat.

Paradoxical strawberries: huge, but tasting of the tiny field berries of summer. Bananas sweeter and fresher than any others I’ve tasted. 

Rugelach and pastries decorate the night. Laughter spills out of cafes, and piles of poppyseed, cinnamon, cheese, and chocolate-filled pastries tempt. Sesame seeds stick to your lips as you walk back to your hotel.

Nuts and fruit of all colors, dried kiwi and pineapple and salty almonds, still in their shell. Crystallized figs and all manner of tea and spices tower like make-believe mountains. My bags bounce against my hip as I swerve to avoid a motorcycle zipping down an alley in the Old City. I stop to buy a piece of fresh, soft halwa, its texture like dense cotton candy. It dissolves instantly on my tongue — sensation becomes memory.

I’m back in the land of sprawling grocery stores and incredible variety. Mexican for lunch and Chinese for dinner? Why not. Lemongrass and peanut butter and whole grain bread, all within a few feet from each other.

A walk through a distant land has once again reminded me of all that I have, and of all that I take for granted. It’s good to be home, but sometimes I wish my streets were lined with such bounty. I guess back home we just have to look a bit harder for the things that delight.

milk and honey

…so I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Exodus 3:8

I’ve been in Israel now for almost 5 days.  It seems strange to write about food when so much else is going on in my heart and mind.  I thought it important, however, to share what’s been on my plate.

Our first meal in Israel (spent at an Jewish/Arab intentional community kibbutz called Neve-Shalom/Wahat al-Salem —”Oasis of Peace”) was a sensory feast that seemed to set the stage for the coming trip. Baba Ghanoush so smoky and fresh, hummus as smooth as melting ice cream and drizzled with olive oil, fennel and pepper sliced thinly and dressed in lemon juice and parsely. Fall-off-the-bone chicken, Mejadarra, ground lamb in pine nut cream, green beans, and pita.

It’s very hard not to overindulge when everything is so new and somehow fleeting.

On the third day here I did a morning run with the Sea of Galilee as my backdrop. The air smelled like jasmine, and I returned to what’s become my usual breakfast: a boiled egg, tangy fresh yogurt, tomatoes, cucumbers and feta.

I’m always amazed, when traveling, at breakfasts across the world.

On the fourth day,  I had my first Israeli falafal in a small town outside of Nazareth. The corner shack was packed with people, and the the men moved in succession behind the counter, flipping fresh, cripsy falafal into the soft, chewy-sweet pitas I’ve never tasted anywhere but here. The bar behind them was a spread of purple cabbage and marinated eggplant, firery red tomatoes, and all manner of toppings. We stuffed those pitas until they were dripping with tahini, and ate them in the sun beside armed Israeli soldiers.

Sometimes a simple lunch, when eaten next to a complicated symbol, seems heavier than it really was. A piece of baklava, eaten an hour later on the bus as we passed by Jericho, dripping with honey.

Tomorrow we will visit the Garden of Gethsemane, where olive trees have been dated to the time of Jesus Christ. This land is dotted with them, and the streets overflow with buckets of their fruit. Like shiny black stones lining the cobblestone walkways, they fill the city air with their pungent aroma.

Everywhere I turn is something new. Some religious site crying out to be significant. A manger covered over with centuries of stone and conflict. The little town of Bethlehem (beth: “house” lehem: “bread”)—where people go hungry every day. My heart is full and my mind teeming, my plate full to overflowing.

I must say though, with all that I’m experiencing here with regard to food, Nescafe and I aren’t getting along so well.

za’atar from afar

Since I last posted, I don’t  really have much to say for myself,  food-wise. Late nights in the lab learning advanced digital editing software, long meetings trying to plan the production of a satire magazine, early-morning swims and hours studying Media Law result in meals of bananas and hummus-cucumber roll ups.  Save for a chocolate cake made with last summer’s frozen zucchini (will post on that one, soon) and a pretty ordinary Mexican Pizza, I haven’t been cooking up any show-stoppers lately.

And that’s OK, isn’t it? It’s these times when I’m glad I wrote blog posts months ago and stored them up, like little jars of oats, for a bleaker tomorrow. It’s also interesting how some things you think are toss aways come back and speak squarely to the present.

On a stifling day last summer I made an Israeli salad in a kitchen that had sumac, a spice I’d never cooked with. Now, nine months later, I’m going to Israel. I put the pictures  on the back shelf to share with you sometime when it seemed right, and now here it is, newly appropriate.

It’s called Za’atar Salad, and is a dish often deemed Israeli but eaten all over the Middle East. If any of you have seen the film The Visitor, Mouna makes this salad for Walter when he first joins her for dinner. It’s the most sensual salad-making scene I’ve seen in a long time — the way she juices the lemons by hand over the bowl of glistening primary colors.

I leave a week today for Jerusalem, a place that has existed largely in my imagination. It’s the place where my faith has its roots. I am imagining it will feel strangely familiar, almost enveloping. I know it will seem alien, too, separate and distinct from this North American Christianity I have been nurtured in. Sites might seem like felt board scenes or picture Bible pages writ large.

A Barn Birth. A Good Samaritan. A road in Damascus. Anger in a temple-turned-marketplace. A goblet of wine and some bread. A betrayal and an ear, cut away from a cheek. One man’s death, and a cold stone tomb. All these stories swirling in the dust, suddenly louder than words.

It will likely be touristy, politically charged, mystical and commercial all wrapped up like a gyro, and yet I can’t wait.

My companions will be thirteen other students and three of the chaplains from Syracuse University’s interfaith chapel. Like this salad, we will be a colorful mix of personalities and stories, flecked with the new flavors of a place we might not have been able to visit in another time. Muslims, Jews and Christians we will share our stories and play their colors off  each other.

As this simple salad did, maybe we’ll show each other a new way of experiencing the ingredients of the three Abrahamic faiths.

And so while I prepared rather poorly  for Lent this year (yoga followed by free pancakes at IHOP), a visit to the Holy Land seems like a good way to kick-start my journey toward the joy of Easter. I think it would be so easy to feel pressure regarding a trip like this, especially if you’re a person who derives part of their spiritual identity from the place. You know, pressure to see the right things, feel profound emotions, that kind of thing.

I think I’ll just try to take it all in—slowly, and making sure to chew after every bite.

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