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“Food is not political. It is what is grown on this land by the people who are living in it. If they are called Palestinians or Israelis, I don’t think the tomato cares,” says the Israeli baker Erez Komarovsky in a particularly troubling scene in Roger Sherman’s documentary, In Search of Israeli Cuisine. The film, which follows chef Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia’s Zahav and Dizengoff on his puppy dog quest to map the borders of Israeli food, was released last week. Spoiler: Like every other Israeli border, this one too is contested.
There is no doubt that the Mediterranean region, and Israel and Tel Aviv in particular, is having a culinary moment in the media spotlight right now. (Don’t call it a comeback — it’s been there for 11,400 years.) For those who want it, the film’s alluring closeups of cherry tomatoes, bulbous eggplants, fresh sumac on mountain paths, and shimmering fish still twitching in the throes of its demise show why.
Like so much of modern Israel, the restaurant scene could be yanked from anywhere in the western world. There are plenty of chefs in crisp whites with soulful eyes, and dining rooms as lively as any on Melrose Avenue. There are beautiful restaurateurs like Rama Ben Zvi of Rama’s Kitchen, who is like Nataf’s answer to Alice Waters, and a madly inventive Santa-seeming chef, Uri Jeremias, whose restaurant Uri Buri has flourished in a small northern Israeli town Akko for 25 years. In a slightly less slick Chef’s Table-like sequence, Jeremias roams the fish market and the fish come to him like he was a magnet. He’s the Francis Mallman of the Levant.
But I have a feeling that this documentary will elicit howlingly divergent reactions. Some might find it obscene to focus on Jewish chefs waxing poetic about Palestinian ingredients and traditions that they’ll update, riff on, and serve to their well-to-do Jewish customers while beyond the border checkpoints thousands of dispossessed Palestinians suffer in poverty and subjugation. Some might find the entire naval-gazing project of pondering what Israeli cuisine is offensively self-indulgent. I write this — I want to make this explicit — not to condemn the Israeli chefs, farmers, and restaurateurs featured. They are filled with the same yearning for local cuisine, self-expression, and genuine community that touches so many of us interested in food. That these laudable impulses become gestures of aggression is just one manifestation of the interconnected tragedy and one argument for the just resolution of the conflict, whether that’s a two-state solution or whatever else.
This faction will surely find little in common with those who view any critique of Israel or her policy as anti-Semitic. Their view, also with merit, will likely be that the documentary is a celebration of how food brings people — Eastern Europeans, Jews from the world, Arabs, Palestinians, all God’s creatures — together. They might agree with the baker Komarovsky and laud the documentary for being a rigorous, if meandering and undisciplined, look at dynamic cuisine. They might note, also correctly, that if the subject appears blurry it’s because the subject is moving so fast. They might rejoice at how wondrous the thread of human endeavor that it can weave from the complicated and tragic patches of the Holocaust a nation and give that nation a kitchen.
The truth is, the documentary is both these things. For that reason, In Search of Israeli Cuisine makes for supremely uncomfortable viewing. Each sensual pleasure is coupled with moral pain. On the one hand, as a food writer, I can’t help but be wildly excited about the restaurants depicted, the chefs profiled, and the psychedelic swirl of flavor. There’s a reason Levantine cuisine has been on the up-and-up. And in Israel, to which Jews from Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Morocco flocked since the state was founded by UN decree in 1948, this tradition is a living, evolving one.
Furthermore, the documentary does an admirable job describing, in culinary terms, the competing factions of Jewry. Jews are divided between Ashkenazi and Sephardic. Ashkenazic Jews are those who came from Eastern Europe. Despite the Holocaust, in which two thirds of all Jews living in Europe were murdered, they are by far a majority of Jews alive in the world. (Approximately 75 percent of Jews are Ashkenazi.) Sephardic Jews on the other hand come from Spain, North Africa, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Egypt — generally all points west. Because Ashkenazic Jews make up so much of American Jewry, much of what we consider Jewish food is Ashkenazic: gefilte fish, kugel, chicken soup. However, what we consider modern Israeli food — such as what Solomonov serves at Zahav and Dizengoff — is largely Sephardic.
But as a human being concerned with human beings, for every ode to salatim or mention of how shabbat brings families together, for every time Solomonov curls into a chef, giving him a hug as if the flavors of the sumac-marinated lamb overcame him, for every one of those moments, there is the refrain that Palestinians want these things, too. And yet these common human experiences, and the conditions on which these experiences depend, like economic stability, free travel, and self-determination, are being deprived to them by the Israeli government. There’s a recurring image in the film of a map of Israel. It is meant, understandably, to orient us viewers where Solomonov is as he hopscotches around the country, from orchard to orchard, market to market, dining room to dining room.
But jutting into the outline are two grayed out portions: Gaza and the West Bank. These are the Occupied Territories, which Sherman and Solomonov never visit. These are the territories where Israel rationed food according to a minimum calorie count per Palestinian, where poverty rates are high and food insecurity rampant. There could never be a slick documentary about the search for high-end Palestinian cuisine because there simply aren’t the restaurants, chefs, middle class with disposable income, access to produce, ability to travel freely, tourism, infrastructure on which they rely. That this vast territory, geographically and philosophically, remains terra incognita in Sherman and Solomonov’s search means that whatever they find will be a damningly incomplete portrait. At best, it’s blithe. At worst, it’s propaganda. True, the tomato might not care who picks it, but we should all care who gets to eat it.