September 19, 2018

The Flavor of Israel and Why She Gets Me

When poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, “All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind,” he perfectly described the difficulty we have in expressing our feelings about our most treasured experiences. I identify with this sentiment most strongly when I am traveling to Tel Aviv from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which is the transit point from where I live in Uganda. 

Granted, part of the reason for this sensory overload in recent years is that I am usually going to a funeral, but that’s not the whole picture. Even when I’m going home for a joyous occasion, as was the case this past week, I still find myself overwhelmed by emotion on the way there. And don’t think I cry easily — after all, I’m a sabra through and through, and we are nurtured into being brave and tough. 

Perhaps it’s the feeling I get when I arrive at Ben Gurion International Airport and inhale that particular Israel smell, the scent of my childhood I’m unable to find anywhere else — and believe me, I’ve tried to find it. Perhaps it’s when I hand my battered Israeli passport to the immigration agent, and she welcomes me in a familiar way and makes a sarcastic remark that makes me laugh. Perhaps it’s the pushing and the shoving I’ve come to expect at baggage claim when I look around me; Israel is like a long-lost friend that I’ve not even realized how much I’ve missed. 

Maybe it’s the thought of all the misplaced souls who arrived here and fell to their knees to kiss this sacred ground beneath them, because that’s a normal sight in Israel. Perhaps it is the knowledge, pure and simple, that I no longer live there. That as Israeli as I feel, as much as my Hebrew is unaccented, as much as my heart and soul is there, I’m no longer a resident of my own country, rather the occasional visitor. 

It’s where everyone in my family is buried or will be buried. It’s the last place I saw my grandparents, uncles and aunts, and it’s the last place I will see my parents one day. It’s the earth I will return to when I die. It’s the place I first belonged to and the place where I learned to be a woman. It’s one of two places I would be willing to sacrifice my life, and even the lives of my loved ones, to defend.

Maybe it’s the colorful abundance of the markets bursting forth with endless heaps of fresh and dried fruits and spices. Maybe because it’s where my palate was born, the place where I developed a taste for the ancient flavors of the Middle East — with labne and tahini, with smoky eggplant, roasted peppers and pickled vegetables, with prehistoric grains such as freekeh and the delicate Mediterranean umami of bottarga. It’s where we eat the world’s sweetest seedless watermelon with a side of salty, creamy Bulgarian feta. 

It’s where, no matter how sophisticated I think I am or how well traveled, I always find a new culinary experience that has been imported by the most creative minds in my industry. It’s where I can walk into an aunt’s house, stick a spoon into a pot of chorba and be transported to another time by a taste. It’s where I had my first crush, where I first understood what real patriotism means, and the high price that must be paid for freedom.

It’s the one place in the world where I am liable to open a photo album and find photographs of myself or my parents. Each time I return, I’m a little prouder to call myself an Israeli, this tiny island of hope that is surrounded by hatred yet represents more love, goodness and generosity per capita than anywhere else in the world. 

It’s a place that gives of itself to anyone and everyone whether they ask nicely or not, whether they are grateful for it or not. Like a mother who gives us love unconditionally, Israel gives unconditionally to the world. Love us, hate us, treat us contemptuously and boycott us, misunderstand us, refuse to play at our venues, take us for granted, smear us with bad publicity, we still will be the first people to come to your rescue, whether you have suffered from an earthquake or tsunami, a flood or a savage war. When your water supply runs out or when you can’t feed yourself, you don’t even need to call us, we will help you, and we will send our children to come to your aide. Even when you are trying to blow us up, kill our soldiers and infiltrate our cities, we will show you more compassion, more heart and more care than your own will. We still will defend your rights; we still will use our brains, our best selves and turn the other cheek to help you.

And we know we will be condemned for it, no matter what we do, sometimes even from within our own community. We understand how the world works. It’s just a fact that when we have children, that there could come a time when two soldiers in uniform will come to our door and slay us with the ultimate words. 

We know she will wait for every Jew, this Israel of ours, whether they want to visit occasionally or not at all, whether they want her or not, whether they deserve her protection or not, they will have it. It’s the first place where I felt a part of something larger than myself, first my magnificent family and then the brilliant Jewish people. It’s the beginning of me and the end of me, too. 

And I know it, deep down in my bones, from a place of certainty, that she always will be there, not just for me but for every Jew who will ever be born, no matter where and no matter when. Although I’m not a fatalist, there is something about my special country and her people that has withstood all battles as if protected and, yes, chosen by God. Unlike the Vikings, ancient Romans and Greeks, unlike the Mayas and the Incas, unlike all the people who have built empires and had their day, some even for centuries. Israel, our Jerusalem, our Galil, our Dead Sea, our Kotel, my country has always been there and always will be there, not only because our people planted our Jewish hearts on this piece of land, but because our ancestors, our blood, our family will simply never give up on it. We will fight until the end of time for our place if we have to. 

And don’t misunderstand if you hear us complaining about how hard it is or, like me, if we don’t even live there — it is still our place and it’s always going to be. No matter where we are, we still will wake one another in the middle of the night screaming and crying with joy when one of our own has won a song contest — against all the odds. It still will be a victory for every one of us whether we live there or not. 

This is the place where I learned what real food was supposed to taste like, what the food made for you by someone who loves you — just because you were born — tastes like. It’s the place where I understood what family means and how to treat people. That of all the degrees a person can earn, the most important one to a Jew is a B.A. In Israel, you’re taught first to be a “Ben Adam” before you’re taught anything else. It’s where we are taught that every life is important. It’s where we are taught Arabic, English and Hebrew in school, where the street signs are written in all three languages. Israel is the only country on the planet that will send her best doctors to operate on an enemy during a time of war. It’s a place that looks for peaceful solutions to problems that are unfathomably complex, yet never gives up hoping and striving toward the elusive goal of shalom. 

It is a society in which people are raised to be guileless and to tell a hard truth when need be. It’s a place where I can have an hourlong conversation about where the best hummus, sushi, steak or anything else is to be eaten, not just in Israel, but anywhere in the world. It’s a place alive with possibility and heavy with responsibility. It’s where we know that amid all the struggles, it won’t be long until we are dancing and laughing, where we will always have a party to look forward to, where we will always celebrate weddings, holidays and Shabbat every single Friday. 

It’s a place where the inimitable Jewish sense of humor thrives and continues to imbue everyday interactions with astute hilarity. It’s where amid the tears, we will experience the singular Jewish phenomena of the “stand-up” comedy that takes place at every shivah and the unbridled joy of every brit milah. It’s where we will all say the same words when we lose our parents as they said when they lost theirs. Where we always will be cooking, always be planning the next meal right after cooking the previous one, and where we will make sure our elderly are not only looked after but a fixture in our lives until their very last breath. 

She’s my Israel, and I fall in love with her flavor and the soul of her a little bit more each time I step onto her parched terrain, reeling from gratitude to have been lucky enough to have been born on her brazen, hubris-enriched soil. And she, for her part, gets me — every single time.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.