May 19, 2019

Why I Will Eat an Israeli Salad on Yom HaAtzmaut

Being raised by two intensely patriotic Israelis while living outside of Israel was confusing. Although both my parents had been proud soldiers in the Israeli army, I had little connection to Israel because they immigrated to the United States when I was very young. We also moved around so much for my father’s job that, even though my parents had a few Israeli friends, we were, for the most part, on our own and perpetually on the move.

Air travel was prohibitive for my young parents, who were trying to save enough money to return to their country with the chance of buying a home. I was 11 when we finally did return, so much of that time was a blur of the emotional drama of adolescence and anxiety over being the new girl again.

But the year we returned, the Israeli economy took a downturn after the Yom Kippur War, which proved too much of a strain on my parents, who, by that time, had grown accustomed to the gentler ways of their lives in the far less chaotic United States.

By age 12, I was already back in the States. I’d experienced a taste of Israeli life, having learned the language and grown close to my uncles and aunts. The byproduct of this constant tumult was that while I’d felt like an American in Israel, now, after studying in an Israeli school, I felt like an Israeli in America.

As an adult, perhaps trying to bridge this gap and my feelings of rootlessness, I moved back to Israel. One morning, while driving in Tel Aviv, my cousin called to warn me that in a few minutes there would be an air siren to commemorate Yom HaShoah. I barely had time to digest what she’d said when traffic came to a sudden and complete halt while the 10 a.m. siren that sounds in every corner of Israel blared. I watched people get out of their cars and stand solemnly in the street, on balconies and the sidewalk with downturned eyes. To the American in me, this was the sound of war, a warning to take shelter and to find cover, but to the Israeli in me, I knew something much deeper was happening. It was the first time I realized that I and all of those surrounding me were the survivors of something unimaginable. We were there, able to stand in the streets of Israel in the knowledge that our people had somehow built this country out of a tremendous collective sorrow.

It was one of the proudest moments of my life — having the privilege to stand in the country of my birth, in a thriving Jewish homeland. Strangely, when I heard that frightening siren, for the first time I felt like a “chosen” person. By some miraculous combination of stamina and defiance, we were the ones chosen to carry on a legacy. Remembering our dead in this visceral way, in silent meditation before going about our day, was indeed a privilege afforded to very few. I knew I was there not by accident but because my grandparents managed to survive and, just barely, to get their children out alive.

By some miraculous combination of stamina and defiance, we were the ones chosen to carry on a legacy.

My grandparents were separated during the war when my Russian grandfather was drafted to serve in the army in Siberia. My grandmother somehow managed to keep my mother and her brother alive, walking thousands of miserable miles to Uzbekistan and back again. When they finally reached their native Romania, they found their house in shambles, nothing left inside but rubble.

Even though my mother was a young girl, she remembers the hunger, how my grandmother sold the few possessions she managed to carry and the gold jewelry she had to obtain food. She remembers the smell of the dung her mother used to cook what little she had bartered for and the heady aroma of the rice pilaf made by the local Uzbekistanis that her mother could not afford to buy her.

It is unfathomable that my grandparents were reunited at all, and then that they were courageous enough, after the trauma they endured, to make a new life in Israel. To think they considered themselves the “lucky ones” gives new meaning to the concepts of faith and optimism.

When they finally made it to Israel, my grandparents were middle-aged, and my mother was 11, the same age I was when we moved back. My mother was so thin and frail, so unhealthy from all the years of war, that my grandmother sent her away to a mountainous region of Israel to breathe clean air and eat fruits and vegetables. She describes the taste of the sour cream in Israel, full of sugar that they fed her to fatten her up — as all the riches promised to them in the land flowing with milk and honey.

Even before I cooked professionally, I found it impossible to waste food. My mother never wasted anything in our house. She used every part of an animal or vegetable, and perhaps I inherited that from her. But I’m not sure this sensibility came from watching her cook. I could almost convince myself that I am a reincarnation of an old Jewish soul, one who came out of the war only to find itself in a foreign land, one where the soul didn’t speak the language and was mocked for being the new kid.

Maybe I, like every Jew, carry around a little piece of that burden and legacy with me. In each one of us who are left, there is a bit of that old soul waiting and wondering: Can it happen again? Maybe it is this collective memory that makes an inordinately high percentage of our people strive and push for greatness. Maybe it’s to make up for the fact that we lost so many and so few of us are left to make great music, beautiful art and advances in every field. Maybe it’s why we are programmed to educate and why it’s the hallmark of a Jewish soul to remain vigilant and fight social injustice.

For all these reasons, I can’t think of a better way to commemorate both the remembrance of the Holocaust as well as Israel’s birthday than by eating an Israeli salad. To me, it’s the ultimate symbol of grounding and successful assimilation of a people.

What started as the Salat Aravi, or Arab salad — the most popular salad of the region — became Salat Katzutz, or chopped salad. When we eat it, our souls might remember that we came to a foreign land because they tried to kill us, but we prevailed. It is with this salad that we showed the world that we could feed ourselves despite unfamiliar and hostile surroundings.

When we hear the siren that symbolizes our very existence, it doesn’t matter what we’re going through now, individually or as a nation. It means we shouldn’t forget that we are the children and grandchildren of survivors — a precious, chosen few. No matter our origins, as Jews, we are an expression of the Israeli salad, chopped small but abundant in our defiance, full of soul and present at tables around the world.

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.