November 16, 2018

Anthony Bourdain (Finally) Goes to Israel

This week I columnized about Anthony Bourdain's visit to Israel, which aired as an episode of his “Parts Unknown” series on CNN.

Two years ago I wrote a column in the Jewish Journal urging Bourdain, the most articulate of all the food personalities on TV, to include Israel as part of his then-popular show, “No Reservations.”

I began the piece with some heartfelt buttering up:

Television is littered with lousy food shows. I know I risk sounding like some grumpy old coot wondering whatever happened to Jack Paar, but I do wonder what the spirit of the great Julia Child would make of the utter mediocrity, the sheer lack of aspiration, the game show approach and personality-driven fluff that has become the norm in food TV.

Thank God for Anthony Bourdain.

Then I made my ask:

One place Bourdain hasn’t been in the Middle East since 2006, or ever, is Israel. He did an episode in Dubai, in which he focused on the plight of the maltreated, deracinated imported laborers, and in Saudi Arabia, where he humanized a culture that exists mostly in monochromatic stereotype, while falling short of giving it a ringing endorsement.

But why not Israel? The comments section of Bourdain-related blogs is peppered with unanswered pleas for an Israel episode.

The country has undergone a food revolution; it is, and has long been, at the crossroads of Middle Eastern cuisine. Israel is home to great chefs, innovative producers, and there’s no lack of moving stories. If you want to examine how food and culture interact, Israel is one of the world’s perfect laboratories.

I assumed Bourdain was keeping his distance out of pique. With a bit of bad luck, he could have been killed in 2006 courtesy of the Israelis. I e-mailed Diane Schutz, the show’s producer,  at Zero Point Zero Productions and asked flat out, “Will Tony go to Israel?”

I expected no answer. But very quickly, by return e-mail, came a yes. Yes, she e-mailed me, it is something they are very much interested in. Not this season, which is in the can, but soon.

Now that will be a food show. Stay tuned.

We (me, our Web Team) launched a Facebook page, “Send Anthony Bourdain to Israel.”  It got a full TWO HUNDRED “Likes.”  Clearly I had tapped into the gestalt.

That was over two years ago.  But finally– with a different show, different network, different approach– Bourdain went.  

And when he returned, he got slammed.  

The watchdog organization CAMERA accused him of pushing pro-Palestinian propaganda. The Forward newspaper– 180 degrees the opposite of CAMERA–  called the trip a “big disappointment.”  

“He barely scratches the surface and spends scant time discussing food with Ottolenghi, who is arguably the most significant Israeli chef in the world,” writes Devra Ferst.

Ha'aretz enumarates all the restaurants he should have gone to but didn't.  But the writer misunderstands what this particular series is about– not restaurants and food per se, but people and their predicaments, with food as a lens.  

To be fair, Bourdain scored a few more points with Palestinians.   At the Daily Beast,, comedian, foodie and all-around remarkable person Maysoon Zayid gushes over his humanizing of Gazans– and notes that for her, he also went a way toward humanizing settlers.

And at the blog Barefoot in Ramallah, Bourdain gets a backhanded not bad, though they call the program “a little odd and simplistic.”  

So, welcome to Israel Tony– where as you noted at the outset of your show, you are bound to upset everyone.  And welcome to the Jewish people, Tony, where pretty much the same holds true.

My bottom line take on the show is this:

…given the limitations of the medium, Bourdain did the right thing. He gathered narratives, tested them against one another and against his own sense of what’s right and wrong. He sat down at tables and let people tell their stories. And only after he had listened, and eaten, with all of them — Israeli and Palestinian — did he venture a conclusion…

Like I said in my piece (the whole thing's below), it was worth the wait.  I'm thinking Bourdain appreciated my sentiments, since he Tweeted the column.

The question is, when is he going back?

Parts Unknown

by Rob Eshman

If you like food and you like Israel, this past week’s episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” was a win-win.

And I say that despite the criticism Bourdain has received from the people who profess to love Israel. To them, he presented a biased, pro-Palestinian screed disguised as a food-intensive travelogue.

To me, he showed exactly how smart, curious people should engage a complex country — and how Israelis and Palestinians benefit from that approach.

To food lovers, Bourdain is a star. He wrote the best-selling memoir of life as a professional chef, “Kitchen Confidential,” then took his biting insights on the road, first in the Travel Channel series “No Reservations,” and now for CNN. He travels the world reporting his perceptions of people and their predicaments, always using food as the way into their lives.

His first experience with Israel wasn’t pleasant: Bourdain was filming in Beirut in 2006 when the Second Lebanon War broke out, and he found himself at the wrong end of Israeli rockets.

I wondered in a column if that experience cooled Bourdain to the idea of visiting Israel, despite the fact that the country has undergone a food revolution. I even started a Facebook page to get fans to urge him to go there and see for himself.

Three years, a dozen destinations, one network and an entire show concept later, Bourdain arrived in Jerusalem. My efforts, clearly, were wildly persuasive.

But it was worth the wait. Bourdain reports like he eats — hungry for it all. And within the confines of a popular, half-hour travelogue, he devours the Holy Land with an open mind and an open mouth.

He starts at the Western Wall with the surprising acknowledgement that he is half-Jewish, despite a non-religious upbringing. At the Western Wall, the man who describes himself as “hostile to any sort of devotion” very publicly wrestles with his feelings as an Orthodox Jew wraps him with tefillin, and he prays, as a Jew, for the first time in his life.

Leaving Jerusalem, Bourdain shuttles between Israelis and Palestinians, collecting contrasting narratives and the meals that go with them.

He eats at the table of winemaker Amichai Luria, in the West Bank settlement of Eli, and peppers settlement leader Amiad Cohen with questions about their Palestinian neighbors.

When he asks why the settlers don’t paint over anti-Arab graffiti sprayed by Jewish vandals, Cohen is momentarily at a loss for words, like maybe he was just expecting Rachael Ray.

He visits Al Rowwad Theatre in Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, and just as pointedly asks theater director Abed Abusrour why Palestinians glorify hijackers and suicide bombers. After some equivocation, Abed says that despite the propaganda, young Palestinians actually idolize Mohammed Assaf, the Gazan winner of the singing competition “Arab Idol.”

Just outside of Jerusalem, in the village of Ein Rafa, Bourdain eats at Majda, an idyllic vegetarian restaurant run by husband-and-wife team Michal Baranes, an Israeli Jew, and Yakub Barhum, a Palestinian Muslim. They serve Bourdain fried zucchini in goat yogurt and okra with roasted tomato, onion and mint, and Bourdain allows himself to fantasize, for a second, that a divided land could actually come together over food.

Then, reality: In Gaza, he eats a local delicacy of charred young watermelon with soggy bread — he does a terrible job of feigning delight — and hears the bitterness of old men displaced from their homes in 1948.

Just on the other side of the Gaza border, Bourdain visits Natan Galkowicz, owner of Mides Brazilian Restaurant in the Negev kibbutz Bror Hayil. Galkowicz’s daughter was killed in 2005 by a Hamas mortar.

“I know that my daughter was killed for no reason, and I know that people on the other side have been killed for no reason,” Galkowicz tells Bourdain. “Bottom line is, let’s stop with the suffering.”

Look, it’s not a 13-hour PBS documentary. But this is the way most people come to understand Israel: not through PR, or via professors, but through what’s popular — what’s on television.

That didn’t stop the pro-Israel watchdog group CAMERA from nitpicking it apart. “Bourdain felt compelled to play to the perceived political orientation and pro-Palestinian sympathies of his audience,” the organization posted on its Web site, citing exactly zero statistics to support its own assumptions about his audience.

But given the limitations of the medium, Bourdain did the right thing. He gathered narratives, tested them against one another and against his own sense of what’s right and wrong. He sat down at tables and let people tell their stories. And only after he had listened, and eaten, with all of them — Israeli and Palestinian — did he venture a conclusion:

“One can be forgiven for thinking,” he says, “when you see how similar they are, the two people, both of whom cook with pride, eat with passion, love their kids, love the land in which they live or the land they dream of returning to … that they might someday, somehow figure out how to live with each other. But that would be very mushy thinking indeed. Those things in the end probably don’t count for much at all.”

If only the high priests of certainty on all sides would be as willing as Bourdain to sit and hear competing narratives. They might learn something — and get a good meal, too.