Let’s see. I grew up in Tel Aviv, in a neighborhood where almost everyone was Ashkenazi. I remember a literature teacher at school who claimed that mothers in fiction control their children through food. And indeed, my childhood friend’s Polish-Jewish mother used to say: “If they want to eat—they’ll eat. If they don’t want to eat—they’ll also eat.” Another neighborhood mother would fling open the window and yell in a terrifying voice: “Shaulik, come home! Your omelet is on the table!”
But I had to make do without a Polish mother. Sometimes I wanted one—the kind of mother who would run after me with a sweater and an umbrella, chase me down the street with calf’s foot jelly or tzimmes or gefilte fish, who wouldn’t let me leave the table until I emptied my plate, who would cover the new living room furniture with plastic sheeting, and who would say to my brother’s new Indian girlfriend: “Why do you wear black? You’re black as it is.” I wanted that kind of mother, but I didn’t have one.
My mother was born in Tel Aviv, where her parents had immigrated from Egypt. In Cairo, the family had wholly rejected their Egyptian surroundings, existing in their own little world in that Middle Eastern city. Their mother tongue was French, not Arabic, and they viewed themselves as European. They were well-off tradespeople who lived in sizeable houses and employed local servants in both their city and country homes. They’d been born and raised in Egypt but they lived their lives there in exile. In denial. And so when they arrived in Israel, penniless (having left virtually all their belongings behind), they did not cook any Egyptian dishes: not molokhiya (a thick soup of cooked leaves from the plant known as “Jew’s mallow”), not taamiya (falafel made of fava beans), not a single one of the dishes I tasted in that dizzying city when I visited a few years ago on a belated roots journey, months before the revolution. No. They maintained their total estrangement.
There was, though, one crack in the wall between the Cairo life and the Israeli life of that side of my family: dessert. Each of the aunts had her own uniquely Egyptian confection. Grandma Judith baked konafa, Aunt Léoni was in charge of the riz au lait, Aunt Yvonne provided the basboussa, and Aunt Camille prepared orange knafeh with roasted pistachios. It was their fetish. Their little deviancy.
I can’t say what Grandma Judith ate during her sixty-five years in Israel after arriving from Cairo. What I mean is, I do not remember a single main dish she ever served at lunch or dinner. In the mornings it was toast with cottage cheese and mayonnaise, or a homemade spread of raw tahini mixed with honey. Every evening she took a spoonful of prune-spread to ward off constipation. And she was addicted to the plain cookies known as petit beurre (literally: “little butter”), which despite their name were in fact one hundred percent dairy-free in their Israeli iteration. In other words: butter cookies without butter. And that, perhaps, defines Grandma’s Tel Aviv existence in a nutshell.
II. Just a Hard-boiled Egg and a Glass of Water
The Syrian side of my family was a whole different story. My father’s parents were born and raised in Damascus, pure locals who had no desire to leave their homeland. Their wealth came from a few butcher shops owned by my Granny Ora’s family. Granny used to tell me about her grandfather, who at age seventy was widowed and remarried a twenty-year-old woman: “When I die,” he promised her, “you will get a thousand gold coins.” But he lived to be a hundred, and to his very last day he rode a horse and managed the family business.
Granny Ora told me about the slaughterhouses. She told me about the poor young men employed as "sheep inflaters," whose job was to pierce a hole in the slaughtered sheep’s leg and then inflate it, which made it easier to strip the wool. Ora herself stopped eating animals as a young girl, at a time when vegetarianism was practically unheard of. When she went to a restaurant with Grandfather, she would order “just a hard-boiled egg and a glass of water.”
When I think about it now, perhaps her forbearance had nothing to do with the vegetarianism. Perhaps those stories I always heard about Granny Ora, and how even when she sat on the Champs-Élysées with Grandfather years later she ordered “an egg and a glass of water,” are related more to her experience as an immigrant in Israel’s early years of statehood. In retrospect, she expressed all the anger and frustration over the alienation she felt in her adopted homeland through avoidance: of food, of human society, of life itself.
Nevertheless, Granny Ora was a wonderful Syrian cook. She made us kousa mahshi—zucchini stuffed with rice and meat; medias—eggplant with yogurt sauce; riz wa’hamoud—rice and potatoes in a tart gravy, served cold with celery; ma’ude—a casserole of meat and potatoes cooked for a whole day and night, like a Syrian cholent; and of course, kibbeh.
Today I think back on her fried kibbeh as a festive dish, but the truth is that it was considered simple food, something you ate on late Saturday mornings after coming home from synagogue. Here are the instructions for eating Granny Ora’s kibbeh: first, lop off the tip and scoop out the filling (ground meat and pine nuts) into a dish. Next, fill the emptied out kibbeh with tahini, vegetable salad, and said meat and pine nuts. Only then, take a bite.
Granny worshipped fried foods. She did bake and steam things, too, but her oft-repeated motto, a sort of eternal truth that she liked to proclaim with a sly smile, was: “Fried? How could it not be delicious!”
For dessert she made us crunchy ma’amul cookies filled with walnuts or dates, and halawat nesha—a starchy pudding topped with crushed nuts and cinnamon. In her old age, she had a live-in Filipina caregiver who prepared food under her watchful eye. The result was a peculiar combination of Filipino and Israeli cuisines, with a touch of the Damascene.
Granny died only two years ago, well into her late eighties. At first it seemed that all the Syrian dishes she used to cook for us had followed her to the grave. And not that the family hadn’t tried to learn them—quite the opposite. But Granny had completely confounded her daughters and daughters-in-law and granddaughters with her methods. Or perhaps it wasn’t the methods—for with these she was actually quite generous and fairly clear—but the quantities. Granny was reluctant to say how much of each ingredient went into a dish. When the relatives pressured, pleaded and even threatened, she would just flash her knowing smile and say dismissively: “What’s the problem? You put a little of this, a little of that, a little of this.”
But there was a flaw in Granny’s plan: her late-age child, my father, had spent his childhood perched on the kitchen counter while she cooked, and he saw everything. Dad revealed the secrets to Mom, and now at our holiday dinners we have a Syrian feast on the table, with dishes prepared by my parents in somewhat scaled-back magnitude. So something of the Syrian glory remains after all, despite Granny Ora’s best intentions.
III. One Hundred Hamburgers
Growing up in Tel Aviv, my mother fed us what might be termed "Israeli cuisine." But what is that? All and nothing. Both an amalgamation and a negation of everything, much like Israeli society itself. It contains testimony, it contains aromas and memories from other places and times, yet it is not all these things. It is an ingathering of exiles, a merging of East and West, a diffusion and mutual influence between diverse cultures and locales—and also not. Israeli cuisine is a mystery, a black hole, a utopia. A no-place.
We ate rice, pasta, chicken. We loved schnitzel. Sometimes we were allowed to get hamburgers at the local Burgeranch (a homegrown version of American fast-food burger joints) and later at McDonald’s, which opened its first Israeli branch when I was a teenager. At age twelve I won an outlandish prize for correctly answering a magazine’s trivia quiz: one hundred free hamburger vouchers for Burgeranch. At my local branch they seemed unaware of my big win, but after the bureaucracies were sorted out, I spent the next few months eating my way through the prize—sometimes with friends or family, sometimes alone. The employees soon got to know me, and we came to an arrangement whereby I could trade in two vouchers for fries and a "Bomba" (Israel’s answer to the Big Mac), or three vouchers for two burgers and a soft-serve ice cream, and so forth.
That was the summer when the stomachaches began. I was tormented with pain. My parents took me to the doctor, who sent me to specialists. What didn’t they put me through? They gave me inhalation and exhalation tests, made me swallow disgusting liquids so they could examine the organisms inside me. They shoved tubes into me and numbed me with sedatives. Those doctors dug deeper and deeper into a body that had only just begun to grow into a man's. Finally, they decreed: there’s nothing wrong. But my stomach still hurt—it hurt badly. Mom took me to a renowned professor of gastroenterology, who diagnosed irritable bowel syndrome. “What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?” he asked me at our consultation, and I told him: “I drink a glass of chocolate milk.” “Well,” he said, “don’t.”
I was declared lactose intolerant. No one had heard of lactose intolerance in those days in Israel, and since there were hardly any vegans around either (I had heard distant rumors of their existence, like a bizarre cult), it was difficult for me to adopt the doctor’s dietary recommendations.
Mom was busy with a career shift at the time. She was retraining as an insurance agent, which was considered a serious, stable occupation, and she left home early every morning and was gone all day. I was the oldest child. I had a sister and a brother a few years younger than me, and another brother who was just a tot. My parents hired a nanny whom we all called Mocha. Mocha was Yemenite, and she was a colorful character. She took pity on our tender digestive systems—we Syrian-Egyptians who had grown up in an Ashkenazi neighborhood—and did not cook Yemenite food for us. She tried once, and my lips burned for a whole day. No. Mocha served us "Israeli" food: pasta, schnitzel, chicken or beef burgers, and of course ptitim—toasted grain-shaped pasta that is a long-standing comfort food for Israeli kids, though now served by gourmet chefs in the West as "Israeli couscous." Mocha chopped vegetables into tiny dice for salad. And she was fanatical about our lunches. By the time my little brother was a teenager, Mocha had been released from all her household duties except cooking. And she then began to supervise our meals even more sternly. All of us children had to come straight home from school and sit down for lunch, while Mocha, wearing an apron, prodded us to eat more and more salad. She reacted with horror if I tried to add cottage cheese to my meal: she kept kosher, and got angry when I failed to observe the required number of hours that must pass between eating meat and dairy.
One day I informed Mocha that I would be having lunch at a friend’s house. I was eighteen. When I came home, Mocha threw a jealous fit. She wanted to know exactly what they’d served, interrogating me on the details of each and every dish. “And salad? Did they have salad?” she asked suspiciously. When I confessed they hadn’t, she grinned. I never dared miss lunch again.
But there was something else. In those days of spiraling self-hatred, I often sat at the dinner table for hours without taking a single bite. I would stare at my plate piled high with food the way one might glare at an adversary. I thought I was too thin, I hated my body, my wrists were spindly, my Adam’s apple—testament to my masculinity—stuck out like a turkey’s neck. But though I hated my thinness, I refused to eat. I had shed my happy childhood and left its slough behind me. My youth was difficult, with little comfort or love from outside. And I ate practically nothing.
IV. Salon International de l’Agriculture
At twenty-two, I left Tel Aviv for Paris. I lived with a friend from school in the attic of a four-hundred-year-old building in the Marais—historically the Jewish quarter, and more recently the gay quarter. (Shortly after I arrived, my mother asked me on the phone if I was “in touch with the community.” To which I answered, “Absolutely. But I’m not sure it’s the community you’re talking about.”) At first I bought meat at the kosher butcheries, but I soon stopped. My roommate was an Israeli of Austrian origin, and everything he made was full of butter and cream. My stomach ached. I ate little but plain rice for a long time. I couldn’t adapt.
I went back to Israel, and a year later I returned to Paris for a six-year stint. This time I avoided meat because of mad cow disease. One of my university lecturers—a man who wore a wig, rode a heavy motorcycle to campus, and before the exams displayed the books he’d written on his desk and offered them for sale to us students—died of mad cow disease. Or so rumor would have it.
I slowly became acquainted with the diversity of Parisian cuisine. One can certainly find fault with the French republican spirit, and it’s hard to deny that, despite all the multiculturalism, there is ultimately only one dominant voice in French society. Nevertheless, the country offers an abundance of a kind I had never known in Israel. An abundance of cultures, and of food. In Paris I ate Japanese food, Indian food, Vietnamese food, and of course French food from every region in the country. One of my favorite things to do with my partner, a Tel Avivi poet and translator whom I met in Paris, was to go to the Salon International de l’Agriculture every year. There we ogled the beasts, including roosters that looked like punks from the ’80s, and the other glories offered by the rural Frenchmen who come to the City of Light once a year to hawk their wares. Even the president of France visits the Salon every year for a photo-op, grinning while holding a sheep. After seeing the animals, we would visit the stalls around the fair and dine our hearts out on the plethora of dishes from all over France.
We always celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, at a former Israel friend’s place. Her mother—another insurance agent—arrived in Paris every year with a supply of dead carp in her carry-on luggage. She marched straight through security with the fish, looking perfectly innocent. In Paris she removed the carp from her bag and prepared magnificent gefilte fish, to the joy of us exiled Israelis.
After another prolonged bout of severe abdominal pain, I began to acknowledge that it might be caused by my habit of eating too quickly. I went to see a behavioral therapist who specialized in eating disorders. She took out a pen and paper and wrote down my life story, dwelling at length on my relationship with my parents, my childhood—the longing for a Polish mother who would force-feed me the finest Ashkenazi delicacies—and especially my long adolescence, which I had spent gazing at plates full of food I would not eat. At some point she burst out: “What is it with you Jews and all this guilt?!”
When the session was over, I stood in the doorway and asked softly: “What about the fast eating? Do you have any advice?” “Use chopsticks!” she snapped, and slammed the door behind me.
V. The Grand Feast
After six years, we came back to Israel and left the bittersweet days of exile behind us. We returned to laden tables at jam-packed family dinners. My parents’ aunts and uncles had now been replaced by my own, and by brothers- and sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews. The family was growing horizontally. Customs and foods that were once our lot had disappeared with hardly a thought. My mother still prepared the Syrian delicacies she had learned from my father, who had learned them from his mother, and so the eradication of generations of diaspora had been only partly successful. Yet something certainly had been forgotten.
In “The Good Years,” a story by Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon, the protagonist travels to Jerusalem to visit a friend, who holds a grand feast in his honor. During the feast, the host’s father arrives. The diners all stand in deference, and the father sits down in a corner and proceeds to eat nothing but plain bread, olives, and onions, which he washes down with a jug of water. The puzzled guest asks his host why they are all dining on fine food and good wine, while the father is given only bread, olives, onions and water. The father himself explains to the guest that he seems to hold a common misperception whereby dining on delicacies is an exalted act, whereas in fact it is a punishment. Agnon is speaking to a question that has troubled the minds of many writers, in both their lives and their work: How should one treat one’s parents? What is the appropriate way to follow the commandment to “honor thy father and thy mother”?
Confucius wrote the following about this imperative: “The filial piety of nowadays means the support of one’s parents. But dogs and horses likewise are able to do something in the way of support; without reverence, what is there to distinguish the one support from the other?” In other words, are we obliged to merely ensure that our parents do not starve, just as we would for our pets? Or should there be something more? If I have to provide my parents with food one day, I wonder, what sort of food will it be exactly? And what story will it tell? Perhaps I should come at this from a different angle: the next section in this essay should be about the food I will prepare for my future children. Yes. It’ll be Mediterranean cuisine with slight touches of French. It will include contemporary dishes, of course, like quinoa casserole and rice noodles with tofu. At home we will always have organic granola bars, and in between meals we will snack on almonds and walnuts. My future child will not be lactose-intolerant; the three generations between Damascus and Tel Aviv will have toughened up his or her gut and made it supremely resistant. At age twelve, my son or daughter will rebel by running off to the nearest McDonald’s. At thirteen, he or she will become a vegetarian. My child will have a difficult adolescence, but a peaceful young adulthood. At eighteen he or she will silently scrutinize my face with a knowing smile—not unlike Granny Ora’s—and think silently: “Look how he’s softened over the years.”
In my future child’s diary, this is what it will say:
“My father was born and raised in Israel, to a family originally from Cairo and Damascus. In his youth he was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, shortly after he answered a trivia quiz and won a hundred hamburgers. He spent a few exiled years in Paris, where he consulted with an eating disorder therapist who told him to use chopsticks. Since coming back to Israel, he has watched in trepidation as the family produces new generations, and wondered what his responsibilities will be. Dad cooks quinoa with vegetables for me, and a few Syrian dishes whose secrets he learned from his father, who learned them from his mother. My father was a pretty tough man during my childhood, but he’s softened in recent years. The irritable bowel troubles him less now, too, perhaps because he is aging. For his fifty-fifth birthday, I decided to sign Dad up for an Ashkenazi cooking course, where he will learn how to cook calf’s foot jelly, tzimmes, and of course—gefilte fish!”
© Moshe Sakal. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Jessica Cohen. All rights reserved.