Israel is as close as your TV and kitchen

Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

Reaching across the ocean to bring Israeli culture into your home has never been easier. If “dinner and a show” is your idea of a great evening, then check out the experiences you can create right in your own living room. Can’t get to Israel this winter? Well, thanks to Israel’s flourishing television industry and prolific cookbook authors, you can bring Israel’s stories and flavors right to your door.

Let’s start with TV. Israelis are multiethnic and diverse, with a million stories to tell. Put those stories in the hands of talented writers. Cast compelling actors and actresses to bring the stories to life. Then add English subtitles and stream the shows worldwide. The result is a platform teeming with original, riveting, and totally binge-worthy programs.

What Israel is exporting on the small screen is more than just entertainment. It is a window into the Israeli zeitgeist. The shows are a powerful conduit for the stories Israelis tell about themselves and their world, vehicles for revealing truths about Israeli life.

Our cold, dark Minnesota winter is the perfect time to settle in for evenings of “dinner and a show,” Israeli style.

Here are the shows my husband and I have seen, the shows we plan to see (it’s a loooong winter), and the delicious Israeli dishes we are savoring.

  1. Shtisel (Netflix): The insular world of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox is the setting for stories and characters with broad, universal appeal. How do we cope with the ties of family, faith, tradition, and community that both support and restrict? The extraordinary gifted actors and actresses of Shtisel grapple with these challenges in one tender episode after another. It is Israeli television at its best- a window into one segment of Israeli society, whose people and stories go from unfamiliar to engrossing.
  2. Beauty and the Baker (Amazon Prime): This delightful show is more than a love story between Israeli supermodel, Noa, and Amos, a baker from a Yemenite-Israeli family. The most ridiculous and comical character in the show is Noa’s manager, who is trying to break them up. He believes that working class, Yemenite Amos is way beneath Ashkenazi Noa. The manager is stuck in an old script. In playing it for laughs, Israelis are telling a new story about themselves.
  3. Fauda (Netflix): This enormously popular series is about a team of Israeli counterterrorism operatives hunting Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank. Creators Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz (who plays the lead agent, Doron) provide an unflinching look at this messy, grueling, morally complicated work. Fauda’s characters are multidimensional; not every Israeli is good, not every Palestinian is bad. The dilemmas the team faces are unsettling, the choices often excruciating. Fighting terrorism is a global concern, which helps explain the program’s broad appeal. Seasons one and two of Fauda are available for viewing. Season three, which is set in Gaza for the first time and has been released in Israel already, will be on Netflix sometime in 2020, and so now is a great time to catch up.
  4. The Spy (Netflix): Don’t miss the story of Eli Cohen, an Israeli Mossad agent in the 1960’s, who infiltrated the highest levels of Syrian government. The scenes of Cohen transmitting vital intelligence back to Israel, while Syrian surveillance trucks hunt down the source of the radio frequency, are enacted to nail-biting effect. Sacha Baron Cohen’s portrayal of Eli Cohen is so masterful, so sympathetic, that we had to turn the TV off for the last minutes of the final episode. We could not bear to watch Cohen, captured and tortured by the Syrians, climb the gallows. The show was created for Netflix by Israeli director and writer Gideon Raff and writer Max Perry, with dialogue mostly in English.
  5. Our Boys (HBO): It’s the summer of 2014 and Israelis are shattered by the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teens by Hamas operatives. But the miniseries’ primary focus is the horrific revenge murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, an Arab-Israeli teen. The show is an unsparing portrayal of the genesis of a hate crime and its impact. ‘Our Boys’ earned praise for its depiction of a politically and emotionally gut-wrenching story. But it also generated controversy among critics who felt that essential context was missing. We see Abu Khdeir’s murderers convicted and sent to prison — two of them for life, and one, a teen, for 20 years. But the program ignores this: the Palestinian Authority will provide generous payments to the families of the three men who murdered the Jewish teens (two Hamas operatives were killed when they resisted capture, one is in an Israeli prison for life). So, is the series an example of fearless or flawed storytelling?  Watch the show and decide for yourself.
  1. Somebody Feed Phil (Tel Aviv): Yes, this is an American show, but watching the comically charming Phil go on a foodie tour of Tel Aviv is so delightful that it earned a spot on this list. Tune in to compile your list of must-go places for your next visit to Israel. Watch it if you are longing for Tel Aviv’s energy and scenery. Or both!

Up next for us: Mossad 101 (Netflix), Mekimi (Amazon Prime), and False Flag (Hulu).

Here’s hoping one of the streaming networks will pick up Avodah Aravit (Arab Labor).

What to eat?

Ditch the store-bought hummus and pita chips for these dishes that will fill body and soul with Israel’s exuberant flavors.

I hope trying these recipes will inspire you to get acquainted with some extraordinary Israeli chefs and add their cookbooks to your kitchen.

Here’s where I go for cooking inspiration!
Photo: Sally Abrams

From Adeena Sussman:

Za’atar Roasted Chicken with Sumac Potatoes

From Yotam Ottolenghi:

Oven-Roasted Chicken with Clementines and Arak

Salmon Steaks with Spicy Tomato Sauce

From Michael Solomonov:

Shakshouka

Jerusalem Grill

While there is no substitute for spending time in Israel, there are meaningful ways to shrink the distance between visits. How fortunate we are to live at a time when we can easily “bring Israel home,” nurturing and strengthening our connection to the land we love.

Thank you to my colleagues Eilat Harel and Holly Brod Farber for their smart and helpful insights.

About the Author
Sally Abrams co-directs the Speakers Bureau of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She has presented the program “Israel and the Middle East: the Challenge of Peace” at hundreds of churches, schools and civic groups throughout the Twin Cities and beyond. A resident of suburban Minneapolis, Sally speaks fluent Hebrew, is wild about the recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi, the music of Idan Raichel, and is always planning her next trip to Israel. Visit: sallygabrams.com
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