Master Chef and the reality of Israel

I am not ashamed to admit that I cried in the last episode of Master Chef.

In fact, I choke up in almost every other episode, and it is not because of a burnt focaccia or that my favorite contestant didn’t make it through to the next round.

For me, Master Chef tells the story of Israel; and it is a beautiful and emotional narrative, hence the tears.

Tonight in Israel, half the population will be glued to their televisions to watch the final of Master Chef and see who will be crowned the winner of the third season. Reality shows are very popular here, many based on formats from abroad, such as The Voice, and our own version on American Idol called ‘A Star is Born’. I doubt though, that the overseas versions of these shows achieve such heart-wrenching dramas and impossible narratives as those that play out on our screens here. Only in Israel, as they say.

Take this year’s three finalists for example: Salma, a young Muslim Arab girl, faces off against Jacky, an orthodox Jewish mother, and Tom, a German convert. It could almost be the beginning of a great joke but is it reality and it is riveting.

Salma, the petit and colorful contestant from the Arab village of Kfar Kassam with her tightly wrapped hijab; who refused her family’s marriage match because she wanted to study, has a master’s degree in public health and works in brain research.

Jacky, the forthright, wig-wearing mother-of-two from the town of Elad in the West Bank, who blow-torched all the pans before she started cooking each time to make sure they were kosher, comes from a poor family of eleven children.

And Tom, a tall, curly-haired perfectionist, who first encountered Jewish Israelis in a school exchange in his small German town, fell in love with the religion and the country, converted to Judaism, who keeps mitzvot but doesn’t wear a kippa.

In the last episode, the three finalists took us on a journey to their homes, to show us the roots of their culinary expertise. They showed Salma with her mother, who didn’t speak in Hebrew, cooking some strange plant (that I was sure was a common weed) together. Jacky visited her childhood neighborhood, encountering on the way the elderly Moroccan neighbor from whom she learned to make couscous, followed by a procession of all her ten brothers and sisters, some religious, some not, together with their numerous offspring, squeezing into the family living room.

But it was Tom’s journey home that made me cry the most. Thanks to the generous and opportune sponsorship of Lufthansa, he, his wife and young baby, flew to the German town where he grew up and where his parents still live. I marveled at the open fields and tree-lined avenues; envied the impressive basement pantry filled with canned local produce, bottled by his parents. He left all this to live in a cramped apartment in Tel Aviv, I thought to myself.

His parents were very emotional about the visit. They had watched some of the episodes in which Tom starred but he brought with him a version with German subtitles, so they could understand what the judges were saying about him. They glowed with pride, listened intently to every word and cried. Tom’s mother explained how difficult it was for them to have him living so far away both geographically and spiritually. She cried. And I cried with her, along with probably every other oleh in the country who knows what it is like to be far away from loved ones.

His father proudly showed the Jewish newspaper that he has subscribed to in attempt to gain an understanding of where Tom lived and what he thought, adding that he always pays attention to the weekly Torah reading, so he knows what his son is thinking about on Shabbat. That made me cry too.

And there were so many other stories: the housewife who made aliyah from Venezuela who told how her Zionist parents hosted Israeli prime ministers and presidents in their home. The attractive pregnant woman whose parents were killed in last year’s terror attack near Eilat, who had chosen life and moving forward despite her immense loss. The IDF veteran who had returned from a devastating injury though a long and painful rehabilitation process.

Every contestant had a story and as the season progressed their narratives were woven together to create a picture of amazing country, filled with amazing people, from the four corners of the world, each one unique but united by the fact that despite their differences, in religion, language and history, they were all Israelis – and they loved to cook.

Oh, there was cooking too. But it didn’t make me cry. It just made me hungry.


About the Author
Rachael Risby-Raz is foreign and Diaspora relations consultant and former Diaspora Affairs Advisor to the Prime Minister.