Once upon a time, Rehovot was a city filled with orange groves and the fragrance of orange blossom was so sweet and welcoming all over town. This I remember vividly from my youth; however, the orange groves have since been reduced to just a few, and barely noticeable when driving in and out of the city or passing through the side streets instead of the main thoroughfare. But the famous Weitzman Institute for Science still stands in the same location, so does the Institute for Agricultural Studies — a reminder of the vision and hope upheld by the first Jewish leaders and pioneers when Israel was in its infancy.
At first glance, when roaming through Rehov Herzl, the main shopping street in town, it doesn’t hold the same beauty and charm of the old days. It looks tired and rundown. There are many elderly people wearing mismatched clothing, slowly ambling along busy sidewalks while pulling their overflowing shopping baskets on wheels. The way they dress represents a sort of tug-of-war between their old traditional garb and the new modern look they’ve adopted. The street is loud, with perpetual honking and pedestrian traffic, and in complete contrast to the way it used to be. I feel exceptionally lucky that I can see beyond this facade, and among the dusty appliance stores and boutiques for the Orthodox, with fashions that lack any sense of beauty or style, I notice an interesting building or the very trees that my mother had planted with her classmates as a young child. I see those weary, rheumy eyes of an elderly, Yemenite woman sitting along one of the many benches dotted along the cracked sidewalks. I also notice the little mom-and-pop eateries, they’re everywhere, and the different aromas steer me like an invisible guide.
In Israel, location and size of a restaurant should never fool you, many times, they are unassuming and situated in an unattractive part of town. But the moment you taste the food, the rush of flavor demonstrates a valid point: there’s no need to eat at a fancy restaurant and pay a fortune for the delicacies you’ve been served. Some places are only open for a few hours, and once the food is gone there are no apologies and the joint is closed for the day. The dream of every chef around the world is to run out of a few menu items by the end of a busy Sunday service, but with these folks it’s a common practice.
At a little family-owned eatery by my granny’s house, Pundak Haim Gafla/Haim’s Inn, the menu offered many Yemenite dishes, not surprising as Rehovot is home to a large Yemenite community and most residents are religious, therefore all the restaurants also adhere to kosher dietary laws. The food choices were plentiful and just as interesting as the ethnic smorgasbord of comfort food and flavors that were the standard in my grandmother’s kitchen — including a few dishes we didn’t recognize from home. The diversity of Yemenite cuisine is the inevitable result of many influences dating back to the time of the Persian, Ethiopian, Ottoman and Himyar Rule. For this reason, the Yemenite kitchen differed from region to region and limiting their cooking to just a few doughy options such as kubana, jichnun, lachuch, and melawach is a very misleading view of the culture and food.
On this particular visit, I opted for vegetable soup and not traditional chicken soup, or bean soup, or leg of lamb soup, or tamatim—tomato soup with rice, or batata abu chamar—red potato soup, which one can expect to find in most Yemenite kitchens. Although I’d consider vegetable soup a deviation from granny’s traditional Yemenite fare, it was definitely Yemenite-inspired. I could taste the hawaij (a Yemenite spice mix), but what other secret ingredient made this soup superior? My sister and I would gulp a spoonful and exclaim how wonderful, we were well aware of the ephemeral nature of that moment, and this impulsive reaction continued until our very last drop.
Luckily, Gafla was lurking in the background, smiling, and obviously enjoying the sound effects that his food had inspired. And with this type of vibe there’s sometimes a familiar, forceful command from a waiter or even an owner that is reminiscent of an aunt and grandmother who are convinced that you didn’t eat enough. So when Gafla told us we still looked hungry, we resorted to the fact that it could very well be the case even though we felt completely stuffed. Right away, we ordered a memula — stuffed zucchini with rice in deep-red spicy sauce and more pita to help sop up the zesty bits. We knew he was disappointed when we exhibited such delight for his food yet ate so little of it, but we couldn’t help it, we were there for a little nibble rather than a full-on ravenous onslaught. The guy sitting at the table next to ours wanted to know where we lived, and when we said America he looked insulted, “Mah, yoter tov sham? (Really, is it better there?). And that evolved into a multifaceted discussion of life abroad, and my personal guilt for not trying harder to move back to the very place that I call home. But it’s always been my experience that any outing in Israel involves the most entertaining and enriching conversations with total strangers, and the food is just an added bonus.
My cellphone buzzed, it was Uncle Ami, one of my favorite people. He’s in his 70s, and due to his committed devotion to yoga he’s healthy and fit and moves with the lithe of a teenager, although, there’s some of that conspicuous Yemenite bounce to his stride. He popped over to granny’s home and wanted to find out where we were because, naturally, everyone expected us to show up for dinner. Our uncle is easygoing so there was no need to elaborate and explain, he knew that we were in Israel for a short visit and wanted to imbibe our surroundings, sip, gulp and devour many more experiences, and mouthfuls of food. Within 10 minutes, he joined us, the owner leaped to our table as though a famous celebrity had just paid him a visit. Nu, mah, atem krovim? When Ami explained that indeed we were his nieces, our status changed from that of tourists to MVDs (most valuable diners).
Gafla yelled something unintelligible towards the kitchen, and a large plate of hummus was rushed to our table accompanied by fresh pita, as a starter. Ami tore a piece of bread, placed it in his mouth and evinced such delight, which made Gafla light up with pride. Ami’s head began bobbling in rhythm as he slipped into song. Shalom Shabazzi’s esoteric poem Ayelet Chen (Graceful Doe), plucked right from the diwan (anthology of poetry and appendix to the prayer book) had illuminated the room. Yemenites are known for their superior singing abilities, beautiful melodies, complex structure, and embellishments, and Ami often spends an afternoon singing with a group of friends, all of whom are invested in keeping this type of imagery and expression relevant and very much alive. A few other diners turned their heads towards Ami, not because they thought he was causing a disturbance, but in order to better enjoy a tune sung with so much emotion that you could see moist eyes and feel the lump lodged in their throats. Just a normal Tuesday, a sampling of an evening out at a neighborhood restaurant. Of course, we then returned home to eat the dinner Judith had instructed her caretaker to prepare for us.
Badra’s Kitchen was another little treasure we discovered a few blocks down the road from granny’s. Their approach to ethnic food is organic and vegan, and appealed to us right away. What captured my attention was their use of recycled goods, visible all across the restaurant. I immediately recognized the old-style containers that Judith used for storing her flour. Badra’s also has an outside seating area, next to their organic garden, where they grow many of the herbs and spices used in their recipes. These are the types of places that one visits when nostalgia overpowers any other emotion and turns the crave buttons on, because whatever we ate once upon a time suddenly tastes even better in our minds. Food often triggers our childhood memories so we gravitate towards something conventional and comforting, the way an aunt or grandmother would cook, with no glitz or splendor to be found—no special decorations presented with our order. In short, just like home.
The local market in Rehovot sits at a pivotal junction right in the center of town where fresh produce is brought to local residents every day, apart from the Sabbath. Here you can find vendors who’ve worked in their booths for decades, they stand shoulder to shoulder, each one conversing with shoppers and spewing one-liners that are bound to make a few people laugh and hopefully stop and purchase their goods. During autumn, my favorite time of the year in Israel, when the weather finally cools down, and there’s a nice calm with less sweat and heat-induced stress, I love to visit this particular market, shop for granny and inhale a lungful of guava perfume. Yes, I said perfume, but other people wince at this description, for them guavas reek of an unpleasant odor and their texture is slimy and crammed with seeds. My taste differs, I can’t wait for a whiff of their ambrosial scent with a choice of either white or pink pulp, and a powerhouse of nutrients—also said to reduce wrinkles! I usually eat one on the spot and forget my usual hysteria over germs and cleanliness. On this particular visit, I wasn’t allowed to keep guavas in our room, even when wrapped in paper, sealed inside a Ziploc bag and stored in the fridge, and forget about the car. I was forced to carry my guavas home by foot, and no other choice but to walk to the market on a need-to-eat basis.
When I burrowed through a mountain of guavas, unaware of how long I lingered before making my choice, the man in charge barked at me to hurry up. He obviously worried that my endless digging, instead of selecting the fruit without hesitation, would lead other customers to believe that his produce wasn’t of superior quality. For someone unaccustomed to this type of brazen approach it might’ve been a turn-off, but for me the catalyst to a bellyful of laughter and contentment. The pomegranates were equally fabulous, with an obvious recherché quality including seeds that resembled ruby gemstones in their appearance—so red, fiery, and shiny. Eating a spoonful of fruit manifests a crunch and burst of sweet juice. They’re not known for a distinguished scent and even if feeling indifferent towards their taste, it’s hard to ignore the majestic beauty of pomegranates, in many ways reminiscent of opulence and food associated with ancient kings.
Next to the market in Rehovot is one of my favorite sweet shops with a potpourri of treats piled in colorful heaps, similar to produce at the market. I immediately recognize some of the candies from my schooldays such as the eye-catching pink coconut roles, and halvitza—a nougat square that became globalized and familiar in every nation under Ottoman Rule. Sukar nabat is rock candy that my grandfather would buy for me; colorful little rectangles of jelly layers dipped in sugar, and the sweet jelly-like consistency of rachat lukum (Turkish delight.) still excite me. My eyes tend to drift towards my favorite childhood candy, my sensory inputs on a mission to capture some of that innocence and magic.
Even though Israelis benefit from a rich harvest at every marketplace across Israel, you’ll find that people still take pride in the fruits and vegetables grown in their own back yards. When Judith was younger and in good health, she tended to her large garden daily and it offered a bit of everything. Right before the holiday of Sukkot she allowed me to sell some of the Four Species abundant in her garden. I’d walk down Herzl Street, find an empty spot on the pavement to display a selection of myrtle and willow branches and blend into the milieu of holiday buzz and frenzy. The chaos before the holiday ushered in a warm and special feel to the usual hustle and bustle along the streets. Those were the days when the entire city would unite in celebrating a holiday. Nothing was organized by the city, it had to do with people’s own initiative to entertain. Binyamin was a relative who introduced a long-standing tradition of dressing up in a camel costume together with another brave participant, and during Purim the camel pranced along the main street and all the children followed in a lively procession across town. I was there too.
The shesek (loquat) was another fruit I used to enjoy picking from a large old tree in my grandparents’ yard; its brief sojourn highly anticipated and when ripe and ready to eat, what joy, but I had to act fast before the birds would ruin my plans by polishing off the fruit. It’s an obscure fruit in the West Coast markets of America, I’ve never seen it in nurseries either. In almost every home in Rehovot you’d recognize the clusters of light-orange lemon-shaped fruit peeking from a verdant courtyard. The flavor sweet and the texture very much resembles a mix of apricot and plum.
In many neighborhoods throughout Rehovot you can still hear the strident crowing of a rooster, followed by the raucous clucking of chickens blustering from backyards. No need for an alarm clock in those parts. Obviously the past generation’s idea of self-sustenance has left its imprint all over town. Another familiar sound is the alte zachen, a Yiddish phrase meaning “old things.” A driver directs his donkey-drawn carriage through narrow streets and offers to collect any discarded household goods. Your junk is his business, although the use of Yiddish words is a bit peculiar in a predominately Yemenite neighborhood. However, these days there are many non-Yemenite residence too including Russians and Ethiopians. The alte zachen must’ve been the earliest form of recycling; I can still recall this phenomenon from childhood and how granny would call out my name in a frenzy to run to the street and stop the alte zachen guy and unload some of her unwanted items. When you see the alte zachen these days, still using a cart and a donkey, and blaring the same phrase, it’s reassuring to see that even though things are generally different, there’s still a pastiche of the old way of life, which was so simple and delightful. These days, the orange blossoms are not as noticeable as they were during my childhood days, but a trace of their delicate scent sets into motion a deja vu sensation and by the strength of these powerful memories Rehovot preserves my identity and remains special to me.
There are many more vestiges that hint to those happy childhood days such as elderly Yemenite men and women resting on benches near kiosks or other shops—people whom I remember as middle-aged vendors in the very businesses now run by their children. I am still drawn to a kiosk that sells nothing more than newspapers, the lottery, and a selection of ice creams and popsicles. The lemon one has always been my favorite. Another little place that hasn’t altered its look in all these years sells nuts, sunflower, pumpkin and watermelon seeds. But the crembos had always been the main attraction to this tiny little corner shop. Crembos are synonymous with Israeli sweets, and the word is a blend of French and Hebrew meaning “cream in him.” They’re only available during winter and the seasonal aspect generates excitement. A crembo dome consists of a mallowy center, though much lighter, fluffier, and smoother, sitting atop a round biscuit and coated in a delicate layer of chocolate. The flavors vary between vanilla, chocolate, banana, and cappuccino but when I was little the latter two types were produced in limited quantities, which elevated their status to a rare find. Their packaging has not changed one bit, they’re wrapped in dainty, colorful foil that makes you believe for a short moment that you’re holding in your hands a fancy, rare, jewel. However, even the crembo is not impervious to change and lately I’ve become aware of at least one company that intends to manufacture this treat without its beautiful wrapping. Some decisions are hard to embrace, especially when discussing a type of food that involved a special ritual. As kids, we would unwrap this fragile treat, very carefully: we always saved the colorful foil, smoothed it out and cherished it as if that would make the sweetness last.
There’s a little rundown-looking shop where Judith would treat us to a toy in honor of a holiday or birthday, and when stepping inside for the first time after many years it felt like a time warp. The distinctive smell of toys with faded, dusty-looking packaging lining the shelves set off another narrative. Funny, but the passage of time has a way of distorting proportions and measurements of a place that you warmly remember as large and impressive. It looked much smaller with only room for a handful of customers at a time, but the toys had always excited us. When our own children noticed the shop from the sidewalk—the display of colorful hanging beach-balls attracted them like fish to bate—they couldn’t care less about the size or shabby appearance of the shop, they were just as eager to go inside. Their enthusiasm didn’t wane as their eyes explored the minimal selection of toys on tired shelves, and similar to their behavior in a mega toy store in the States, they put on their best begging voices, and tried to convince us they really needed more toys.
Rehovot might not be an obvious tourist destination, but family, food, and atmosphere still invite me back. My grandmother phones me up to let me know when the shesek has ripened in her courtyard or how wonderfully sweet the mishmish (apricot) harvest has been. She also sets aside a jar of her famous jam for my next visit. My grandparents’ modest home was a place where they would feed, clothe and hide maapilim — Jewish refugees who escaped Europe and tried to find a safe haven in Palestine during the British Mandate period. The atmosphere was volatile all over the region; the local Arab population saw Jewish immigration as a threat, riots and blood swept the land. The British enacted a few laws to ensure the Jews in Palestine would have a minority status, hoping that all the uproar would come to an end. Jews who managed to circumvent the blockade of Palestine and were caught, were then placed in detention camps and sent back to Europe where they were soon consumed by infectious Nazi protocol. The ones who avoided detection were successfully hidden from British authorities, and after blending into society these folks had a new beginning and hope for the first time in their lives.
My grandparents also housed at least six foster children, and shared the little they had with many others whom they deemed less fortunate. Everyone contributed, and the impulse to get involved and help is what makes Israel so engaging. My grandfather had built their house almost ninety years ago, and it’s where some of my most cherished childhood memories took place. The rooftop was a massive webbing of grapevines that provided a seamless shelter and setting for our family meals. When my grandfather blessed the wine, challah, and food set on the table I was captivated by his voice; he sang beautifully and I was transported to what I could only imagine as Biblical times. On most occasions, I found myself wiping away a tear that grandfather noticed: “What’s wrong ya galbi?” he’d ask, but I could never respond. Upon reflection, these are the types of stories that instantly raise a smile on my face, also sadness for a time long gone. But this is my autobiography, an anecdote of loving grandparents, ethnic food, and interesting personalities, and an extra dimension that only my eyes can recall.
Rehovot has always had an effervescent atmosphere, people greet one another in the street, show interest in each other’s wellbeing. They pop in and out of a friend’s home uninvited. The smell of food permeates the air as it drifts through kitchen windows and into alleyways, beckoning you to come home already and eat. There’s that usual drone of men praying in one of the many synagogues spread all across town, and even though my grandfather has passed on, I can still hear his voice and smell the besamim (basil flowers) that he held in his hand. When an elderly woman stopped us in the middle of our walk, patted my son’s head, and offered him a piece of candy I had to convince him that it was okay to take the candy and smile back at the stranger. I can only imagine how confusing for my son, but so pleasantly familiar to me.
This essay is from A Cookbook for the Woman Who Hates Cooking.