For me, Israel has always been a culinary wonder. When I first came to Israel at age 16 in the mid 1980s, I was amazed to discover chocolate spread (for breakfast!), falafel, schnitzel, and hummus, which had not yet conquered America. Everyday dairy products like cottage cheese surprisingly tasted great. And not a meal was prepared without a fresh chopped salad to accompany it. Granted, I was a teenager at the time and was still shaking off a 1970s childhood in America where items like basil only came from the spice rack and canned green beans were the order of the day.
In more recent years, Israel has become celebrated as a culinary destination. There is a booming restaurant scene, local food markets are prime tourist spots, and Israeli chefs continue to win acclaim abroad. But this shouldn’t be so surprising because the reasons that make living in Israel so wonderful are the same reasons that make the food so great. The people and the food are vibrant and bold, innovative and welcoming. Ours is a society and a cuisine that is constantly in flux, full of paradoxes and contradictions. I mean, where else do you get to choose between ice cream that tastes like Bamba or laabene and zaatar?
Over the past year, as I carried out research on the status of women in Israel, I gathered stories from more than 300 women. Inevitably, the conversation touched on food — food as memory, culture and nostalgia. Interviewing women at their kitchen tables often revealed what food has symbolized for so many of us, how we build community, how we nourish our loved ones, and how we take pride in our own ethnic culinary heritage. I soon found myself accumulating stories of efforts to link Israeli cuisine to social responsibility and the strengthening of communities around the country.
Israeli cuisine is celebrated for many reasons, including the influence of diverse cultures from around the world, the vibrant street life, the healthy Mediterranean diet, the ‘hyper-localism’ of the produce and the ability to cater to so many dietary requirements in eating kosher or vegan. As Shawna Goodman, a chef and philanthropist who organizes popular culinary tours to Israel, explains, “Food in Israel resurrects all this heritage from so many different cultures. The beauty of Israeli cuisine is the diversity and openness so there is no one type of Israeli food… There are no rules.”
And the creativity and innovation that we see in Israeli cuisine is mirrored in and strengthened by the efforts of many nonprofits that are helping women to become part of this culinary boom. Nonprofit organizations like Economic Empowerment for Women, Women’s Spirit and the Koret Funds’ Sawa program offer support and funding for diverse communities of women entrepreneurs. Catering businesses have taken off in many instances under these nurturing frameworks. Sindyanna of Galilee presents another interesting model, a nonprofit that create opportunities for Arab and Jewish women to work together to promote fair trade while supporting local farmers through the sale of products such as olive oil, za’atar and honey.
Once you begin seeking out the links between food and the efforts to build stronger communities, the examples pop up all over the country. In my own neighborhood, in Kiryat Tivon, I have happily watched as our local winery Tulip has become part of the booming Israeli wine business. Tulip is run by Kfar Tikva, a kibbutz-like community for individuals with special needs that helps to promote their integration into the workforce. Kishorit in the Western Galilee similarly employs special needs populations in the production and sale of wonderful goat cheese and artisanal breads.
Café Ringelblum in Beer Sheva and ANNA Italian Cafe at the Ticho House in Jerusalem are examples of another model to help create better opportunities, specifically focusing on employing at risk youth. These cafes, supported by the Dualis Fund, are set up as social businesses, and rightfully see themselves as “restaurants with an agenda.”
And no conversation on this topic would be complete without noting the innovative work of Leket Israel, which addresses the issue of food security in Israel and is already celebrating its 15th year of operation. Leket rescues tons of fresh produce each year from farmers’ fields, cooked meals from hotels, catering halls, IDF bases and hi-tech company cafeterias. It then distributes this surplus food to nonprofits working with those in need like elderly centers, battered women’s centers and homeless shelters.
So remember the next time you sit down to have a meal, think about how your appetite is sparking important social ventures and building community around the country. In Israel, there are endless opportunities to eat well and feel very good about it.
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