Roger Sherman had never dreamed about making a film on Israel. Until a few years ago, the award-winning director and producer had never even considered traveling here.
But fast-forward five years and Sherman is finally putting the finishing touches – after years of work – on the story of Israel’s development as a culinary destination. After a successful kickstarter campaign, he is currently in the editing process of his two-hour documentary The Search for Israeli Cuisine, which explores the dozens of unique cultures that make up the local food scene.
“I was just amazed by what I found” on my first trip to Israel, Sherman told The Jerusalem Post
by phone from his New York studio.
“One of the most dynamic food scenes in the world – every ethnicity, every heritage, every group from the Diaspora bringing their traditions – including food – and people saving them, cooking from them for Shabbat, updating them in restaurants, playing with them, combining them sometimes.”
The Emmy and Peabody award-winning filmmaker hopped a last-minute ride to Israel in 2010 for a Foreign Ministry-arranged culinary press tour, when his friend cookbook author and food writer Joan Nathan invited him. Before the trip was even over, Sherman knew he had found the subject for his next film.
“When I came back to New York and started telling people about everything I’d seen and learned, first of all nobody believe me,” recalled Sherman. “Second of all, half the people just laughed and said there was no such thing as Israeli cuisine.”
These reactions, said Sherman, proved to him that he had to make the movie.
“I make films about subjects that I want people to be surprised about and delighted and maybe shocked – and I think this would do all three.”
But Sherman was still in search of a face and voice to anchor the film.
While he was exploring, a friend told him he had to try the food at chef Michael Solomonov’s Israeli-themed restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia.
He and his wife were enjoying the modern takes on Middle Eastern fare when Solmonov – a sharply rising US culinary star – sat down at the table.
“He sat down and talked to us for 15 minutes, and when he left, I turned to my wife and said – that’s my guy,” recalls Sherman.
Solomonov, who was born in Israel and grew up mostly in the US, is building a culinary empire in Philadelphia.
In addition to Zahav, he is a part-owner of Percy Street Barbecue, Federal Donuts, a hummus place named Dizengoff and Abe Fisher, the hottest new addition to the family, which is billed as “inspired by the cuisine of the Jewish Diaspora.”
“Mike is able to relate to everybody because he has such a deep knowledge of the cuisines of the world – he’s trained in French culinary arts then worked in fine Italian restaurants and had a wonderful mentor in Philadelphia,” said Sherman. “Mike knows so many of these traditions, he knows the history, he knows the backbone of Israeli cuisine.”
He’s also, said Sherman, “a total mensch, incredibly funny and self-deprecating.”
It’s not just happenstance that led Solomonov to devoting his life to spreading a love of Israeli cuisine.
In 2003, Solomonov’s younger brother, David, was killed by sniper fire along the border with Lebanon during his IDF service. Several months later, he held a memorial dinner at his brother’s army base, an experience he said changed his life forever.
“Until I visited that place I had no intention of cooking Israeli food,” Solomonov told The New York Times
in 2011. “But after my brother’s death, the path I was going to take became clear.” That led to the opening of Zahav in 2008: “I felt that through this restaurant I could share the experience of my brother’s life with everyone.”
Solomonov spent three weeks touring and filming in Israel with Sherman, visiting many prominent spots and chefs, as well as little-known destinations – even to the chef.
“Mike said probably 75 percent of the places that we filmed he’d never been to,” said Sherman. “And he goes [to Israel] a couple times a year.”
While Solomonov gave input into the film’s focus, “We just did incredible amounts of research” before filming. Alongside the “top names” like Eyal Shani, Meir Adoni, Uri Buri and Erez Komarovsky are farmers, home cooks, Palestinian chefs, spice sellers, winemakers and more, said Sherman.
They visited the ancient wine presses in Avdat, the site of Nabatean ruins, toured the Acre market, paid a visit to a farmer in Ezuz, made maklubeh with a Palestinian chef and his mother and enjoyed Shabbat dinner with the Solomonov family.
While politics and conflict seem to touch every aspect of Israel, Sherman kept the focus almost entirely on food.
“I’m not dealing with politics in terms of policies that have to do with Israel, but I do deal with food politics,” he said. “Everybody talks about being news junkies and not knowing what tomorrow will bring and having a society that’s very fast and nobody has time and we don’t want to sit for four hours for a meal – and we discuss how that affects the food that people are making.”
But even once he’d finished filming, Sherman still had a few more obstacles to overcome. No. 1 on that list? Funding.
He had raised the money for research and shooting from grants, but needed an extra infusion of cash to finish the editing process.
“I said, wow, if I do a successful kickstarter I can edit this film,” he mused about the online crowd-funding platform.
So he hired a consultant and set up the page with an impressive goal: $72,000. Pledges were available for $10 up to $10,000, with rewards ranging from a digital recipe to a sample of tahini to an autographed cookbook or a behind-the-scenes tour and dinner for two at Zahav.
“It was the most intense month...I don’t think I slept at all,” he recalls.
“You cheer when somebody backs you and then two seconds later you worry: ‘will anybody else ever?’ I almost had a nervous breakdown – and my wife didn’t sleep either.”
But the backers really came through in the end – 477 individuals pledged funds to Sherman, and he ended up topping his goal, with a final tally of $88,759 in donations.
“It was amazing, most people who backed it are very small donations, $35,” he said. “They’re not doing it for the reward – they’re doing it, I think, because they like the idea.
People seemed to take ownership of the project and people – who I didn’t know – were tweeting ‘come on, we can do it!’” Now Sherman is knee deep in editing, aiming to finish the film by the fall and set an air date with PBS for the spring. But, he said, he aims to bring the documentary to screenings, festivals and even Netflix and Hulu – all with the aim of showing people a whole new side of Israel.
“For me growing up, Israel was Sunday school and the Bible,” said Sherman. “I think, like many, you want to stay away from weird political situations, you think about safety – and I didn’t really even think: Oh, what is