Tel Aviv's Egyptian grandmother

The first time I visited Julie, I felt transported.

January 26, 2010 17:57

The first time I visited Julie, I felt transported. I'd turned onto Rehov Shabazi in Neveh Tzedek and, somehow, left Tel Aviv. I'd stepped into one of those classic Egyptian eateries - a humble kitchen turned bustling restaurant, tucked away on a nameless alley.

I stood at the counter before a dizzying array of open pots, breathing in the spices, listening to the Arabic music winding through the air. Owner Julie Ozon clapped in time, her gold bangles tinkling like bells. I looked from the moussaka topped with thick slices of eggplant, to fish in a spicy tomato-based sauce, to plump figs stuffed with ground beef. My gaze drifted to red bell peppers full-to-bursting with meat and rice, to artichoke hearts capped with a savory mix of beef and spices, then to moist rice spilling from zucchini.

There was more rice - fluffy piles of yellow, dotted with carrots and peas; Ozon pointed at another pot, which held a soft mound of white, studded with bits of crunchy brown noodles.

"This is rice with sharaya," she said, using the Hebrew word for rice alongside the Arabic for vermicelli.

Cauliflower fashioned into crisp, lightly fried patties sat on the edge of the counter next to a colorful salad and homemade tehina.

"What do you want, motek?" Ozon asked me.

It was impossible to choose. "That looks good, or maybe that."

Ozon grabbed a plate, sized me up, and decided for me. She dipped a spoon in and out of the pots and handed my meal to me. Then she waved me away, almost dismissively, and resumed clapping. Her head, topped by a loose, silver bun, nodded to the rhythm.

I sat down and found food that, like Ozon, didn't miss a beat.

EIGHTEEN MONTHS ago, after 15 years in Neveh Tzedek, Julie moved to its current location on the corner of Yom Tov and Malan, within sight of Shouk Hacarmel. The Yemenite Quarter seems the perfect setting - its tight lanes and narrow storefronts crammed with sacks of beans, pasta and delicate pyramids of spice are reminiscent of the Cairo where Ozon spent her childhood.

Fleeing bombings and riots, Ozon - along with her parents, her seven siblings and their spouses - emigrated from Egypt in 1949. They sailed to France, leaving behind a thriving family business, a house in Cairo and a vacation home in Alexandria.

"We ran with our clothes and that's it," recalls Ozon, who was seven at the time.

After six months in France, the family made the journey to Israel. They spent the next eight years in a tent camp that lacked proper sanitation and running water. And they barely ate.

"We didn't have anything. We suffered," she says.

The high-standing the family once enjoyed made the transition especially difficult.

"In Egypt, we had pasha," Ozon says, taking a second to think of a translation for the word, which is roughly equivalent to the British title Lord. "We had kavod (honor)."

Eventually, Ozon married another Egyptian Jew. The couple had four children - two boys and two girls. But Ozon's troubles weren't over. Her husband died young, leaving her a widow and single mother at 35.

Ozon sighs and takes a sip of Turkish coffee. She says that her life story is too long and too complicated.

"I can't [tell] it in an hour or even two hours."

AN AMERICAN family comes in and asks for a menu. Ozon stands behind the counter, points to each pot, one-by-one, and ticks off contents on her fingers. The dishes vary according to the season, or day, as Ozon buys all of the ingredients fresh at the shouk every morning.

"And I don't make anything too spicy," Ozon adds. "I don't want to burn the tongue. I want people to taste the food."

The woman, a Hebrew-speaker, seems curious and engaged. Her husband, however, says he wants to eat somewhere else, then slumps in a chair and crosses his arm. Ozon gestures to him, her gold bangles tinkling on her arm, and asks "Why like this? Open here." And then she taps her own forehead.

His wife laughs and orders lunch.

Taking a seat at a table, Ozon explains that Egyptian Jewish food is unique from other varieties of Eastern cuisine. "The spices are totally different," she says. "We have a lot of food that resembles Turkish food. There are also a lot of sour flavors. There's not too much tomato sauce. And there's not a lot of oil."

"Moroccan food is too heavy," Ozon continues. "You don't see the food. All you see is oil."

Egyptian Jewish dishes, she says, are also lighter than their Arab counterparts.

"They [Egyptian Arabs] cook meat with cheese. We don't. It's not kosher," she explains.

Ozon points to the Egyptian Arabic use of rabbit as another difference.

"Oy yoi yoi," she says. "It's not kosher."

Despite the culinary differences, Ozon remarks, "We [Egyptian Jews] were very good with the Arab people until [King Farouk] left Egypt. After that, came Nasser who said bye-bye to the Jews."

After Nasser died and his successor, Sadat, made peace with Israel, Ozon visited Egypt seven times. She found her family's homes in terrible condition, as was the French school she'd attended as a child.

But Ozon was pleased to find that the synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in both Alexandria and Cairo were in excellent condition. For that, she would "like to tell [President] Mubarak thank you."

Ozon is done traveling to Egypt, she says. And she has no desire to leave Israel. But she remains eager to share Egyptian Jewish cuisine and culture with the restaurant's visitors - who she says are like children and grandchildren to her.

"Sometimes I don't have help here," Ozon says, "and they [customers] help me. They look at me like a grandmother."

Will Ozon, who just celebrated her 69th birthday and is a grandmother to eight, retire anytime soon?

Julie will stay open, Ozon says, "as long as God gives me the strength."

With the interview officially over, Ozon steers me back to the counter. She prepares a plate for me, adding a dash of sauce on the side of my rice.

"What's that?" I ask.

"Taste it," she responds. "And then you tell me what it is."

After a year spent at Ozon's side at the old Neveh Tzedek location, Ozon's daughter, Nava, opened another branch of Julie at 35 Ussishkin, Ramat Hasharon. Both Julies are open for lunch Sunday through Friday from 12:00 to 4:30.

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