Grapevine: India of the palate

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

By
July 9, 2019 21:30
Indian food

Indian food. (photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)

 
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One of the delights of diplomatic events and festivals that promote Asian and African culture and cuisine is that so many of those attending come in national dress. The Indian Culinary Festival that opened this week at the Sheraton Hotel in Tel Aviv was no exception. All of the Indian women who attended wore saris, each more eye-catching than the other, in a rich array of colors. The Sheraton waiters wore Indian tunics in different hues, and actor Dvir Benedek, who was master of ceremonies and who has a great affection for all things Indian, wore a full-scale black Indian outfit. 
 
It is said that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Indian celebrity chef Shipra Khanna, who found creative cooking to be her therapeutic solace while enduring several years of an abusive marriage, did not succeed in winning her husband’s heart, and eventually found the courage to leave. Her mother entered her daughter in India’s second MasterChef contest, which she won.

During the contest, competitors usually talk a little about their private lives, but Khanna was very reticent until it was announced that she was the winner, at which time she told her story, but in a carefully controlled voice, devoid of emotion. She became an instant example and inspiration for other women to follow, and was named by India Today as the youngest and one of the most glamorous chefs in the country. In fact, she quickly became a household name with her own TV shows, including Pure Sin, the first and the only cooking show in India that focused on desserts. In the interim she became a restaurateur, food consultant and cookbook author. She has three million followers on Instagram and two million on Facebook. In addition, she has her own YouTube Channel: Shipra’s Kitchen. 
 
Khanna’s celebrity status has enabled her to travel the world, and as she said on Monday night at the opening of the festival, it gives her the opportunity to meet with celebrity chefs in different countries and eat local food with ordinary people in those countries. This is her first visit to Israel, about which she is very excited. She has already sampled local restaurants and found the food to be “very good.” She also finds the people in Tel Aviv to be “amazingly friendly.” Indian Ambassador to Israel Pavan Kapoor said he’d been thinking for a long tie about having an Indian food festival, particularly because Indian cuisine varies from one region to another. When you think of Indian food, he said, it’s spices, aroma, color and diversity. Travelers who came to India looking for spices contributed their own input, thus Indian cuisine is an amalgamation of different culinary traditions.  Putting in a pitch for travel to India, Kapoor said it is now easier with direct flights to Delhi, and drew a laugh when he suggested that lovers of Indian food could go there for a weekend to eat a delicious meal. Visas to India are valid for one year, allow for multiple entry and can be obtained via a home computer, he added.  
 
Over the last year, there have been some 70,000 Indian visitors to Israel, but according to Tourism Ministry Director-General Amir Halevy, only 50,000 Israelis visited India, despite the fact that it is a favorite post-army service destination. Sheraton general manager Franco Vella quipped that before Israelis take the trip to India, many come to work at the Sheraton to earn the money for the fare. Before the invited guests were able to fill their plates with delicacies prepared by Khanna with the help of other Indian chefs, they watched a very authentic presentation of classical and Bollywood Indian dancing by Yael Tal and her team. A series of buffets with salads, cooked rice and vegetables, chicken, fish, savory sauces and tangy, super-spiced extras – plus, of course, the desserts for which Khanna is famous – contained sufficient variety to suit all tastes. Khanna will be giving a workshop on Indian cuisine to Israeli chefs this Thursday.
 
■ ON THURSDAY of last week, at the conclusion of the 30-day mourning period for his wife, Nechama Rivlin, President Reuven Rivlin, his family and their close friends, went to Mount Herzl to consecrate the tombstone and to place stones or pebbles on its surface.
 
Although many flowers were placed on the grave at Nechama Rivlin’s funeral last month, the family resorted to the traditional Jewish practice that goes back to Talmudic times and placed stones, or rather pebbles, on the grave. But these were not the usual pebbles. Inasmuch as possible, they were heart-shaped, and in some cases contained words of nostalgia for a much-loved wife, mother, grandmother and sister. The pebbles were prepared by artist Keren Spielsher, and many of them were decorated with small red hearts. The Talmud also mentions adding spices and twigs to the grave, and this too was done last Thursday, but less in line with the Talmud and more because Nechama Rivlin loved to plant herbs and spices. 
 
And so the earth around her tombstone was planted with thyme, sage, mint, rosemary and other herbs and spices that were her favorites. Later everyone went back to the garden that she had developed at the President’s Residence to read some of the poems that Nechama loved. There were also musical contributions to the private tribute by Mark Eliahu and Aviv Geffen. One of the songs Aviv sang with his son Dylan Geffen was The Beatles’ all-time favorite “Yesterday.”
 
In view of Nechama Rivlin’s great love for poetry, the Gardner Simon Prize for Hebrew Poetry, which was last year awarded for the first time, will this year be awarded in memory of Nechama Rivlin. The NIS 70,000 prize is conducted as a joint project of the administer-general’s department and the president’s office. Last year, it was Nechama Rivlin who presented the prize to Amichai Chasson, as well as NIS 10,000 runner-up prizes to Eli Eliyahu and Rita Kogan. Even before this year’s poetry award is made, a new prize in memory of Nechama Rivlin will be awarded this month at the 36th Jerusalem Film Festival. Nechama Rivlin attended the opening of last year’s Film Festival and presented a lifetime achievement award to cinematographer Yaron Scharf, who was also the cinematographer of the opening film The Unorthodox, which illustrated how the Shas Party had come to power. She sat next to Scharf in the audience, and planted a kiss on his cheek.
 
■ ISRAEL’S OFFICIAL policy is against discrimination and racism in any shape or form, but there are many racists in the country including in the police force. Where once they targeted people of North African background, today they are targeting sabras whose ancestry is in Ethiopia.
 
Last Friday morning, social justice and political activist Reuven Abergel – who spent his youth in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Musrara and in the early 1970s was one of the founders of the Black Panthers, a protest movement whose members were by and large born in Morocco – said the situation was much worse when he was a boy. In an interview on Reshet Bet with Emily Amrousi and Yuval Elbashan, Abergel said that just as dark-skinned young Israelis sitting together on a park bench are detained by police, when he was a boy, the situation was even worse because children were arrested simply on the basis of their ethnic origins.
 
Abergel was nine years old the first time he found himself behind bars in the police facility in the Russian Compound. Currently a peace activist who has close relations with like-minded Palestinians, and who defends the rights of African asylum-seekers, Abergel continues to lead protest demonstrations and to go on lecture tours abroad to explain the need for change. He told Amrousi and Elbashan that the media are partially responsible for attitudes toward Israelis of Ethiopian background because it keeps referring to them as Ethiopians even though they are fully fledged Israeli citizens, and who, if under the age of 30, were in all likelihood born in Israel and have served in the IDF. 
 
Elbashan is dean of the Law Faculty at Ono Academic College and chairman of the Pro-Bono National Program of the Israel Bar Association. He has long been involved in matters of social rights, and is particularly incensed by the targeting of dark-skinned citizens. He mentioned a case in which three of his students were sitting on a bench minding their own business when they were targeted by a police officer. Abergel could have told an even worse story. For more than 20 years, the Israeli government denied him a passport, claiming that he was not a legal citizen of Israel.
 
Even though many Israelis of North African background have risen to high-ranking positions in politics, academia, law, business, sport and entertainment, in some places there is still an inbred antagonism toward them. There are those who share stories of applying for jobs under their own names in response to which they are informed that the position has already been filled. Then they send another application using a fictitious Ashkenazi name and an appointment is made for an interview. The same goes for Arab citizens who may be highly qualified, but whose ethnic and religious affiliation closes doors to them.
 
Jews with racist tendencies who have named their daughters Tziporah, after the wife of Moses, may not be aware that she was black. The color of her skin did not bother Moses. Likewise, the complexion of the Queen of Sheba did not bother King Solomon. Why should it bother anyone? People have differently colored hair and eyes, and that’s perfectly acceptable. Why should attitudes toward skin color be any different?
 
■ IN DECEMBER of this year, The Jerusalem Post will celebrate its 87th anniversary. One of its veteran readers, Anna Feit, née Karp, celebrates her 89th birthday on July 10, and may well hold the record for having the longest relationship with the paper. Her family subscribed to the Post from day one, and she can remember leafing through it before she could even read. In those days it was called The Palestine Post, and it was delivered by mail to her family’s home in Brooklyn, New York. Once she was able to read, she remembers discussing the news items and photographs with her parents. 
 
In those days, of course, there was no color and the photographs were in black and white and somewhat grainy. The name-change of the paper came after the establishment of the State of Israel. 
 
Feit has not only been a faithful reader of the paper for all these years, but she also befriended one of its editors, the late Ari Rath, who died two-and-a-half years ago at the age of 92. Feit made the first of many visits to Israel in 1949, while still single. She has numerous relatives and friends throughout the country. In 1952, she married Polish-born Dov Feit. During the Holocaust, he had come to the Land of Israel with the large group of Polish refugee children known as the Tehran Children who had initially found refuge in the USSR, but after the Nazi bombardment of Russia were among 24,000 Poles – both Jews and non-Jews – who were given free passage through what was then Persia, by the shah. Of these refugees, there were approximately 1,000 Jewish children ages 2-18, most of them orphans, temporarily stationed in Tehran. Living in tents for some six months, they were supported by the Jewish Agency and Hadassah, the Zionist Women’s Organization of America. Traveling by truck, ship and on foot, they eventually arrived in what was then Palestine in February 1943. Dov Feit joined the Hagana, served in the Givati Brigade and was part of the Shualei Shimshon commando unit. He was decorated for bravery in 1948. After the war, he went to America and met his future bride on a beach in Brooklyn. The couple had three children, Mark, Sharon and David.
 
Dov Feit set up a successful paper-goods business and died in April 2003, after being attacked by a robber as he returned to his office with a substantial cash payroll for his workers.
 
Anna Feit is fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. She loves Jewish cultural activities, music and reading The Jerusalem Post. We don’t send birthday greetings to all readers, but under the circumstances, Anna Feit is a special case, and we’ll be delighted this time next year to join her in blowing out the candles on her cake on her 90th birthday. Meanwhile, if there are any other readers who have been subscribers since the beginning, we’d be delighted if they let us know.
 
■ WITH REGARD to Polish Jews, there is a certain irony in the fact that Kibbutz Negba, which on Thursday of this week will hold its 80th anniversary celebration, was founded by Polish Jews in July 1939. On September 1, 1939, a few days short of two months after the establishment of Negba, Poland was invaded by the Nazis, who deliberately chose Polish soil on which to carry out the worst atrocities known to mankind. Eighty years later, Poland has not yet recovered. There are still people who talk of Polish concentration camps when they were in fact German concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. 
 
Notwithstanding “roots” trips, Jews around the world were for decades urged by both religious and secular leaders not to visit Poland because, they said, it was the largest cemetery in the world. Yes, there were individual Poles, quite a lot of them in fact, who aided and abetted the Nazis, or simply went on killing sprees against Jews for reasons born out of blood libels, hate and greed. But there were also thousands of Poles who risked their lives and often paid with their lives and those of their loved ones in the humanitarian effort to save Jews and others who were targeted for extermination by the Nazis. Every story has more than one side to it.
 
■ AT THE President’s Residence last week, a large number of hands shot up in the air, turning backwards and forwards in silent, sign-language applause as Nimrod Moran, one of the recipients of the President’s Prize for Volunteerism, mounted the stage. Moran, 34, was born deaf. This did not stop him from volunteering for the IDF or getting degrees in computer science and business administration. Realizing from his own experience that the deaf were unable to enjoy many cultural activities, he worked toward making more cultural activities accessible to the deaf and to people with other disabilities. In this capacity, he works closely with the Ruderman Foundation, which is dedicated to the inclusiveness in mainstream society – both socially and in the work force – of people with disabilities. 
 
Since its establishment by the government in 1972, the National Council for Volunteerism in conjunction with the president of Israel, has annually brought to public attention individuals and organizations or institutions who are considered to be the best of the best in certain categories. Most are anonymous outside of the spheres in which they operate, but they represent every sector of Israel’s demographic mosaic, and collectively demonstrate the goodwill of so many Israelis.
 
■ MANY URGENT issues are left unattended for lack of budget and human resources. In fact, the human resources are there, but the means for tracking them down and attracting them have not been properly developed. Thousands of retirees in Israel would be willing to take up the challenges of some of these unattended issues if they were aware of their existence. There should be a multi-lingual Internet site listing manpower needs by category and location so that would-be volunteers can see what suits them best, and for what they are most qualified. For instance, there is a shortage of trained kindergarten teachers because veteran kindergarten teachers are forced to retire when they reach a certain age.  
 
Many do so tearfully because they love their work and would be willing to return on a pro bono basis, providing their expenses are paid. It doesn’t take too much effort to establish such a system in cooperation with local authorities, government ministries and philanthropic foundations. The mind boggles at how much good could be achieved if only the government could get its act together to determine what it can do and what it can’t in terms of urgent needs, and make this information generally known so that volunteers can fill in the gaps in more areas than civilian national service instead of the army.    
 
■ READERS WHO on Fridays instinctively turn to the back page of The Jerusalem Post to read editor-in-chief Yaakov Katz’s column, will have an opportunity to see and listen to him live on Thursday evening, July 18, at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem. He will be joined by former prime minister Ehud Olmert in discussing Katz’s new book Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power. In this, Katz’s third book, he reveals the previously untold story behind the 2007 bombing of Syria’s nuclear reactor. Katz’s first book, Israel vs. Iran: The Shadow War, was written together with Yoaz Hendel; and his second, The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower, was written together with Amir Bohbot. Katz’s third book is a solo effort. It should be remembered that long before he was an editor, Katz was a military reporter, and he has retained an abiding interest in military matters ever since.
 
In view of his conviction and sentence to a term in prison, some readers have objected to the Post including Olmert among its line-up of speakers at its conferences. First of all, Olmert has paid his debt to society. Second of all, and perhaps more important, he was prime minister during one of the crucial periods in Israel’s history, and with regard to Katz’s book, Olmert was the prime minister who gave the nod to the bombing of Syria’s nuclear reactor.
 
Israel currently faces a nuclear threat from Iran, which may explain why the conversation between Katz and Olmert is being moderated by Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer, who has also reported on military, Jewish and international affairs, including the Iran nuclear deal. Last year, he published Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, and as anyone who is a news junkie knows, Iran’s nuclear capability is Bibi’s pet subject. 
 
Because one’s perspective is often governed by one’s background, this should prove to be an extremely interesting evening. Olmert is a sabra, Katz was born in the United States, and Pfeffer in England.
 
■ JERUSALEM IS a city in flux. Wherever one goes, one can see signs of both construction and destruction. Old buildings, once regarded as city landmarks, are destroyed to make way for new residential, commercial and/or office towers rising ever higher to block out long-distance horizons. Legendary mayor Teddy Kollek did most of his building of the city on wasteland. His successor, Ehud Olmert, changed the skyline by giving the green light to the controversial Holy Land residential project, the misplaced Calatrava Bridge of Strings, as well as allowing luxury residences and shops to be built on the site that had once been the soccer stadium of the YMCA. But he didn’t do much else to alter the face of the city, or more accurately the skyline. 
 
Then came Nir Barkat, who wanted to supersede the Kollek legacy and introduced numerous construction projects including the Jerusalem Light Rail, and the contentious Gateway to Jerusalem that will cause great discomfort to residents and visitors alike for the coming three years if not longer. Current Mayor Moshe Lion, who succeeded Barkat, is even more ambitious and plans to give the city an exceedingly widespread face lift, including in places that don’t really need it. There was nothing wrong with Safra Square which is part of the City Hall complex, but a great deal of money was spent in revamping it. 
 
Now, to the consternation of the Society for the Conservation of Israeli Historical Sites, there is a plan afoot to destroy what is known in Hebrew as Gan Daniel, the Daniel Garden near the entrance to Safra Square, and to replace it with another kind of public space that will include a garden. Gan Daniel was named for Daniel Auster, the first Jewish mayor of Jerusalem, the last mayor of Jerusalem under the British Mandate, and the first under the State of Israel. Meanwhile in Afula, Gan Sonia, which the City Council had planned to demolish to make way for a residential high rise, has been saved by the intervention of numerous senior citizens. Unlike Gan Daniel, Gan Sonia is not a public garden, but a kindergarten, established 84 years ago in her apartment by Sonia Rabinowitz who was Afula’s first kindergarten teacher. The kindergarten still functions.
 
■ IN LAST Wednesday’s Grapevine, there was an item about the record number of legislators who are members of the LGBT community, coupled with mentions of former legislators who were also part of the community. Former MKs Merav Ben Ari of Kulanu and Michal Biran of the Zionist Union were erroneously mentioned in the latter context. While both are sympathetic to the rights of the LGBT community, and the father of Biran’s child is gay, the two women are in fact heterosexual. We apologize for the error. 
 
greerfc@gmail.com

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