An exercise in 'halla diplomacy' [p. 15]

How the sweet smell of baking bread won new friends for the Jews and Israel.

September 25, 2006 20:07
4 minute read.

During July and August, my husband and I vacationed on a somewhat isolated island in western Scotland. As the only Israeli couple on this small island, population 4,000, we became a source of information on the situation in Israel. Since coverage of the war by the BBC and other British media was quite biased, we found that neighbors and friends on the island were interested in hearing "our side" of the story. We did our best to explain Israel's position to many people who had never been to the Middle East and were somewhat vague about the history of the establishment of the State of Israel. While those discussions may have helped to "win hearts and minds," there is no doubt that something more tangible was more effective in gaining friends for the Jewish people: my homemade hallot. Since we were the only Jews (as far as we knew) on the island, I had no choice but to bake my own hallot each week for Shabbat, using a recipe from my daughter-in-law. I've received many compliments from Shabbat guests who have eaten these hallot, and I must admit that they are much tastier than anything produced by commercial bakers - and they look good, too. Invited to a neighbor's island vacation home for cocktails, I brought along a halla as a small gift. The guests all raved about this delicious bread and the host, a Catholic from Edinburgh, told me that he bakes bread regularly. With his family urging him to learn to make bread like mine, he asked if I would show him how. We arranged for him to join me in my kitchen the following Friday morning for a halla-baking tutorial. HE ARRIVED promptly, notebook in hand, and we began the process of proofing the yeast, mixing the ingredients by hand, kneading the dough and allowing for it to rise. As we worked together, we discussed the emotional and spiritual satisfaction that accompanies bread-making. After braiding the dough, brushing it with egg wash and sprinkling some of the loaves with poppy seeds and others with sesame seeds, we put them into the oven. Beaming with pride, George took his beautifully browned halla home. Next day he informed me that his wife, children and grandchildren had all raved about the halla and requested that he make it regularly as it was "the best bread we have ever eaten." A few days later another family arrived on the island for a two-week vacation. The husband and father, Ian, was a professional chef who taught catering at a university in southern England and has cooked in some of the finest restaurants in Europe. The Scottish-born Ian introduced himself, told me he had heard of my prowess in making hallot and asked if he could join me in my kitchen during my next baking session. This chef - who had catered the wedding of Prince Charles to Camilla - revealed that he had always wanted to learn how to make halla! We agreed to meet on Friday morning and Ian arrived with his two daughters, nine and 11. While the girls and I prepared the dough, Ian gave a mini-lecture on the role of yeast and the different ways of proofing it. It turned out that he had graduated from a French bread-making course and that in addition to being a professional chef, he was a professional baguette maker. As we braided the loaves we discussed Shabbat and how it is celebrated by observant Jews. And we photographed the girls as they took their beautiful, fragrant loaves home. A WEEK LATER a colleague of Ian's who was visiting the island - a well known London chef - informed me that she had heard about the delicious hallot baked by Ian's daughters. She had copied the recipe and was taking it back to London to share with her colleagues. The girls had illustrated their copy of the halla recipe with pictures of the Shabbat table, and affixed to it the photo of their hallot, making a colorful page that is now part of their vacation diary. Interestingly, while I was conducting halla-baking courses on an island in Scotland, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem was hosting a major exhibition on bread-making entitled "Bread: Daily and Divine." Among the many breads featured in the exhibit were varieties of hallot, with a wonderful explanation of the religious, cultural and traditional role of this bread in Jewish life. During August the museum held a "Bread Festival" which included bread-making and the opportunity to taste freshly made hallot. NOW I AM not a diplomat. I don't represent the Israeli government in any official capacity. But I am a Jewish woman who loves and cherishes her religious heritage and traditions. I also love my country, though I sometimes wish our political, military and religious leaders were more thoughtful about their public utterances. Diplomacy is an art that seems to be undervalued by many of those who today speak as representatives of Israel and the Jewish people. Their offhand, foot-in-the-mouth remarks are regularly quoted in the foreign press. There are many, many more Israelis like me who travel abroad regularly and meet people from different cultures, religions and traditions. Some of those we meet have been influenced by media reports of events in our part of the world. These reports are frequently misleading, and sometimes quite biased. While challenging their accuracy may be effective at times, I would like to suggest another approach. Intellectual debate may have its place, but my Scottish experience taught me that winning friends is more successful. Through baking hallot together, I made some new friends. I'm sure that each reader of this article has "diplomatic" talents to share with new acquaintances abroad. Call it "halla diplomacy." Maybe our Foreign Ministry could run a course for its employees. I'm willing to do my part by sharing my recipe. The writer, an international women's rights lawyer, is director of the International Jewish Women's Rights Project in Jerusalem.

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