The silver screen on a silver platter

A host of recent foodie films tackle Jewish and Israeli culinary senses – and so much more.

NAT AND Ayyash work in the bakery kitchen in ‘Dough.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
NAT AND Ayyash work in the bakery kitchen in ‘Dough.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
More than ever, audiences are hungry for a taste of culinary cinema – and filmmakers are delivering. Aside from recent blockbusters like Burnt, The Hundred-Foot Journey and Chef, documentary filmmakers are also salivating over the food world. And nowhere is food and cooking more central than in Jewish and Israeli cultures. A slew of recent movies have sought to tackle those culinary senses, and while they’re all incredibly different, a thread of family, continuity and tradition are threaded throughout.
In Streits: Matzo and the American Dream, audiences are led through the family history of an iconic brand.
The film, created by Michael Levine and Michael Green, starts off on an upbeat note, with cheerful workers toiling away in the Lower East Side factory that has operated for close to 100 years. The team is churning out matzo, the highly regulated, extremely well supervised, two-ingredient flatbread eaten on Passover (and occasionally throughout the year).
“People call up and say ‘what’s your recipe?’ – I say it’s in the Bible: flour and water,” said one of the descendants of founder Aron Streit, who still works in the business.
Indeed, after more than 100 years, Streit’s is still a family-run company, and still operating in the heart of the Lower East Side – at least, for the start of the film.
Because, as anyone following New York’s landscape or Jewish culinary news already knows, the clock had just about run out on Streit’s staying downtown. Running the factory of a nationally-distributed product in Manhattan in the 21st century just isn’t a recipe for longevity. And, as the film continues, the inevitable was shown – the historic icon was forced to sell, pack up, and move to upstate New York, so they could keep churning out crisp, crunchy matzo. Interspersing interviews with family members, factory workers and historians provided a glimpse not only of the company’s history, but a snapshot of the changing face of the Lower East Side, a story told repeatedly over the past decade or so. Still, Levine and Green offer a bittersweet but poignant look at the struggles of balancing family, tradition and modernity.
Bouncing to a completely different but no less iconic food, filmmaker Oren Rosenfeld set out to tackle the famed chickpea spread in Hummus: The Movie.
The film focuses mostly on three main characters who all deal in the hummus trade in Israel – a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew. Suheila, a Muslim woman in Acre, has devoted her life to selling hummus, after bailing her brothers out, winning a national award and feeding the hungry until her restaurant is entirely empty of food.
Jalil Dabit, a Christian from Ramle, is the third generation in a hummus dynasty in the city, but unsure of his dreams and his future. His father wants him to stay in the business, while he wants to follow his girlfriend to Berlin – but perhaps bring his love of hummus along.
Eliyahu Shmueli, a formerly secular now bearded Breslover family man, has had many iterations in life but now finds himself slinging hummus at a gas station joint in Yokneam. He is dedicated to the craft of the perfect hummus blend, but also wants to provide a good life for his wife and kids.
The film throws in a handful of supporting characters, from the Lebanese who claim hummus is theirs to a Benedictine monk in Abu Ghosh, an adjudicator from the Guinness Book of World Records and Yehoshua Sofer, a Jamaican-born rapper-about-hummus turned martial artist who is the reason Shmueli became religious. From Acre to Ramle, Yokneam, Beirut, Jerusalem and even Uman, the film is a mostly lighthearted, somewhat disjointed take on three distinct but ultimately similar tales.
In a much broader approach to Israeli food, Roger Sherman and Michael Solomonov tour the country In Search of Israeli Cuisine. Filmmaker Sherman partnered up with rising star chef Solomonov to serve as tour guide in the journey, seeking to answer the question: is there an Israeli cuisine? Solomonov, born in Israel and raised in the US, now runs Zahav in Philadelphia, where the chef seeks to honor the memory of his brother, David, who was killed during his IDF service in 2006.
Solomonov is an affable, curious and knowledgeable guide, and pulls together a slew of who’s who in Israeli food, from Meir Adoni to Uri Buri, Yisrael Aharoni, Asaf Granit, Eyal Shani, Haim Cohen, Janna Gur and more. He tours from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Kadesh Barnea, Ein Rafa, Acre and everywhere in between, asking everyone along the way where their food traditions came from.
The cinematography is beautiful, in large part because the vistas and cuisine of Israel are oh so photogenic.
Does he find an answer? While some say there is no real Israeli cuisine – at least not yet – Solomonov’s discoveries showcase an innovative food scene focused on playing on traditional dishes and the mix of cultures.
“All the people that have ended up [in Israel], from wherever they have – because essentially this entire place is transient,” said Solomonov, “bring with them all their cuisines and all their cultures and all their traditions.”
Indeed the tastes and dishes sampled along the way come from practically around the globe, from the Ashkenazi food of Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and more to the colorful cuisines of Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, Turkey and the rest of the Orient. Solomonov gets most excited at the dishes he finds chefs creating meshing these worlds together, taking centuries-old recipes and giving them a modern twist.
“In 50 years what are people going to be calling Israeli cuisine?” he asked in the film. “It’s only moving forward, always the future, what’s going to happen next... and to be able to do that and couple it with thousands of years of tradition.”
In Search of Israeli Cuisine will be making its Israeli debut at the Haifa International Film Festival in October and then at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival in December.
In a completely different culinary take, the feature film Dough tells the unlikely tale of a religious Jewish baker in London who takes on a teenage Muslim apprentice – with some fairly ridiculous hijinks ensuing.
Ayyash (Jerome Holder), a refugee from Darfur, is looking to make some quick money, and starts dealing pot out of the storefront... and later lacing the baked goods with it. Nat Dayan (Jonathan Pryce) is none the wiser until it all blows up, and the pair end up in a caper to save the bakery.
The film has some poignant moments, in particular the juxtaposition of the pair’s morning prayer rituals, as well as some humorous scenes. When Ayyash’s mother is trying to convince him to take the job at the bakery she cleans, he retorts: “You work for a Jew? I hear they bake with blood.” Later Ayyash sneaks a taste of some red food dye in the kitchen, able to put the rumor to rest.
When Nat talks to his landlady about her plans to sell, she tells him she’s looking to get out and go “where old Jews go to die.”
“Israel?” he asked. “Florida!” she replied.
But nothing made me laugh more than the scene where Nat and Ayyash are racing to escape from security guards at the office of their nemesis after taking back some of the tainted goods he’s planning to turn over to the police. After Ayyash can’t get the bathroom window open, Nat climbs up and uses “my trusty tool” – a kippa clip.
The film has its predictable sweet but cliched moments as well as some dark notes, a few serious plot holes and an almost too-happy ending.
But Nat’s desire to keep the family business running despite his son’s lack of interest in taking over brings the theme of all of these films back together – it’s more than just food.