The heart of a home

Ruth Sirkis and her family moved into the Ramat Aviv house 30 years ago.

The heart of the home (photo credit: URIEL MESSA)
The heart of the home
(photo credit: URIEL MESSA)
There probably isn’t a household in Israel that doesn’t have a Ruth Sirkis cookbook on its shelves. She is the person who pioneered the idea of introducing different and exotic foods to Israel back in the ’60s, when every community stuck to its own ethnic recipes and crème Bavaria was considered the height of sophistication.
She and her husband, Rafi, an engineer, spent several years abroad – first in Boston, where he completed his studies, and later in Los Angeles, where he served in the diplomatic corps. Sirkis, who qualified as a social worker, used the time abroad to learn about new foods and their preparation, bowled over by the colorful magazines and books that were available in the States but had not yet reached Israel.
“I saw it was something interesting and intellectual,” she recalls. “I have an analytical, academic approach to food.”
The four years spent in Los Angeles, besides nurturing a lifelong interest in food preparation, also influenced her in the building of that Ramat Aviv house to which the family moved 30 years ago.
“In California, we rented a home from a professor for a few months, and I saw how the kitchen was the heart of the home. They even had a sofa and television in there and the whole family would spend more time in that room than anywhere else.”
The Sirkis kitchen is certainly the dominant place in her home, as one would expect. It’s huge and was created by “borrowing” some space from the dining room and incorporating a large service balcony.
One side is for cooking while the other serves as her study, with a computer set up on a wooden desk, a fax machine and printer perched on wooden shelves. In the middle is an island with an extra hob and water supply.
“The builders were very confused when I told them what I wanted,” she says. “I also insisted on different textures, so instead of marble I put ceramic tiles on the work tops, while the island is made from a huge piece of butcher’s block wood which we had to have specially cut by a wholesale wood supplier in south Tel Aviv.”
At the end of the island is a pull-out Carrera marble slab, which is just for rolling out dough.
The cabinets are all slightly higher than usual, to accommodate the fact that she is quite tall. A skylight enables plenty of natural light, which is important, as it is here that she prepares and photographs the food that will go into her cookbooks.
The wooden cabinets have been supplemented by plastic containers to store all the items she needs, so while this is hardly a show kitchen in the true sense of the word, it is certainly practical and user-friendly.
All the furniture in the living and dining room came from California, which is why, she suggests, there is a slight Spanish influence to some of it – especially the sofa with its carved wooden sides. The coffee table was built by Rafi from a carved Indian door. There is a tiny patio off the lounge. Paved in terra cotta and secluded from the neighbors by towering and lush vegetation, this is where they like to eat out on cooler evenings.
ALTHOUGH SHE always tries to have at least one arrangement of fresh flowers in the house, she sees no problem in having good quality artificial flowers as decoration.
The lounge is also full of small souvenirs from their many travels.
“I don’t feel as though I have to make an impression with my house,” she says.
“I just want to feel good and comfortable in it.”
The story of how Ruth Sirkis got into cookbook publishing is a fascinating peep into the lifestyle of Israelis back in the ’60s.
“We came back from the US and I was working full-time as a social worker at the Helen Keller Institute,” she recalls. “I used to prepare the special foods I’d learnt to do in America for my friends, and Rafi would actually photograph them. There was no television in those days so sometimes we would do a slide show and I would talk about the food and then we would all eat it. One of our friends, a publisher, said ‘you’ve got a book here.’ “We went to Ma’ariv with our idea of a book on food and entertaining and we were told that there was a recession and people would not have money for food, let alone a book on food. But they sent us downstairs to where the At magazine was just being launched – with Tommy Lapid as the editor. He had just come back from three years in London, where he’d also been exposed to food publishing – and he gave us the go-ahead.”
For years Ruth wrote a food column in At, and she also a syndicated column when they went back to the States. Her first two cookbooks were published in English, and I still consult my well-thumbed and bespattered A Taste of Tradition when I want an uncomplicated recipe for some basic Jewish dish.
She has come a long way since those early days – writing books on many different exotic cuisines – and she is also updating her best-selling From the Kitchen with Love, which came out in 1975. In the future, she feels the emphasis is going to be more on health foods; She is determined to keep up with the times.