Sweet stories of Jerusalem

TV personality Gil Hovav’s memoir of youth in the capital can now bring joy to English-speaking audiences.

CARTOON by Noam Nadav  (photo credit: NOAM NADAV)
CARTOON by Noam Nadav
(photo credit: NOAM NADAV)
Gil Hovav is a consummate storyteller. The journalist, writer and well-known food personality has plenty of tales to tell, recipes to share and jokes to make. And his latest work, Candies from Heaven, which details his eventful and irreverent childhood in Jerusalem, has just been translated into English by Ira Moskowitz to delight an even wider audience.
Hovav comes from some serious stock. His great-grandfather was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the man considered the patriarch of modern Hebrew. His grandfather, Itamar Ben-Avi, was one of Israel’s first serious journalists. And his parents, Moshe and Drora Hovav, were pioneers of Israeli radio.
And while his many illustrious family members do play a role in Candies from Heaven, a collection of narrative stories from his preteen days, one character stands out most prominently: his Mooma. Hovav’s grandmother, his mother’s mother – Leah – lived with the family after her husband died 20 years before Gil was born.
From story to story, the young Gil, who paints himself as undersized and not all that bright or sociable, seeks out the love and comfort of his beloved Mooma.
Hovav’s stories are sweet and loosely connected; a series of intertwined tales of life through the eyes of a young boy. Indeed, the book has a childlike tone; it’s not exactly high literature. In fact, it would certainly be a good read for a young adult or a burgeoning English reader. The book is sprinkled with fun and sweet illustrations by Noam Nadav, which extend the whimsical feel. Every chapter is also bookended with a recipe linked to the story within, encapsulating the culinary tastes of the time. Hovav, best known for his cookbooks and culinary TV shows, holds enough nostalgia for the foods of his youth to make dishes like pickled cucumbers, slow-cooked eggs, porridge and carrot salad sound exciting.
And just like a child’s point of view, the stories can be fanciful and silly. The details in each tale, recalled by Hovav more than 45 years later, might not be completely faithful to the truth. And of course that goes double for stories he heard second- and third-hand from his ancestors. Did his grandmother and great aunts, the children of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, really accidentally mix up the Hebrew words for melody (mangina) and orchestra (tizmoret)? Maybe, maybe not.
But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. Candies from Heaven is not a journalistic, reported tome, it’s a love story from a young boy to the people who raised him and the place he called home. He tells of his grandmother making trays upon trays of burekas each week for the “Sephardi underground.” Or the summers he would go with his brother to the movie theater, and bring an umbrella – not for the weather, but because the other boys would urinate off the balcony. Hovav talks about discovering that his mother was married not once, but twice, before she met his father - first to a Christian from New Jersey and then to another non-Jew, a French archeologist. He writes about losing all his pocket money to his mother in a poker game, then getting a secret summer job to make it back: hiding the dent his mother made in the car from his father. But the life lessons from Mooma make up the backbone of this book, as she strove to teach him what is important in life and how to treat others. In one tale, the two of them go to the center of town on an errand and make sure to give money to a beggar on the street.
“Always remember: Even after I’m gone and you’ve grown up and become a successful and important man, always be the first to greet every person, especially simple people,” Mooma told him. “They need your greeting more. And don’t pass a beggar on the street without giving. Understand? It’s forbidden, kudilo, forbidden! I won’t allow it!”
Hovav’s beloved Mooma may be long gone, but she lives on vibrantly in the pages of Candies from Heaven.