The house of magic and miracles

Good food and family togetherness on Friday night are an unbeatable combination – especially if you had no home to speak of before.

Shanti house kitchen (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shanti house kitchen
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When you expect 75 to 100 people to sit down to Kabbalat Shabbat dinner, everyone needs to pitch in. On Fridays at both Shanti Houses – the original Beit Hashanti in Tel Aviv and the newer Desert Shanti in the Negev – the entire household of teenagers scurries around, cleaning, scrubbing, helping with the cooking, making the halla, setting the tables, readying the candles.
At sunset, with the house shining, the dishes sparkling and enticing aromas wafting over everything, the candles are lit and the 45 or so residents, together with all the guests, gather around for an enthusiastic singing of “Shalom Aleichem.“ For the group of 14- to 21-year-olds, this traditional Friday night song welcoming the protective Shabbat angels holds special meaning.
For most of their young lives, these kids have lived without much protection, angelic or otherwise. Some of them were homeless, living on the streets. Others were sexually abused, orphaned, neglected by their parents or kicked out of the family home when one parent or the other remarried. For many, Shanti House is the first real home they’ve ever known, the first family life they’ve experienced, the first time they’ve felt protected.
As the dinner proceeds, the warmth and sociability permeate everything, making each person feel loved and valued. It’s no wonder Friday night dinner is something they all look forward to.
Today, both Beit Hashanti and Desert Shanti stand apart, distinguished by dramatic architecture, soaring ceilings, vivid color schemes and furnishings specially designed for kid appeal.
“It wasn’t always like this,” says Shanti House founder and CEO Mariuma Ben-Yosef. “It began in Tel Aviv about 25 years ago, when I started making Friday night dinners for people who didn’t have anything to eat.
“Back in 1984, there were lots of homeless people, many of them teenagers, but few places existed for children at risk – that began only in the 1990s. So I started making a meal with whatever food I had or could find.
“I owned four pots. If I had two pounds of chicken, two pounds of rice and a big pile of salvaged – and mostly overripe – tomatoes, I could make a dinner that would feed five people – or 50. It was almost magic, because no matter how many people came, everyone went away satisfied.
“How did we do it? Because what we were really offering was the warmth of a family meal, coupled with the spice of Shabbat. The Kabbalat Shabbat dinner became the high point of everyone’s week, and in between Sabbaths, many of the homeless kids would stick close. That was the beginning of Shanti House.”
The early days were lean. “Sometimes on Friday morning I’d realize we had almost nothing for dinner,” Ben- Yosef recalls, adding that at age 13 she herself had been forced to leave her Boston home and spent two homeless years sleeping in parks until her mother found her and sent her to a boarding school in Kfar Saba.
“I had some bad times, but that’s what gave me the inner strength to help these kids at Shanti,” she says.
“So on those Friday mornings when the cupboards were bare, I’d get everyone together and we’d walk to the Carmel Market. We’d gather up all the food that had been discarded because it wasn’t fit to sell, and from that, we’d make our Shabbat meal.
“Miracles happened, too – sometimes freshly baked cakes and fresh fish found their way to our table.
“I know what it’s like to have nothing, so that’s one of the big lessons at Shanti House: never take anything for granted. Every day we must say thanks for all we have been given.”
To say thanks is one reason behind the publication of the new Shanti House book Not by Food Alone: Recipes and Tales from the Shabbat Table at Shanti House.
WITH EDITIONS in Hebrew and English, the 108-page book devotes two full pages to each of the 54 weekly Torah readings, offering not just recipes but exquisite photos of the food, of Shanti House, of staff and residents, all taken by several of Israel’s top photographers, who volunteered their services.
The glorious color photos – the kind of thing that characterized Gourmet magazine – serve not just as art, but are designed to be helpful by showing many of the dishes during preparation, and how they look when finished.
The kosher recipes, at least two per Shabbat, represent a compendium of food served at Shanti House as prepared by over 30 professional chefs who donated their time and talent.
Aviv Moshe from Messa offers four different kinds of salads – Roasted Hot Pepper Salad and Greek Eggplant Salad among them – while Israel Aharoni tells how he makes Citrus Chicken Thighs, in addition to a luscious Liver with Onion Jam concoction.
Many other recipes come from volunteers such as Shanti House’s “honorary grandmother,” Ora Ben-Yosef, whose Roast Chicken dish remains, by popular demand, a Friday night standard.
“When I first started to think about this project, my plan was that we’d use only my recipes,” Mariuma says.
“But I only know how to cook for 50 or 60 people, so that was a problem. Then an amazing woman came to my rescue.
“Michal Moses, one of Israel’s best-known chefs and food editors, considered our project and suggested we broaden the scope to also use some of the recipes our famous chefs have prepared for Shanti House. So we added their recipes as well.”
Many of the main course recipes – like Meir Adoni’s Nile Perch in Tomato, Pepper, Eggplant and Chickpea Sauce – come with accompanying side dishes, in this case, a Swiss chard salad with a spicy yoghurt dressing.
Photography and delectable recipes aside, what might appeal most to many readers are the stories – a weekly tradition at every Kabbalat Shabbat dinner.
“The stories started in 2005, soon after Michael came to work at Shanti House as my assistant,” Mariuma recalls.
“Every Friday, he’d see me talking to the kids during the meal until he decided he wanted to add something unique to the Shabbat meal himself.
“He started to search books and the Internet for stories and folktales that had a meaning, a lesson in life. He began telling one little meaningful tale each Friday.
“Some of the stories are just a few paragraphs, and there’s no intentional correlation to the Torah reading for the week. Instead, Michael recalls what’s been going on during the week, and uses his intuition to choose a story that relates to what the kids need to hear at that particular time.
“The stories became a huge hit – the kids can’t wait to hear what tale he’d tell that week.
“I probably should add that three years ago, Michael and I were married – so Michael is more than just a storyteller, he’s my husband!
“The stories come from all over the world and range from ancient to very contemporary. While a few are recognizable as hassidic tales, many involve young people, such as the one in which a young boy throws a brick at a new sports car, breaking the window. As the car driver rages at the child, the tearful boy admits to throwing the brick, but says he did it because he needed help. His brother had fallen out of his wheelchair and he was unable to put him back by himself.
“After helping the brother back into the wheelchair, the sports car driver drives away – but he never repairs his window, choosing to leave it as a reminder that he should never be so busy that someone has to throw a brick to get his attention.
“God whispers to us,” Michael concludes. “But it we don’t hear Him, He might just throw a brick, too, if that’s what it takes to get our attention.”
One of the more contemporary stories tells how Stanford University came to be built.
“After the death of their son, Jane and Leland Stanford went to see the president of Harvard University, where Leland, Jr. had studied for a year. They wanted to build a memorial in his honor.
“Unfortunately, the president of Harvard didn’t recognize his California visitors and apparently had no idea of their wealth. With great condescension, he suggested it would be ridiculous to think they could donate the $7.5 million a building would cost.
“Is that how much a university building costs?” Jane Stanford asked. Assured that it was, she turned to Leland and said, “They why don’t we just build our own university?” Leland nodded assent, and Stanford University was born.
The lesson? “We shouldn’t be too quick to judge others,” Michael concludes.
Shanti House’s other objective in publishing Not by Food Alone was to stress the importance of family togetherness on Friday night, Mariuma notes.
“We want people to understand that Friday night dinner is for the family, when everyone can sit down together, relax, eat delicious foods and enjoy each other’s company. Food and togetherness hugs you – it makes you ready for the week.
“We hope our book will help bring families closer together – and, of course, by buying the book, people will help the Shanti House family, too,” says Mariuma. “We survive mainly by donations.”
‘Not by Food Alone’ is available from Shanti House, tel. (03) 510-3339, for a donation to Beit Hashanti of NIS 140 (two books for NIS 200).