My husband has a gag record called “What I Like About Jew,” which he now plays exclusively on Jewish holidays. One track features a pop culture-garbled recounting of Jewish history that wickedly sums up the format of holiday celebrations thus: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” This funny and apt conflation of food and history came to mind while I watched Roger Sherman’s new documentary, In Search of Israeli Cuisine. The film follows Pittsburgh-based, James Beard award-winning chef Michael Solomonov as he travels the length and breadth of Israel trying to nail down a definition of a food influenced by a diaspora that spanned the former Soviet Union, Europe, the Middle East and beyond.
In Search of Israeli Cuisine is one of three food-related films featured at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which runs July 21 through August 7, 2016 at locations across the Bay. The others stick to subjects that are obvious, matzo, and fascinatingly controversial, hummus. All three films are really fun and enlightening, each in its own way.
My favorite by far is In Search of Israeli Cuisine, mostly because it contains so many twists as Solomonov delves deep into Jewish cooking traditions and the fascinating histories with which they are freighted. He notes the country itself is the size of New Jersey but contains multitudes: a long coastline, a mountainous region, the desert, a religious capital and a secular center. Israel somehow brings together the contradictory impulses of old and new within its food, the observations of ancient traditions and practices alongside the fusion of ingredients, spices and techniques from around the world.
The film visits world-class chefs in gorgeous settings who are serving up fresh local ingredients to an appreciative population. Interestingly, the country’s food boom has only occurred within the last few decades. Many of the chefs interviewed attribute this to survivor guilt, but it may also be a function of newfound affluence. Food as a lifestyle is a recent luxury and modern Israelis are working hard to reverse some of the practices and misconceptions about food (and wine) that formed during the country’s infancy.
Israel has both an ancient history and a short one. The Jewish culture, alongside the Arabs, can be regionally traced back to the beginning of recorded history, while the state is only in its late sixties. That recent history is infused with a peasant mentality imported from the old world that the population is struggling to shed. Naturally, the transported culture was powerfully connected to food, its ingredients, traditions, preparation and signification.
In a scant ninety-seven minutes, Sherman and Solomonov unpack a whole range of messy and fascinating truths about food in general and the Israeli relationship to it in particular. Every piece of food Solomonov puts into his mouth comes with a complex backstory often involving family, history, tradition and struggle.
Most chefs cite their grandmothers as their leading influence, crediting their decision to cook for others to a nostalgia for the comforting tastes of their youth. A great question then is what happens in the kitchen when Moroccan and Polish Jews marry? When a Jew whose grandmother grew up in Europe joins forces with one whose family emigrated from Iraq? Ashkenazi dishes, spices (or the apparent lack thereof) and ingredients go head to head with the items and practices found in a Sephardic kitchen. And along with this comes controversy. Many of the dishes that are considered as necessarily central to any definition of Israeli cuisine are also powerfully connected to Arab traditions.
Not the least of which is hummus. I love the tagline for Hummus! The Movie: “It unites. It divides. It’s delicious.” That pretty much captures the film’s irreverent tone and the array of colorful characters it lovingly captures. Centered on three chefs from three different regions of Israel, Hummus! tells their personal stories intimately with a loving humor. My favorite character is Suheila Al Hindi, a Muslim woman who devoted her life to the family restaurant following the death of her father. She exhibits a quiet confidence while cooking that you can tell flavors her hummus with care and makes her restaurant a popular destination.
We also follow Jalil Dabit, a restaurateur who is going through a life-defining transition trying to modernize his father’s business and strike out on his own.
The most colorful characters appear in Eliyahu Shmueli’s story. A tattoo-covered vagabond, Shmueli struggles to keep his restaurant kosher and studies martial arts under the tutelage of a Jamaican-born black belt and hip hop musician who is famous for a rap about how “hummus makes you stupid.” Oh, and there is also an order of Benedictine monks and a contest with Lebanon to produce the world’s largest plate of hummus.
Finally, Streit’s Matzo and the American Dream tells the story of a matzo factory located on New York City’s Lower East Side since 1925. The factory and the business have remained in the Streit family for generations, though the film chronicles its recent battle with the brutal forces of Manhattan gentrification. There is a fascinating section in the center of this film that shows how special ovens built specifically for the factory are believed to contribute to the Streit brand’s unique flavor. The building, located on Rivington street, was formed from the joining of two tenements. The ovens were built in place to fit the space. We see how assiduously these aging pieces of vital equipment are monitored to control the bread’s color and crispness. While considering their limited options as the ovens begin to fail (new parts are unavailable and must be specially tooled at great cost), the remaining family members worry that relocating their business will also mean losing their distinctive taste. They also fear they will lose the workforce that has produced a quality product for, in most cases, the last forty years.
This is a lovely portrait of a dying breed, the family business in the age of the global conglomerate.
And I didn’t even get to tell you about the most interesting thing I learned about ancient Nabatene practices for capturing flood waters in the desert. I guess you will have to go and see these films for yourself.
The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens Thursday, July 21 at the Castro Theatre with Daniel Burman’s romantic comedy, The Tenth Man and runs through August 7, 2016 at various Bay Area locations. For tickets and information, visit sfjff36.jfi.org.