Jerusalem: Black Bar ‘n’ Burger

It isn’t the physical goodbye hug that’s difficult. It isn’t the sending off. It’s the acknowledgement that a chapter ended, an event is over, an experience cannot be exactly replicated. Saying goodbye is never easy, especially when you enjoy the people and the place.

Saying goodbye is never fun. So what better way to do that than over food. Over surprisingly good burgers at Black Bar ‘n’ Burger, my program had its last meeting together. The burger was large but still cooked perfectly medium. The meat was good, but sauces made the difference. There was a garlic aioli that went perfectly with the burger and actual barbecue sauce(!!). I know this is incredibly American, but I love barbecue sauce and unfortunately have not been able to find it in this country. There it was, just sitting on the table. The fries were crispy with a soft middle, just the way they should be. 

It was incredible to look around the tables and see everyone together. A group of initial strangers came out sharing a meal, talking about the meal, passing fries and sauces, discussing favorite and funny memories, sitting down like a group of old friends. If only for these twos months, that’s still quite an accomplishment. We had our own thoughts, opinions, internships, and experiences but we came together as a group. Together, with the last meal we acknowledged the end.

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These past two months were amazing. I learned more about myself than I expected and I know I’ve grown as an individual. I joined a group with people (mostly younger than me) and learned oft-forgotten lessons from them too, like don’t forget to have fun. I saw several different places in Israel, witnessed the multi-cultural Israeli society, and experienced a country in deep-rooted conflict.  

These past two months were not without challenges: meeting 54 strangers, interacting with teenagers at work without a common language, figuring out a different society and culture, experiencing rocket sirens, watching a society cope with loss. As I recently joked, living here was a struggle. Of course there was a lot of fun, but living in Israel, and in Jerusalem especially, can be a struggle–to learn, grow, and think. It’s a place to experience.

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Jerusalem: Tzidkiyahu

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long, but I realized I’ve missed one crucial Israeli food group: shwarma. No, it’s not actually a food group—it’s a dish, wrap, or pita meal—but it might as well have its own category here. The signature vertical spits are everywhere, especially if you walk around Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem.

Shwarma is a type of meat placed on a vertical rotating spit with about half of the spit touched by heat. I’ve only encountered chicken, lamb, and turkey shwarma, but I’m sure there are more varieties. During the rotating process, the outside of the spit gets grilled slowly, resulting in deliciously juicy meat. You can usually watch the flavor drip down.

When someone orders shwarma, the restaurant takes an electric meat shaver and runs it down the sides of the spit, dropping pure deliciousness into a metal “dustpan.” The incredibly good places then grill the meat to bring out any extra flavor. The meat then goes into a pita or laffa (an Israeli thick and soft tortilla) with all the normal toppings: hummus, tahini, cabbage, Israeli salad, and onions. Tada! That’s shwarma.

Disclaimer: These shwarma spits are not from Tzidkiyahu. They are from one of the hundreds of other places I've tasted.

Disclaimer: These shwarma spits are not from Tzidkiyahu. They are from one of the hundreds of other places I’ve tasted.

On Wednesday, I went with one other person from my group and my madrichim (the Israelis who helped guide the program) to a place called Tzidkiyahu in Talpiyot, Jerusalem. There they do simple things to make their shwarma different and even more delicious. First, they place an onion on the top of the spit, so as the meat cooks, the onion juices drip down into the meat. Second, the meat was spiced differently than at other places. There is a generic “shwarma spice” here available in the supermarket, but this meat was different. Maybe it was more cumin or more paprika? I’m not going to pretend to know the exact spice difference. All I know is that it was damn good.

Tzidkiyahu’s own spin on a classic was a good reminder for me. Shwarma is everywhere and exists in some variation in several cultures (Turkish döner kebabs and Greek gyros), but it’s still uniquely Israeli. And Tzidkiyahu was able to make it uniquely their own.

As my time in Israel starts to come to an end, I keep thinking about the endless number of stories, events, and sights. I keep thinking about this amazing time here coupled with the looming questions still unanswered. And I keep thinking about how to continue to make my experience here uniquely my own.

I’m sure about the exact spices, the next steps, the experiences to come, but I do know that this trip was amazing and tiring, fun and challenging, eye opening and challenging.

I hope for more experiences like this. For more opportunities to develop my own spin and story. For more chances to explore and learn and develop. Maybe then I’ll have my own spice—one uniquely my own.

Jerusalem: My Apartment Building

Sometimes food is an escape. A break from all the other things going on. A time warp that pauses the chaos.

This Friday night I organized and coordinated a big dinner for 27 people from my program here in Jerusalem. Shabbat dinner on Friday night marks the Jewish day of rest and a break from the rest of the week. After news yesterday morning about a potential Israel-Hamas ceasefire and then the news that an Israeli Defense Force soldier had been kidnapped, maybe a break was needed.

This past week, I went to the Mehane Yehuda market and the supermarket nearby to pick up ingredients for an Italian-style meal. I walked away with over 10 kilograms of vegetables, 3 kilograms of chicken, and way too much tomato sauce for the meal. I started cooking around 2:00pm for our dinner at 9:30pm.

While it was a challenge, I’m happy to say that it turned out pretty well. It was great to see everyone come together, talk about their weeks, relax, eat until overly full, generally have a good time, and put down their phones. It was a time to stop checking the news for the latest develop in the war, a time to concentrate on something else other than another siren.

Did I feel guilty escaping while a war continues on? A day later and I’m still not sure. I can’t tell whether the meal—the escape—was a good thing. On many levels, yes it was good. Delving into the conflict is exhausting. But then why do I feel slightly guilty? Why did I indulge myself when others are in harms way? Should it have been a muted dinner instead?

It was our last Friday night on the program. It was special. But it was an escape. And I keep feeling like that may not have been right.

Israelis deal with this predicament, this balance between dealing with the greater conflict and enjoying life, between sorrow and celebration, between anxiety about loved ones and excitement with loved ones. A friend of a friend described plans for their birthday party, saying that they can’t have a big party because they know their family, their neighbors, their peers, their peers are fighting in Gaza. And though my experience is only with Israelis, I’m sure Palestinians are forced to deal with this too.

Is this really living? Or is the conflict stealing lives at the same time that it takes them? I’m not sure.

Should everyone just sit down for a meal? Maybe. The escape allows time for reflection. Yes reality inevitably comes but hopefully with a new mindset for change.

Should I cook it? Twenty-seven people was hard enough. Imagine a whole country.

Jerusalem: Focaccia Bar

Eating food is a celebration. So it makes sense that one of my friends decided to make reservations at a restaurant to celebrate her birthday. None of us expected to celebrate the food too. 

But the food at Focaccia Bar (with locations on Rabbi Akiva St and on Emek Refaim) was amazing. Focaccia in Israel is not the delicious type of bread that comes to mind in the US. It’s not fluffy or oily or even heavily seasoned. It’s delicious, but it’s more like a flatbread pizza. Ingredients are put on top of thin bread they call focaccia and baked.

I enjoyed everything I tasted, and I tasted a lot. My friend and I decided to split everything so that we could sample more dishes. We ordered the beef carpaccio, fried calamari, and the pesto potato focaccia. While most places in Jerusalem are kosher (meaning that they follow Jewish dietary laws), this place was not since it served meat and dairy dishes, sometimes together.

The carpaccio was incredibly smooth and sweet, served with a balsamic reduction. The calmari had a nice crunch and was perfect with some lemon. The pesto potato focaccia was interesting. By that, I mean it was something I hadn’t tasted before. It was extremely tasty…and filling. The potato was soft, well roasted and worked well with pesto. I never thought to have those two together.

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I then continued to eat. For those of you who know me, this isn’t an uncommon thing. I tasted the spicy tuna appetizer, which was like a tuna tartar on a thin piece of toast. I’m a big fan of raw tuna, and this hit my craving. 

Then I tasted a friend’s goose breast focaccia. The goose breast served as a substitute for bacon. I doubt there is bacon or pig in this country (it isn’t kosher in general).

Then I tasted some of the lasagna. While it was a vegetarian, it had layers of sweet potato, giving it a nice texture and flavor. IMG_5811

Then I tasted some of a hamburger. It was cooked perfectly and served with a garlic mayo that made it unique.

Clearly I was the garbage disposal for the night.

Then I walked out of the place extremely full and satisfied. But it wasn’t just the food that struck me. I was impressed by how much was shared. Every single dish I ate was shared, split, passed to the next person.

Food is a communal activity. It involves more than simply eating. There’s drinking and talking and laughing and celebrating. That’s why Focaccia Bar was so good. It wasn’t just the food. It was the company.

Jerusalem: Marzipan Bakery

It’s a scientific fact: rough weeks warrant delicious desserts. So after a week of news announcing Israeli and Palestinian deaths, days of being sick and dehydrated, and a trip to Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem), I was in need of a simple pick-me-up. Cue Marzipan’s rugelach.

Marzipan is an incredible bakery with two locations: on Agripas in the Mahane Yehuda market and on Emek Refaim in the Germany Colony. By incredible, I should say out of this world. You can smell the intoxicating aroma of chocolate, cinnamon, and dough from several stores away. By the time you are in the store, you are drowning in bakery scent bliss.

photo 2While the breads, challah, and bourekas (puff pastries or philo dough with a variety of fillings) are top notch, the rugelach tastes like a piece of heaven. I melt a little every time I take a bite. I think I’ve beaten the point that I enjoy them, so I’ll move on to describing this perfect pastry.

Rugelach is a crescent of dough and filling and therefore, chocolate rugelach is exactly what it sounds like. Easy enough. What makes Marzipan’s rugelach special is their freshness and gooeyness. The oven is in the shop, and they seem to be baking new batches constantly, hence the delicious smell. Each batch comes out on these huge trays, ready to be sold after a few minutes of cooling.

But there’s more. Partly due to the freshness and partly due to the large amount of oil they probably use, the rugelach is gooey. I’m no expert, but it might hit an 11 out of 10 on the gooeyness scale. The hot rugelach seems to melt back into dough with each bite.

This certainly isn’t the only rugelach bakery and there are variations galore, but the combo of freshness and gooeyness make Marzipan one of the best—if not the very best. No wonder the store is always filled with tourists.

Why are there so many places for rugelach in Jerusalem and in Israel? First, it’s a European Jewish pastry, so it makes sense that it’s here in Israel. But second, and possibly more important, it’s a sweet pastry for all times. It’s not specific to one Jewish holiday—though it is commonly eaten on Shabbat (the Jewish day of rest). It’s an everyday pastry, a simple reminder that there is sweetness out there, that there can be momentary bliss, even in times of tension, conflict, and violence. It’s a pastry for good times and bad times, for joyous occasions and solemn events.

I guess no matter what, I’ll be at Marzipan.

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Yerucham: Quality Time Cafe

Israel is in a war. In a conflict filled with so many other discussions and opinions, that much is clear. Here, in a such a small country, everyone is affected by it. It’s not just the sirens all across Israel; it’s the army’s connection to each individual. Even if one Israeli isn’t called from the reserves, it’s likely they know someone who was. They know someone currently serving. Or they know at least one of the 37 Israeli soldiers so far killed. Regardless of political opinion, the society agrees that war is unpleasant

So the question becomes: what can I do for others? What can I do for my fellow Israelis? I met a baker named Hadara who seemed to constantly ask herself this question. Before becoming a baker, she was a social worker and set up centers for at-risk youth. She then created a center for Tel Aviv prostitutes seeking social services and support. Just from that, she’s already filled her karma bank.

But she continued. After studying to become a pastry chef, she moved to Acre, near Haifa, to start a bakery factory under the direction of her teacher. In Acre, she put together a free annual Passover seder (a large dingier meal on the first night of the Jewish Passover holiday) for over 400 homeless people.

But when her daughter was placed in Beersheba for her army service, she decided to move close to her daughter and ended up in Yerucham. There, she started the town’s first cafe and continued to host a Passover seder for the homeless. At night, her cafe employs at-risk youth in order to provide them with training, work, and experience.

The cafe, called “Quality Time” in Hebrew, is located on Tsvi Bornstein St. It was amazing. I had an avocado sandwich with lightly, airy bread, smooth cheese, and creamy avocado. Of course I had to try the desserts, so I had a mini chocolate pastry and a tiny South American alfajor, a pastry consisting of two small cookies and a sweet filling. This one had a creamy honey filling. These desserts were delicious and were only one shekel each. That’s 33 cents each to satisfy a sweet tooth!

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While telling us her story, Hadara kept anxiously looking back into the kitchen and occasionally would run into the kitchen mid-sentence. It turns out she was baking cakes to send to soldiers in Beersheva to lighten up their day. Logical reasoning: no one likes war and everyone likes cake. When someone complimented her for her selfless work, she shrugged it off and said, “Many people are sending food.”

Hadara used food and her cafe to support others in times of need. Her food went beyond sustenance. It became something selfless. It became a gift of thanks. It became an act of service.

Especially in this time of war, Israelis seem to continually ask themselves that original question: What can I do for my fellow countrymen? It’s an acknowledgment that war is horrible and individuals from all backgrounds suffer. It’s an understanding that little acts can still have significance. And it’s a strong belief that everyone likes something sweet.

Jerusalem: Mahane Yehuda Market

Going to the Mahane Yehuda market (known here as the Shuk) is like nothing else. It’s an experience that makes the trip to the supermarket look like child’s play.  IMG_5658

The market has been expanding in size and permanence since the Ottoman Period in the 1800s. Now, you can wander for multiple blocks all in a self-contained area.

Looking for fresh bread? Check. Fresh fruit? Check. Vegetables? Check. Wine? Cheese? Dessert? Spices? Towels? Cookware? Anything else you can imagine? It’s all there.

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The best part is not something you can buy (though the chocolate chip cookies from one of the bakeries on the main walkway are incredible).

It’s the energy of the place. Hundreds of people searching for the best deals, chatting with their friends and the stall owners, meticulously checking each fruit’s quality, tasting the freshest fruits. It’s crowded, it’s full of all different smells, and it’s amazing.

If you ask me, the best time to go is before Shabbat on Friday morning. Many people avoid it because it’s so crowded, but so many people flock to it. That’s when the energy is the highest, when the market is bursting with people, so packed you can barely move. They’re there for the food, for the best ingredients to make their Shabbat dinners extra special.

I’ve been here too many times to count and I’ve become that annoying regular who picks through the fruit, walks the market for the best prices, and returns to his favorite shops no matter what. Maybe I’m helping contribute to the energy. At least I’m getting some incredible food.