In Search of Israeli Cuisine
by filmmaker Roger Sherman
Traveling to Israel never crossed my mind; I wanted to go to Paris until a friend dragged me there on a food press trip in 2010. I couldn’t believe what I discovered: the most dynamic food scene in the world, influenced by 150 traditions that had come to Israel or had never left—Jewish, Arab, Muslim, Palestinian, Christian, Druze. I found a land the size of New Jersey where micro-climates change every ten miles, where the most remarkable fresh produce is grown year-round and where everything is local. I learned how home cooks are saving their grandmothers’ recipes, how chefs are spinning new takes on them. The street food is incomparable, the wine and cheese is world-class. Restaurants are as hard to get into as New York, San Francisco and Paris. Plus, there’s a Mediterranean beach running the length of the country, beautiful mountains, deserts. Who knew?
My cluelessness is shared by most Americans, Jews included, because what’s reported in the States is all conflict all the time. I knew I'd hit upon a great topic for a film when friends laughed at me when I told them my next film would be about the people of Israel told through food. I think In Search of Israeli Cuisine is resonating—it’s being shown in more than 100 festivals and screenings around the world—because every scene is a surprise to audiences, as they were for me.
I don't use hosts; they distance viewers from the audience. Yet I knew this film needed a main character to connect viewers to the experiences. That first trip was an epiphany and for a while I looked for a young “me” to follow. Then I met Michael Solomonov, the James Beard Award-winning chef and co-owner of Zahav and other Philadelphia restaurants. Many say Zahav serves the best Israeli cuisine in America. Mike was born in Israel and grew up in Pittsburgh. He travels to Israel a few times a year, is smart, funny, self-deprecating, and understands Israel’s many cultures with all its ambiguities and paradoxes, especially its food. A classically trained chef, Mike was not drawn to cook Israeli cuisine until tragedy struck: his brother David was killed by snipers shooting across the border from Lebanon during his last weekend of military service. Only then did he begin cooking Israeli cuisine. I'd met my chef/guide.
Every chef told me, “You cannot be my enemy at my table.” More than any other, that idea kept me up at night. I knew I was not going to create peace through food. But how to express that sentiment? I let people speak for themselves. On the day we were scheduled to film in an Arab home in East Jerusalem, a crew member didn’t want us to go. The last time he’d been there, he was in the Army. It wouldn’t be safe, he said. Our crew is small, the scene was important. The Palestinian chef Kamal Hashlemon and his mother cooked traditional makluba, a chicken and rice dish made in a giant pot that is turned over when served. Three generations gathered around the table. Filming was wonderful. The next day, the reluctant crew member thanked me. And, a year and a half later, when I came back to capture some final scenes, he told me the film had changed his life. It seemed that he’d never shared a meal with Muslims. Now, he and Kamal are friends.