What did I learn: ISRAEL

Old Jaffa – Source: Booking Israel

So this month I focused on learning more about Israel, and wow – there’s a lot here.

As I said at the start of the month, I’m going to save a lot of the Palestinian conflict for when Palestine comes up as a month, but I learned two crucial things with that in light – the first is that most Israelis have very varying views on Palestine stretching right across the political spectrum – many left wing Israelis want a two-state solution and many on the right don’t.

The other thing I learned is that there is a whole world of other identity conflicts and struggles for pluralism inside Israel – between minorities inside Israel proper (such as the Druze or the Bedouin), between different denominations of Judaism, different cultural and ethnic backgrounds of the waves of Jewish people who have come to Israel, and the balancing act of being a modern secular democracy with protecting the fact of them being the only Jewish country.

It’s a lot, and I’d strongly recommend the book I picked up for this month – My Promised Land by Ari Shavit – to get a base understanding on a lot of these tensions and on the complexity of Israeli life and identity.

I also deeply enjoyed a lot of the culture – I’m utterly hooked on Shtisel and Netta is now in in my workout playlist. The movies I watched this month (Late Marriage and Foxtrot) were both emotional gut punches, and I definitely got to try a wealth Israeli snacks (1,2,3).

When the pandemic’s over, Israel is definitely on my list of countries I want to visit!

ISRAEL: Herbal teas

I picked up from World of Judaica this neat sampler set of Israeli herbal teas. While Israel is mainly a coffee country, ShalvaTea makes blends using only herbs that grow in Israel. Each blend is named after a different location, and the owner, David Ross (originally Norwegian before immigrating to Israel) tries to make sure the herbs reflect that specific location.

Elah Valley – Peppermint with rose petals, licorice, sumac, and zuta (white savoury). It’s like a richer mint tea, you can pick out the taste of licorice and the lemony sumac, and while I’ve never tried zuta before, I assume it’s adding that extra woodsy mintiness- it’s related to mint.

Ein Gedi – Wow, this is a very sage-dominant tea. There’s also fennel and carob and a few other herbs, but it’s mainly sage, sage, and more sage. Good if that’s your thing, not really big on that much sage myself.

Jerusalem – Mainly lemongrass and hibiscus, so it’s nice and tart, but there’s also olive leaf and cardamom and a little bit of sage – makes it a bit smokier and spicy.

Carmel – Rosemary is the main scent of this tea, with a savoury woody flavour. It’s an interesting blend of herbs that aren’t too common in tea – rosemary, hyssop, sumac, zuta, as well as calendula and raspberry leaves. The rosemary starts the strongest, but the others start to come out after you steep it a bit.

Arava – Chamomile and lemongrass, with mint, licorice, and lavender. Kind like how the Elah Valley tea is a boosted mint tea, this tastes like a boosted chamomile – I really like the lemongrass in it.

Galil – A lemon-forward tea, with lemongrass and lemon balm, as well as a bit of sage as an undernote. It’s pretty refreshing, though I’d be interested in trying olive leaf tea on its own to get a sense of what its flavour is – it seems quite mild.

I’d say the Elah Valley tea was my favourite, followed by Arava, and that the Ein Gedi tea didn’t do too much for me – too much sage! But this is a really neat concept, and I liked getting to try some really new herbal mixes.

ISRAEL: Dana International – Diva / LGBTQ community in Israel

Israel has won Eurovision a few times, but most notable was in 1998 with Dana International becoming the first trans artist to win the competition. Here’s her winning performance:

The Guardian has a great article on her career and on her role in raising trans visibility in the arts in Israel and Europe. Israel is generally positive on LGBTQ rights and representation (Tel Aviv’s Pride fest is legendary), but there are tensions with the ultra-Orthodox community and a lack of active support from right-wing governments.

As there are no civil marriages in Israel, only religious, and the decisions on marriage are decided by largely Orthodox rabbis – Israel still does not allow same sex marriage, but will recognize marriages in other countries. So while Israel does pride itself as being more supportive of its LGBTQ community than its neighbours, there’s still a fair bit to go.

ISRAEL: Even more snacks

…And one more batch of Israeli snacks for the road! I ordered from World of Judaica at the start of the month, and due to the pandemic overwhelming the postal system, they only just made it! They’re all domestic Israeli packaging, so everything is in Hebrew, but I pulled some translations.

Osem Popco Butter and Honey – Slightly caramelized popcorn, with more of a honey scent than taste. Tastes more like a lightly sweet caramel corn, and is really REALLY good.

Osem Petit Beurre Tea Biscuit – Nice tea biscuits, kinda like an arrowroot cookie almost. Dips great in black coffee. I had ordered chocolate ones, but got the original ones instead – still good!

Shtuchim Pretzel Crisps with Sesame Seeds – Really thin little pretzel chips. Straightforward, just the right amount of salt, I like ’em!

Osem Strawberry Bamba – I tried Bamba in one of my earlier snack posts, and it was pretty good – cheesies with made with peanut instead of cheese. But strawberry Bamba? They’re round and smell like strawberry candy – do these have peanuts in them? They’re more like a puffed sugar breakfast cereal…and yet I’m eating them by the handful.

Elite Baflot Lemon Waffle Snacks – Wafer cookies with an artificial lemon filling. I love the texture of these kinds of layered cookies, though the lemon flavour could be more lemony.

ISRAEL: Tu b’Shevat salad

Tonight is the Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shevat – the New Year of the Trees. In Israel it’s largely celebrated as an environmental awareness holiday, often with tree planting. There’s a special seder where people eat dried fruits and nuts (and drink four cups of wine!). Even if not really observing, fruit and nuts are very “seasonal”. Also seasonal for this holiday are the Seven Species of Israel: wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, dates, grapes, and olives.

I found this recipe at Jewish Food Experience, based off trip to a Tel Aviv farmer’s market, for a Tu b’Shevat salad that incorporates some of the Seven Species. A base of barley, with dates, figs, pomegranate, as well as walnuts, apples, and persimmons. I couldn’t find fresh figs (it’s winter, in Canada, in the pandemic – fruit selection isn’t great) but using dried figs seems like it won’t bring down the house. The dressing includes silan (date syrup). I found it at the Mid-East Food Centre here in Ottawa and it’s got a lovely rich flavour – I think it’ll start sitting it into plain yogurt for breakfast.

This salad is really good warm, though it’s sweet enough I’d almost call it a “healthy dessert” instead of a salad. I like the different fruits in each bite, and the orange and date dressing adds extra flavour. I figured since this recipe only covered five of the Seven Species, I’d have some grapes and whole wheat crackers with cheese on the side to round it out!

ISRAEL: Foxtrot (2017)

There’s a world of really good Israeli movies, and boy, do they go hard. Foxtrot starts with a family being informed that their young son, serving his mandatory military service, has been killed in action. I won’t spoil the movie but it turns out that’s not exactly what happened. It’s an intense movie with some dark humour to it, and focuses hard on grief and trauma, both for individuals and in Israeli society (it also earned the ire of Israel’s Culture Minister for its portrayal of the IDF).

ISRAEL: The Druze

A really good short documentary on the Druze, who largely live between northern Israel and parts of Syria, and how the Druze in Israel balance their loyalty as Israeli citizens (they’re deeply involved in Israeli politics and serve in the IDF) against with their own identity and community as a non-Jewish minority. They also highlight the struggle of Israel as a government trying to balance being both a Jewish state and a multicultural (and multireligious) country.

If you’ve never heard of the Druze before, they’re an Arabic-speaking ethnic minority. The Druze religion is an offshoot of Isma’ili Islam, but the Druze don’t consider themselves Muslims, and their religion incorporates parts of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism. For more information on the Druze, Let’s Talk Religion has a great video on them:

ISRAEL: Bourekas

Bourekas are a really common snack in Israel – puff pastry with some kind of filling, usually potato or cheese. I found a big pack of frozen potato and spinach ones imported from Israel in the kosher section of College Square Loblaws (the best kosher grocery option in Ottawa).

Interestingly, the shape of kosher bourekas is regulated in Israel – parve (no dairy or meat) are round or square, and those with dairy are triangular. Mine are parve, so they’re square! These were quick and easy, popped them frozen into the oven and ate hot.

Okay, I browned them a little too much! But yum, puff pastry with potato and spinach interior, and creamy enough that I thought there was cheese in them. I’d put them in the same snack family as spanakopita, and would love to try meat and/or cheese ones, though highly unlikely to find one with both due to kosher laws.