Exploring Israeli cuisines, discovering your roots

Exploring Israeli cuisines, discovering your roots

by Joshua Zelman, Y&S Nazarian Intern

This past summer, the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies saw one of its own travel to Israel for a chance to further his understanding of his heritage, as well as learn about the Israel’s culture and history. Christian Rodriguez, a recent UCLA graduate with a duel bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and International Development, joined the Nazarian Center staff to assist with the 2013 Association for Israel Studies Conference, hosted by the Center this past June. Already a member of the front desk staff at the UCLA International Institute, Christian had a personal interest in Israel. 

Although his paternal grandparents are Jewish, “I never really grew up with that much knowledge of Judaism or Israel”, explained Rodriguez. “I always felt like an outsider...”   He was afforded the opportunity to travel to Israel through the Taglit-Birthright Israel program, which offers young Jewish men and women the chance to take a free 10-day tour of the country.
Rodriguez explained that the original inspiration for taking his birthright trip stemmed from his cousin who went in 2003. “Originally, I didn’t think she was serious. I mean - a free trip to Israel?” After a friend took the trip in 2010, Rodriguez decided that it was time for him to go as well. “I wanted to find my Jewish identity, and I decided to apply.”

He found a trip whose theme was centered on a topic that he loved -- food. “I found a trip that teaches you about Israel through a culinary aspect,” Rodriguez explained.  The trip, provided by organizer IsraelExperts, focuses on the history and culture of Israel through its food and cooking, and explores their role in Jewish and Israeli customs.

During the trip, Rodriguez was introduced not only to the culinary and cultural hot spots of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but everything from the wine and olive oil makers in northern Israel to the open air markets of Jaffa, one of the most diverse and culturally mixed cities in Israel. Rodriguez and his trip mates were also given lectures and cooking lessons by some of Israel's most renowned chefs and culinary experts, including famed Israeli chef and culinary writer Janna Gur.

“I was surprised to learn about how Israel is such a melting pot. Different areas of Israel have different foods and culinary customs because of the Jews that immigrated there from other countries.” stated Rodriguez. “It shows you the people; how they lived, where they came from...I was surprised to learn how young modern Israel really is when you look at it through the customs of different foods, and where those foods are from and how they got there.”

Through the trip, Rodriguez claims he was able to see Israel in a completely new light, “Going in, I had just basic knowledge of Israel and what it was like... after going there and seeing Israel in motion, and experiencing not just the food, but the people and the culture, I learned that how [the outside world] sees Israel is not how Israel sees itself. You hear from all these people who have different voices and opinions about the culture and the state of Israel, and you become a lot more invested in it. You don't just see a country anymore. You see people... their faces and their lives... and now not everything is so black and white anymore.”
In terms of his own Jewish identity and heritage; Rodriguez felt he learned a significant amount, not only about Israel, but about himself: “I was able to find [out] where my own family has come from through [traveling to] Israel.”

Rodriguez went on to explain that while his family history had originated somewhere in the former Ottoman Empire, the specific location was never known as his grandparents had immigrated to Cuba as children in the 1920's and then subsequently to the United States. “The food that my grandmother used to cook was always just food to me, it was never anything significant. But when I went to Israel, I found an area where they would prepare and sell the foods my grandmother would make for me that she learned to make from her parents.”

After asking the merchants where these foods originated from, Rodriguez discovered that the dishes and pastries made by his grandmother originated from a part of modern-day southern Turkey. “I was able to know where my family came from because of the diversity of the food I found there... It’s something you never think of happening, but it shows how our different histories are so tied into Israel.”

“After going on this trip, I feel more in tune with the mission of the Nazarian Center, which aims to promote the history, the culture and the society of Israel, all of which I was shown and able to learn about on my trip,” Rodriguez explained. “I would love to see the Nazarian Center host events that featured cultural facets like Israeli cuisine. It would be a great way to showcase the diversity and innovation found among its population.”

As a self-identified “foodie,” Rodriguez believes that the different cuisines we are surrounded with give incredible insight into who we are as people: “If we are presented the relationship that Israelis have with their food, then we would get a perfect glimpse of who the contemporary Israeli is.”