A Toast to David Landau

To Landau, whose love for the better things in life was ambivalent.

Noga Tarnopolsky
Noga Tarnopolsky
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David LandauCredit: Dan Keinan
Noga Tarnopolsky
Noga Tarnopolsky

This column was going to be about terroir. What is terroir? Does Israel have a definable terroir? Is it anything but excruciating to ask the question?

These are the sort of digressions I used to laugh about with David Landau, the former editor in chief of this newspaper and a beloved friend who died last week.

Yes, he would have said. Of course it is an unbearably snobby question. Now, write about it!

David loved great food and wine. A constant plaint during the final 18 months of his illness was that alcohol had been prohibited to him.

When I stopped ordering wine because I didn’t want to drink alone, à table, David would boom “I won’t have it. You must drink something!” And more often than not he’d threaten to abandon our regular outings before lassoing a waiter and ordering me to order. When I didn’t obey, David would harrumph and announce that if this is how I behaved, our regular forays into fine dining would end.

He’d then immediately apologize and ask where else we should go.

And then, inevitably, he’d grab my glass of wine and breathe it in with a huge approving whiff and say, “Jackie wouldn’t approve.”

David was a big man of many passionate loves, Jackie above all, his children, his grandchildren, learning, writing, arguing, his friends, excellent food and a good drink.

His love for the better things in life was ambivalent; he loved gastronomy but felt that maybe he oughtn’t.

With his great pal Motti Freidman, he’d launch into lengthy deliberations about, for example, Judaism’s take, and whether conviviality trumped the superficial pleasures of the palate.

Was it non-Jewish to waste time seeking out the finest challah when you could pick up a serviceable challah nearby and spend that time with your family? But if, in fact, the expensive, hard-to-get challah was healthier than the industrially produced challah, would that tip the scales? How about the difference in cost of different challot? If you took your family and made it an excursion, might buying the foodier challah be justified?

David liked to take the hard-core Jewish side of the argument, but the truth is that almost always the deliciousness of whatever we ate sparked the conversation. He cared enough about food to take me to Mea Shearim and introduce me to the best purveyor of herring. And to apologize for asking about the appropriateness of my attire before we set out.

He loved an interlude with wine and cheese. A favorite argument had to do with the absurdity of what makes an Israeli wine kosher, a subject David was always willing to tackle so long as we had one of those wines in hand. Otherwise, why bother with the arid debate?

David kept good whiskey in his office. The very first time he invited me out for lunch, we went - against my will - to Shmulik’s, an old-style Ashkenazi joint near Haaretz where, with the aim of testing whether I was capable of appreciating real good food or whether I was just another lightweight comparing brands of truffle oil, he ordered everything he hoped I’d find revolting.

Of course, David won the battle. Conviviality trumps effete exquisitism.

The last time we went out for a long lunch was to Morris’s meat emporium in Machane Yehuda. Morris covered our table with salads, I ordered a sirloin brochette; David ordered stuffed spleen and briefly inhaled my beer. They disparaged my wimpy choice.

I say David won because there is nothing I wouldn’t give right now for another of those lunches, even with a mediocre beer. Sometimes, it just doesn’t matter.

Whenever David received my copy, in Hebrew or in English, he’d wave it in the air and growl, “what am I supposed to do with this? It’s all Spanish!”

To understand what he meant, you have to know that I am Argentinian. I am many other things, and David never saw a word I wrote in Spanish, but that wasn’t the point: David could sniff it out. Also, it was his way of chiding me about all the Argentinian matters he felt I should be writing about but wasn’t. And it was his way of making sure I knew he knew.

Which brings us back to terroir. It is simply all the elements that make a thing what it is: earth, air, wind, hail, heat, handling, minerals, yeasts.

For humans, terroir is all those things that make you who you are: a Mediterranean birth, a bossy granny, the schoolyard in Geneva, the crisp air of New England, the editor who became a friend, who made the time to leave a mark upon your life much beyond the marks left on a written page.

I am far from the only person to write about David Landau’s impact on her life. He gave a lot, to many. The night he was buried, amid the upright pines and the granite rocks of Jerusalem, a part of his terroir that he is now a part of, I joined another of his friends for a few too many glasses of a Judean Hills wine. (No, it wasn’t kosher.) We clinked, to David.

He had hoped to see this, the second article in this column. The first came out on the day he left us.

More on terroir, next week.