A dozen guests are gathered around the kitchen table in a third-floor Tel Aviv apartment for an evening whose topic is “pickling.” The Hebrew language uses the same word, “hahmatza,” for both the food-related process and the metaphysical sense of a missed opportunity, making it a source of puns and wordplay.
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The long table bears colorful plates filled with wild variations of pickled and fermented foods the hostess has prepared: purple fermented eggs with red caviar; Korean-style pickled cucumbers; nashi, or Asian pears, in rice vinegar, ginger and lemon; Louisiana-style pickled okra; chutney made from Uzbek apricots; traditional pickles and sauerkraut like her Russian grandmother used to make; and other types of pickled and preserved vegetables, fruits and fish.
The guests at the experimental evening have been asked to bring with them juicy stories of missed opportunities from their own lives. The hostess, Noa Berman Herzberg, takes the lead and claims the right to tell the first story.
“I always dreamed of being an actress,” she says. “At the end of 12th grade I participated in a made-for-TV movie, and a young film director who had just begun casting for his first feature film invited me to a meeting. He told me about the script, which sounded fascinating, but when I asked when filming would begin, it turned out that it would be during my basic training for the army. ‘No problem,’ said the director, who once again claimed the character was made for me, explained that the production would help postpone my draft date and begged me to come to the audition a week later.
“When the date came, my mother drove me to the place, but I – who was afraid to be drafted alone, without my Nahal Brigade group – decided not to get out of the car. We turned around, returned home and that was the end of my acting career forever. The production didn’t give up. For weeks they continued to contact me and beg me to come and audition, and I ignored them with typical teenage arrogance.
“I might not even remember this marginal episode had the movie not been called “Late Summer Blues” (“Blues Lahofesh Hagadol”). A few years later, in great embarrassment, I sat in the movie theater and watched that amazing film, which really revolutionized Israeli cinema.”
The atmosphere around the table heats up: A little more vodka and another round of bread, butter and pickled vegetables, and all the participants turn into born storytellers, eager to be in the limelight. A beginning animator received an offer to work at Warner Bros. studios in Hollywood, but preferred to return to Israel because of a love interest; a TV reporter arrived by chance at the filming of her favorite series, and missed an opportunity to interview the main character; and another guest told how his family missed an opportunity for a huge business deal.
The pickle eating and storytelling continues until the wee hours of the morning. (Pickling brine, incidentally, is a known cure for a hangover.)
Focus on food
Noa Berman Herzberg, born in 1968, grew up in Rehovot. Her late father, the artist Reuven Berman Kadim, who died in 2014 – was the scion of a family of professional fermenters and picklers. In the 1930s, her grandparents owned an Eastern European delicatessen in Philadelphia. Their best known special was the “Berman sandwich” – chopped liver and schmaltz on Russian rye bread, with homemade pickles.
“We’re talking about the Depression years,” says their granddaughter, “and when the deli closed they wandered to Los Angeles in search of a livelihood and opened a small restaurant that served home-cooked food. My father, who was an only child, immigrated to Israel in the 1950s. A few years later they followed him and brought all their cooking utensils, some of which I still use.”
Berman Herzberg says she inherited her love of hosting guests from the family of her mother, retired judge Shoshana Berman.
“My mother was born in the family hotel in Pinsk. At the beginning of World War II the family was expelled to Siberia, and among her childhood memories are frozen potatoes as a substitute for sweets. I grew up in a home where life centered around food and entertaining. Every Shabbat the house would fill up with friends and family, and the dining room table filled up with mother’s food.
“My favorite situation is bringing people together around a dining room table. That’s the secret of happiness, and everything related to it fascinates me – the interaction among the diners, the dynamic around the table and the stories that come up during the meal. It interests me in many aspects. My master’s degree thesis is about meals in extreme situations in European cinema from the 1970s on. I’m not talking about pleasant American food films – which I’m crazy about, incidentally – but about meals that lead to extreme situations, like in ‘La Grande Bouffe’ (‘The Big Feast’) or ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.’
“What comes to the surface around the dining room table, and sometimes via the food itself, leads the diners to a morbid moment from which there is no return – death, murder and even cannibalism.”
Berman Herzberg is writing and developing a script for an Israeli-European coproduction of a TV series entitled “Gastronomy.” She remarks: “It’s no coincidence that in it there’s a chef who believes that food is the answer and the cure for everything, even death. In another script there’s an elderly restaurant owner who cooks Jewish food in secret in her diner in the racist South of the United States.”
Berman Herzberg is a screenwriter (“Mabul,” or “The Flood”) and a teacher at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, but she says that if she didn’t write for a living, she would choose to cook professionally. Her obsession for pickled food is relatively new, but has deep roots.
“In our house a jar of pickled vegetables was part of the kitchen counter. Pickled foods are an integral part of the kitchen itself, and sauerkraut was also a permanent feature. Eating Shabbat cholent (the classic Shabbat stew) without pickles is impossible. Cholent and pickles are a set,” she says.
Berman Herzberg is the wife of Yoel Herzberg, a film producer, and the mother of two teenage boys. Her keen interest in pickled vegetables began last summer when she traveled to New York by herself on business. “I drove with a fellow writer to the Catskill Mountains area, and along the way we stopped at dozens of grocery stores where they sold jars of homemade pickled foods.
“I went crazy. I wanted to taste all of them, and when I returned to New York I went to one of the big bookstores, sat in the cookbook section for five hours and left with recipes and books. When I returned to Israel I pickled everything I could get my hands on, including the weirdest things, and turned my kitchen into a laboratory.” Her pickled fruits and vegetables have been sold on several occasions in the backyard of Domaine Herzberg in Moshav Sitria, the family winery established by Yoel and his father. She has named the pickling evenings “Serial Pickler,” but it’s still not clear where the adventure is headed. “There’s no economic model. Meanwhile I invite people to a table with pickled foods and bread and the participants in return are invited to bring a bottle of vodka and a good story about a missed opportunity. Every such story contains the materials from which a good drama is made – ‘real’ and unique characters, a crucial choice made by the main character that influences his life, and above all – something thought provoking. While you’re thinking, you can take a bite of pickled cucumber, or a piece of celery or pineapple.”
Upcoming pickling evenings: March 25, April 27 and May 6. Registration via the Instagram page @serialpickler or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org