From Israeli Scandal to NYC Cookbook Collector

Dalia Carmel is world renowned for her cookbook collection, a fraction of which she's given to New York University. But back in Israel, she's still remembered for her part in one of the country's most notorious political affairs.

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Dalia Carmel.
Dalia Carmel.Credit: Dan Peretz
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

NEW YORK – It’s noon in El Pote Espanol, a family-run Spanish restaurant on Second Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. From the tables, meticulously set with white tablecloths, wafts a merry buzz of diners. Standing behind the small bar (just five seats) at the entrance, Enrique, a co-owner, chats with customers who frequent the restaurant almost daily. The only two tables in the bar area are reserved for people for whom the cozy, old school-style restaurant has become a second home.

Sitting at one of these tables is a white-haired woman of impressive appearance. The waiters, black-suited, don’t bother to bring her a menu, only ask fondly how she’s feeling and what she’d like to eat today.

Pepe, a chef and the other co-owner, emerges from the kitchen to kiss the woman on the cheek. He’s been cooking in the Castilian restaurant for 38 years, almost from the moment he arrived from the Old Country, and he’s known the elderly woman in the red blouse almost as long.

In recent times, beset by old age and illness, the renowned gourmet has stopped cooking in her own kitchen, she’s been coming to El Pote, which is near her home, every day. When she was younger, there wasn’t a restaurant she didn’t visit across New York. Now, in the years since her body began to betray her, the radius has been reduced to her close area.

But the passion for good food and the subtle, knowing palate have remained unchanged. Consultations ensue about the dish she wants. The chipirones en su tinta – a dark and wonderful delicacy with calamari, cooked in its own ink and in fish broth – is off-limits for her, owing to an unfortunate allergy to seafood. A simple and divine dish of pork cheeks will be warmly welcomed, however, together with a glass of Rioja wine.

“Pepe, how much have you had to drink today already?” the woman teases the gray-haired chef. “Just one bottle,” he declares cheerfully in a pronounced Spanish accent. “But that’s nothing,” he adds. “By this time of the day in the Basque country, they’ve already had two or three bottles.”

The Israel public knows this woman mainly as “the secretary” who admitted to forging two documents and thus became one of the key figures in what is known as the “rotten business” (1954) case and its cover-up offshoot, the Lavon Affair (1960) – political scandals that jolted the young state and even today continue to arouse interest, while casting a deep shadow over those who were involved.

In New York culinary circles, however, Dalia Carmel is known as one of the most important collectors of cookbooks in the world. She is one of the major donors to New York University’s collection of nearly 60,000 books in the realm of food studies: In recent years she’s turned over 11,000 volumes – and there are still thousands more in her apartment, which will also eventually end up at NYU.

“Dalia is one of the most interesting collectors I’ve met,” says Marvin Taylor, director of False library & special collections, which holds the university’s special and rare-book collections. “She has a great eye for spotting important books, and her collection encompasses fascinating areas. The first realm is cookbooks of diaspora communities, beginning with Jewish diasporas and taking in also migrant communities in the United States. The books are instructive about how these communities preserved religious and cultural identity through the kitchen, yet also used it to integrate into the new society and culture.

Photo by Dan Peretz

“A second and unusual sphere of interest is island kitchens – isolated communities that had to make do with the raw materials available to them, and the reciprocal relations they conducted with the world around them. Other parts of the collection are devoted to the regional and ethnic kitchens of Africa and the Middle East, including rare books from the Arab world.”

Dusk in Dalia Carmel’s home, on the 18th floor of a modern building in the heart of Manhattan. The walls of the spacious apartment are covered with decorative objects from all over the globe, landscape photographs, pictures of people she has taken – and books. Books, books and more books: in the entrance, the dining area, the living room, the study and the bedroom. Books from floor to ceiling.

How could this space have also housed the 11,000 volumes she has already given to NYU? Carmel explains that they were “in double rows and stacks that rose from the top of the closets to the ceiling. When Herb was still alive” – Herbert Goldstein, her husband, who died in 2003 – “he used to mention gently from time to time that I was also taking over his living space.”

As befits one who has surrendered to the obsessive despotism of the lust to collect, Carmel’s apartment also contains impressive arrays of spices and refrigerator magnets, plus dozens of pots and pans that hang from the ceiling, now unused.

‘Covered with flour’

Dalia Carmel, nee Weiser, was born in Jerusalem in 1935, the only child in the affluent bourgeois home of two Jewish physicians of East European origin.

“They met in Germany and immigrated to Palestine together in the 1930s, to eradicate tuberculosis,” she tells me. “My father was the director of Mekor Haim hospital, and in 1948, after the hospital took two direct mortar hits, it was relocated to Jaffa. The trip by convoy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv-Jaffa took 15 hours. I remember being terribly thirsty. We had a dog with us in the armored bus. Dust came in through the small slits. By the time we got to Tel Aviv, we looked as though we were covered with white flour.”

Carmel’s library. Photo by Dan Peretz

During her army service, beginning in 1953, Weiser served as a secretary in the office of the Israel Defense Forces’ director of intelligence, Binyamin Gibli, a revered commander who enjoyed blind loyalty from his subordinates, not least his 18-year-old secretary. In 1954, an operation overseen by a special unit of Military Intelligence – intended to make it look like Egyptian dissidents had struck at Western targets in Egypt in order to delay Britain’s evacuation of the Suez Canal – failed. Four of those involved paid with their lives; others were sentenced by an Egyptian court to lengthy prison terms and underwent torture.

In an attempt to conceal and cover up the identity of those in Israel who were behind the false-flag operation, the young secretary was asked by her superior officer to insert changes in two documents related to the episode. She obeyed.

From that moment, turmoil beset Carmel’s life, and it continues to simmer six decades on. During the very week we met in New York, new documents were published, including transcripts of conversations between Gibli and then-Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon, which shed new light on the incident.

“I started to read and then I noticed a document that I myself had typed, and I stopped. There are buttons that bring that whole cesspool back to the surface again. Sixty-one years and it’s impossible to get rid of that shadow that’s been haunting me all my life,” she says.

The bookshelves in her study are devoted to the history of Israel – the loved-loathed homeland that forced her into unofficial exile for most of her life. With compulsive meticulousness she has cataloged letters written to her by the protagonists of the affair, as well as relevant documents and clippings from every article published about it.

“Scum, they’re all scum,” she says today bitterly about the people who induced her to lie, and thus changed the course of her life. She’s referring above all, she says, to Gibli and to Mordechai Ben Tzur (the commander of the special unit), but also to many other generals and politicians who stuck their nose into the affair.

In the multiple interrogations she underwent over the years, she was accused by lawyers, researchers, judges and politicians – most of them males – of having romantic-sexual motivations for her actions. The dubious, and false, reputation she acquired became public even during the period when Israeli military censors blue-penciled the names of those involved.

In 1955, she was sent – some say distanced from Israel, so she wouldn’t be questioned – by her commanding officers to London, to serve as the military attache’s secretary. This is when she Hebraized her name to “Carmel.” Returning to Israel in 1957, she was employed as secretary to Levi Eshkol – the powerful finance minister who later became premier, and who wanted to marry her – who also became embroiled in the second part of the “rotten business,” the Lavon Affair.

In 1960, seeking refuge from the fallout of the 1954 episode and from the demanding work with Eshkol, Carmel flew to New York. Two weeks after she arrived, the Lavon Affair erupted and she was summoned for additional interrogation in Israel.

After she returned to New York, various generals and politicians, who had wanted her out of Israel, arranged temporary jobs for her in Israeli institutions there. Eventually Carmel found employment in the New York office of El Al airlines. Her first full, disillusioned account of these events appeared in 1989, in an article in Haaretz Hebrew edition by historian Tom Segev. This prompted the journalist and biographer Shabtai Teveth to travel to New York to meet with her. His lengthy investigation and interviews with Carmel resulted in a book that told the story of how the “rotten business” ultimately brought about the fall of David Ben-Gurion – “Ben-Gurion’s Spy: The Story of the Political Scandal that Shaped Modern Israel,” published in English in 1996.

Culinary gateway

Though El Al provided her with a livelihood for 37 years, Carmel didn’t like the work. (“Was it the realization of potential? It was a waste of life. But that’s the way it is. I can’t say in retrospect what I would have done in life if things had worked out differently, but certainly not that.”) She never had the opportunity to pursue a university education, and so the culinary world and the hunt for cookbooks became a gateway into other, fascinating realms.

“My mother was a wonderful cook,” she recalls, “and my father liked to eat, but I acquired my great love for that world during my years in England. That’s when I got to know about restaurants. I was the secretary to the military attache, which wasn’t especially interesting work, but in every spare moment I went to cheap ethnic restaurants, which were plentiful in London.”

She started to cook herself, and to take a serious interest in cookbooks, in New York. In 1961, she explains, “I moved to a new apartment, bought a set of stainless-steel pots, and realized I had to learn how to cook. I couldn’t even boil water. In my first attempts to make soup, I didn’t understand why the bones didn’t melt. One day a catalog arrived in the mail from a cookbook club. They offered housewives four books for a dollar, including postage and delivery. To justify the dollar, I chose the four fattest books, and undertook to buy more. That was the start.”

Carmel liked to cook on Saturday afternoons, “during the live weekly radio broadcast of the opera from the Metropolitan. I love opera, but when I was a girl, my mother hammered it into my head that I must never be idle. If I just sat and listened to music without doing something, I was overcome by guilt, so I turned on the radio and cooked. When the opera finished, I didn’t know who was going to eat the mountains of food, so I invited all the neighbors in the building. They brought salad and I supplied the rest. I think that in those years I could have rebuilt the George Washington Bridge from meatballs. Why one? Two bridges at least.”

The realization that she had turned into a cookbook collector only came about later. “I was just buying cookbooks in order to cook from them,” she explains. “Most of the years I cooked for myself, and when I married Herb [in 1978] there was suddenly an ‘outlet.’ He suggested that I join the Culinary Historians of New York. There I met food researchers and journalists, including Cara de Silva, and then it came to me that maybe I was a cookbook collector. At that stage I had only a few hundred books, but gradually the collection grew.”

It was Carmel who told De Silva about a rare compilation of recipes from the Terezin (Theresienstadt) ghetto, which the latter published in 1996 in her book “In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy From the Women of Terezin.”

Over the years, Carmel’s apartment became a mecca for the finest writers and culinary researchers in the United States and abroad.

“I always collected cookbooks, not theoretical books on gastronomy, and I have hardly any works by famous chefs. What interested me were books by home cooks and the foods of ethnic, religious and national groups. For example, if I saw a program on television about the island of Vanuatu, I immediately became curious to know what they cooked there, and I would spare no effort to get a cookbook from there. At some point I noticed that churches and synagogues – mosques hardly at all – publish recipes with spiral bindings for the women of the congregation. They are the ugliest cookbooks, but they contain authentic and rare recipes written by the best of the home cooks.

“I scoured neighborhoods to find those books,” she continues. “These days, with the Internet, it’s easy, but back then it was tough going. I bent over backward to get them, by phone, mail and other more devious means. There are moments of tremendous satisfaction, when marvelous books arrive, and moments of dejection, when you hold one in your hand and say, ‘This is what I worked so hard for?’”

‘Inti Yahud?’

“One of my major areas of interest was cookbooks from the Middle East. It isn’t easy to get cookbooks from Bahrain and Abu Dhabi when your name is Dalia Carmel Goldstein. One time I was looking for a Palestinian cookbook and I heard about a woman in Florida who had written one. I called her. ‘Inti Yahud? [Are you a Jew?]’ the daughter asked me – and said her mother would never sell me a book.

“I talked to the elderly mother for hours. She told me her husband had been a pharmacist in Jerusalem. I replied that my father was a doctor in the city in the early 20th century, and that I had no doubt they had known each other. That softened her up a little. A week later, Herb called to say that a package had arrived with strange stains on it. I told him not to open it. We had it x-rayed and it turned out that the fatty stains were from the baklava she had made and sent together with the book.”

Carmel becomes quieter when mentioning her late husband, a chemist who worked in industry. The longings are powerful (“He was the funniest man in the world), as is the loneliness. “After Herb died, I got up one morning in the bedroom, which was crowded with spiral books and many others, and I said to myself: Why do I have to see this ugliness every morning? I felt like I was choking. I called the NYU library and gradually started to transfer the majority of the collection to them, other than sections especially dear to me.

“When you’re an active collector, you have a despot in the house. I collected books on many subjects and in many areas, and if a new and interesting book came out about a South American kitchen, say, I felt obliged to acquire it. When I decided to give the books to the library, I got rid of the despot. It was a great relief, but because I chose to keep the areas that most interest me – Jewish, Middle Eastern and some from Africa, the Balkans, Russia and Poland – the despot occasionally sneaks back into the house, because a lot of interesting books in those regions are being published these days.”

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