A true aesthete can be divined in the meticulous attention paid to details of attire – a light-blue shirt ironed down to the last of its button holes, a gold chain hanging below a tight clerical collar and silver-gray hair immaculately combed – and in the attention paid to the quality of the tabun-made bread worthy of being anointed by his blend of za’atar (wild hyssop). Such is Bishop Hani Shehadeh, who prepares some of the finest za’atar I’ve tasted lately, splendidly airy and balanced with sumac sourness, with a crunchy sesame texture.
Dr. Shehadeh, a gourmet who strives for perfection, refuses to partake of bread baked in a tabun from an unknown source. In his view, there is only one baker in his hometown, Kafr Yasif, who can be relied on when it comes to the quality of both the ingredients and the baking process itself – and that exclusive baker, too, receives a measured amount of his personal blend of za’atar before the man of God buys a loaf from him.
“This za’atar is the best antibacterial and antiviral product we have in the country,” he says. “But people aren’t aware of those characteristics, because who even knows what’s goes into the industrial spices that are sold in stores?”
Shehadeh also personally prepared the excellent mixture of peppers that tops other tabun breads. In fact, almost everything on the breakfast table laid out for guests one morning earlier this month in the yard of his home, next to lemon trees heavy with fruit, was prepared by him. There were green and black cured olives, olive oil, a dry za’atar mixture, pomegranate vinegar and a selection of wonderfully spicy spreads – that sort of spiciness means that the fruitiness of the pepper can be felt as well as its sharpness – which he prepares using various techniques of fermentation and preservation.
Born and raised in Kafr Yasif, east of Acre, Shehadeh is the scion of a family from Lebanon that moved to this country before the modern borders were demarcated. Members of his family (the Shehadehs and the Haddads) believe that their forebears were among the first Christian believers in the centuries immediately after Jesus. “Already from a young age I felt I had a vocation, but I fought it because I wanted to be a doctor,” he says. “But then I was in a very serious road accident, and I remember praying and promising God that if I survived, I would devote myself to his service.”
Shehadeh studied theology in Jerusalem, Australia and the United States. For 12 years he worked in the service of the American Anglican Church, with weaker population groups, particularly drug addicts and law-breakers. “I don’t believe the Church can be complete without doing work in the community,” he says. Today he shepherds a small community scattered among Galilee villages (his church itself is in the city of Shfaram), and in his capacity as bishop is also responsible for communities in Egypt and Jordan (which include nearly a million Syrian refugees ).
At the end of the 1990s Shehadeh studied tourism at the University of Haifa; since then he has also worked as a tour guide, primarily leading groups in Arabic and English, for Christian pilgrims from around the world.
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“I’ve had great success as a tour guide,” he says. “I love to teach and I feel that I am reviving a pilgrimage tradition that was always an important part of Christianity. I am a theologian, and my research during my studies also dealt with, for example, milestones in the life of the Jews in the Holy Land. So it’s easy for me to speak with believers from other Christian streams, too.”
The coronavirus pandemic put an abrupt halt to pilgrimages to Israel. “When you have more free time, you do more for your home and your community,” Shehadeh says about the past year, during which he was occupied, more than ever, with producing food, medicinal and personal grooming products using traditional, centuries-old local techniques. The various foods he creates, which are only a small part of his livelihood, were originally intended for his personal use and that of a close circle of family and friends. (Over the years the inquisitive and industrious cleric also took courses on medicinal herbs, natural-product pharmacology and aromatherapy.)
Most of his time in recent months was devoted to making soaps and skin creams – olive oil-based, natural products – as well as high-quality herbal and medicinal extracts.
“Food is part of the religious experience, and the Scriptures offer us fascinating insights about nutrition, pharmacology and medicine,” Shehadeh notes. “From my point of view, for instance, the manufacture of soap is also related to nutrition. Soap is not a food in the accepted perception, but the body absorbs and ‘swallows’ it like food. I produce these basic things by myself in order to encourage people from the community and the vicinity to also awaken. Doing is more powerful than preaching with words. When people taste, smell and experience with other senses, a true conceptual change occurs. The flavors and aromas of products based on natural substances are all completely different.
“The story of Creation teaches us that humanity is connected to the earth. Adam, adama, dam [Adam/human, earth, blood, respectively]: All are connected, and it’s only in the modern era, because of modernization processes, that the connection was sharply severed. I encourage people to return to nature. My personal faith holds that nature is something that comes from on high, but I have no problem with people who believe that nature came into being autonomously or was created by a different divine entity. He can also be called by whatever name one wishes: God [Elohim], Elokim, Jehovah, the Force. For me he is the God I know in my Christian faith, he is the God of all the nations and he loves all human beings.”
Ever the aesthete, Shehadeh has an organized workspace with an impressive “library” of soaps that to visitors may look like valuable books (or, alternately, handmade candies in a rainbow of tempting colors of white-pink and green-brown). The aim, of course, is to exploit the natural qualities of food and medicinal plants, and the library shelves hold treasures like turmeric soap, lemon geranium, coffee, licorice and myrrh.
These days Shehadeh is also thinking about entering politics. “I am not a political person – even though everything is political – but I feel that the situation of Christians in Israel, and throughout the Middle East, is not good. We are lacking a leadership that will take an interest not only in the church and tradition. The different sects of Christianity are not similar – I don’t resemble Catholics or Orthodox people – but I am searching for a way not to emphasize the religious dimension but what the Christian community has in common, and I think that this community doesn’t yet have sufficient representation in Israel.”
Hani Land, Kafr Yasif, 054-637-6622 (by prior reservation only)