A long line stretched outside the Psagot Winery a couple of Thursdays ago. Young and old, men and women. Some were decked out in their finest hilltop youth finery, many were wearing skullcaps and very few looked secular. As the sun set, the venue – situated between the nearby West Bank settlement of Kochav Yaakov and the Palestinian village of Jab’a – was buzzing with excitement. And for good reason: These people had each parted with 360 shekels (about $110) to attend a once-a-decade (more or less) event.
'We’ve traveled in the East and we saw tourists trying all kinds of strange things – and we couldn’t because of kashrut, so this is our opportunity to try'
When their turn came, the attendees were rewarded with a look at the menu for the evening’s meal: buffalo meat, cow udders, pheasant, guineafowl and the headliner – locust. Crunchy locust.
Yet the people behind the event weren’t holding it in order to tempt the public to try new tastes, but rather, with the aim of preserving the old ones.
The organizers define the “tradition banquet” as a Torah conference on “conservation of traditions identifying ritually clean animals and Temple observances.”
The Torah, of course, does detail the signs that define a given animal as kosher or nonkosher (ritually pure or impure). However, according to post-scriptural rabbinical law, this is insufficient. Furthermore, concerning the consumption of birds, it is also necessary to have a tradition of eating them. Under some of the systems, an eating tradition is also required for mammals. Preserving these traditions was the main aim of the grand banquet.
A glass case had locusts jumping around next to a kashrut certificate; there were skulls of medium- to large-size mammals, including a water buffalo, gazelle and oryx
There were also secondary, more personal goals among attendees. For instance, some Temple activists came because of their fondness for reenacting the past, while other diners came out of an interest in Torah. Mainly, though, the motivation seemed to be curiosity – imaginations ignited by a combination of the exotic and the kosher.
“We’ve traveled in the East and we saw tourists trying all kinds of strange things – and we couldn’t because of kashrut, so this is our opportunity to try,” said Kama, a 19-year-old settler with bright red hair who came to the banquet with her father. “We are representing the family,” he explained. “To come with my wife and seven children would be expensive.”
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They didn’t have to wait long to sample the atmosphere, at least. A number of displays stood at the entrance to the banquet hall, hints at what was to follow on their plates: A glass case had locusts jumping around next to a kashrut certificate; there were skulls of medium- to large-size mammals, including a water buffalo, gazelle and oryx. There was also a jar containing a preserved giraffe’s foot, resting nonchalantly on a table. A photographer roamed among the guests and people rushed to have their photos taken next to the various animal skulls on display.
The meal did not consist entirely of bygone meats. There were also various breads and vegetables, even leek patties. But those dishes, too, had to conform to a strict set of standards and be based solely on ingredients available during the biblical period. Thus, there were no newfangled ingredients like tomato or eggplant on offer.
However, the chef in charge of the evening’s food, Yossi Ben-Dayan, admitted he had committed a kind of culinary sin: He’d added a bit of paprika – a non-biblical spice, it turns out – to one dish that was served (“So my mother wouldn’t get annoyed”).
So what did appear on the table? Vegetables like leeks and Armenian cucumbers (Cucumis melo var. flexuosus). The biblical names for these vegetables are the modern Hebrew words for hay and zucchini, respectively, and the latter, which looks like a sort of furry cucumber, is very much identified with Palestinian cuisine (it’s known as fakus in Arabic).
The dishes served for the first course were pigeon soup with hawaij, quail eggs and roast turkey meat with a side of helmeted guineafowl and pheasant on lahoh
The research into the identification of the biblical plants with plants that are known today was carried out by Zohar Amar of Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, the initiator and driving force behind the banquet. In addition to his academic research, the onetime botanist is also engaged with what he calls Torah research. “From my perspective, science is part of the Torah. God gave us science,” he explained.
Alongside colleagues, over the years he has conducted research to document ancient customs of various communities. It was that desire to preserve that gave rise to the “tradition banquet,” which was held for the first time back in 2002.
Amar has an additional aspiration: to add water buffalo meat to our daily diet. The large mammal was commonly raised here before the establishment of the state. “They used to slaughter water buffaloes at the abattoir in Bnei Brak,” he recounts, perhaps a touch too enthusiastically.
Eat, Pray, Locust
Gradually, a variety of tasters began to gather around the tables. The event’s main organizer, Ofer Kapach, director of the Torah Education Department at the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council, must have been thrilled.
Two newly observant men who are nowadays involved in importing cellphones sat at the head of one of the tables. Next to them, Avital Indig examined the dishes closely — she is an inquisitive diner and also the restaurant critic of the religious-Zionist Makor Rishon newspaper.
On the other side, two secular-looking women sat together, the situation perhaps a little alien to them. Within a few minutes, however, it became apparent that one of them is a local celebrity: Yael Ze’evi, the daughter-in-law of Rehavam Ze’evi (the late Israeli politician who called for the transfer of Palestinians and was assassinated in 2001).
It was due to her presence that the people at her table benefited from free refills of wine and also frequent visits from Psagot Winery owner Yaakov Berg. Her companion was Michal Sela, a mikveh (ritual bath) architect who had not been aware of the nature of the event beforehand as Ze’evi had not revealed all the details to her. “This is the last day of our friendship,” Sela laughed.
The dishes served for the first course were pigeon soup with hawaij (a ground-spice mixture much loved in Yemen), quail eggs and roast turkey meat with a side of helmeted guineafowl and pheasant on lahoh (a spongy flatbread made in a frying pan, also found in Yemenite cuisine).
The pheasant, it was said, cost 1,000 shekels per kilogram. The flavor of the pigeon was strong and distinct, and caused one of the diners – who tried to extract some meat from between the small bird’s bones – to declare that he refused to eat the bird. Then, though, came a demonstration of how to have your bird and eat it too: A taxidermied pheasant was presented to them, with an explanation of its signs of ritual purity.
Then came the cranes – not at the table, to some diners’ regret, but on a video screen as Amar discussed the question of whether the crane has the signs of ritual purity. (In case you were wondering: it does.) “This is so appetite-suppressing,” one woman muttered.
The round of poultry was concluded by breaded, fried Barbary duck, which was without a doubt one of the most successful dishes of the evening.
“I’ve never felt so meaty on so many levels before,” observed another participant. And to the amazement of the attendees, Amar released a house sparrow into the room, marking a custom of German Jews. No one ate it, as far as is known.
Next came goat shawarma, which did not generate much excitement. However, this was just the warm-up for one of the stars of the evening, which also arrived in a special way: On a rolling cart and spitted on the branch of a pomegranate tree, a goat kid (gedi mekulas) made its ceremonial entrance into the center of the hall. This is a whole young goat, including its head, legs and entrails, with the innards suspended outside its body, just as the Passover sacrifice was at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Amar invited the crowd to take a piece of the kid, which they hastened to do. Some had their pictures taken with the dead animal’s head, which had been separated from its body during the feeding frenzy. The excited crowd used their hands to pull off pieces. “Grab a leg, bro,” one young fellow urged his friend. Another pulled off another piece and quickly regretted it: “Eww, it’s not cooked!”
“Bro,” someone else called out, “the Passover sacrifice wasn’t tasty. I’m throwing it into the bushes” – and he proceeded to toss it into a bush outside the hall.
Don’t argue with a biblical recipe
One of the outstanding dishes of the evening never lived, never grew out of the ground or on a tree, but did have deep biblical roots. This was Ezekiel bread, the recipe for which appears in the Bible (unsurprisingly, in the book of Ezekiel, 4:9): “Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and spelt, and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof.” It turns out there is no arguing with a biblical recipe. Alongside it were “thanksgiving breads” – dense semolina loaves that were brought as an offering in the Temple.
The person responsible for the breads was Eliezer Seidel, a pâtissier who spoke about the “Showbread Institute” he established in the settlement of Karnei Shomron, where he devotes his life to recreating the breads that were displayed at the Temple on Fridays.
In general, the Temple was quite a central theme of the evening. Along with the bread and kid, the event also included some prominent figures in the Temple movement, including ultra-Orthodox activist Rabbi Yosef Elboim and Bentzi Gopstein.
Another characteristic of the banquet were the words that flowed as freely as the wine. Not only the words that described the foods and their virtues, but also the language from the theoretical realms. One of the research studies Amar presented as the guests were sinking their teeth into the meat concerned the milking of various animals, including giraffes.
That research came following a request from the Agriculture Ministry, which, according to Amar, had invested in raising red dear for meat consumption, but then a disagreement had emerged among rabbis over whether it was kosher.
“I started looking for a criterion that distinguishes between a nonkosher and a kosher animal, and I found a distinction in the Gemara – to the effect that the milk of a kosher animal curdles,” he relayed. In the context of the study, along with the head of the Milk Institute at the Volcani Center, a lactating giraffe was milked at Ramat Gan Safari Park. It turned out that her milk curdled.
Giraffe milk was not on the menu. There was no milk, of course, because it isn’t kosher to have milk and meat in the same meal. However, the diners had the opportunity to taste the closest thing to milk and meat at the same time, sort of: cow udder. A portion of udder, a delicacy that is disappearing but had been popular among Morocco’s Jewish community, was surprisingly served along with leek patties. The udders served were rubbery, but after a few bites there was a strong taste of milk.
Several young people asked me, as a writer for Haaretz – or as a kind of ambassador of omnivores, at least in their view – whether that really resembled the taste of milk with meat. I told them that, unfortunately, it did not.
Something kosher instead of worms
The organizers intentionally saved the headline act for last, well into the fifth hour of the banquet. Unlike the other dishes, which were served on elegant crockery, the locusts were brought in on a cart that was placed at the side of the hall. Official kashrut rules did not allow for the locusts to be cooked in the kitchen of the venue or for them to be served on its dishes. Amar said that while he had great respect for rabbis, their stringent leanings are eradicating the customs of certain communities and disturb him.
“I, who eat locust in the tradition of my forefathers, am simply upholding rabbinical law,” he explained. “If anyone wants to be strict in that way, good luck to him. But because of your own strictness, you can’t prohibit me from following my tradition. You aren’t going to turn me into someone who takes these things lightly.”
The person responsible for supplying a great many locusts for the event was Avichai Binyamini, an Education Ministry employee who studies the insect. He first began raising locusts 25 years ago as a hobby – and also as a mission. “Sometimes people asked me to bring locusts to events or performances,” he said. “I once supplied locusts to a reality TV show, and my agenda was that instead of eating worms in the competition, they should at least eat something kosher.”
There are two main ways of cooking locust, he said: frying them like nibbles, or blanching them in boiling water. Over the years, the tradition of eating locust was common among the Moroccan and Yemenite Jewish communities, but there too it seems to be dying out.
“I am Yemenite and would see my grandfather and grandmother eating fried locusts like salted nuts and seeds,” a smiling young man said, “but I can’t touch this.”
However, many others were not so reticent. Yael Ze’evi described them as very tasty; Na’ama Berg, one of the owners of the winery, said she ate “two of them, whole” and expressed satisfaction at the experience. Gopstein, who arrived to this particular food station late, was surprised to find there were no locusts left. He joked that he wanted his money back.
Toward the end of the evening, the smiling young man sought me out and wanted to amend his previous comment about the locusts. Despite his initial misgivings, he had indeed tasted one. “It’s OK,” was how he graded the delicacy. “The main thing is that I took a picture and sent it to my father so he could see me eating them, like my grandfather and grandmother.”