Culture Fop / The Mad Genius of Israeli Cuisine Avoids the Slammer

Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
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Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer

Haaretz photographers can speak, too

The World Press Photo exhibition, which comes annually to the Eretz Yisrael Museum in Ramat Aviv and which opened last week, is like a flipbook of all the pain and inspiration that defined the past year. It’s usually a pretty overwhelming experience – both for its beauty and for forcing you to face all the global tragedies that are often much less penetrating in words. Sure, there are killer sports photos as well and stunning nature images, but they’re usually not the ones that prick you.

Accompanying the exhibition since 2002 is Local Testimony, the competition that honors those photographers who captured the key moments in this region. They tend to deliver even more pain and far less inspiration, given our particular neighborhood.

A number of Haaretz photographers were singled out for recognition this year, among them Daniel Tchetchik, whose photo series on refugees in Levinsky Park in South Tel Aviv was selected as a Curator’s Choice.

Tchetchik, 37, has been working for Haaretz since 2003.  Though he appears in our pages only as a photo credit, his images speak volumes about the stories of the day.

The photos for which he’s honored came on assignment for the paper but also fit into larger explorations of the country's growing refugee issue, which seemed to reach a tipping point this year.

“I’ve been working with a partner, Oren Izre'el, on a long-term project covering the country for the past four years,” Tchetchik says of his extracurricular activities. “They were crucial years for Israel and for the world, with so many immigrants coming in from Africa When we started the project, there were 20,000 refugees here. When we finished, it was 50,000.”

In the process, Tchetchik and Izre'el developed a photo technique that fills some of the gaps in traditional photojournalism.

“We were frustrated by the single image of the news world that only looks at one angle,” he explains. “When we were documenting, we came up with a new method of photographing which photographs a situation from two different angles simultaneously. Like a diptych.” 

Tchetchik is embarking on another documentary adventure, this time in the United States where he and Izre'el are capturing the country at the request of Delta Airlines. They just returned from a three-week road trip from Seattle to Houston and will return soon to cover the land from Miami to New York, which is somewhat familiar turf given that Tchetchik lived in Boston from age 7 to 14. All in all, the pair plans to cover about 60 to 70 percent of the United States.

The plan is to not have a plan: The two stop off in whatever town seems interesting. “The best way to tell a story about a place is to look around and not do too much research beforehand,” say Tchetchik.

Images from "Reality Check," the three-year venture by Tchetchik and Izre'el can be found at

Who is Eyal Shani? (And how did he escape the financial frying pan?)

To me, Eyal Shani is the man who made the cauliflower cool again. Or maybe he made it cool for the first time. At his Tel Aviv restaurant Abraxas North, the signature dish is an unassuming full head of cauliflower – leaves included – broiled to tender perfection and served modestly on a slab of cardboard with a generous handful of salt tossed around the table for dipping. Who knew the blanched veggie had such a personality waiting to be set free?

Yet despite his talent for unlocking flavors, Shani, one of Israel’s most popular celebrity chefs, almost found himself locked up last week when a judge demanded he pay back creditors or risk jail time, capping nearly a year of public financial woes for the man known for waxing poetic over tomatoes and anthropomorphizing food to an often ridiculous degree (last week, Culture Fop bore witness to the at-times-incomprehensible explanations of his abstract food photography at Pecha Kucha).

Born in 1959, the self-taught Shani endeared himself to foodies with the opening of Oceanus, a high-end restaurant that made a splash critically more than 20 years ago. But the restaurant, which he opened with his ex-wife Rachel Sellem in 1989, eventually drowned financially, closing down a decade later and accumulating a hefty debt that is a primary ingredient in Shani’s current troubles.

Since then, a number of recent ventures have helped rebound his reputation, including Salon (2008), which is open only twice a week, Abraxas North, a joint venture with Shahar Segal, with whom Shani co-hosted the culinary talk show “Food for Thought” in 2004 that blended lessons for the kitchen with lessons for life and Miznon (2011), a bougie interpretation of classic street-food. The restaurant may look like your average falafel stand, but the ribs and poached-egg-stuffed pitas at two or three times the average street-food price puts it in a category of its own.

But it was the 2010 premiere of the “Master Chef” reality TV competition that really catapulted Shani, a judge on the show, to the status of national icon thanks to his slow cooked, on-air philosophical musings. The third season is currently underway, but the beloved chef’s off-screen issues almost threatened to overpower his cool onscreen persona, and a trip to jail may have left this season with a bad taste.

At the 11th hour, though, the money materialized to cover the minimum payments required by the judge and Shani managed to avoid the financial frying pan. Now the nation’s culinary poet is on a strict monetary diet to pay off his debts, but given his skill at turning even the simplest dishes into tasty wonders, no doubt he’ll manage to do something clever with the bitter lemons and side of humility now in his kitchen.

If you speak English, they will come

It's one thing to learn a new language and something else entirely to get its humor. As a relatively new citizen in Israel, I generally find that I can follow along in the build-up to a joke in Hebrew but somehow always miss the turn-off to the punch-line. On a recent visit to the United States, catching up with family and old friends, I realized that I laughed more in two weeks than I have in the past year. There's just no way to bottle that medicine up and bring it back.

But the good doctor is hawking a new remedy called Tziporela, a sketch comedy troupe of nine very talented and zany characters, now available in English for the first time.

The ensemble hooked up at Nissan Nativ, one of Israel's top acting schools, over a decade ago and studied together for three years before graduating and founding Tziporela. They've been going strong, creating three different shows and gaining a following for the past eight years but had been performing only in Hebrew until this past weekend's English premiere at the Tzavta Theater in Tel Aviv.

It was a trip to Australia last year that inspired the troupe to branch out linguistically, says ensemble member Efrat Aviv. On that visit, they performed some sketches translated from the Hebrew but found it missed the mark.

"Some sketches you can’t translate," Aviv say.  "You lose what’s funny."

But with spanking new sketches for the sold-out English-speaking audience (though at least half the crowd sounded like native Hebrew speakers), that wasn't a problem.  The various vignettes, each just a few minutes long, leaned heavily on physical theater and slapstick or played with the humor found in translation, or mistranslation. 

"There are lots of sketches with no words," Aviv points out.  "It’s about human behavior."  The show aims for a type of universal tomfoolery, heavy on the camp. The goal is to reign in all the tourists and Birthright trips shut out of the Israeli theater scene by a pesky language barrier. "They have no alternatives," she says.

The next English show will take place on Monday, January 28 at 9 P.M., also at Tzavta. In the meantime, the gang has plans to spread the word with their near-perfect American accents at hotels around town, along Rothschild Blvd. and at the American embassy (and by that, I mean Mike's Place).

I ran into some fellow Anglo “olim after the show, folks who can hold their own in Hebrew but seemed grateful for the break. We all agreed the show earned thumbs up. More than anything, though, it just felt good to finally get the joke.

Want to stay up-to-date with the cultural happenings around town? Follow Brian Schaefer on Twitter: @MyTwoLeftFeet. Share your own cultural adventures in Israel with hashtag #CultureFop.

Photoraphers Daniel Tchetchik and Oren Izre'el developed a technique that captures subjects simultaneously from different perspectives.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik and Oren Izre'el
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Tziporela troupe.Credit: Ben Palchov
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From the series of two-angle photos by Daniel Tchetchik and Oren Izre'el.
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Two photos taken simultaneously from different angles opens up a world unavailable in a traditional single-angle news photo.Credit: Daneil Tchetchik and Oren Izre'el