Hummus State of Mind

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On the first night, the 35 jet-lagged Americans, who had met less than 24 hours earlier at JFK Airport in New York as they boarded their flight, sat around the Jerusalem hotel lobby and got to know one another.

As only befitting the sort of adventure they were setting off on, they discussed what each would want to eat for their last meal on earth.

Alana Burman, a vivacious 25-year-old radio presenter from Salt Lake City, Utah, who simply “loves food,” went for steamed artichoke, poached eggs on warm rye bread, and Gruyere cheese and fig jam for dessert. Cliff Shapiro, 25, a redhead from Santa Fe, New Mexico, who dreams of becoming a food photographer, came up with a more modest snack: green chili chicken pizza with, of course, a thin crust.

David Goldman, a 24-year-old New Jerseyite who runs the commissary for the Dig Inn health food chain in lower Manhattan, opted for some Korean barbecue with kimchi. And food blogger Paulette Hernandez, a 26-year-old from Southern California whose mother is Jewish and whose Colombian father is an Episcopal priest, went for that old West Coast favorite − the In-N-Out Burger.

No one mentioned halvah or brought up shawarma. No one suggested falafel or even gave hummus a vote. Chicken soup with matza balls were on no one’s list. And shakshuka? Who’s ever heard of that?

But all that was about to change.

More than just Yiddishkeit

More than 330,000 Jews from around the world have come to Israel on Taglit-Birthright trips over the last 13 years − schlepping their way up and down the country in the hope of getting a sense of it all in 10 packed days.

Getting at that elusive “sense of it all,” in Birthright’s case, usually involves some combination of climbing Masada, riding camels, praying at the Western Wall and trekking through Ein Gedi − all before noon. Gourmet tasting menus or leisurely strolls though the country’s fruit and vegetable markets are not one’s immediate association with the project.

But this was a foodie trip, organized by IsraelExperts, one of Birthright’s tour partners. It’s one of the few, but increasingly popular, niche tours on offer; they have participants doing the usual mix of activities − with a twist.

There are tours for fashion fans and tours for the high-tech crowd. There are tours for doctors and for people who have battled addictions. There are tours for architects, for the disabled, for people with Asperger’s syndrome, for bloggers, for gay and lesbian groups, and for budding photographers − to name but a few.

Doron Karni, vice president of international marketing at Birthright, says the main components of these niche trips ‏(there are about 16 a year‏) and the hundreds of classic Birthright trips are much the same − a little Yiddishkeit here, a few soldiers mixing in there, a little Galilee one day and a little Negev the next.

But the fashion fans get to meet with local designers, the high techies visit start-up companies, and the medical students get tours around hospitals. The bloggers get Wifi on their buses and the LGBT groups get a look into the Tel Aviv gay and lesbian scene. Meanwhile, the disabled tour is wheelchair friendly and lets participants bring a companion along.

And what about the foodies? Well, they get a lot of food.

“The best way to experience a country, for me, is definitely through eating,” says Zach Kanter, a 24-year-old music teacher with a goatee from Cleveland, Ohio. “What better way to understand our fellow Jews here than to break bread with them?”

‘Find the best bourekas’

This early-December foodie voyage − filled with chefs, people in the food business, people who want to be in the food business, and so it seems, just about anyone else who likes to eat − didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts.

“Austrian Airlines has the most awful food,” moans Melody Ain, a 23-year-old New Yorker with big heart-shaped glasses and a nose ring who works for the NYC Wine and Food Festival. “We all felt sick.” Half a dozen others nod in agreement.

“I’m sure if it were El Al, it would have been a different story,” chimes in Burman, as the group nods all the more vigorously. It’s the sort of spirited pro-everything-Israel enthusiasm almost expected of young people immersed in the Birthright bubble.

“But once we got to Israel, everything has been amazing,” says Burman. “Awesome,” agrees Ain. “The food is so fresh,” adds Shapiro, describing the first day’s treasure hunt through Mahaneh Yehuda, Jerusalem’s outdoor market, where teams were tasked with missions like “buy a kilo of fresh figs” and “find the best bourekas.”

And so it went: bourekas after the Knesset and figs before Yad Vashem. The special tour’s itinerary wove in Upper Galilee wine tasting with ancient synagogue visiting in Safed; labaneh cheese and za’atar ‏(hyssop‏) snacking with a drop-in to a Druze village. There was also a “MasterChef”-like competition alongside a visit to the Bedouins down south. And when the time came for the requisite Birthright visit to an army base, it was combined with the Americans cooking up dinner for the soldiers.

“It was a little difficult, what with the boats rocking and the lack of ingredients,” says 24-year-old Morie Newman from Washington, a chef on a barbecue food truck in the U.S. capital, as he describes the group’s evening on board navy ships docked in Ashdod. It was tough making pasta vegetable bolognese without tomatoes.

“I think they loved it,” he says. “They didn’t say so, but that’s because they didn’t want to offend their regular cook.”

As the week progresses, changes in the participants’ palates become apparent. On the tour’s second to last day, during free time in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, the Birthrighters scatter to local joints and order up an early lunch. “I’ll have shakshuka,” Burman tells the waitress, referring to the poached eggs in tomato sauce with chili peppers. It’s a concoction Israel likes to claim as its own.

“Shakshuka bevakasha,” chimes in Shapiro, using the Hebrew word for please. “Mmmm, I’ll have the special shakshuka,” adds Goldman. “Shakshuka is the greatest,” grins Kanter.

“I’m more of a sabich kind of girl,” admits Hernandez, referring to that import to Israel by Jews from the Arab world, including fried eggplant and a hard-boiled egg in a pita. “But I’ll take a little bite of your shakshuka.”

From Yemen to Poland

The last day of the trip begins with a full Israeli breakfast at the hotel in Bat Yam; it moves along to a visit to Abu Shukri, the legendary hummus joint tucked away in Jaffa. There, the Birthrighters, clearly hungry after the 10-minute bus ride from Bat Yam, join the patrons sitting around the sidewalk stoops wiping up bowls of the chickpea paste with pitas.

After that it’s a short, guided tour of old Jaffa and the port − a bit of history, a bit of politics − and, whew, it’s time for lunch − with everyone piling into the Dr. Shakshuka outdoor restaurant. They discuss how much weight they’ve put on, and what they most like in shakshuka − heavy on the cumin or light? That seems to be the question.

“I’m going to go back to my diet when I get home,” declares Jeff Griffin, a 26-year-old banker from Boston who before the trip was on the Paleo diet, where, he explains, you eat only what cavemen would have eaten. “There’s a lot of pita in this country,” he notes. “But it really is delicious.”

A few hours later, after a brief presentation at Independence Hall, where David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel’s independence in 1948 and the Birthright foodies of 2012 finally manage to take a snooze, the group gathers at Mizlala, one of Israeli chef Meir Adoni’s uber trendy restaurants. A friend of a friend of a cousin of one of the group’s leaders has somehow gotten Adoni to talk to the group as they sample some of his creations.

The appreciative Birthrighters, most of whom have never heard of Adoni, get into the spirit and treat the chef like the superstar he is, asking for photos and autographs. Adoni, meanwhile, waxes poetic about the flavors of Israel.

“What I love about this country is that it has an amazing mix of cuisines − from Yemen and Morocco to Polish,” he tells the group, who are dipping into the gourmet tahini and popped quinoa. “And what you are tasting here, on this trip of yours, is just the beginning. I hope you come back and stay for a while. Give us a try,” he says cheerfully.

Ari Ronick, a 26-year-old minor league pitcher in the San Francisco Giants organization, sips his arak as he listens to Adoni. Ronick, from Boulder, Colorado, has to get back for training, but otherwise he’d love to stay on. He knows there’s much more to see, not to mention to eat. “I’ve really felt a connection to the people here,” he says. “More than I expected.”

“We need you here,” says Adoni, who, if he ever gives up cooking, should consider running for head of the World Zionist Organization. “We need new blood, and new minds, and new ideas, and new food creations.”

The day is slowly coming to an end. Dinner is still ahead, of course, and then a little last-minute clubbing at Georgian restaurant Nanuchka, famous for its female visitors’ dancing on the tables. Then, at 1 A.M., the Birthrighters will be off, back to Ben-Gurion Airport and back to the awful food on Austrian Airlines. Then back home.

“It’s weird being here in the sun, surrounded by Jews, and I know in 24 hours I’ll be back surrounded by Christmas decorations and Christmas jingles everywhere,” says Newman. “DC is my home, and the food there is my food. But I’ve never felt the way I feel here in Israel about the U.S. It’s something emotional I can’t put my finger on.”

What meal would he order as his last, he is asked − now that he knows all about shakshukas and sabichs.

“Uh, I think I’d still go for duck confit, and maybe some candied bacon for dessert,” he says. But, Newman adds, weighing his words carefully, he might ask for a little “Israeli salad” on the side.

A Birthright foodie group in Israel in early December enjoying hummus in Jaffa.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Birthright foodies sampling local specialties in Jaffa. For participants in these niche tours, it's not just about the Yiddishkeit.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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