Tel Aviv's Favorite Foodie Finally Caters to English Readers With New Cookbook

Dafna Arad
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Dafna Arad

Local cookbook shelves have made room in recent months for a new volume, in English, called "Confessions of a Kitchen Rebbetzin." On the cover is a photo of a devout Orthodox woman in a flowery head scarf, standing with her back to the reader. The back cover warns: "Brace yourselves: Rebbetzin G.H. Halpern, mother of seven and wife to a highly respectable rabbi, reveals the whole truth about everyday Israeli cooking."

The book is made up of eight confessions, ranging from light-hearted to serious. For instance, the initial one - "This is my first book. I will not deceive you, God forbid, and claim that I have experience in this field" - is quite far from the truth. And the hoax goes on for 145 pages. Thus, the revealing confessions of the busybody rebbetzin who lives on the fourth floor, her stories about her husband the learned rabbi, her mother-in-law's egg salad, her seven children who love chicken - it's all a load of nonsense.

Because we are talking about what is essentially a recipe book (the confessions only appear in the chapter introductions ), and because anyone who lovingly buys it for the aunties and uncles in America will probably miss, while skimming it, the only page that isn't false, we will now serve you, as an appetizer, a literary spoiler - the last confession (verbatim ): "Ok, I am not really a Rebbetzin. More precisely, I am not even a woman. I am a man. Gay. My name is Gil Hovav, I am 50 years old, I have had a partner for the past 25 years and together we raise our 9 year old daughter."

Hovav's drag show is quite persuasive. The well-known Israeli food writer, television host, restaurant critic, publisher and cook managed to pull one over on me, and doubtless others as well, who enjoyed getting advice from the erstwhile balabusta rebbetzin on the preparation of Jerusalem kugel. Hovav was waiting for me at a coffee shop near his home in Tel Aviv with a glass of white wine - and without Shabbat candles, challah, a dress or head scarf.

"I decided to write a wild cookbook about a Shasnik rebbetzin and the food she makes for her seven children. I was trying to amuse myself," he explains, "and I also saw in it a mission of sorts: I wanted people to think the book was really written by a rebbetzin, so my name does not appear on the cover. I was told that in Jerusalem, one woman returned the book to the bookstore when she found out it wasn't written by a rabbi's wife. She asked for her money back. And I was happy.

"A few days later, I visited Modan Publishing, which together with my small publishing house, Toad, printed the book. Roni Modan said, 'This is the reader we've been waiting for,' and we all drank a toast in honor of the hoax. A majority of readers swallow it with love. Whoever wants to return the book can do so, no problem.

"I do wonder what happens when Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox people who originally came from the United States buy the book and suddenly encounter the final confession. I hope that it makes them smile, that it does not offend anyone. I have learned that ... when even the most devout people, the most right wing or narrowest-minded, meet someone who comes to them with an open heart - they manage to communicate with him on that basis."

Why a rebbetzin? Was it a challenging task to put yourself in her pantyhose?

"I did not make an effort to get inside her character. The moment she was there, she spoke and I was beside her. I didn't have to dress up or fantasize. This is far from being literature, and I am careful not to treat the text too seriously, but it is important for me to be clear that the book was not written in mockery of the character, but rather out of appreciation for women like this. She is a tough cookie (jeda ), not a moron (pustema ). There are tens of thousands like her. She has a place somewhere in my heart. The love of nourishing people, feeding families and feeding friends is shared by everyone who likes to cook. When my family, friends and I go on vacation, I always tell everyone: Go out to travel and have a good time, I'll stay and cook for you. That is my form of recreation, I do it lovingly and I get great satisfaction out of it. So I suppose feeding seven kids is the same thing.

"It all began one day when I was watching [British food writer and TV chef] Nigella Lawson on television and I understood that I would never be a kitchen goddess. She's got all sorts of things in pairs to offer, which I don't. I said: Okay, a goddess no, but a rebbetzin yes. We'll take it to the other extreme. With a little faith, nothing is impossible. I realized a small dream of mine and became a rebbetzin, and in doing so, I revealed what Israeli cuisine is. I cheated, I admit that, but my conscience is clear. I came clean at the end."

The cover emphasizes that the book is "strictly kosher." Is that another deception?

"I deliberately used that term because she's a rebbetzin, and this reflects the tone in her 'rabbinical' voice. It is a kosher book: I separated meat and milk, it contains no seafood. That is the custom in general in cookbooks: The market wants kosher."

Are you becoming religiously observant?

"I am as far from that as East is from West. I don't keep kosher, my TV cooking shows are not kosher, I have no affinity for religion. I am an atheist par excellence. Not only was I not raised in a religious home, I am secular by choice ... But I grew up in the 'light' of religion. For the Ashkenazim, God is cantankerous and punishes you. For the Sephardim there is another god, who's like a friend of the family. My Sephardi grandmother was a modern and educated woman, but she also had faith in a God who is nice and helpful [Horav, in addition to famously being a great-grandson of the very Ashkenazi Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, is of Yemenite descent on his father's side]. I don't think that God will really want to settle accounts with you if you tell white lies. Quite the contrary: He will reward you for it."

Why is the rebbetzin you made up unwilling to share her recipe for chicken soup?

"It was important to me that the rebbetzin be a bit of a shrew, a little sanctimonious, and a little ... well, in Ladino you say matadera, sort of a tough woman. If there's something I learned in my 25 years as a restaurant critic, it's that you don't take your Persian friend to a Persian restaurant, or your Hungarian aunt to a Hungarian one. And so, in a book that is aimed at American Jews, it is preferable not to give a recipe for chicken soup because it's a sure thing their mother had a recipe that was passed down in the family, and they would be disappointed by the new version.

"This is the first time I've published a book in English, after years of people asking me to do so. I lecture quite a bit abroad and the audience is usually wary of me ... It is always suspicious, thinks it is being hoodwinked and asks me to show it something in English. I have contributed recipes to international books by other famous writers, but it's embarrassing to have to refer to someone else's book."

The rebbetzin uses chicken-soup powder in some recipes, and isn't afraid to admit it.

"I use chicken-soup powder all the time. [Food critic] Hila Alpert says I probably set up lines of chicken-soup powder and snort them. At Toad, I have published five cookbooks by chef Jonathan Roshfeld. I told him I wouldn't force him to write that it's also permissible to use chicken-soup powder ... but [I said] he had better be aware that his readers aren't going to prepare soup stock from bones. He said, 'But, Gili, it's so simple, you put everything in and that's it.' I asked: And who's going to do the dishes? Who is going to stay at home for four hours until the stock is ready? Let's face it, the most readers will do is buy chicken stock at a deli, if they decide to go all out ...

"I certainly don't want to say, 'Use only powder.' Obviously stock is preferable. But when cooking dinner on a Tuesday, in 90 percent of the cases, nobody has stock on hand. You should use the better, less toxic chicken-soup powders, with less food coloring. They got their bad name when they were tetrazine with a little monosodium. It's not like that today. There are even vegan soup powders, not that I use them. If you're making the dinner in honor of your parents' 50th anniversary and you want to invest the time, then prepare bone stock."

Is part of your campaign being against faltzanut [a slang term for pretentiousness]? In your book "Cooking with 5 Ingredients," you are pictured with the slogan "Down with the pretentious!" inscribed on your hand. The final words of the book are something along the lines of, "Screw all the pretentious folks."

"Look, all of the talked-about restaurants in the world are super-pretentious. You eat there and it's gross. It's not food you want to eat again. It photographs well, but it isn't food. Popcorn made of the soles of chickens' feet is not something you will crave in the middle of the night ..."

Did you succeed in defining for yourself what Israeli food is?

"Israeli food is tasty. We create something wonderful here everyday, and it's not pretentious. I meet a lot of food correspondents, chefs, people in the film industry and politicians who come to Israel. I go out with them to a restaurant or outdoor market, on behalf of the Foreign Ministry or the Tel Aviv municipality, on a volunteer basis. And I am always shocked to discover that they think we eat chicken soup with kneidlach every day, or for that matter quinoa with pomegranate zest - because that's what it says in the airline magazine. At best, they think Israeli food is the Israeli breakfast in the hotel, which is recycled from yesterday's salads in great abundance, which is horrifying. At worst, they think it's the food in chef's restaurants where they serve a basket of cilantro. Nobody eats that at home."

Does the list of recipes in this new book represent the most Israeli food in your eyes? Gombuc (a Hungarian dessert ), Sami Bourekas, drumstics made with Bisli (a snack food ), and basbousa (an Egyptian semolina cake )?

"Yes, a mishmash of food from various ethnic groups. Some of the dishes have already been granted citizenship and been given an Israeli twist, like schnitzel made with chicken breast. Israeli cuisine does not exist yet per se; it is slowly progressing in clear directions. I define it for my own purposes as eastern Mediterranean cuisine. Spicier and more sun-seared than Mediterranean cuisine, and with less cream and more olive oil. Bourekas is a kind of food of the gods, even though if I were to contemplate the last meal I would like to eat, it would include kubaneh [a Yemenite yeast bread]."

But the chocolate ball I offered you, you turn down. Do you follow a particular diet?

"Atkins is my favorite because it lets me be a pig. I have the self-hate diet, the 'you're fat, repulsive and ugly' diet, the 'you have no willpower, you fool' diet. There is the diet where I tell myself each day: 'This week no alcohol and no sugar!' No, I'm kidding. I'm not some anorexic hottie. I eat tons."

And suffer guilt?

"No, I am a 50-year-old man. A 50-year-old man is entitled to have a small potbelly. Whenever I shoot programs with Arabs, they tell me: 'You need to fatten up.' Apparently in their eyes it really isn't dignified to resemble the branch of an almond tree [a reference to Jeremiah 1] ... It's ridiculous to be too thin after 50. But despite this theory, when I spot the spare tire I want to get rid of it."

You really haven't appeared on the small screen in a long time.

"I think that I am not so suitable for the television of this decade. I'm not a blonde with big boobs."

That can be arranged ...

"True, but I don't want to sweat over it, and that's fine. I am not bitter about it, and I'm not complaining."

You look exactly as you always have. What's changed?

"There used to be room for bald guys on TV, today there isn't. TV has become a lot more commercial. For seven years I marketed a series I made about Nobel Prize laureates to every channel in the country. Eventually Educational Television agreed. We filmed one season and that was enough for them too. Once upon a time we expected TV to have educational value, we looked to it. Today we do not. My relationship with TV is like that between a straight woman and a gay man - and I'm the straight woman here. What I have to offer is not what the client is looking for. Both sides are fine; they just don't connect."

Don't watch TV, don't appear on it - are you completely fed up with this medium?

"I was hot for TV once. But I don't want to do all kinds of shows full of compromises and marketing content, which are middle of the road. What for?"

On the agenda now, Hovav adds, handing me a business card, is his new Internet site,

"I work on it myself. With the shape the media is in today, you have to be your own publisher, because the written press is changing - and that's putting it delicately - and TV is very commercial, which is also putting it delicately.

"I had a website in the past called, when I was on prime time on Channel 2, and it was horrific. I'd get 500 e-mails a day of, 'How do you make matbucha [a Turkish salad]?' I took it off the Web because everyone I didn't answer would get offended. Now that I am outside prime time, I suppose I will be able to run the new site, which will include restaurant reviews, recipes, guide to cities in the world - all mine.

"I'm a type of amorphic media person with a basket of occupations. A journalist who has one home is going to take a beating. We need to understand that the world around us is changing and adapt ourselves to the medium. I also have a publishing house, and I do the restaurant review spot 'Up to NIS 50' on Army Radio. It's something that grabs the ear and the stomach. Naturally, I cheat quite a bit. If the place is worth it, I lie openly with love and say that a NIS 70 dish cost 50. If God wants to settle the score with me, he will. Imagine if he existed ..."

Gil Hovav. 'The book was not written in mockery of the character, but rather out of appreciation for women like this. She is a tough cookie, not a moron.'Credit: Ilya Melnikov