What’s an excellent Israeli restaurant doing in an American town with no Israelis?
One could easily say that Yalla Vermont is the best Israeli restaurant you’ll never eat in. The place has an Israeli name, an Israeli chef and menu, and it's adorned with pictures of Israel. It’s located in Brattleboro in southwestern Vermont, on the border with New Hampshire – a town of some 12,000 residents, none of whom is Israeli.
“New York doesn’t interest me, nor does New Jersey,” says Zohar Arama, 47, the owner of the year-old restaurant. “I don’t like pressure, and at my age, I’m not looking to conquer the world. I’m not interested in large crowds nor in Israeli ones.”
Thus, instead of choosing New York, Arama opted for Brattleboro – three hours away but virtually as far as can be from Manhattan, surrounded by breathtaking mountainous scenery, surrounded by bodies of water that would embarrass Lake Kinneret. Arama combines the hard work of running a restaurant with devoting himself to nature and the pastoral Vermont lifestyle.
“The restaurant is open five days a week, five hours a day, from 10 A.M. to 3 P.M.,” he explains. “Life is short and I want to enjoy myself, to be with my wife and my 13-year-old daughter. I have no intention of becoming a slave to my work.”
Arama is no sucker. Far from it. Still, midday on a Thursday, the line at Yalla Vermont, a vegetarian establishment, stretches from the counter where people place orders to the door. Wearing a hippie-style bandana and shirt with the restaurant’s logo, Arama doesn’t stop stuffing falafel into pita or adding spices to the shakshuka bubbling on a gas stove, while preparing dozens of plates of hummus, one after the other.
In the corner are stacked dozens of shirts, long- and short-sleeved, with the Yalla logo, as if this were paraphernalia being sold by a popular rock band. The 'fridge is overloaded with containers of hummus for sale, and on the counter sit packages containing five thick pita – just like you find at Jerusalem's open-air Mahaneh Yehuda market. The pita, like the hummus, is homemade.
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Arama: “I grew up in Ashkelon, following the usual route of high school, serving in the Israel Defense Forces Armored Corps, studying architectural engineering at Tel Aviv University, and then returning to Ashkelon, where I opened a store selling hiking equipment.”
In 2001 he went on a six-month trek on the famous Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Canada all the way down to Alabama in the south. He walked over 2,000 kilometers, from Maine to Georgia.
“It's one of the most amazing experiences anyone could have,” he says, happily reminiscing. “It’s an amazing feeling, a rare experience of being cut off for five months, of clearing your head.” On the trail he met his future wife, who comes from Connecticut. When they finished their hiking, they returned together to Israel.
“We lived in Israel for nine years,” he continues. “I managed the store. We had it good, until she had enough of living in Israel, with all the missiles landing on Ashkelon and the pressure all around.”
In 2012 the couple moved to Vermont. Unlike other Israelis, New York simply wasn’t on Arama's radar: “The last time I was there was probably three years ago. When I go there I get a shock. I don’t like all the commotion. I don’t go looking for it. I like quiet, being connected to the environment. I don’t even have neighbors here.”
That’s what life is like in Vermont: a state with more cows than people, more farms than supermarkets, more tractors than buses. A state where someone like Arama, he says, can buy a plot of 35 acres for $30,000.
“For over half a year I built our house by myself,” he says, explaining that in contrast to Manhattan and other big American cities, in Vermont – which has 600,000 residents living in an area that’s larger than Israel – no one bothers you with strict safety codes or bureaucratic demands that wear you out.”
When he finished building his house in 2015, he started making hummus: “My mother is Yemenite and my father is Greek, so from a young age I grew up with a passion for food, in a house with pots that were always full.”
At first, Arama sold his hummus from a stand he'd set up in local food markets. He arrived with a mobile tabun oven in which he baked pita, and taught the locals how to consume their plates of hummus with it, Israeli-style. Success was immediate, he says – which is no small feat in a state where many families hunt for dinner in the mountains behind their house.
Last year, his stand morphed into a restaurant.
“The most interesting thing is that, in contrast to Israel, where hummus is somehow perceived as a masculine food – 90 percent of my customers are women,” says Arama. “Hummus is perceived as a healthy food, natural and pure. Men here are more about pizza, meat and beer.”
He is not looking for an Israeli clientele; even if he were, he’d be more likely to meet a polar bear on a Brattleboro street. But his homeland is front and center at his eatery: There are pictures of Israel on napkin holders and photo albums scattered on the counter alongside cookbooks of Jewish cuisine, tourist magazines about Israel, and even a copy of the Zohar, the seminal work on mystical Judaism. It’s not that this expat is religious, far from it. But if you’re Israeli, then go the whole nine yards.
At Arama's restaurant a falafel – called "Yalla Sababa" on the menu – costs $10, as does a plate of shakshuka. Arama stresses that he makes the hummus from organic chickpeas just like the locals love. A bourekas pastry costs $6 and a Shabbat challah, $8. Malabi (a traditional Middle Eastern rosewater-scented pudding) costs $5. Turkish coffee and spicy skhug spread are also on offer.
"I once had some clients who wanted to open a restaurant with them in other places with many more Israelis, in much busier locations," says Arama. "But that doesn’t appeal to me. I’m fine as far as making a living goes.”
So, what does appeal to him? Putting his hummus in as many 'fridges as possible: “I currently sell it at six local stores, but I’ve started working with a local distributor now. That’s my main direction: getting into as many stores as I can. What surprised me is that Vermonters can distinguish between the high-quality hummus I prepare and the kind you buy in supermarkets.”
On base, it seems that Arama and his customers love each another. Maybe that has to do with the mountainous landscape that imbues them with a special calmness; or maybe it’s the years he worked in Ashkelon that makes him see things differently.
“Customers here are much less picky than Israelis,” he says. “Give them what they want, put it in a pita, and they never complain. It’s a pleasure to serve them. People thank you all the time. I had a business in Israel and I can’t compare the two. Here I don’t fight with anyone. I don’t finish the day a nervous wreck. It’s simply a pleasure.”