Connecting food, heritage, loss, and love for Israel.
Part of what made me want to be a shlicha, an Israeli emissary, is my love for my home country of Israel, as well as my desire to help others see its beauty; to fall in love with it, not just on their own, but through my eyes. To see Israel the way I see her.
There are an infinite number of ways to create a relationship with the State of Israel. The experiences you can have are as diverse as the cultures that can be found there.
For me, though, it has always been about the food.
As an Israeli with roots in the Moroccan and Yemenite cultures, food has always been a big part of my life. Growing up, I remember how conversations throughout the week revolved around what we would be making for Shabbat dinner. On Friday, we would go to the shuk (market) to buy food and challah. The smells of my parents cooking Friday afternoon, aromas that lingered until Shabbat morning. Nearly every memory I have involves food; and most of the time when I talk about my family, at some point food will be mentioned.
This is why, when I began working in the Olam Tikva and Gesher Jewish Day School communities in Northern Virginia, there was one program I knew I had to bring here: "Taste of Memories." The program was created by a shlicha in Minnesota who had just completed her army service. In those first months, both of being out of the IDF and being in a new community, she felt the need to teach about what it means to Israelis, soldiers and civilians alike, when a soldier falls in battle. She created this program that allowed her community, and now our community, to learn about those who sacrificed their lives in the defense of Israel.
One of the most loving things a parent does on a regular basis is cook his or her child’s favorite meal. Parents know each ingredient, each step of the process, and there is no greater reward than seeing their child enjoy it when it’s ready. Preparing those foods and seeing that joy is just one of the many small things lost when a soldier falls in battle.
"Taste of Memories" seeks to honor those fallen soldiers through the food they loved. We spend some time cooking the soldier’s favorite meal, guided by the same recipes given to us by their parents, and as we eat the foods, we learn about their life. We become part of those who are tasked with preserving their memory, the memory of who they were, of the tastes and smells that filled their homes and their bellies.
When I first participated in this program while training to be a shlicha, the soldier who was chosen was someone whose story I already knew. At first, I thought there was little more I could learn or understand about him. Yet as I added one ingredient to the next and watched the final product take shape, emotions began to overwhelm me as they never had before. I realized that I was doing something for his memory, something that his parents could no longer do for him.
As I ate the food, I felt as though I was connecting to this fallen soldier in a new, unique way. I understood I was able to eat his favorite chocolate brownies only because he could not. For me, it was one of the most powerful moments I have had in remembering those who have died for Israel, and I knew, instantly, that I must bring it to Olam Tikvah and Gesher.
I have found that the "Taste of Memories" program truly helps create a bridge between Americans and Israelis, in what it means to honor our fallen soldiers and to remember them. It made an impact on me an Israeli who has lost friends in service of the IDF, yet I was amazed that the program has just as strong an impact on many people who have participated in it here at Olam Tikvah. Cooking together, exploring the ingredients of these foods, has made the group want to learn more about the soldiers, to understand who they were, and to ensure that each of their lives will have a legacy.
By cooking and eating their favorite foods, learning about who they were, we can help preserve their memory. The smells and tastes that brought joy to their lives can help us appreciate them as their memory becomes our responsibility.
This article is an abridged version of “Learning About Israel Through Food,” which appeared in the January 2019 newsletter of Congregation Olam Tikvah.
By Noy Peri