How much of similarity is there between that place and going to Kim’s BBQ in Olney?
On the surface huge, but really you’re talking about cultures that don’t put a lot of emphasis on things other than the vegetables and having these little tastes and the style of eating, it’s conducive to fun, which is really in the spirit of Israeli food and obviously what we try to emulate here. That whole idea of not having huge portions of everything is really exciting and I think you see that here now at a lot of trendier restaurants. I love it. I love Korean BBQ, obviously. I love tapas. I think that extends out of cultures that don’t have tons of money and you gotta stretch meat a little bit and rely mostly on fruit and vegetables for sustenance.
The film, which opens and closes by emphasizing how immigrants inform Israeli life, very smartly turns the lens back on American cuisine by pointing out that the same issues of culinary identity—and hence, identity in a general sense—can be applied here.
In general, what I hope that people get is the emphasis or display of commonality. That when you break down these barriers or walls—I hate to use these clichéd terms—you’re looking at basically a similar group of people and you’re gonna sit [down with them] and as Erez Komarovsky said, the tomato doesn’t give a shit whether you’re an Israeli or Palestinian. It doesn’t matter. You’ve got all these cultures that are essentially the same. They care about their families. They care about their history. They want to preserve those things and I think throughout the film you get the sense that the people aren’t entirely different. Rather than focusing on conflict or sort of indecision…it doesn’t need to be about that. I’m hoping that people understand that and appreciate that from the film.
The film, in a subtle way, calls people to go on a journey, to see Israeli food and Israeli society differently, as well as to see any conflicts in the region differently by recognizing a shared humanity. Was there a journey to getting to that yourself after the death of your brother?
I think it’s a little bit hard to say…I don’t know…It’s a little bit difficult to put a name to it. It’s not necessarily a cognitive thing. I discuss this a lot when people ask about food. They’re like, after he died, you wanted to cook Israeli food. It wasn’t like a cognitive decision. It was something that I sort of developed, you know? I guess in a way—obviously representing Israel is important to me for a lot of reasons and, how should I put this…being aligned with things that are honoring my brother is also important to me. I don’t put that before my own ideals. For example, Zahav, everyone’s like, it’s a tribute to your brother. Well, it is, but it’s also like, we’ve got like seventy-five employees, all these people that make it…my business partner Steve—we’re equal partners and make decisions together about Zahav. It’s not my thing. It’s not just…it’s not only for my brother. There’s a lot of…I’m trying to promote, obviously, Israeli culture and Israeli cuisine and the people that make up Israel and I think those are things that my brother also died defending.
But just as the film asks us to go on a multi-faceted journey, did you have to go on one yourself, or did you always see Israel—and the surrounding issues and conflicts—the same way?
I think my politics have always been sort of the same. They sort of changed slightly, I guess, but I’ve always been peace loving. I’ve been always pro-peace.
How has the immigrant portion of Israeli culture, from your perspective, been changing?
It’s just different waves of immigrants, actually. The ones that have been there a little bit longer are a little more established, and now there are Ethiopians and their cuisine is finally making it into Israeli—it’s not reached mainstream acceptance but it’s on its way.
When we talked for that tongue article (for Philadelphia City Paper) several years ago, you painted a beautiful picture of the market places in Israel.
Particularly, Hatikva market. You were talking about all the different types of offal and all the disparate cultures represented there. If you could pick out any market you’ve been to, can you relate how you’ve seen the immigrant presence there?
I think Carmel market [Tel Aviv] is really, really interesting. If you go to the Levinsky market [South Tel Aviv], there’s a lot of Balkan influence, which I find to be really cool. It’s not only sort of Eastern or Sephardic, there’s a lot of—there’s the Eastern European guys, there’s an Iraqi woman that runs a cheese shop that has different types of feta, basically. Fresher cheeses from all over the world. It’s really cool, much like if you go to 9th market street here in Philly. It’s kind of like Italian Market or whatever, but not really. If you go to the lower part of 9th street, the southern part, it’s Mexican and Vietnamese. I almost see it the same way. These markets and these cultures are layered into the fabric of the city.
Roger Sherman, Director, Writer, and Producer of In Search Of Israeli Cuisine
Brion Shreffler: What was the genesis of the idea for the documentary?
Roger Sherman: It started about 6 years ago. I was invited to go to Israel for the first time on a press trip. Joan Nathan, the very famous cookbook author, called and said she was leading a food press trip and I really had to come. Israel was not on any list—top ten or otherwise. I wanted to go to Paris. But I said, hmmm, I don’t have a project, so I went and I knew nothing about Israel and I was completely blown away by the people and especially by the food. Having been one of the poorest countries, it’s become such a modern country but few people know about the food—I didn’t. It’s got one of the most dynamic food scenes in the world I discovered. Every ten miles is a different microclimate, so they can grow tomatoes fresh all year round. In the north, it snows. In the south, it’s desert, like the moon, but 120°.
The produce is remarkable. Tel Aviv, you can’t get into restaurants at one o’clock in the morning. The street food is so much better than in the United States. I couldn’t believe what I found. When I came back and I started telling people about this amazing place and this amazing food, they laughed. Total disbelief. The more I talked to people, the more I realized that very few people knew what was going on in Israel and I thought, ah-ha, this could possibly be the subject for a great film. When looking for film subjects, I’m looking for ways to surprise and delight and inform. This seemed to have everything. Food tourism has become—six years later, it has really grown, but even then it was a very, very growing industry. And a lot of people are very interested in Israel from various points of view—non-political and political. Six years later, about two and half, to three years later full-time—it took that long because fundraising is always difficult with documentary filmmaking—we’re done and we’re in over 50 film festivals now.
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