It wasn’t all that difficult to be a vegetarian while I was on a “young journalists” exchange in Israel in 1990, during the first intifada. Eating was largely a free-range affair, and the meatless choices — at least if one also ate eggs, cheese and fish — were numerous and good, far more varied than my daily San Francisco-based lunch habit of package-marinated tofu and avocado sandwiches. A lot of Israeli street food, like cheese- or spinach-filled bourekas (pastries), was, according to kosher rules, either dairy or pareve. Falafel sandwiches, made from crushed chickpeas and fresh parsley, were as common as pizza in Rome and better than even those of the King of Falafel, on Divisadero Street in San Francisco.
The strict kosher rules made it easier for Israeli restaurateurs to run a vegetarian-dairy restaurant, so there were many choices of eateries, like the grape-arbor-covered outdoor-garden bistro in Jerusalem that we frequented. At the hostels, it was easy to fill up on hardboiled eggs, cheese, olives, pickles, bread and chocolate at any meal.
Then the program arranged to have us each spend the weekend with the Israeli families of the journalists who would be leaving for America. On a Friday, I landed in an apartment in Tel Aviv with Aron’s family: his mother, a woman who had made aliyah from England as a young girl after the war; his father, a sabra who made the best effort of them all to speak his broken English for my benefit, and his older sister, who came over just for dinner. Redheaded Aron was still in the army, a flaming liberal grateful for his noncombatant job at the radio station.
His mother, bug-eyed and reserved like Maggie Smith, was a gracious host. Drinks she set out in the name of necessity: She complained about the unrelenting heat, which she hadn’t gotten used to in her 40 years of living there. She raised her eyebrows when I refused a snack and a nap, but she said nothing. Almost as an afterthought, she showed me dinner on the stove, explaining that, according to Sabbath rules, once the sun went down she couldn’t cook, not even to stir the pot.
In the kettle were dark cubes of beef in a brown roux, along with a few carrots and wrinkled peas overcome, in color and texture, by the hours they’d spent on the heat. It didn’t look appetizing, but it was going to be my dinner. I had a private rule: As a guest in someone’s home, I wouldn’t reveal my dietary restrictions. My vegetarianism was personal, not religious or moral. It was nutritional, maybe even emotional, a way to impose order on my life. I didn’t feel right forcing all that on others.
This ominous-looking meal was a challenge, though. I did wish for a moment that I could be like my more confident vegetarian friends who probably would have mentioned something to Aron when we were at an outdoor cafe hours earlier.
Luckily, I was getting hungry. And hunger is the best spice, isn’t it?
When we sat at the table, Aron’s father put his hand on his head and prayed in Hebrew. He capped it off in English: “That, after all, is why we are here!” “Here” meant Israel. Aron rolled his eyes and murmured something. His father answered sharply, and the son reluctantly put his hand on his head, in deference to God. The argument seemed truncated in deference to me, but I was surprised at how adamant Aron was. Although he was a soldier, he had objections to some military actions. I kept hearing that for every two Israelis, there are three opinions. The army didn’t escape this diversity, and neither did families, not even at the Sabbath meal.
I protested weakly at the generous portion of meat that Aron’s mother scooped onto my plate. She served me first, then the men. That was embarrassing, and I wondered how much of this mountain of goulash etiquette required me to eat.
As I wondered, I looked up to see her slide two omelets from a pan. They were lovely half-moons, bright yellow like the sun that day, with fresh green flecks. Probably scallions, pepper, maybe parsley. Chopped vegetables spilled out from the insides of the soft pockets. Were they mushrooms? I saw evidence of onions swirled into the eggs.
One half-moon went to Aron’s mother’s plate, the other to his sister’s. I think I licked my lips like an alley cat. As though answering a question, Aron’s mother explained that she and her daughter were vegetarians. She hesitated and asked, “Would you like some?”
The omelets were a perfect one-serving size each. My meal was already served, heaped in front of me. The sun had set. How could I ask my host for a new plate of food? It would be breaking my own rule, plus every rule of good form since cavemen first served wooly mammoth meat over an open fire to someone who actually might have wanted just a few berries from the back bush but hadn’t had the audacity to mention that.
A bishop in the Middle Ages once said that if the only prayer you ever say in your life is “thank you,” that would suffice. Both of my grandmothers’ native languages reflect that: gracias in Spanish and grazie in Italian each mean “thank you” and were originated from the word “grace.” I suddenly understood the point of saying the Sabbath prayer, of “saying grace,” at a meal. I was in the Holy Land, where trouble and prayers so often go together. This family fed me as they lit their Sabbath candles and performed their ancient observance. Steeped in this hospitality of total strangers, I felt the quiet passion of gratitude.
“Oh, no,” I said, picking up my fork. “Thank you.”
Daphne Howland is a reporter and essayist who has written for The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, Real Simple magazine, Maine magazine and other publications. She is a 2009 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in arts journalism.