This is a story about food and marriage, and a very special place in Jerusalem. It is a story in three parts — the first two written more than three decades ago, the third written only last month.
It was April 23, 1980, precisely one month after my husband, Mark Berger, and I were married in New York — and we wanted to celebrate. We were renting a room in a cold flat on Rehov Herzog in Jerusalem, living on savings while he finished his American medical school training with a rotation at Shaare Zedek Hospital and I studied Hebrew and wrote freelance stories — our chance to live in Israel for a few months together.
This is back when dining out in Jerusalem meant overcooked schnitzel or Arab street food, but we were told of a fancy French restaurant at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, next to the famous windmill at Yemin Moshe, so we decided to splurge. Within reason. We’d forgo the wine and the extras for the pleasure of dining with an unparalleled view of the Old City and for our first opportunity as a married couple in our mid-20s to feel like proper grownups.
The view did not disappoint, but as soon as we opened the menu and saw the prices, our delusions of adulthood melted faster than ice cream in the Negev. We decided we could afford only to order an entrée each and share an appetizer.
This was also a time when the servers in Israel had all the charm of the impatient men who would throw pickles on the table at a Lower East Side deli and ignore you for the next hour.
Yayin ? No, no wine.
Salat ? No salad.
I swear she snickered.
And one appetizer, please.
Of course, she brought two.
It was our moment of truth, and we decided not to blink. We politely returned one of the appetizers, uneaten, much to our server’s undisguised disgust. Honestly, I don’t remember what else I ate that evening; I only know it was accompanied by the distinct sense that I was somewhere I didn’t belong.
Meanwhile, my husband had a friend in medical school who was unusually good at securing grants, even as a student. So when he heard that Mark was training at Shaare Zedek, a hospital that adheres to religious rules — with an elevator that stops on every floor during the Sabbath, and so forth — our friend was sure that their medical school would support a research paper on the subject. Mark sent him some information after we arrived in Jerusalem, and soon forgot about it.
Our two months in Israel sadly over, we flew back to the States in time for Mark’s medical school graduation. After a long day of travel, we arrived at his campus home, only to see our friend waiting on the stoop. “C’mon, we’re going out for a beer,” he cheerily announced.
Okay, I thought, jet-lagged and unenthused. I was further annoyed after the waitress took our order and our friend gestured to my husband. “He’ll pay for it!” Really?
The beers arrived; our friend quietly ducked away and just as quietly returned. Suddenly the waitress appeared, holding a tray with a white envelope on it.
“Dr. Berger?” she asked — addressing my startled husband for the first time with a title he didn’t quite yet own.
Mark opened the envelope and let out a surprised laugh: He had been awarded a university grant for a short research paper on the challenge of following religious rules in a major hospital. It was for $1,000. A thousand dollars. It felt like a million! And what was our first response?
We could have had the second appetizer.
The fancy restaurant where Mark and I had that memorable, if uncomfortable, meal shut down in 2000 and lay dormant until June 16 of this year, when it was reborn as the Touro Restaurant, part of the new Jerusalem Press Club.
The brainchild of Uri Dromi, who first thought of the idea back when he was a spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments, the JPC is designed to provide journalists with a comfortable place to meet, work, drink and eat in a not-so subtle attempt to woo the foreign press from its usual hangout at the American Colony Hotel, in East Jerusalem.
The renovation is lovely, the rooms filled with old typewriters, sepia-colored photographs and other journalistic memorabilia. But Dromi is clearly most proud of the restaurant — kosher, meat and open to the public.
He recruited Itzik Ankonina, who owns 13 other restaurants in Israel, to run the operation, and convinced him to name it after Judah Touro, the Newport, R.I., businessman and philanthropist whose name is on the oldest synagogue in America and who gave Sir Moses Montefiore the money to build Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first Jewish settlement outside the Old City.
By happy coincidence, Mark and I arrived in Jerusalem the week the press club opened, and after Dromi (a Forward contributing editor) gave me a tour, we knew we had to dine there.
A few days later we sat by the window, with its breathtaking view of the Old City bathed in evening light, and feasted on Chef Benny Ashkenazi’s inventive cuisine. Mark loved the hreimeh — mullet fish in a Moroccan sauce, with pepper, hummus, pumpkin and coriander. I adored the siniya — ground lamb with fried potatoes, pickled lemon, grilled tomatoes and parsley, topped with a delectable drizzle of tehina.
This time, we each had a glass of wine. This time, we started with a delicious endive salad accentuated with peanuts and almonds, and a plate of surprisingly light leek-and-potato fritters, made with mustard aioli and fresh spices.
This time, we felt as if we belonged. We had, you will notice, two appetizers.
Jane Eisner is the editor in chief of the Forward. Contact her at email@example.com and follow her on twitter @jane_eisner
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and it has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.