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Shabbat Meals: At the Kibbutz Table

In Israel, Friday night dinner is an institution. Israelis of all backgrounds, from observant Jews of Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood to members of the artsy Mitzpe Ramon community in the south, celebrate the Shabbat meal with a homemade festive dinner. Strong Jewish tradition, a deep national spirit and the geography of this small country ensure that Shabbat dinner is mandatory for all. And so, every Friday night, families gather at the homes of the elders of the tribe. Siblings update each other on their love lives, children sing songs and aunts and uncles debate political views until everyone unites at the table to eat an honest home-cooked meal. This time, all across the nation, becomes holy.

Growing up in the most secular environment in Israel, the Kibbutz — Friday night dinner played a major role in the scenery of my childhood. These dinners were our only outlet of festiveness and connection with Shabbat. For me, that connection was symbolized by the food.

For almost a century, the communal dinning room served as the center of community life in the kibbutz and was also its identifying feature and symbol. The homes of the kibbutz members lacked kitchens, so all meals were served in the communal dining room. It served not just as a dining room but also as a busy cultural center and an alternative information arena (gossip, ladies and gentlemen!). There, people gathered to share a table and a meal three times a day in the most casual setting ever created.

But on Friday nights that casualness cleared its path for the Shabbat spirit to take over the big dining hall. It seems that this spirit helped set the tone to a more quiet and relaxed environment than the usual cacophony. Family after family, wearing their best clothing, came together to welcome Shabbat and enjoy a hot meal. The menu was almost the same every week and included chicken soup, roasted chicken, mashed potatoes and fruit compote for dessert. Hardly exciting. For me, the beauty was in the small additions and surprises that were made as an experiment by one of the female cooks in the kitchen — tiny purple eggplants, green artichokes in lemon and shiny white cauliflower latkes. I especially loved Batsheva’s chopped liver. It always made an appearance on the holiday table, but only occasionally on Fridays. The big bread cabinet was full of newborn challahs that each had a perfect golden crust, protecting an inner bounty of white freshness. For me that was the essence of Shabbat. A soft slice of bread with rich flavorful chopped liver. That aroma locked into my memory forever.

For many Israelis, chopped liver is a Jewish dish that belongs to Shabbat. It is one of the only Ashkenazi dishes that became an all-Israeli favorite, and is now being served along side other Israeli staples like tehina and matbucha (a tomato-based dip). In the last year, its popularity reached a peak and these days chopped liver is the star of many bar menus around Tel Aviv. It tastes great with a shot of chilled vodka but its even more enjoyable as a pre-Shabbat snack alongside the Friday paper.

Seasonal Chopped Liver
The following recipe is a variation on the classic recipe and is adapted from Chef Erez Komarovsky.

Serves 6

1-pound fresh clean chicken livers
⅓ cup delicate olive oil
2-3 leeks, thinly sliced (including the green parts)
½ tablespoon white pepper
½ tablespoon green pepper
A few cumin seeds
A few mustard seeds
Coarse sea salt to taste

1) Heat the oil in a large frying pan, add the leeks and simmer sauté on a low flame without a lid for about 30 minutes.

2) With a mortar and pestle crush the green peppers, black peppers, cumin seeds and mustard seeds.

3) Dip the livers in a little bit of olive oil and cover with the spices mix.

4) On a hot charcoal grill (or heavy iron pan) sear the livers on each side for 2 minutes (make sure not to dry them out).

5) Chop the livers with a large knife or crush them with a large mortar and pestle. Mix with the leeks and season with salt and serve immediately.

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