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Taste the Sustainable Flavors of Israel

When you think of food – what comes to mind? Usually we think of tastes, smells – the sensual experiences of eating. If we dig a little deeper, we’ll get to issues of producing food (growing, raising, processing…) and preparing it – buying, cooking. If we really “unpack” the idea – we’ll think about the lack of it – hunger – and all the different social, economic, environmental, and political issues that are embedded in our food system that makes it the way it is…

The Israel Sustainable Food Tour, sponsored by Hazon and the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership will deal with all these issues and more. We will hit the ground picking, kicking off the week in the field, doing the age old activity of leket, gleaning, collecting agricultural produce straight from the fields, for distribution among disadvantaged populations. The organization that promotes food rescue, and other initiatives to combat nutritional insecurity is called Leket – Table to Table – a worthy beginning to a week focused on the sustainability of our food system – including issues of justice and fair access.

We will continue by eating (no surprises there) at the renowned The Eucalyptus Restaurant, for our opening dinner. Chef Moshe Basson is world known for his interpretations of native Eretz Yisraeli / Palestinian foodways and cuisine. Never has the marriage between gastronomy, history and anthropology been so successful.

We will begin our first full day with a visit to a pioneering center in Jerusalem, called Zangvill (“Ginger”) – to hear about work promoting sustainable food in the nation’s capital, and about the state of vegetarianism, and animal rights in Israel.

No food-focused visit to Jerusalem would be complete without a trip to the shuk – Machaneh Yehuda, west Jerusalem’s storied open-air food market. Once a mainstay of Jerusalem life, the shuk suffered from a downturn with the rise of malls (and also a period of intensified fear from terrorism), and now is experiencing a huge renaissance. Part of that growth is the easy coexistence of old and new, classic-popular and yuppy-elite, local and global: it’s a place where rugelach and kibbe, arak and espresso live side by side. And we will get the insider’s tour, seeing and tasting things the average tourist never experiences.

From there we leave the Holy City – for a different sort of religious experience. Talia Schneider of Telshe-Stone (Kiryat Yearim) is one of Israel’s guiding lights in the world of permaculture, and her particular kabbalistically-informed take on the world of sheaf, divine plenty, and our giving-and-taking with the world, is transformative.

We will end up on the coast, for a taste-tour of the culinary traditions, Jewish and Arab, of Jaffa, with one of Israel’s leading culinary authorities, food writers, cookbook writers and all around great cook – Phyllis Glazer. She will lead us from the legendary Dr. Shakshuka, to some meetings – cooking demonstrations spiced with personal histories – of the real food experts: the old Arab and Jewish women of the historic neighborhoods.

We began with the sensual experiences of eating. And if you combine that with questions of accessibility, you get the idea behind the evening’s activity. We will be having dinner at Kapish, the restaurant (alternative culinary experience is more like it) operated by the Na Laga’at (“Please Touch”) center – for it is a center completely run by deaf and blind staff. The meal itself is served by blind waiters in Blackout – completely in the dark. Following is an amazing play, called Not By Bread Alone – performed by actors who are both deaf and blind. Our experience of food may never be the same.

After an overnight in Jaffa, we will head up north – but only a little – to Tel Aviv’s renewed Port, and to the colorful and dynamic farmers’ market there. There are now a dozen farmer’s markets around the country – but this was the first, and one of the biggest, and a beautiful location for taking a look at the cutting edge of fresh, local cuisine.

From there we meet another one of Israel’s most entrepreneurial spirits, Tami Zeri of Etz Ba’ir – “City Tree” – the Tel Aviv based center for urban ecology. We will talk about everything from high-rise composting to urban foraging, and sample some of her amazing raw food delicacies.

Then we really do head out, and up north – up the coast to Zichron Yaakov, where we will be spending Shabbat at Zichron’s boutique hotel, Beit Maimon. Shabbat will include of course all Shabbat meals, optional religious services either on our own, or in a shul of the local community (there’s a lot to choose from: Reform, Conservative/Masorti, National Religious, Sephardi, Haredi, and more…). Weather and energy permitting, we will be taking a walk to the stunning Ramat Hanadiv preserve where a rather surprising “food connection” awaits us. Zichron Yaakov was the home of Aaron Aharonson, a pioneering agronomist of the early 20th century. In his researches in the Middle East, he discovered the forerunner of all domesticated wheat – emmer or einkorn (em hahita in Hebrew, the mother of all wheat). There are several varieties of this planted in Ramat Hanadiv and we will hear the fascinating story behind this discovery.

Dinner and an evening tour at a one of the many impressive local wineries will round out this Shabbat, and Zihron Yaakov experience.

We begin the last leg and home stretch of our tour – with a look into what’s going in the world of Israeli Palestinian agriculture and food, with a visit to the Galilee Society in Shefaram. They are a leading health ad environment advocacy agency, and have been centrally involved in issues of land, water and agriculture – all of which are crucial to Israel’s Arab population.

Right around the corner from them, is Israel’s leading organic dairy, Harduf, where we will get a look into the world of big scale dairy farming – from the point of view of a community who is trying to do it better. Their agricultural activities also excel in social values since they do most of their farm work with youth at risk, who live and work there. Lunch will be at their exceptional biodynamic all-vegan restaurant.

Let’s see – we’ve got the milk part of the milk and honey down, and we’ve covered the wheat, and grapes of the seven species. But this is November, and it’s the height of the olive harvest. This gives us the oil that together with the bread and wine, make up the Mediterranean triad – and the elements of the Shabbat table (the oil being not only for salad dressing, but also for the light of the traditional oil lamp candles!). So a visit to a sustainable olive farm, Rish Lakish on Moshav Tzippori is in order.

There aren’t many CSAs in Israel, but one fascinating new initiative that tries to connect growers and consumers in the Galilee is Tafrit Mekomi (“Local Menu”) – who are working with farmers in Kefar Manda and Sakhnin and consumers in surrounding towns. We will meet the people involved, hear about some of their accomplishments and challenges and taste some of their wares.

Since the afternoon will be at a dairy, but with a vegan lunch, we felt that we have to compensate the cheese-lovers at dinner, at one of Israel’s leading organic goat farms, with the unlikely name of Goats With the Wind (it’s a bad pun in Hebrew, too).

We will wake up the last morning of our all-too-short trip for a purely culinary experience – most people don’t know that one of Israel’s best breakfasts is at Kibbutz Lochamei Hagetaot. That would probably be enough reason to visit, but the main reason is for the better known fact that the kibbutz is home to Tivall – Israel’s vastly popular soy and meat-substitute company. They practically invented the frozen schnitzel (after their vegetarian version – other companies developed the chicken ones…) and their products are sold world-wide. We will explore the dilemma that food industries such as this present: in a world looking to wean itself from high beef consumption, are processed soy alternatives a viable option? Come see for yourselves.

From there making our way back south, we’ll make a stop at the Zitershpieler family’s “Spice Route” Herb and Spice Farm, in Beit Lehem Haglilit. With over 1000 different herbs and spices on sale, many of which they grow their on premises, this is a feast for the senses – and a great place for some souvenirs to take back. We will also be meeting their with Abby Rosner, of Galilee Cuisine, expert in traditional foodways from the Bible to the present, for her unique take on iconic Israeli spices, such as za’atar.

The Israel Sustainable Food Tour is going to be a sumptuous experience, exposing you to delicious food, and amazing initiatives in sustainable food in Israel. Please join us for this one of a kind experience.

Dr. Jeremy Benstein is the Deputy Director of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv and directs its Fellowship program. He is author of The Way Into Judaism and the Environment (Jewish Lights, 2006) and writes and teaches widely on leadership, Judaism, Israel, and social-environmental issues.

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