Book Review: Breaking Bread in Galilee by Abbie Rosner

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This is another in a series of reviews of new books on Middle Eastern affairs. We asked Dr. Gail Weigl, an APN volunteer and a professor of art history, to review Abbie Rosner’s new book about the Arab cuisine of Israel’s Galilee, and about the power of food as a bridge between people.  

 

APN's Ori Nir interviews Abbie Rosner.

 

Abbie Rosner, Breaking Bread in Galilee: A Culinary Journey into the Promised Land (Hilayon Press, 2012). 238 pages. $15.00

Although the average reader probably would not choose to emulate the laborious food gathering and preparation described in Abbie Rosner’s appealing book, the author herself emerges as a woman it would be delightful to know. From her passion for learning about the traditional food ways of her Bedouin and fellaheen (subsistence farmers) neighbors, to her deep and informed appreciation for the agricultural and culinary practices they preserve, Ms. Rosner’s respect for and tireless curiosity about the customs preserved in Israel’s Upper Galilee is both astounding and inspiring.

At once memoir, history and archeological treatise, Breaking Bread in Galilee cannot be conveniently assigned to a specific genre.  Rosner’s transformative journey from urban America to the Galilee is narrated in what the reader will come to recognize as an episodic and deeply personal account that segues from descriptions of gathering, planting and harvesting, to the relationship between those practices and the biblical and archeological past, to remembrances of warm encounters with a host of new made Arab friends, and the enjoyment together of delicious foods produced by women whose work never ends. The unflagging hospitality she receives from Bedouins and Israeli and Arab farmers, town dwellers and museum curators undoubtedly tells us something about Ms. Rosner, but also about the quiet pride and pleasure those who reject modern farming methods find in introducing this Jewish woman to the purest, richest, tastiest grains, olive oil, wild plants, figs, dates and pastries. Each encounter provides the author an opportunity to learn a recipe or explore biblical associations, try her hand at gathering plants, grain, olives, or provide a brief introduction to historical antecedents.

As Rosner follows her Israeli dairy farmer husband to a small agricultural village in the Jezreel Valley, she is struck by several observations: the rhythm of the agricultural year, the ever-present reminders of agricultural methods rooted in antiquity, and the separation between Jewish and Arab Israeli neighbors. Her quest to understand the history of food production among the Israeli Arab inhabitants of the valley is embedded not only in an intellectual desire to study the relationship between present and past, especially the biblical past, but in a deeply felt desire to bridge the gap between Jews and Arabs.  Like other culinary explorers before her, most notably Yotam Ottolenghi and Chefs for Peace, food becomes the catalyst for shared experience, invariably leading to shared understanding.

Rosner book cover jpg As Rosner introduces us to the men and women who patiently teach and share their knowledge, we come to know how respectful interest and enthusiastic participation can transcend language and enmity, and in some cases, can result in genuine friendship.  Indeed, for this reader, the strongest contribution of Breaking Bread in Galilee is the portraits the author draws of the people she comes to know, as she participates with them in every aspect of their agricultural lives. Most compelling are the stories of the backbreaking work men perform, planting and harvesting; and the time-consuming and often equally backbreaking work of women who are the primary keepers of tradition, assisting men in gathering and harvesting, while preparing traditional dishes using laborious time-consuming steps and ancient methods of cooking.

While these are the soul of the book, there are equally arresting sketches of those who introduce her to wider aspects of Arab culture, whether the Arabic language she finds impossible to master, or folk tales that provide a non-doctrinal introduction to Islam, as well as those Jewish Israelis who similarly preserve the practices of the past, whether in the interests of producing exquisite wine or olive oil, or of drawing connections between present-day Israel and the biblical past.  In each case, however, one cannot fail to observe that Ms. Posner is welcomed because she is welcoming, genuinely curious and interested, open to learning and trying her hand at what she learns, no matter how inexpertly.

Most edifying are the chapters that describe the continuation of pre-biblical practices, such as those concerning the planting and harvesting of wheat. Even the most supermarket-oriented of readers will find enlightenment in the chapters detailing the growing cycle of grain, the separation of “first fruits,” and the living tradition preserved among the fellaheen and the historical one among Israeli Jews of practices traced to biblical times and beyond. Throughout the text, Rosner finds a way to introduce the ancient background to present-day Arab life in the valley, whether through a simple allusion or a more complete explanation.  In many cases, this method of interweaving past and present is exceptionally effective, as, for example, when she related the Galilean mejadra (lentils and rice) made by her Arab language teacher’s wife to the “red stuff” Esau demands of Jacob in Genesis 25:30, or the harvesting of wheat to the biblical injunction to leave gleanings for the poor, still practiced today, in Leviticus 19:9-10. One of the most interesting examples of these connections is the discussion of specific biblical terms for grain in different stages of ripeness (119).  At other times, however, and despite her stated goal to unearth biblical connections, citations at times seem to be included as embellishments rather than illuminating the continuity of present and past.  More consistently successful are references to the archeological record, especially in the later chapters discussing traditional wheat varieties, their transformation into flour and bread, and the gathering and pressing of olives to produce pure oil the like of which is perfection.

No less important is the homage to these ancient ways, thus preserved while increasingly and incrementally lost to modern agricultural methods or to the indifference, even disdain, of the next generation. While references to the former invariably involve the incursion of modern Jewish Israeli agricultural practices, those references are allusive: the destruction of a traditional agricultural life is noted without mention of the politics, resulting in a felt nostalgia, albeit to some degree a romantic one, as the benefits of modernization are never acknowledged.  Perhaps that observation is a churlish one, for after all, Breaking Bread in Galilee is intended to highlight the preservation of a communal and self-sufficient way of life that revolves around local fruits, vegetables and grains, as well as the delectable results of seasonal activities that determine the patterns of Arab Israeli Bedouins and subsistence farmers.  Among the leitmotifs here is the gradual dying away of that way of life, and the ways in which devotion to ancient practices brings people together, whether family units, or Jewish Israeli wine makers, or Muslim and Jewish builders of a traditional oven. This book is so rich in experiences, it is difficult to encapsulate them all.  Suffice to say that in its wandering from gathering asparagus to cooking luf, from relating the biblical origins of za’atar to winnowing wheat, from learning to cook fig cakes to gathering and preserving olives, from shopping in the sensual, lush old Nazareth market to learning the history of the towns and villages of the Galilee, Abbie Rosner has provided the reader a heady, highly informative journey. With a few exceptions, however, it must be said that most of the included recipes are either beyond time-consuming, require foods most Americans have foresworn in the interests of a healthier lifestyle (see p. 227 for the Macaron cookies calling in part for margarine, olive oil, corn oil, and roasted sesame seeds), or represent techniques and utensils far beyond the grasp of the average or even sophisticated American cook. Nevertheless, learning about these foods and the welcoming and warm women and men who create them from start to finish is a treat one would not want to miss.

A final note:  The author at times refers to ingredients or practices unknown in the States and does not explain them, nor are they included in the rather meager glossary.  This makes for some degree of frustration, accompanied by paging through the text to try to find the meaning. Finally, it would have added immensely to the appeal of this book were there photographs to illustrate some of the agricultural and cooking practices, as well as to provide faces to at least some of the people who figure prominently in the text, even though they are described in delightful thumbnail sketches that well summarize their appearance.

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