From Almonds to Za’atar: A Food Pilgrimage

Beqin Family Dinner

Beqin Family Dinner

We didn’t come here for the food, but eating in Israel and Palestine has opened another window on our experience as pilgrims.

It starts with the markets.  Anyone who has ever been to a Middle Eastern souk will know what I mean.  Piles of every kind of fruit and vegetable, breads, spices, meat, you name it.  Huge cauliflowers.  Oranges that stay green even though they are perfectly ripe.  Pomegranates in every form: whole, seeded or pressed into ruby-red juice.  The baker with fragrant stacks of freshly-baked breads, from the familiar pita to ka’ek, the local bread of Jerusalem, like a giant elongated sesame bagel.  The spice shops full of richly scented earth-toned mysteries, starting with the ever-present za’atar–a mixture of thyme, sesame seeds and magic. The butcher with dressed whole lambs hanging in the window, fleecy tail and (in the case of male lambs) other distinguishing features still intact.  Barrels of pickles in day-glo colors.  And ample supplies for a culture with an obvious sweet tooth:  pastries dripping with honey, dozens of varieties of halvah and turkish delight, and every imaginable shape, color and flavor of gummy candy.

Like so many things in this divided land, food can illustrate the lack of connection between cultures. For example, on our first evening together in Jerusalem, our Palestinian guide Farraj brought malbun, a delicious kind of fruit leather made with grapes, almonds and anise.  Although it is a very typical Palestinian treat, Yuval, our adventurous and well-traveled Israeli guide, had never seen or tasted it.
But we have also seen how food can be a source of identity and  empowerment.   For the farmers growing olives and almonds in Beqin in Northern Palestine, the Canaan Fair Trade cooperative provides a way to bring their products to a broader market, with tapenade and other spreads coming soon to a Whole Foods near you and olive oil available every year at St Mark’s advent sale (try some!).
And more than anything, we have benefitted from the fabled hospitality of this region, as people have generously welcomed us with food and drink and we have connected over a common table.  Our most memorable food experiences are bound up with other kinds of sharing:  of stories, of passions, of simple day-to-day family life.  Children bringing us cold drinks after their father led us up to his rooftop to see the settlements in the heart of the City of David.  Beers and hookah at the “bad kids” table under a Bedouin-inspired tent. Just-picked grapes and figs still warm from the sun, given a quick rinse from the rainwater cistern at the Tent of Nations.  The chef at St George’s Guest House unveiling muqlabeh, the “upside down” dish of rice, chicken, eggplant and other vegetables, with a flourish of banging pots.  Best of all, the unending feast provided by our host family in Beqin:  dates, coffee with cardamom, hummus, felafel, muqlabeh, fried potatoes, home-cured olives, melon seeds, sunflower seeds, tea with much less sugar than our hosts thought appropriate, and I’m sure there would have been more but we were just too tired.
As I said, we did not come here for the food.  But we will take away with us wonderful memories not just of the sights, but also the delicious smells and tastes of the Holy Land.
Karen W.

IMAGINE all the people…

HebronImagine, if you can, that you live on Capitol Hill in Washington.  You and your family and neighbors are part of an established community of 25,000 people.  You are “the 25,000.”

Imagine that 500 people move into your neighborhood, “the 500,” because they believe God promised to them millennia ago the land on which you live.

Imagine that the U.S. and DC governments fully support “the 500” and implement a series of policies that restrict how you lead your daily lives, your mobility, your opportunity to work, to shop, to relax.

Imagine that, because of “the 500,” all of the stores and restaurants on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, from 2nd Street to 10th Street are closed, their doors welded closed so owners and employees cannot enter.

Imagine that in a 30 square block area along that same piece of Pennsylvania Avenue, you are prohibited from driving your car or walking on the streets, that if you live in that area you must make your way by scrambling across rooftops, relying on neighbors for exits to the street.

Imagine that in order to get to your job, to take your children to school, to shop, to worship, you must pass through military checkpoints that have no set rules or processes but rather are arbitrarily changed from day to day.

Imagine that you have lived through over 300 days of curfew, when you literally cannot leave the interior of your home, even to be in your garden, with only limited, arbitrary weekly opportunities to shop.

Imagine that when, in more relaxed time, you are able to go to the Eastern Market to shop, there are five story high apartment buildings on each side – and that the residents regularly throw trash, garbage, feces and bleach down on you.

Imagine that there is no protection for you from the police or the military, that there is little media coverage of the realities of your daily life, that the rest of the U.S. simply does not care about what is being done to you.

Imagine that “the 500” and the state that protects them and oppresses you have as their ultimate goal to drive you – all of you, the “25,000” – from your homes by making life so hard, so unpredictable, so humiliating, that you will give up and leave.

Imagine being brave enough to stay.

If you can imagine all of that, then you can imagine what it means to be a Palestinian (“the 25,000”) in the ancient city of Hebron in the occupied territories known as the West Bank.

This is my witness.  It is not in my imagination.  It is the reality that I learned about today.

Our First Day – An Unexpected Detour

Maureen and I arrived in Jerusalem mid-afternoon on Monday, 9/23, her birthday.  A bit over two hours later, I was in the emergency room at Al Hayat Medical Center, just a couple of blocks from the hotel where we are staying until the group forms up on Wednesday.

It was not a social call I was making.  Rather, I had quite inelegantly fallen off a moving treadmill in the fitness center of the hotel gym.  Since I was having trouble walking on my right leg and lots of muscle pain in my right thigh, it seemed the sensible thing to do.

Al Hayat was perfect.  It is one of six medical centers in Jerusalem founded and managed by a Palestinian doctor turned entrepreneur.  The check in process took five minutes; the wait to see the doctor only slightly longer.  It is a thoroughly modern facility – a clinic with multiple specialties, a pharmacy and emergency room, and everything recorded immediately on the doctor’s computer.  You can learn more at

Total cost?  US$40.

The good news is that no serious harm was done to my leg.  I am to take it easy for a couple of days, hot showers, ibuprofen, etc.  But no treadmill until I get back home!