Israeli Food Israeli Good

I know, I know, I know! My radio silence over the past three weeks has been absolutely inexcusable. I’m sorry, but at least I have a good reason - I was in Israel! Right before aging out of Birthright, my friend Jackie and I decided to finally take our trip. For those of you who don’t know, Birthright is an organization whose mission is to provide free trips to Israel for Jewish young adults, age 18-27. For ten days, you’re smushed onto a bus and into hotel rooms of varying degrees of coziness with about forty other people, spending days learning about Israeli culture and Jewish history and spending nights sitting in a circle talking about your feelings (or playing epic-length rounds of I Never). IT. WAS. THE. BEST.

I had big plans for this blog while I was in Israel. I fished my ancient first generation iPad out of storage before I left so that I could use it to post updates, I had a list of all of the things I wanted to write about… and clearly none of that happened. Birthright keeps you so busy from the (very very early) moment you wake up to the (very very late) moment you go to sleep that there really wasn’t time for me to write anything more substantial than an Instagram caption. And beyond that, I found that I didn’t really want to remove myself from the moment to sit down and write - I just wanted to be present and experience every second of it as fully as I could. Any free time that I could have spent crafting a blog post was time that I chose to spend looking out the window of the bus at Israel’s incredible scenery, or drinking terrible wine with my new friends in the lobby of our Jerusalem hotel, or eating as much Israeli food as I could get my hands on.

Cherries purchased on the side of a road on top of a mountain

Cherries purchased on the side of a road on top of a mountain

I wanted to post everything about my trip as soon as I got back to New York, but I was thwarted first by jetlag, and then the realization that I didn’t really know what to say. Which doesn’t mean that I didn’t have anything to say, but that I didn’t know how to summarize what I’ve definitely come to think of as one of the best experiences of my life. My friends and family have asked how the trip was, and I find myself using words like “unreal,” “indescribable,” or “beyond words.” And really, it was. If you have the opportunity to go on Birthright, especially if you can go with Israel Outdoors (and REALLY especially if you get Orna as your tour guide), DO IT! I cannot recommend it enough.

Freshly-picked cactus fruit

Freshly-picked cactus fruit

For ten days, I got to hike through the desert, ride a camel, cover myself in mud and float in the dead sea, and walk on streets made of stones older than I could even imagine. I visited a cactus farm, stood on a platform dangling over the edge of a crater, and slept in a Bedouin tent. I learned about Israel's military history while I sat on top of a mountain overlooking the small highway that separates Israel and Syria, and I learned about religious history in Tsfat, where Kabbalah was born.

I spent Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) in Haifa, Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) in Tel Aviv, and Shabbat in Jerusalem. I cried pretty much everywhere in Israel that a person could reasonably cry. The Western Wall, where I prayed for my family and said kaddish for my grandfather? Cried there. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum whose children's memorial literally knocked the air out of me? Cried there. Har Herzl? Yup, cried there too. What can I say? I’m an emotional person.

In the Old City in Jerusalem, bracing myself with carbs and chocolate for an emotional visit to the Western Wall.

In the Old City in Jerusalem, bracing myself with carbs and chocolate for an emotional visit to the Western Wall.

The best part of the trip, however, was the people. The people I met - both Americans and Israelis - were incredible. No one came into the trip with any sort of ego or attitude. They were smart, thoughtful, funny, and caring. Though we were all remarkably different, they weren’t afraid to be open with the group, or to be vulnerable. Cliche as it might sound, I feel as though my life is better for having met them, and I hope to stay friends with them all. If you’re reading this, I love you all, you crazy balagans.

But I know what you really want to know about is the food. Well, Israel did NOT disappoint. I let myself indulge on this trip in a way I normally don't, knowing that unlike all of my NYC favorites, Israel is a little further than a subway ride away.

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I pretty much ate my weight in falafel. This one from Tsfat was freshly fried, then stuffed into a pita with creamy hummus and tahini, spicy schug, and vinegary pickles, then topped with hot french fries. I'm pretty sure it was magical,Tsfat being a city of Jewish mysticism and all.

I tried every variety of shawarma I could get my hands on. If there was an animal you could shawarmafy, I ate it.

I tried shakshuka - eggs poached in tomato sauce - for the first time, which was a big deal for me considering that I generally can't stand eggs. I loved it so much that I will be replicating this one at home sometime soon.

I had grilled-to-order kebabs wrapped in charred laffa after a mad search for the best food stall in the shuk.

Speaking of Israel's amazing outdoor markets, I sampled halva flavored with coffee and chocolate, freshly baked ruggelach, and honey-soaked baklava. I smelled fresh spices and loose teas, and took in the bright colors of the gummy candy that is literally everywhere.

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I tried iced coffee at nearly every shop I passed (and suffered the resultant caffeine and sugar rushes), and ate bourekas for breakfast whenever and wherever they were available. I drank pomegranate juice that was squeezed from the fruit right in front of me. I sampled the best junk food the Israeli supermarkets had to offer - Bamba, which look like cheese doodles and taste like peanut butter; Bissli, which come in strange shapes and not-entirely-clear flavors like “grill”; Mekupelet, a crumbly chocolate that falls apart when you bite into it; Pesekzman, similar to a Kit Kat but filled with hazelnut cream; and poprocks chocolate, which is exactly what it sounds like, and which is fun to watch other people try for the first time too.

When all was said and done, I hugged everyone goodbye as we promised to have recurring Shabbat dinners back in New York. And then I left Israel, carrying about ten pounds worth of chocolate for my family and friends and smuggling fresh pita smothered in olive oil and zaatar in my suitcase for Adam. Because apparently I am me, regardless of what continent I'm on.

It was about 100 degrees out on the day we traveled to Sde Boker, but really, with views like this, what's a little shoe-meltingly hot weather?

It was about 100 degrees out on the day we traveled to Sde Boker, but really, with views like this, what's a little shoe-meltingly hot weather?

I hope this novel-length post makes up for me not having written anything in so long. I'll have a ton of new recipes to share soon!