A Taste of Israel - By Erez Frankel Rubner

Using cooking lessons to connect U of M students of all backgrounds with Israel

No matter what their opinions are in regard to Israel, when the general population thinks of Israel in modern times, many conjure up mainstream media images of conflict and hostility.

For the past year and a half, I have been working in the greater St. Paul Jewish community on Israel-related activities and projects around music, culture, geography, society and more. My goal is to try and bring another face of Israel to those I interact with.  I try not to get into politics, whether you are on the right wing or the left, a dove or a hawk, as long as you understand that Israel is more than the 5 o'clock news and you are open to learning, I'm happy.

For six months I have been working with students at Hillel at the University of Minnesota on various Israel-related programs.  But the most interesting experience I had at the “U” came from a surprising source.

As part of Hillel's engagement programming, a relationship was established with Territorial Hall, one of the Residence Halls on campus. The program was a re-creation of one I had at Hillel earlier this year called "Israeli Cooking 101" which, if you ever worked with students, you can imagine was a big success.

But the interesting thing about the program was the fact that the audience was not of a Jewish background.  These were unaffiliated students of various upbringings, religions and walks of life that for at least one evening had an interest in getting an Israeli experience.

I arrived at Territorial Hall accompanied by Alison Bream, the Engagement Associate at Hillel and met Abby Hinkin, a Community Advisor in Territorial Hall. She had purchased all that I asked in the shopping list I sent her – Eggs and tomato paste, pitas and garbanzo beans (chick peas), olive oil and falafel mix.

More than 20 students poured into the same room. They were eager to try something new, get hands-on experience and learn another aspect of a country most of them have little or nothing to do with. I introduced myself and my function in the community and laid out the plan for the evening: Falafel and hummus making, shakshukah and Israeli pickles. The cooking began, the students crushed their own chick peas and added tahini sauce and slowly turned the paste into great hummus. Others started chopping onions and bell peppers into a pot with garlic and tomato paste, later added eggs and let the whole thing simmer (that’s shakshukah for you) and the rest rolled falafel balls that were later put into hot oil. A table was set and at the end of the evening a real Israeli feast was prepared.

The most important thing was that during the entire evening we talked, laughed and had fun. The students got to ask questions about my life and experience as a young man in Israel, as a soldier and a student. They got to meet a Zionist face to face, and one that, if I may say, can cook too. They asked some hard questions and got some hard answers. Answers that I told them can't and won't offer the whole picture, but can shed a light on a piece of the puzzle. And they even got to take some food back to their dorm room at the end of the night.

Now, maybe the next time any of those students watches the news, or reads an article about Israel, not just the words from the page or the images from the screen will play a part of their understanding of this complex and interesting country. Maybe now, alongside that information, the taste of good hummus, or hot falafel and delicious shakshukah will also come to mind, to remind them that there is always something more, something extra and maybe even something tasty about Israel.

I am avialable for speaking engagements, feel free to contact me at 651-255-4753 or efrankel@stpauljcc.org.

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