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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Israel! Thanks to Ben Gurion University of the Negev! Part 1: Tel Aviv!

Dan and I recently returned from a totally wonderful month in Israel, a dream made possible by Dan winning us tickets from American Associates of Ben Gurion University of the Negev! The friend who sent us the sweepstakes email once owned the bar in Jerusalem where I tended bar while I was in the Israeli Army (1984-1986), and he is firmly convinced there are no "coincidences" or "accidents" in this life, and that this was "b'shert"- meant to be. And I now think he's right! Last April, while I was working a FEMA disaster response operation, Dan called to tell me he'd won us tickets to Israel, and I nearly went out of my mind! Dancing around the office, yipping and yelping, my co-workers thought I'd lost my mind- and in a sense, I had! For 15 years I'd dreamt, hoped, wished, and prayed, for a way to take Dan home and show him my country in all its glory, but it just wasn’t financially possible. His winning these tickets made it possible, and I can never even Begin to thank Ben Gurion University of the Negev, not only for the prize-winning tickets (See? Miracles do happen!), and thus this extraordinary trip, but for the amazing day they gave us in Beersheva, the meetings with their professors and students, and the chance to see some of their incredible scientific research projects that are literally making the deserts bloom!
This is the first of a number of posts I will be making about our month in Israel; I am starting with Tel Aviv,as that's where our trip began. I will then be blogging about Beersheva and Ben Gurion University, our week crisscrossing the Negev, staying at a winery and gourmet goat cheese farm, the nature preserves and archaeological sites we discovered, my 52nd birthday in Eilat riding camels, snorkeling, and SeaDooing with Dan; our Israel Railways train travel to the north of Israel and our time in the Golan and Galilee, riding horses and tasting wines; our travels to Akko, Tiberius, Safed, Nazareth, and Haifa, and finally our week in Jerusalem, and our Passover Seder with my BFF from the Israeli Army and her family in the city of my heart... and then about Italy, where we lingered for 5 nights on our way back to West Virginia, hunting for truffles and making pasta! As Dan is the Chef at our Inn, the Elkhorn Inn & Theatre, and he’s married to a bit of a ”foodie”, our trip involved a lot of eating and drinking and cooking, all of it wonderful! My hope is that my posts will literally make your mouth water, that you will check out the hot links for some great ideas, and then get on a plane and go explore!
On March 20, 2011, after a year of saving and planning (way too much planning, but thank G-d for the Internet, as it enabled me discover Tons of things I never would have known about otherwise! And I made ALL our lodging bookings over the internet, and everything turned out great!), and dreaming, off we went to Israel!
Dan, relaxing in Neve Tzedek
We drove, in the wee hours of the morn, to Roanoke, VA, and flew from there to La Guardia Airport in NYC, and took a cab to JFK (which is a Royal pain in the yoo-hoo!) to get our flight to Israel. Happily, we found a Korean-Japanese restaurant in JFK which totally delighted us with sushi, dumplings, and kimchi, and made a VERY Loooong day a bit more enjoyable! We flew Al Italia to Israel, and the one good thing I can say about them (besides the fact that you can get credit on Delta Skymiles...) is that the wine is free! Yes, you have to ask for it,. and sometimes beg & whine & plead & bat your eyelashes, but there is no such thing as bad Italian wine, and free Itallian wine makes a Very long flight, crammed so tightly into seats in Steerage Class that your feet go numb and swell to the size of balloons, barely bearable! Arriving in Tel Aviv, we took a taxi to our "home" for three nights: Villa Vilina (And yes, the website’s photos are the apt. where we stayed!). We had a cute rooftop apt. in an old, historic building in the hip Neve Tzedek neighborhood of downtown Tel Aviv, with a balcony overlooking both the old neighborhoods and the modern skyscrapers, as well as the awe-inspiring new construction! The great thing about Neve Tzedek is that you can walk almost everywhere- and walk we did!
View of Tel Aviv from our Villa Vilina terrace...

Dan, at our pied a terre in Neve Tzedek!

View of old & new Tel Aviv from our Villa Vilina apt.

The Tel Aviv neighborhoods that are now trendy, such as Neve Tzedek, were, when I lived in Tel Aviv in the early 1980s, the oldest and thus the most rundown ones; full of old buildings with terra cotta tile roofs and balconies, they had lots of character, but at best they were "funky" or "artsy", and most had fallen into terrible disrepair. (To give you an idea: in 1979 I lived in a Very cheap apt. near the Carmel Market; it had ironing boards jutting out of the walls as it had been a jeans "factory" and broken windows, and I opened my door with a knife, as the key had broken off in the lock! Now it’s a hot, chic neighborhood, and, like the rest of Trendy Tel Aviv, unless you have deep pockets indeed, it’s not for you!) With Tel Aviv now being a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its astonishing array of Bauhaus buildings, the skyline of Tel Aviv is a sea of construction cranes, more and more of the “cool” old buildings are being restored, and they've now become "boutique" hotels, gourmet restaurants, trendy clubs & cafes, & the fashionable hot spots! (Our Neve Tzedek apt. was a block from the Shalom Tower; in 1973, when I first came to Israel with my father, it was the tallest building in the Middle East, and taking the elevator up to the top to see the wax museum and the view was a Very big deal!) Foodies that we are, Dan and I took a cab from the airport straight to "Neve Tzedek - Makom Shel Basar" (“Neve Tzedek - A Place For Meat”), right across from our apartment, and plonked ourselves down in their lovely garden to enjoy cool glasses of Israeli white wine and a yummy meal! 

To sit outside on their terrace, eating excellent carpaccio with great Israeli olive oil and parm, and drinking a splendid Israeli white wine was a wonderful welcome home! And after jet lag wore off and we were wide awake at midnight, we had no trouble find cute wine bars and cafes on and off Shderot Rothschild (Rothschild Boulevard), just a few minutes walk from our apartment!
We woke up ridiculously early our first morning and walked through the Carmel Market to the beach to have a glorious breakfast of Melauach (a buttery, many-layered Yemenite pancake, served with tomato sauce, "schug" Yemenite hot sauce, and/or honey) and Shakshuka (a Moroccan breakfast skillet of eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce), and Cafe Hafoukh ("upside down coffee"- a.k.a Cappuccino!) at an outdoor cafe on a south Tel Aviv beach. Melauach is basically my favorite food in life, and I was delighted that Dan fell in love with Shakshuka at first bite- he had it for breakfast as often as he could all month! We sat in the sun enjoying the gorgeous blue of the Med and the salt air, the people running their dogs along the beach and the surfers, Yeshiva students having a pre-class cup of coffee... watching Tel Aviv- a nightlife city that really Doesn't sleep!- wake itself up... We walked along the seaside and Hayarkon Street (which used to be a rather seedy stretch of dive bars, and is now full of "boutique hotels"!), and through downtown Tel Aviv, bought ourselves a cell phone (you HAVE to have a cell phone in Israel! It is totally impossible to function without one!), and then spent the afternoon at the Eretz Israel Museum, which focuses on the history and culture of Israel. Some of the exhibits we saw included the Kadman Numismatic Pavilion, with coins from ancient times to modern Israel, the Alexander Museum of Postal History, which has a LOT of cool things pertaining to the founding of the State of Israel going back 150 years; the Nehushtan Pavilion, dealing with the ancient Timna copper mines (later in our trip we went there, too!), the Rothschild Pavilion detailing the Rothschild family's contributions to Israel, and the Ceramics and Glass Pavilions. We got to see the four spectacular ancient mosaics and 12 century BCE Tel Qasile Excavations, as well- it really is an extraordinary museum, and one that I'd never been to before! The one downer was that I lost our camera- with our trip's first photos- in the taxi on the way to the museum... We had a glass of wine in the lovely Anina Cafe at the museum, where I licked my wounds over the lost camera as the sun set, took a cab to see the new Port with its trendy shops and cafes, and then had a great seafood dinner at Goocha on Dizengoff and Ben Gurion: a truly fabulous appetizer of duck breast wrapped around scallops, followed by Dan’s catfish and chips which he loved, and my yummy mussels with curry, coriander, and coconut milk! In the 1950s and '60s, Dizengoff was THE place to see and be seen- lined with elegant coffee and ice cream shops, it was Israel's answer to the cafe life of Europe. By the '80s it was becoming rather sad and seedy, but there were still lots of cafes, and I well recall sitting at “Mandy's Cherry”, founded by Mandy Rice Davies, over many an ice coffee… (Mandy and Christine Keeler were the two women of the infamous Profumo Scandal which brought down the British Government; Mandy later married Rafi Shauli, an Israeli entrepreneur, and launched Mandy’s Cherry, among other things...) Dizengoff is back again in full flower, and after dinner Dan and I strolled down Dizengoff, window-shopping the boutiques (Oh! The fabulous shoes!) while I pointed out to Dan places from my past...
Our next day was a “foodie” tour of Tel Aviv and Jaffa with Ben Brewer’s “Israel Food Tours” and it was grand! We did two of his tours (I wish we could have done them all!), and the great thing about them is that he and his excellent and knowledgeable guides take you places you NEVER would have known about or gotten to on your own- and I say that as an Israeli, who thought she “really knew” the places she’d lived! These are full day tours, worth every dime, and the best advice I can give anyone taking them is DON’T EAT A THING before you start! Our guide was Iren, and she first took us to Jaffa for a “lesson in Hummus” at THE best and most famous of Hummus restaurants: Abu Shukri!

We ate our way through Jaffa, sampling the famous orange Knafe cheese pastry and “birds nest” pastries of shredded phyllo dough filled with pistachios, enjoying breads fresh from brick ovens, and stopping to share with Dan a yummy cup of Sahlab- a hot, creamy custard made from orchids, served with coconut and chopped nuts on top. (My friends and I used to get Sahlab in Jerusalem at a kiosk by the Damascus Gate of the Old City, and it is Divine on a cool winter night!) We strolled through Old Jaffa’s seaport and meandered the winding streets full of lovely art galleries… and Railfans as we are, we were delighted to have coffee with Iren in the elegant café at Jaffa’s lovingly restored train station…


Knafe and Bird's Nest Pastries in Jaffo!

Historic trains at Jaffo's restored Train Station 

Jaffo's Restored Train Station - Cafe

Back in Tel Aviv, we sampled sheseks (loquats- who knew?!), and Bedouin bread with lebaneh, right off the pan, at the Carmel Market, and we were able to buy Za’atar (a spice mixture of sumac, sesame seeds, and salt that is SO delicious to mix with olive oil and use as a bread dip…) and Yemenite Hawaiij spices for coffee to take home to Chef Dan’s kitchen at the Elkhorn Inn! The vegetables and fruit in the Carmel Market are magnificent and all in season, and so they taste divine. Blessedly, the sour, tasteless Wal-Mart tomato that ripened in a truck and has the mealy texture of cardboard is not to be found anywhere, nor is the moldy box of tasteless berries. In Israel, as in Europe, you buy what’s in season when it’s in season, and there is an abundance of vegetables and fruits available all year ‘round. The seemingly endless array of olives, pickles, hot peppers, cheeses, and spices is dazzling- and all fresh! I lived near the Carmel Market 1979-80, and never have I seen it so joyous and full of life and color; watching Dan enjoy it all, and relish the wonderful “opera” of tastes and smells, gave me great pleasure and let me enjoy it all with “new eyes”!
Bedouin Bread in the Shuk HaCarmel Market, Tel Aviv 

Spices! Shuk HaCarmel, Tel Aviv

After a great Moroccan market lunch of chicken, couscous, and salads (including the wonderful cracked Sura olives that I’ve only ever had in Israel…), we walked it off strolling through the tree-lined avenues of architectural Bauhaus splendor, learning from Iren the differences between the austere, rounded Bauhaus buildings and the more fanciful “eclectic” style buildings- my personal favorites! The recent UNESCO World Heritage Site fuss over the Bauhaus buildings is a great boon for Tel Aviv, but it amuses me a bit as I lived in and among them for years. Like everyone else around me, going about our daily business, tying the fuse wires together in the archaic electric boxes of our crumbling, “historic” buildings, we thought little of them; the "fancy" neighborhoods were the new ones in north Tel Aviv, and our neighborhoods of old buildings, cheek-by-jowl with the market and the dive bars along the beach, were considered "old hat"! We basically had no Clue what an architectural treasure we were living in!


(Iren, who is a wine expert, not only gave us tips on wineries to visit throughout Israel, she gave us what turned out to be THE best souvenir of our trip, something we literally used every, single day: a Golan Heights Winery corkscrew! Thank you, Iren!!!!)
Meeting up with Ben at the Iceberg Ice Cream Shop on Rothschild, we got to sample a world of wonderful sorbets: tangerine-basil, grapefruit-Campari, red fruits & tarragon, pears & wine, apricot-amaretto, lemon-mint… the things foodie dreams are made of!  ( You taste things like these sorbets, and Immediately plan what foods they'll go with, what courses you'll serve them between... and then realize that in order to offer them to Elkhorn Inn guests we'd have to make them ourselves! AAAAUGH!) Then Ben took us to the Keren HaTemanim (Yemenite Quarter) for our cooking lesson and dinner! This was a truly Great evening, and in the company of friends, we drank wine and the Nesher (“buzzard”) beer I'd remembered fondly from my days as a kibbutz volunteer in the '70s, and learned from the delightful restaurant owner how to make Yemenite schug (green hot pepper sauce), chicken soup, fennel-carrot salad, Yemenite hilbeh, tehina with lemon and garlic, and Yemenite Lachoukh bread! I loved watching Dan work with our chef and really learn from her how to cook Temani! Watching him expertly flip the spongy bread (think: Injara) from the little frying pan was a blast!
Dan & Elisse, making Yemenite Schug!

Two chefs, sharing techniques...

Ben & Dan & Nesher Beer!

Dan, making Yemenite bread

Two chefs making chicken soup!

Our wonderful Yemenite dinner!
After than incredible meal we literally Waddled home to Neve Tzedek, and the next morning, after a coffee at our fave Rothschild café… we took the Israel Railways train south...

Next: Israel, Part 2: Beersheva & Ben Gurion University of the Negev!

1 comment:

Naomi Litvin said...

Elisse! What a wonderful living postcard from Tel Aviv!! I love it, and so happy for and proud of you. Hope to see you soon at The Elkhorn Inn for my book talk!
Love to you and Dan