A Sephardic Seduction

At a certain point in my life in Israel, I dated a young lady; she was a Sabra (born in Israel). Osnat was named after her maternal great-grandmother, who in turn carried the proud biblical name of Joseph’s wife while back in Egypt. Her hair was as black as a raven, her skin the colour of olive oil, and her eyes were infinite emerald pools. Her wide smile could melt an iceberg quicker than All Gore’s climate change theory. She possessed a contagious joie de vivre which instantly pulled one away from daily worries and grief and enfolded him in a shroud of eternal bliss, while exuding a sublime mystery of selflessness. She evoked subtle delicacy with intense sensuous awareness while avoiding crude titillation. I couldn’t refrain from quoting Solomon’s Song of Songs which likens a lover’s enjoyment of his beloved to a gazelle “browsing among lilies” or her breasts to “twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies” or the beloved herself to a garden filled with choice fruits inviting the lover to feast. This was just one generation since the great immigration wave of Jews from the Arab countries met their distant cousins from Europe in Israel; an uneasy tension between the Sephardic and Ashkenazi cultures was fermenting in this multi-cultural cauldron and social experiment. These were not proper times for mixed-race dating; as the saying goes: ‘Even a bird and a fish can fall in love – but where will they build their nest?’

Her family hailed from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco; Their millennial residence as an open and organized Jewish community in the Iberian Peninsula was brought to an end starting with the Alhambra Decree by Spain’s Catholic Monarchs in 1492, and the decree of 1496 in Portugal by order of King Manuel I, which resulted in a combination of internal and external migrations, mass conversions and executions orchestrated by the Spanish Inquisition. One of the notable Jewish figures at that time was Don Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel who was born in Lisbon, Portugal into one of the oldest and most distinguished Jewish Iberian families who had escaped the massacre in Castile in 1391. A student of the rabbi of Lisbon, he became well versed in rabbinic literature and in the learning of his time, devoting his early years to the study of Jewish philosophy. At twenty years old, he wrote on the original form of the natural elements, on religious questions and prophecy. Together with his intellectual abilities, he showed a complete mastery of financial matters. This attracted the attention of King Alfonso V of Portugal who employed him as treasurer; North African Sephardim are the descendants of the expellees who left in 1492. According to a legend, when the Jews were expelled, they took with them the keys to their homes and synagogues hoping that one day they would return. Those large iron keys in the old Spanish style – lay in drawers and boxes, gathering dust, getting lost among clothes and cooking pots, sometimes for years until the family moved or someone died. Others were hung proudly above the front door; reminders of a culture they had loved and hoped to maintain. This branch settled in North Africa mostly in Morocco and Algeria, they spoke a variant of Judeo-Spanish known as Ladino and also Judeo-Arabic in a majority of cases and French later. They settled in the areas with already established Arabic-speaking Jewish communities in North Africa and eventually merged with them to form new communities based solely on Sephardic customs. In 1948 following the Arab–Israeli conflict and the creation of the State of Israel, they were on the road again, leaving behind homes, friends and centuries of culture, eventually becoming refugees again. The reasons for the exodus included factors such as persecution, anti-Semitism, political instability, poverty, expulsion, the desire to fulfill Zionist yearnings and to find a secure home in the ancestral land of Israel.

The North African Jewish cuisines of Morocco, Tunisia and Libya were influenced not only by Jewish traditions, but also by the Mediterranean and Arabic cultures that surrounded them. Meals are often centered around vegetables or fish and couscous, and spiced with aromatic spices like turmeric, ginger, hot peppers, cinnamon, paprika, saffron, caraway and cumin. Tangiers, a city in Northern Morocco, is different in that it’s more heavily influenced by Spain, with its fish, garlic, onion and tomato dishes. Tunisian Jewish food is stunningly diverse – a melting pot of Spanish, Italian, French and Turkish traditions, while, Libyan Jewish cuisine is the result of an exchange of ingredients and ideas that took place between Libya and Italy.

And so it came to a pass that we were invited for lunch at her family’s home in Tiberias. At noon on a sunny July Saturday we followed the road from Nazareth to the Kineret (Sea of Galilee) which is dotted with picturesque Arab villages surrounded by ancient olive-groves, lush orchards and succulent, sweet watermelon patches. As a secular Jew, I viewed going to the beach, or attending a soccer match on Sabbath as a kosher way to enjoy the well-deserved resting day recommended by God, and hoped that Osnat’s more traditional family would be forgiving of my attempt at ‘morally corrupting’ their daughter, and not see it as a transgression.

The moment we entered the home which was nestled on the hills above the lake, offering breathtaking views of the gentle waves soaring on the light breeze, caped with white foam, I stopped in my tracks – an intoxicating aroma wafted through the air: the scents of garlic, cumin, turmeric and cinnamon were abundant, sublime, and not overpowering. Suddenly I had entered an unknown culinary territory completely different from the East-European, Ashkenazi pastures I had grazed on so far. Without apology, I followed my nose straight to the kitchen and stopped in front of the oven where through its window I saw a pot with a slow bubbling sauce. The source of this exciting ‘commotion’ that released addictive aromas was the Chreime; a classic dish from the Tripolitan Jews that was widely spread throughout North-Africa, and which is traditionally served at room temperature or slightly warm. The sauce is sweet, spicy, bright with lemon and rich with complex, warm spices. The fish is cooked in aromatics and vegetables that impart deep flavors into the dish which slowly simmers overnight on low heat in the oven, so warm food would be available for Sabbath without actually cooking during the day of rest. To my surprise, the fish was perfectly moist and tender, atop a saffron-infused couscous and surrounded by vegetables cooked in a tomato sauce. Both, the appetizers which included raw and cooked vegetables, served either hot or cold, and the desserts that ended the meal were no less spectacular, and included Ma’amul (date cookies) and Malabi (creamy pudding perfumed with rose water, sprinkled with cinnamon and topped with roasted pistachios).

This meal was a sensory feast, accomplished by bringing to the foreground the sensuous and natural aspects of food. It was a combination of exquisite artistry and fine sensitivity. I was seduced by that which I did not fully know, could not fully see, and could only sense. I had always taken great pleasure in food and favored a simple style of cooking, and had little tolerance for overly sophisticated cuisine. Now I could completely surrender both to the sublime gastronomic experience and to the woman I loved.