1992. A Thursday. A very pressured day for a newspaper editor. The telephone rings on Sherry Ansky’s desk. On the line is the director of the Tower of David Museum, Adi Semel, who proposes a meeting to talk about developing an exhibition that will tell the story of Jerusalem from an unusual viewpoint – the kitchen - to reflect culture through food. After a moment of silence, this was the beginning of a study about food which became the basis for a ground-breaking food exhibition called Ta’arucha, a word play in Hebrew on the words for “exhibition” and “meal”.
Throughout Jerusalem’s history armies, travelers and pilgrims have changed and conquered the city. But, just as profoundly, they influenced the local diet and were themselves conquered by Jerusalem’s culinary traditions. So referred Adi Semel to the culinary history of the city in the introduction to the catalog of the “Ta’arucha” at the Tower of David Museum.
But what is local diet? Is there a Jerusalem kitchen? And what influences its design - what are the local traditions? Or is it specifically the cuisine of the conquerors, the pilgrims, and the many visitors who brought ingredients from far off lands? And what drives the recent culinary scene in Jerusalem?
Today almost 30 years after this exhibit - when we are once again putting food in the center of the table in order to tell stories of the city - we invited Sherry to speak with us, about the construction of “Ta’arucha” and about what has changed in the food scene in Jerusalem. The conversation included Eilat Lieber, current director of the museum, who also participated in the original experience of the “Ta’arucha”. Before we started, we poured over pictures from the “Ta’arucha” and movies which documented it from the archives of the museum. Sherry was excited; almost 30 years have passed since the “Ta’arucha”, and the pictures and movies illustrate, even if just a little, its magic.
Q: Let’s go back 30 years to the beginning of the 1990’s. You are writing for a newspaper. The telephone rings and Adi Semel, Director of the Tower of David Museum is on the line and shares the idea for the “Ta’arucha” exhibit. What did you think of this idea?
Adi Semel suggested that I curate the exhibit because he was impressed with my understanding of the centrality of food to the story and that I knew how to tell that story. I said to him, “Are you crazy? This is too much for me; thanks anyway.” Then suddenly I understood what it could be and I said to myself - the Last Supper! Crusader knights! The Tower of David was the palace of King Herod, and I imagined seeing the bathhouse, the clothes, the bunches of grapes...I grew up in a house in which the central pillars were my father, mother and the Bible. Jeremiah and Isaiah were, for me, elderly uncles who yelled prophecies of rebuke in the garden. Dramas from 4000 years ago were part of my childhood. My father was Professor Chaim Gvaryahu – a Bible scholar. In one of our last conversations, he asked me, disappointed, “Does only food interest you?” I answered, “Yes.”
When I was a very little girl, I was lucky that my father took me with Ze’ev Vilnai to the City of David, immediately after the destruction caused by the Six Day War. Vilnai, a well known guide and educator, exuded magic and imagination. He and my father stood on the ruins and imagined King Solomon in his garden. They described the garden of King Solomon, when all around me, there was only dust! Concubines, minarets, delicacies, passionate scenes full of palace intrigue, all seen through arrow slits - everything came to life. And importantly, they laughed at themselves. My father was a very serious person, I never saw him rolling with laughter like I did when he was with Vilnai. Their laughter was captivating, so freeing, that they seemed more childish than I was. This was a powerful experience because the great knowledge of these two people converged suddenly and spread its wings to fly over the world of imagination. As a child, I couldn’t quite understand, but I was thrilled and also surprised - and that influenced me greatly because I was given legitimization and also given tools to see the history of Jerusalem from a very national viewpoint. I understood unequivocally, therefore, that the story of Jerusalem told through food, is actually a national topic based on life itself. Food can take a piece of history and make it accessible to everyone.
Q: So how did it start? What provided the guidelines for you as curator of such a special topic?
From the very beginning it was clear that only a simple design strategy could define the exhibit as an enjoyable, expressive work. It had to be magic, full of passion and creative - like food itself. First of all, my guide was not to create anything, but rather to use documents about food, whether a study, a photo or an official document, containing an account and a source. This choice moved the exhibition away from folklore and tourism. I knew that the food itself would be shown without the need for exaggeration or wearing “fezzes on our heads”.
The exhibit space was the gallery known as the Crusader hall, and it’s a long and narrow space with a small entrance. The size and its limitations, dictated the visual treatment of the topic. It was clear that we would not cover every culinary topic, but some of the topics included different exhibit items grouped together to become a valid unit of its own, telling one chapter of the story of what was and is eaten in Jerusalem.
The final result was that immediately upon entering the hall, the viewer is opposite the centerpiece: a giant table, lined on two sides with chairs and providing a surface and backdrop for the exhibit itself. The walls of the hall were left exposed in order to frame the existence of the table and add to the atmosphere that it gives to the space of the room. Two oil lamps gave enough soft light to focus points of light on the exhibit items and the abundance of food (truth is, they were all on a raised surface above the table). To view the exhibit, the visitor would take a seat at the table, (the chairs were fixed in order to maintain an organized look) and become an active participant in it.
A unique display of stories, told through photos, graphics and objects, that examined the spiritual life of the city moved across the table, via an electric motor. The visitor sees the basic “ingredients” of the exhibit: meat, milk, bread, street vendors, kitchens, markets, lack and abundance, meals, food production, coffee houses, and food - a collection of sensory stimuli, reflecting the diversity of Jerusalem.
Q: Besides the connection between the exhibit space and the items - how did the location of the exhibit in the Tower of David Museum, an ancient citadel, impact the exhibit?
The Tower of David dictates historical relevance, through its past as the magnificent palace of King Herod and as a Crusader citadel, and also in modern times due to its place on the line separating Arabs and Jews, between the Old and New Cities. The past nibbles into the present, and coexists with it organically. Daily experiences here and many aspects of modern life reflect that at times the past is more relevant than either the future or even the present.
Q: Culinary attractions as tourism and cultural events are more popular than ever, and it is clear that the exhibit was ahead of its time. Where did your ideas come from?
Not from my fevered brain, but from my study of life in the city: from historians and cooks, from researchers and writers, from photo archives and from archaeology, from objects and from philosophers. Travelogs, diaries, documents, menus, movies, newspaper articles, personal letters, stories and personal testimonies. From every aspect and perspective, I tried to find the story of food.
We came across so many stories [about food] that it seemed obvious to me that a person who visited would receive something to taste. At the level of the senses, it was possible to hear and to see the dripping of a bag of yogurt that was tied and hung each morning in a narrow, deep niche a window, so that a ray of natural light illuminated the drops which fell into a metal bucket. And there was the magical fragrance of home with humus cooking on an oil burner.
Sherry revealed the daily investment she dedicated to the exhibit, not only in the various planning phases but also during the time it was open to the public. Eilat Lieber added her experience from the exhibit:
This was an exhibit coming from a different direction; it was exciting. It was so different, it was a genuine presentation of food. There was scent, there was the food itself. It was a sensory experience. The exhibit was not only an intellectual exercise, it actually went beneath your skin. People left the exhibit in ecstasy as if they had entered a room of wonders, activating all your senses.
Q: Sherry, was there any doubt about creating an exhibit which centered on food? Was there a fear that the subject would be considered base?
Not for a moment. It was clear to us that food was an elevated topic. I learned from Adi Semel: when you want to do something - the sky’s the limit. Semel taught me to see the larger picture and to see things extravagantly. Every whim and every fantasy Adi fulfilled, and the dialog with the designer Uri Shaviv was wonderful and fruitful. Working on the exhibition, I could see, hear and understand how a person with a special spark behaves. Generally, things that come before their time are not immediately understood. But the exhibit was ground-breaking and influenced the field, as it continues to do until today.
I walked with Magen Broshi [archaeologist, historian, and past chief curator of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum] to meet with the director of the Islamic museum. I worked very diligently - I went to study with a monk in the Valley of the Cross because there is a long marble table in the monastery that inspired me. Before the meeting, I spent an entire night reading an article that same monk wrote, in order to show him that I respected his activities. And then, people offered to be interviewed. There was not a doubt that the exhibit was justified but we didn’t know how revolutionary it would be...perhaps Adi knew. I knew that the exhibit needed to “tell” facts and end with conclusions.
Q: We are now embarking on a new journey to research food in Jerusalem and we want to ask your opinion: is there “Jerusalem food”?
In my opinion, one of the parameters of the local kitchen is that people who live in the same place are proud of their kitchen. From this aspect, even back then, I understood that there is a Jerusalem kitchen, full of yearnings and fantasies, because those are the powerful ancestors of cooking. You can identify the language of Jerusalem cooking even if you walk into a restaurant in Tel Aviv or New York, and you will sense there is something of Jerusalem there. It’s not just humus, rice with beans or finely cut salad.
During my childhood only two unique foods included the name “Jerusalem” - kugel and mixed grill. Only in my 20’s, did I hear that there is also a Jerusalem artichoke. But very quickly, I learned that the name of the tuber has its roots in the Italian word for sunflower and not from the city I loved, where the sun rises from behind the ridge of Mt. Scopus and is pinker and more beautiful than any flower.
Q: And what connects Jerusalem kugel to Jerusalem mixed grill?
If we are speaking about Jerusalem kugel and Jerusalem mixed grill, they represent the friction between kitchens. Jerusalem kugel is very spicy and very oily, it reminds us of the pies from the shtiebel [general name for Jewish town in Eastern Europe]. I think that kugel is the first spicy food I ate. In synagogue, people were groaning from the spiciness and they ate pickles to counteract the effects.
Besides that, in the Jerusalem kitchen it was possible to find a variety of ethnic foods. These matched the Israeli character, fashion, weather and our spirit. The genuine way they combine to make one meal, would have shocked any homemaker who lived here 100 years ago.
In those days, you would have said that Israel doesn’t have a typical kitchen, even hummus and salad were taken from the Arabs, and I said: we have a different DNA. We have a different way and taste in our salads, and our recipes don’t have clear trademarks. There is a ‘food chain’ and when foods pass from place to place, they change. The main point is the story.
Q: Where do you experience this change in food?
I learned this from the Jewish kitchen. Before television, before the food section, and before cookbooks. Jews wandered from place to place, from community to community, and because of the laws of kosher food, they found other Jews in their area. When they arrived at the synagogue or the study hall, they were invited for a hot meal, and then they carried the story, “For us, in the place where we came from or passed through, the cooks prepared the kugel like this or put in the cholent these ingredients.” Like this. Of course, also the prohibitions incumbent on kosher food and during Passover gave rise to a web of influences on recipes, traveling from place to place and from continent to continent continuously.
For foods like Turkish bourekas and Italian focaccia, there are Israeli versions. Focaccia of course was not invented in Jerusalem by Eyal Shani, but in Italy. There is no similarity between Israeli focaccia and Italian focaccia, however; this is the nature of food.
Q: Besides evolving recipes, is it possible to say that Jerusalem has bred a line of influential chefs?
Without a doubt. Much more influential than the food itself is the fact that Jerusalem has bred a group of chefs who are culinary diamonds on the world scene: Eyal Shani, Ezra Kedem, Yotam Ottolenghi, Chef Kadosh, Raphi Cohen, Assaf Granit, Sami Tamimi, Moise Peer, Pini Levy, Moshe Basson, Naomi Nechemia from the restaurant “Hadara” and many others including my daughter Michal, and myself. This is wonderful. Something has happened here in this city. I don’t know how it is possible to translate this into words, but this is unique and shows that this city has something which has created an exceptional kitchen. Something about the greatness of the city has passed into its dishes. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Israeli kitchen was born in Jerusalem. But what defines a kitchen in Jerusalem? Not only what your grandmother and mother cooked, but also what your school friend’s grandmother and mother cooked, and what was eaten in the Old City, and by the neighbor upstairs, and cooking techniques that you learned from the world’s kitchens. They create desires My cholent, which I call Jerusalem cholent, is actually a creation of an intersection of kitchens where Jews and Arabs, East and West met during the days of the Old Yishuv, and in Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and Tiberias. This kitchen gave birth to recipes that I continue to cook until today.
It was a very inspirational meeting and full of ideas for a continuation. Sherry, summed it up simply: “It was very emotional for me to be here.” And us? We are continuing her work, telling the story of food, and of Jerusalem in general.
Translation: Leiah Jaffe