Yeah. It’s all too much. I came to Israel for the summer to work on one story. Now I have four. I have hours and hours and hours – maybe days – of tape that I will have to trim down to max 15 minutes. And in my last week here, I’m running around like a madwoman collecting more. What am I thinking?
As usual, my eyes are too big for my stomach (and for my brain and hard drive). Too much is overwhelming, but usually I don’t regret going for it. Sure it was stressful for you to shuck all that corn the night before a big trip, but look at all those kernels you have in the freezer! The possibilities are endless. What a privilege!
Privilege. I move across walls and worlds; I ask questions that many wouldn’t dare ask; I’m learning how to trust myself. My government and my family do not control what I choose to do or say. I was not born a refugee and I was not born into a climate in which my life was threatened daily. I am allowed and encouraged (!) to think critically. Feeling safe and free are the keys with which I access this world of too-muchness. I am grateful for these privileges. I try not to take them lightly and wow, the heaviness gets to me.
I went to Gaza last week for interviews and came away with a positive impression of the people I spoke with. Afterwards, I spent the weekend with cousins in Israel. One of them, my age, said that she will always love me, but that she does not appreciate the way I see the circumstances. I told her that my empathy for people on the “other side” does not mean that I am critical of her or anything that she has done in the past. Still to her, my actions are a slap to her face. We talked it out and our relationship is closer than ever, but I still feel sad that despite my intentions, my actions can hurt the people I love.
My privileges allow me to believe that basic human understanding can make the world a safer place. I think I can empathize with the reasons that people are critical of this, with how people can label it as childish, with attitudes of defense and anger towards it. For many, an attempt to understand “the other” can be scary and even life-threatening. My world is cushioned with clouds of security and safety… I know I am naive. But, in this climate of meaningless bloodshed and loss, I do not see a better option than to try to promote understanding.
My goal is definitely too much. So it’s only natural that I’m going for it.
The recipe below is for the Palestinian version of dolmas. Najla, the star of the piece I wrote last winter, makes hundreds at a time, and (similar to the embroidery) she sells them to Israelis via Yael. Usually, it takes her 3 hours at a time to prepare 350-400 pieces. I’m used to eating dolmas that are stuffed thick with one inch or more of rice. Najla’s leaves are much tastier – she rolls them thin like pencils so that they’re mostly leaf with only a hint of gooey rice in the middle.
I asked Najla to line up the spices so I could take a picture for memory. She laughed and said that it doesn’t really matter what spices I use. Whatever she has in the house, she said, is what she throws into the bowl (she also threw in a tsp of parve Osem soup powder, a staple in our kitchen). I told her that I cook the exact same way, but that I had to at least pretend to have exact recipes so I could post them to the blog.
The crucial spices and herbs include mint, parsley, nutmeg and garlic. GARLIC. When Najla sent me back to Jerusalem with a small pot of rolled leaves, I smelled so strongly of garlic that the officer at the checkpoint did not wait for me to dig around in my backpack for my passport. He let me go without even seeing it… That was a first!
*If you can’t pick em fresh like Najla does, you can buy canned or frozen grape leaves from a Middle Eastern specialty store.
Najla’s Vegetarian Stuffed Grape Leaves
Prep time: 1 ½ hours
Makes 40 – 50 stuffed grape leaves
- 1 cup white rice, short grain
- 1 tsp olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed or shredded
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1 Large tomato, diced
- 1 tbs dried mint, crushed
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 handful (1/2 cup) fresh mint, chopped finely
- 1 handful (1/2 cup) fresh parsely, chopped finely
- pinch of nutmeg (fresh grated is best)
- pinch of all-spice and/or 7-spice mix (optional)
- 1 tsp veg boullion (optional)
- 1 tsp salt
- black pepper to taste
- 40 -50 grape leaves, destemmed
Rinse one cup of rice and place in large mixing bowl. Add oil, tomato, onion, garlic, herbs and spices. Mix together.
Lay grape leaves smooth side down. Sprinkle a pinch (really, a teeny amount! See picture) of rice in the bottom of each leaf. Roll the leaves from bottom up keeping the edges inside. Imagine you’re rolling a burrito for a Barbie doll. As you roll the leaves, try to keep the edges right. This may take practice.
Line the bottom of a small pot with 4 -5 unrolled, flat grape leaves. Stack the rolled grape leaves on top of one another in the pot. Add one tsp olive oil. When full, cover the rolled leaves with an additional 4 – 5 flat leaves. Add water until leaves are submerged at least one inch.
Cover with lid, bring to boil and reduce to simmer for 45 minutes – 1 hour. Serve with tahini, labne or greek yogurt!
**next time I make these on my own, I will add some lentils into the rice mixture for extra protein
Above: Najla’s husband gave me a sunflower with fresh seeds! She said to wash them with salt and put them in the sun to dry, but I ate most of them raw.
Below: Najla and the newest embroidered cushion covers from the Beit Sahour collective. The pieces are called “Magazine” because the women found the design in a magazine.
Shaina, under what auspices are you doing the interviews and meeting the people? We will be back in Israel next Spring for a month and am interested in the work you are doing. I love the blog and read it all the time! Marion Usher