◊ Yeah

Dear mom,

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!

Pre-Shababat, Mea Shearim

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.

Laylat Al Qadr, Damascus Gate

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.

Near the Erez border crossing, Gaza Strip

In Gaza City, graffiti messages cover almost every public surface. The graffitis include love notes, taxi numbers, reminders of 27 (years of Hamas), wedding announcements, religious verses, memories of catastrophe and war.

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.

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xo,

Shaina

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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.

Saturday lunch at Najla's daughter's house in Beit Sahour, Bethlehem

Saturday lunch at Najla’s daughter’s house in Beit Sahour, Bethlehem

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.

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DSCF7737Najla’s Vegetarian Stuffed Grape Leaves

Prep time: 1 ½ hours

Makes 40 – 50 stuffed grape leaves

Ingredients:

  • 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

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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.

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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

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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.

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◊ Let’s Talk

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Dear mom,

Indeed, the life force goes on. Throughout stress, transition and mayhem, we chop vegetables. We get on buses. We pretend we’re taking notes in class when we’re chatting with friends online. We finish homework on time for class (ha). Tragedy and fear persist, and so does life. 

Many people from home have been asking how I’m handling it all. People ask about what it’s like when sirens go off indicating that rockets from Gaza are on the way. They ask for my thoughts on “the conflict.” I’m unable to vocalize anything… My anger, sadness and sensitivity surprise me each time in engage with someone about life here. The whole situation has tremendously affected me.

Several days ago, I released some of the mess in my brain with a pen-and-paper purge. I didn’t write my thoughts with the intention of posting them here, but I want to share them with you.

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One week ago, four days after the bodies of  Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were found outside of Jerusalem, I went to my first course of the summer semester, which covers inter-communal relations in Jerusalem, a topic that puzzles and fascinates me regularly. In the first twenty minutes of class, my classmates and I introduced ourselves with our names and a comparison between our hometowns and Jerusalem. 

My name is Jia-li, and I come from the Szechwan province, where it hot in the summers like it is now in Jerusalem.

My name is Amir, and I come from San Juan, which is a walled city resembling Jerusalem.

My name is Jackie, and I come from Boston, where historic architecture is all around like it is in Jerusalem.

I was the last person in the room to share. 

My name is Shaina… 

My voice was unexpectedly shaky. 

I grew up in Birmingham, AL, a city known for its history of racism and hate crimes. Today, systemic racism and segregation in the public sphere exist. I did not interact with African Americans other than grocery-store clerks, maintenance workers, house cleaners and ‘nannies’ until I was in high school. I joined dialogue groups and workshops to talk about race, and made black friends who were afraid to come to parties at my house because they did not want to be stopped by the police in an almost all-white neighborhood. I ventured to neighborhoods that I was told not to go to. I became comfortable with the discomfort of being in a place where I am different and comfortable with the discomfort of being in a place where everyone is just like me.

I did not have to explain how my hometown was similar to Jerusalem.

Two weeks ago, I moved from an apartment in Nachlaot to a Palestinian neighborhood. Nachlaot is in West Jerusalem. Its residents wear high-waisted jeans picked from the racks of trendy vintage stores, American Apparel leggings (the kind of thing to stock up on when moving to Israel from the US) and old leather backpacks. They are hip Jewish-Israeli artists, students and young professionals. 

I moved to a Palestinian neighborhood to practice my Arabic and experience a different space of the city. My new apartment is a fifteen minute walk from my old one and it feels like it’s in a separate country.  Even the pavement on the streets is different. 

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Last Wednesday, the day that the boys’ bodies were found in Hebron, I was in the library until evening, multitasking between writing final papers and reading the news. When I got to my apartment, I squeezed through barricades of soldiers to reach my front door. I found my roommates packing overnight bags. Neither of them – a Palestinian-American and a Dane – felt safe staying in the apartment. We shared updates from our Facebook newsfeeds and the op-eds we had read. I listened to the Palestinian-American’s accounts of  the situation in Gaza and Hebron. We left the apartment and headed in different directions – I walked back to Nachlaot, my old neighborhood.

Ten minutes later, I was on Jaffo Street in the city-center. A mob of pre-teens emerged from an alley screaming, in Hebrew, “death to Arabs,” followed by police on horses. Young girls wearing Israeli flags laid down in front of the horses while the teens ran in the streets with sticks in their hands, cheering and shouting like they were at a football game. I started crying. I followed the mob, and watched them surround two small Arab boys against the wall of a shop. The police were gone. The boys sprinted away as fast as they could. The mob cheered.

I arrived at my friend’s house in Nachlaot and plopped down on his leather couch next to others just like me. They had gathered to comfort one another in face of the day’s painful news. The conversation vacillated between things like the health benefits of sprouted grains and how only a society of animals could celebrate something so brutal as the murder of children. I was too shaken to say anything. My fifteen minute walk from neighborhood to neighborhood illuminated the separateness of the multiple realities being lived by Jerusalem’s inhabitants. These realities are divided by vast gaps, but have been built right on top of each other. 

The next day, the body of Muhammed Abu Khadier was found. Another tragedy. In spite of warnings from friends, family and Israeli security, I went to Muhammed Abu Khadier’s mourning tent in Shuafat, a fifteen minute walk from my University’s campus. I thought about the fifteen minutes it took for me to get from Mountain Brook to Ensley – going there was the only way to bridge the gap. 

Visiting Muhammed Abu Khadier’s family was sad and uncomfortable and important. 

The severity of the conflict has escalated. People in Jerusalem are scared; people in Tel Aviv are scared; people in Gaza are scared; I am scared. What does this violence mean for the future of the families around me? These days have been a painful time for Jews and for Palestinians.

Today, a Muslim-American friend (she wears a headscarf) asked if I wanted to meet up for dinner in a place that feels mutually safe. I laughed to myself.

I responded via text message, Hahaha yes!

And then, Sorry, not funny…  just feeling confused about where that place is supposed to be.  

I am embarrassed to admit this: when I walk the streets of Jerusalem my heart remembers driving around Birmingham. It remembers being conflicted, torn and confused about where I’m supposed to be. It remembers the dialogue groups I participated in in high school – Anytown Alabama, Heritage Panel and PEACE Birmingham – that positioned me to see individuals beyond their homophobia or evangelical conviction that I was eternally dammed. In Birmingham, I learned that trying to bridge gaps can curb violence and fear; I learned how to speak and think in I instead of we and they; I learned that no one has exclusive ownership of the truth. Is it naive to think that teaching our children to communicate – to think – could make the world more livable?

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Thank you for sending your prayers – please, continue to do so. But more importantly, let’s talk. 

Whoa.

xo,
Shaina

Ps. Wow dad has tarragon growing in the garden?! YES. 

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This salad is adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s 2012 collaboration : “Jerusalem: A Cookbook.” You know it. The two are an Israeli Jew and Palestinian who united over a shared appreciation of food among other things.  I received their book as a gift from my aunt and immediately fell in love. I will never be able to look at it in the same way I did before living Jerusalem. It’s pages, in which Ottolenghi and Tamimi weave together the separate realities of the city, are colored with familiar scenes, characters and flavors. It’s beautiful. 

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Shabbat dinner spread

Tamimi and Ottolenghi aren’t the only ones:  Jam Session, recipes from women belonging to The Parents Circle, a group of Israeli and Palestinian parents who lost children in the conflict, is another inspiring collaboration. There is hope. Yesterday, my classmates and I had the privilege to hear Raphie Etgar, the founder/director of  Museum on the Seam speak about his work to create dialogue and unearth hard topics through art. Etgar told us that “creating art is one of the ways people can something and expect other to listen … Discussion is a starting point for considering other options.” Word. 

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Jerusalem Date and Greens Salad, Adapted from Jerusalem: A Cookbook

Prep time: 20 minutes

Serves: 4-5

  • 1 tbs wine vinegar
  • 1/2 medium purple onion, thinly sliced and chopped
  • 5-7  Medjool dates, pitted and chopped
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbs butter
  • 2 small pitas or any bread you have laying around, torn into 1 1/2 -inch pieces
  • 1 tbs poppy seeds
  • 1/2 cup almonds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts (or all) chopped
  • 2 teaspoons sumac
  • 1/2 teaspoon chile flakes
  • 5 handfuls of arugula or mixed greens (the original recipes calls for 5 to 6 ounces baby spinach leaves)
  • 2 oz goat cheese feta, crumbled
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tbs good olive oil

Put vinegar, onion, salt and dates in a small bowl.  Leave to marinate for 20 minutes and drain any residual vinegar.  Discard vinegar.

Heat butter in pan over medium heat. Add pita and fry until golden. Add poppy seeds, almonds and whatever other nuts use choose, continuously stirring until pita is crunchy and nuts are toasted and fragrant. Remove from heat and mix in sumac, chile flakes and a pinch of salt. Let cool.

When ready to serve, toss spinach leaves, pita mix, dates and red onion and feta with olive oil, lemon juice and pinch of salt. Serve  immediately.

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The recipe below is one I made up in a last-minute effort to clean out my kitchen space. It also reeks Jerusalem. The dominant flavors – rich tahini, spiky zatar, surprisingly warm- spiced chickpeas – are familiar to all Jerusalemites (the tofu part… not so much). Don’t be scared by the list of ingredients… it’s long, but this dish is worth it.

Tahini Roasted Vegetables with Crispy Chickpeas and Baked Tofu

Prep time: 1-2 hours

Serves: 7 – 10 as a side, 4-7 as a main

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  • 3 medium sized carrots, peeled and sliced lengthwise into strips
  • 3 cups (one large box) of cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 medium purple onions, chopped into 1/2 in pieces
  • 2 medium eggplants, chopped into 1 inch chunks
  • 1 tbs olive oil
  • salt
  • pepper
  • juice and zest of one lemon
  • 2 cups chick peas, cooked (or canned) and drained
  • 1 tbs olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/tsp cumin
  • pinch of cayenne powder or chili flake
  • salt to taste
  • 1 (or more) 16 oz box of extra firm tofu
  • 1 (or more) tbs olive oil
  • salt
  • sumac
  • zatar
  • 4 heaping tbs crude tahini
  • 1/3 cup toasted sesame seeds
  • sprinkle of sumac
  • sprinkle of zatar

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Preheat oven to 250 degrees (use convection setting if you can). Toss carrots, tomatoes and onions in olive oil, salt and pepper and lay flat on baking sheet (preferably lined with parchment paper). Allow to slowly roast in oven for about 35 – 50 minutes until tomatoes are wrinkled, onions are browned, eggplant is soft and carrot edges are crisp. Check frequently – it turns from browned to burnt quickly! When done, mix with lemon juice and zest. Allow to cool.

While your veggies are in the oven, mix cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, salt and olive oil. Add chickpeas until coated. Lay flat on baking sheet covered in parchment paper. Set aside.

Up the oven to 350 once veggies are done.

IMG_3782Remove the tofu from its packaging and pat dry with paper towels. Cut tofu into cubes and allow excess liquid to drain. While draining, prepare mixture of olive oil, zatar, sumac and salt. Mix tofu cubes with the zatar mixture so that each cube of tofu is covered with a green powder coating. Lay flat on baking sheet covered in parchment paper.

 Bake tofu and chickpeas (on separate baking sheets) until golden and crispy at 350 – this should take 30 – 50 minutes. The zatar and cinnamon will make your kitchen smell heavenly.

After it’s all out of the oven, toss everything together with 2 tbs tahini and sesame seeds. Drizzle remaining tahini over top. Dust the final product with pinches of sumac and zatar and serve.

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