NISKAYUNA — Ever since Israel received its independence May 14, 1948, Jewish organizations around this country have celebrated the day in one way or another. For this year, the Jewish Community Center has planned an afternoon of film, food and music for Sunday, May 4. (The holiday, officially celebrated on the 5th day of Iyar on the Jewish calendar, moves year to year from late April to mid-May.)
“We’ve had different ways to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) over the years, but we’ve never had this combination of Israeli food, music, speaker and films,” said Irit Magnes, the center’s cultural director.
She didn’t have to go far to find the right people to make everything authentic.
Nicolas Werboff is a community emissary of an Israeli organization who is taking time off from his architectural studies in Tel Aviv to spread the word about Israeli culture. As an avid chef of Israeli cuisine, Werboff was available to talk about Israeli food and to cook up a delicious lunch.
Don Steiner, an emeritus professor of nuclear engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and frequent traveler to Israel, is a longtime student of Israeli folk music. Steiner, who used to frequent folk venues with his guitar in Boston and Tennessee before he arrived in the Capital Region 30 years ago, will share traditional Israeli folk tunes.
WHEN: 1-3:30 p.m., Sunday, May 4
WHERE: Jewish Community Center, 2565 Balltown Road, Niskayuna
HOW MUCH: $20, $15 for members, $5 student
MORE INFO: 377-8803, www.schenectadyjcc.org
Steiner has sung before at the center, but never with a focus on Israeli traditional songs. It will be Werboff’s first visit, but it is not the first time his skills in the kitchen have been noticed locally. On April 6, he was on WNYT’s “Let’s Eat” program, where he cooked shakshuka, one of the dishes he’ll prepare for Sunday’s event.
“It means scrambled,” Werboff said. “In Israel it can be eaten at any meal and is really poached eggs in a thick tomato sauce. You can eat it with bread or even matzoh.”
As shown on television, the entire concoction has onion, red peppers, garlic, oregano, parsley, paprika, tomatoes, brown sugar and eggs all cooked on top of the stove.
All the fixings
Werboff is also making hummus, a chickpea dip or filling; tahini, a sesame-based sauce, with lemon juice, salt and pepper; couscous spiced with coriander, basil, parsley, onion, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice; and eggplant salad with crisped eggplant, tahini, paprika, parsley and olive oil.
“It’s gorgeous with a smoky flavor,” Werboff said.
He’s also doing an Israeli salad — finely chopped onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and red pepper flavored with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. There’s no lettuce. The mixture is often used in pita bread and pouches.
The meal finishes with orange juice, seltzer, Turkish coffee — thick, strong coffee that is cooked in a special pot on top of the stove — tea and probably purchased desserts. Sour dough or whole wheat bread will also be purchased.
If possible, the vegetables will come from local farmers’ markets where the produce compares with what Israelis are used to eating, Werboff said.
“There’s an enormous, vast difference between food in Israel and in this country,” Werboff said. “It’s more than the ingredients, it’s the quality. In the United States, the majority is mass made and industrialized — even a tomato is picked green. But in Israel, it is fresh, organic and very local. Whether it comes from north or south of the country, the distance in travel time is like going from here to Niagara Falls.”
As someone who was born in Argentina, however, he has had trouble finding the kinds of meats he likes to cook with in Israel, because 90 percent of all grocery stores are kosher. Kosher meat is salted and rinsed to remove all the blood, a process Werboff says leaves the meat dry. More non-koshered meat has become available in Israel in recent years as Russian emigres have opened up grocery stores. Apparently, he said, Russians do not have a culture of koshering their meat.
Steiner had other concerns when he chose which songs to sing. Although the lyrics cover a wide range, from patriotic to love to spiritual songs, there are differences if the songs come from either the Ashkenazi or the Hasidic traditions.
“Ashkenazi Hebrew has a more harsh sound and although Hasidic melodies are not really different, the pronouncement of some of the Hebrew words is,” he said. “Texts of the Hasidic songs are also usually based on the Book of Psalms and there is a unique quality to them. Ashkenazi songs are non-liturgical.”
Steiner’s connection to Israel is more than frequent visits to the Hasidic folk festivals. His parents, who were Polish, met in Israel when it was still Palestine.
“My dad was a teacher and writer of Hebrew literature and language and was an editor of a paper that was critical of the British occupation,” he said.
His opinions eventually led to his parents being hunted by the British authorities before they fled to the United States, he said. At home, Steiner learned to speak Sephardic Hebrew and often listened to those early folk songs, including recordings by Theodore Bikel. These days, however, those old songs aren’t sung so much because modern Israeli music is typically pop, he said.
“Many people on Sunday may know some of the songs I’ll sing,” Steiner said. “I’ll talk about them and give their origins.”
Four films, each five minutes long, about Jerusalem will be shown, as will the 2007 Oscar-winning, 22-minute comedy film, “West Bank Story,” by Ari Sandel.
“It will be a relaxed, fun afternoon — a little of everything,” Magnes said.
The cost is $20, or $15 for JCC members and $5 for students. Payment must be made by Tuesday, April 29, either by credit card or check payable to the JCC of Schenectady or by calling the center at 377-8803.