Cooking for a peaceful future

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NEW BEDFORD – Israeli Arab Miriam Zoabi urged people attending the “Cooking Up a Dialogue” event to take a close look at the photos placed on their tables.

“We are holding knives in our hands,” Zoabi said. “But not to kill each other, but to cook together.”

Zoabi is one of four women – two Israeli Jews and two Israeli Arabs – from the Afula region in Israel who recently cooked up a feast at synagogues and Islamic centers in Massachusetts and Connecticut during a tour sponsored by the Southern New England Consortium, which assists Jewish federations with programming.

“I’m here to show another life in Israel,” Israeli Arab Yomna Zoabi said in halting English at the group’s last stop – Tifereth Israel Congregation, in New Bedford, on March 27. “We are together sometimes” she said of Arab and Jew.

While media reports focus on violence and polarization between Israeli Jews and Arabs, something different is happening on “main street,” where Jews and Arabs are finding common ground and learning to better understand each other through mundane activities such as studying together, healing together, painting together and cooking together.

For Emma Gal, Yomna Zoabi, Galia Margolin and Miriam Zoabi, that effort began about 1 1/2 years ago, when, inspired by the Marching Together to a Shared Future movement, they decided to try cooking together.

Despite some skepticism at home, they persisted.

“I want to be an example to our children – if we speak to each other, maybe we can solve our problems,” Zoabi said.

“In the beginning, we were very nice to each other, very polite,” Gal said. But after a few months of cooking at one another’s houses, and after meeting each other’s families, she said they began “to speak about everything, like women do.”

Everything except politics, that is. The women instinctively avoided that subject, while speaking of “things that are just in our hearts,” Gal said.

As time passed, friendships took hold between the Jewish women and the Muslim women.

“It’s nice that we see so many things we have together – the same lives,” said Gal.

Marching Together to a Shared Future has brought together 7,000 Jews and Arabs, and the women made the point that the effort can grow anywhere, including in the United States.

Amir Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New England, pointed out that among those in attendance were several leaders and members of the Islamic Society of Southeastern Massachusetts.

“This conversation begins today … and hopefully continues,” Cohen said.

Martin Bentz, outreach coordinator for the Islamic Society, said, “This is the first time we get together, but not the last time.”

The cooks said that at their first meetings, they bumped up against some cultural differences. Now they know, for example, that Muslims don’t drink wine and Jews don’t eat shellfish. But as they cooked together, and learned traditional dishes from each other, they found they had more in common at the table than they had suspected: Since Israel is home to Jews from across the globe, its cuisine incorporates elements from many cultures, including many Arab cultures. Gal, for example, has both Syrian and Lebanese relatives. 

So, while a few of the dishes they prepared are traditionally Arab or traditionally Jewish, there was a great deal of overlap. The 60 people in attendance enjoyed them all, from the Syrian Hamud Soup (a tart, lemony potato soup served over rice) to the Banitsa (a creamy, cheesy dish similar in consistency to kugel) and Sachlav Malabi (rose water pudding), and heartily applauded their multicultural cooking team.

“Such little steps, such big things,” said Gal. “The little steps will bring the peace.” 

CYNTHIA BENJAMIN is an editor, writer and chef. She is a member of Congregation B’nai Israel, in Woonsocket.