By Peter Reinhart
An ancient Sufi story tells of a young man who searched for the meaning of life, and who survived by nourishing himself with what he believed was a magical halvah, a confection made from a paste of ground sesame seeds, pistachios, almonds, rosewater, and honey. He found it every morning in a river bed below the Shah’s palace, and it tasted so divine that he was certain it had been sent to him by Allah. Over time, he developed enormous strength and great wisdom and married the beautiful princess who lived in that palace above the stream. After the wedding he discovered, to his amazement, that the wondrous halvah was actually the bedtime cosmetic paste that his princess scraped off her face every morning and flushed into the river as garbage. He never told his bride about the magical halvah, and never again sought it out, but also never doubted that it had truly been a great gift from Allah.
The Sufis, a mystical branch of Islam, ascribe at least four levels of meaning to every story, so perhaps what I am about tell will illuminate one or more of these levels. I tell it because today, Palm Sunday, I had a piece of homemade halvah during the celebratory meal at the Greek Orthodox Church where my wife Susan and I worship, and it reminded me of the young man’s story and of my own adventures with halvah. I first heard the Sufi story thirty five years ago, when I too was a young seeker and the Middle East was full of exotic mystery to me. As I enjoyed the Palm Sunday halvah, I began thinking about other foods that I love, like hummus and baba ghanouj, dishes that are common now in the Western world but were like newly discovered treasures when I was a sheltered kid growing up in suburban Philadelphia.
My first taste was in 1963, when I was thirteen, and had just recently celebrated my Bar Mitzvah. I was the oldest of three sons and my parents had taken me and my middle brother, Freddie, who was eleven, to an obscure place they had recently discovered on a side street in South Philadelphia not far from our family’s carpet and interior design business, called The Middle East Restaurant. Our youngest brother, Harry, was only three at the time so he stayed home with my grandmother, which meant he would be spoiled that night with home made matzo ball soup followed by Breyer’s chocolate ice cream.
The waitresses, draped like stuffed grape leaves in colorful skirts and scarves, emerged from the Lebanese staffed kitchen with platters of food whose aromas hooked me immediately. We dipped into a paste of garbanzo beans mixed with toasted sesame seed tahini, fresh garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil– all mashed into a creamy puree—ahhh, my first hummus. Then came Baba ghanouj, another lemony puree, made from fire roasted eggplants with a deep smoky flavor. Years later, when I had my own restaurant, I learned that the smoky flavor was created by charring the eggplants over gas flames on the stovetop until their firm, tasteless flesh shriveled up and yielded a soft sweet pulp. There was fresh garlic in everything, more garlic than I had ever experienced in one meal, as well as lemon juice in and on every dish. We were served cubed lamb kebobs with onions and peppers on skewers; the lamb had been rolled in a spice blend called zatar, made of ground sumac berries, oregano, thyme, garlic, salt, and pepper. The roasted meat was cooked, according to our gypsy-like servers, over hot coals, then basted with lemon juice and yet more olive oil. We ate a salad made mostly of chopped bright green parsley, mixed with boiled bits of cracked wheat berries that the servers called bulgur; the parsley and bulgur were then tossed with diced tomatoes, and, yes, more garlic and more lemon juice. This was my introduction to tabbouleh, and my mouth came alive with its garlicky, citric tingle.
Freddie liked the food at the restaurant, at least he said he did, but he was mainly focused on the belly dancers, his baby blue eyes larger than I had ever seen them, his head bobbing back and forth as if he were under a genie’s spell. In the midst of this feast a band of musicians began playing on clarinets, oboes, and other reeded instruments that I did not recognize. They played on tall drums and a strange lute-like stringed instrument called an oud, in minor keys, in sharps and flats and pulsing rhythms that compelled my body to move, to sway. I was floating in Ali Baba heaven, ready to be ravished by Scheherazade. The waitresses wiped their hands and put tiny cymbals on their fingers and, suddenly, were transmuted into three beautiful, dark haired, olive skinned, Rubensesque belly dancers. They pulsed and undulated their hips in a way that I thought was physiologically impossible, as if hips could disengage from their torsos in an attempt at full and final liberation—first sideways, then up and down, then thrusting toward us like cobras about to strike, while Freddie sat next to me, his head bobbing mongoose-like, deep into his own eleven year old pubescent fantasies. My dad tapped his fingers on the table, knocking out a beat with his cameo coral ring, smiling at my mom whose head swayed from shoulder to shoulder like a cedar of Lebanon in the wind, leaving Freddie and me to our own devices.
Many of the men at other tables, previously quiet but now becoming giggling, silly men, placed one dollar bills and five dollar bills and then twenty dollar bills into the dancers’ festive, elastic banded skirts-of-many-colors while the scent of flowers and sen-sen seemed to atomize from the girls’ glistening pores. Perfumed beads of sweat flew from their quivering hips and tummies as if carried by a breezy mist, transporting me out of myself, but really deeper into myself, swaying, then eating involuntarily, unconsciously eating– more baba ghanouj, then more hummus, and still more tabbouleh. I lost count of the number of grape leaf dolmas I ate, filled with lemony ground lamb, rice, raisins, and toasted pine nuts. But it was to the hummus and the baba ghanouj that I returned, shoveling puree slathered triangles of pita bread mindlessly into my mouth, my eyes still transfixed upon the dancers. In the best of all hormone-ravaged teenage worlds I would have gladly rubbed those treasured garlicky purees over the soft, flickering bellies of these unhinged Ishmaelite dancers and licked it all off like a happy dog but, instead, I could only manage to keep wiping off the spray of the dancers’ flowery perspiration from my eyeglasses and watch them hungrily. To me, in that initiate moment, their sweat was like spring dew and my steamed glasses the morning fog.
I was lost in it all, moving with it, eating and swaying, swaying and eating. A couple of times I swept into one of the dips with a piece of pita only to bump into my dad’s hand as he, too, reached for a taste. The music built into short, quick oud and drum driven meters, beating faster, faster, and faster still. My mom’s swaying shoulders picked up speed, her eyes closed, a smile on her face, the beat so intense it was as if the world were spinning out control, and then, just like that, without warning—the music just stopped. One clarinet missed the signal and sputtered a loose, flat note that just fizzled to the floor. All movement ceased and the dancers, giggling, skittered behind a Persian rug curtain.
The room became quiet, the laughter of the crowd sucked back in. All conversations hushed and only the sounds of breathing and the tinkling of glasses were heard, and maybe a few whispers. The musicians watched us from their perch above the tables and smiled condescendingly as we sat in this silence, too spent to speak. I was, as I said, thirteen years old. Freddie saw what he saw and, perhaps, made mental notes for his own future but I feel certain of one thing: as I synthesized those shivering, previously unknown-to-me body movements and digested the explosive palate of foreign flavors, inhaling the incense attar of rose water as it intertwined with the spicy smoke of flamed zatar, I intuitively recognized the life changing implications of the juices that flowed through me and around me. That night completed my Miztvic rites of passage and I entered manhood in a way that eleven year old, mongoose-eyed Freddie, who would barely remember the flavors of the food, nor even what he ate, did not and could not possibly yet comprehend.
A few moments after the falling hush, just as normal conversations were about to resume at each table as if none of the previous fifteen fibrillating minutes had happened, the suddenly demure dancers re-appeared from behind the curtain. But, again, they had become waitresses. Coquettishly but quietly, the art of flirting so ingrained in them as to be effortless and guileless, they served us each a slice of honey sweetened sesame, almond, and pistachio paste— the confection of Shahs, the beauty treatment of princesses, the power bar for seekers of immortal truth—it was halvah, and it was good.
Seventeen years later my youngest brother Harry, who had been too young to attend the festivities at the Middle East Restaurant in South Philadelphia, discovered these foods, and the Middle East itself, in his own way. Harry, as our family fondly recalls on the rare occasions when we gather, farted his way across Israel as a result of all the hummus and baba ghanouj he ate in the summer of 1980. He was only twenty, I was thirty, as we traveled with our parents on a family pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Harry had graduated two years earlier from an experimental, alternative high school designed for those who were doing poorly at regular high schools, not because they were dumb but because they were aimless. He took courses with names like: Non-Jogging (yes, it was a class that consisted solely of long walks, under the supervision of a young, idealistic teacher who attempted to engage his students in interesting conversations about the meaning of life as they ambled); Math for People Who Hate Math; and Reading as If You Cared. After high school Harry worked at various jobs, mainly delivering pizza, and then he joined the army. He dropped out after a few months, getting a special discharge deemed mutually acceptable to both him and the military; it was not called the, “Oops, we made a mistake, this guy is not Army material” discharge, but it might as well have been. At the time of our trip to Israel Harry was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life, though he was not, I must admit, my parents’ only concern.
My father was a good, secular Jew, and a loyal supporter of Israel. He put this trip together because, he said, “I want to see where my trees are planted.” This was a common joke among Jews who had donated substantial sums of money to Israel, some of which actually did go toward the planting of trees used to transform swamps into farmland and kibbutz settlements. My mom thought that seeing Dad’s trees was a good enough reason to invite all the kids to join them on this trip, but Fred, who was the only one of the three of us to go into the family business, was unable to break away. This time it was he who stayed at home.
By the time we went on our trip to the Holy Land, I had passed through Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and numerous forms of yoga and meditation. Ultimately, and surprising even to me, I converted to Christianity and was now called, by everyone except my family, Brother Peter. Five years earlier I had professed vows in a non-denominational order called The Holy Order of MANS (the letters were an acronym representing four Greek words, or strivings: Mysterion, Agape, Nous, and Sophia). Naturally, I was eager to go on this trip, but for different reasons than my parents who, I am sure, hoped that visiting Israel might kindle a spark of Jewish renewal within me and, perhaps, might also give Harry a sense of direction. It was a noble plan and, while I had no thoughts of returning to Judaism, I did have a strong desire to come to a deeper understanding of the confluence of my Jewish heritage, my family, and my new Christian faith. Besides, I had contributed as a child to the Israeli tree fund, every week putting another quarter into the designated slot of our official, Hebrew-lettered Tree of Life card until I filled all the slots and, thus, earned my own cypress tree somewhere in the swamps. I wanted to see my trees, too.
Other than an occasional falafel sandwich, Harry had never eaten Middle Eastern foods before our trip to Israel. My parents, having witnessed Freddie’s and my nascent embers of id burst into belly-dance-induced libidinal flames, never took him to the Middle East Restaurant when he was a kid; who knows, it might have changed his life as it did mine. During our three weeks in Israel, however, as we traveled from town to town with our Israeli tour guide, Raffi, we stopped for lunch every day at similar looking cafes where, as did every customer, we ate enormous quantities of hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ghanouj— all the old favorites and, basically, the only thing on the menu. They tasted better than any versions I had eaten in the United States, perhaps because they were in fact better or, more likely, because Middle Eastern food just tastes better when eaten in the Middle East.
Harry could not get enough and, after every meal, he said things like, “This hummus stuff is really good. Where can we get it in the States?” For him, each day was defined by the meal stops, not the museums and archaeological digs, or the holy shrines.
Raffi was a serious, passionate, big teddy-bear of a patriot. He drove us all over the country while narrating the history of each location, telling us stories from various Biblical eras as well as more recent battles for liberation during the creation of this new Jewish state. As a sign of conciliation, my parents arranged for Raffi to take us to Christian as well as Jewish sites. We visited Bethlehem and the grotto where the birth of Jesus is commemorated so that I could view the manger around which a large church now exists. We traveled to northern Israel and ate small, crisp, bony St. Peter’s fish—tilapia, as I discovered its name years later– on a restaurant balcony overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Then we drove through Nazareth, now an agriculturally rich state, populated equally by both Israelis and Arabs. It reminded me of the wine region of Sonoma County, where I lived at the time. As we passed through a small town with woodcraft and other artisan shops I tried to imagine what it might have been like when Jesus was growing up there, the son of a carpenter, a carpenter himself.
“Yes, this is where he grew up,” Raffi narrated, his heavy lidded, dark brown eyes flicking first at me, then at my parents, and then quickly focusing back upon the road, “But, of course, we don’t believe he was the Messiah, you understand, just a well meaning, you know, mishugener, who got himself killed for stirring up trouble.”
Much of our time was spent going from place to place in Raffi’s car, a black Cadillac Sedan de Ville, the official limo, it seemed of certified Israeli tour guides. His stories were often humorous, weaving his deep love for this homeland of sabras, the term for native born Israelis like him, with the fatalistic world view and dry sense of humor that so many Israelis inevitably adopt as a coping mechanism.
“Security—there is no security here,” Raffi said more than once. “This country is only a few kilometers wide. They can lob bombs from their side any time they want and we cannot stop them. So it’s que sera sera, as far as we’re concerned. Que sera sera.”
Harry asked me, “What does that mean?
“It’s from some song. It means, what will be, will be,” I told him. But I was thinking it actually sounded very Zen Buddhist-like, a mantra, what will be, will be. “Harry, it’s like that ‘Mork and Mindy’ saying, you know, ‘What it is, what it was, and,’ ” he joined in as we finished it together, our fingers spread apart like Robin Williams’s television character, “ ‘…and what it shall be!’ ”
We laughed and poked each other in the back seat of Raffi’s Cadillac. Then I heard a croaking sound from Harry’s side of the car, and Raffi turned around from the driver’s seat and scolded, “Harry, is that you again? No more hummus for you,” as my mom and dad covered their noses.
My mom said, “That’s it, definitely no more hummus.”
Harry could not fathom it as a problem. “Isn’t anyone else farting? I couldn’t be the only one—I mean, they’re just garbanzo beans, right? Chickpeas. Aren’t chickpeas beans? Everybody farts after eating beans. Don’t tell me you’re not farting up there.”
I told him, “I think it’s from a combination of all the hummus and baba ghanouj you’re eating–and man, you’re eating way more than any of us– plus all the Cokes. That’s a lethal combination!” I was on a roll so I took a risk and pressed on. “And your breath could use some help too. That’s what the tabbouleh is for. All that parsley is supposed to counteract the garlic breath.”
“Screw you!” he barked. “Your breath is as bad as mine and don’t tell me you’re not farting. Eat your own goddamn tabbouleh and parsley! Hey, here’s a Tic Tac, so get off my case!”
Raffi sighed, rolled down the windows and drove on, into the Israeli countryside.
During the following days we visited Jericho, where Joshua brought the walls tumbling down. But there were no tumbled walls to see, so we drove on. After that my father and I, hot but not actually sweating in the arid desert air, walked up a nearly vertical, sandy hill until we reached Masada. It was a fortress city surrounded by pillars of salt where, in the First Century AD, a band of 960 Hebrew radicals held off the Roman army for three years, until the dwindling band finally ran out of food. They killed themselves rather than be captured and so became martyrs and eternal Jewish folk heroes. Afterwards, we drove down to the Dead Sea where I bobbed like a cork and emerged covered in mineral rich salt, looking like a frosted snowman but feeling oh-so-exfoliated. Then, we explored the area near the caves of Qumran, where the sacred and secret Dead Sea Scrolls were found.
A few days later we were on a road leading into Jerusalem. Raffi was trying to explain to us the significance of a war memorial we were passing, of how every battle during the fight for independence was marked by such roadside commemorations.
“Hey Raffi–why are there so many statues everywhere?” Harry asked. “What’s the point?”
“It’s so we’ll never forget. So that our children, and their children, and our children’s children will never forget what it cost us to create this homeland.”
“Maybe they should forget,” Harry said. “Maybe that’s why they can’t get along with the Arabs. Why can’t they just make up and move on?”
“Harry!” my mother, red-faced, was humiliated.
“What? Why can’t they just forgive each other?”
“It’s much more complicated than that,” Dad said.
“Here we go,” I moaned under my breath, but not quietly enough.
“Hey, the Americans forgave the Japanese and Germans after that war, didn’t they? So why can’t the Jews and Arabs forgive each other? Why do they always have to live in the past?”
“Do you realize what an idiot you sound like?” I snapped at him, having had enough of his simplistic opinions.
Raffi, in an unexpectedly soft, quiet, manner, his voice tinged with a sadness I had not heard from him earlier, said, “It’s much too complicated, Harry. You have no idea. You don’t understand the history here. When Ben Gurion was in charge…”
“Who’s Ben Gurion?” Harry asked.
“You don’t even know who Ben Gurion is?” Raffi asked.
“No, was he some kind of important person here?”
Raffi pulled over and stopped the car. He turned and faced my parents, crestfallen, his head turning from side to side, “You see, he doesn’t even know who Ben Gurion was. You are forgetting already over there. He doesn’t even know.” And he drove us, silently, into Jerusalem.
On the final day of our journey, after we prayed at the Wailing Wall, slipping our written entreaties to God into the wall’s cracks like the millions of others who had prayed there before and after us — I wrote the word ‘Peace’ on my note to God– I split from my family for a few hours and walked along the Via Dolorossa, retracing the route that Jesus took leading to Golgotha and to his crucifixion. After all we had seen and done, after dozens of Raffi stories about the land of Eretz Yis’rael and visits to settlements, synagogues, archaeological digs, the Golan Heights, the Sinai Desert, the Roman ruins of Caesarea, and the Garden of Gethsemani, I was still restless. While my family explored the market bazaar of the Old City, the part of Jerusalem still within the ancient walls, I spent my final hours in Jerusalem alone, wandering. I walked around and behind the Wailing Wall and followed a stone path up an embankment and soon found myself at the entrance of the Mosque of Omar, also known as The Dome of the Rock.
Raffi’s history lessons were still fresh in my mind: The mosque had been built thirteen hundred years before on Mount Moriah, the center of the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian universe, the location of the original Ark of the Covenant, the Temple altar, The Holy of Holies. It was on this spot that Abraham offered his son Isaac in sacrifice, gratefully accepting God’s reprieve at the last moment leading to a covenant upon which the Hebrew nation was founded. It was here that King Solomon built the first magnificent Temple, and where King Herod later built his own even grander version, thinking he could establish himself as the Messiah. He was wrong. A few years later Jesus came along and threw the money lenders out of Herod’s Temple, demanding purification of this holy place and thus sealing his own brutal death. Sixty years after that the Romans tore down the Temple as punishment for the Masada rebellion. Six centuries passed and, according to legend, Mohammad, who never in his lifetime physically entered Jerusalem, had a vision in which he saw himself riding his horse, Al Boraq — ‘Lightening’ — onto the same rock upon which Abraham offered up Isaac, and ascended to heaven. This prompted a rich caliph named Omar to build the mosque, with an enormous golden dome directly above the rock. For centuries, only Muslims were permitted to enter this mosque. When Jerusalem — the name means ‘City of Peace’— was partitioned in 1948 after the First War of Independence, the Muslims were allowed to keep the mosque, but it was opened to visitors of other faiths during certain hours.
As I walked around the great Rock of Mount Moriah, which is protected from pilgrims by a tall mesh fence, I reflected upon this long history. As a Jewish Christian who had also studied Islamic Sufism, I felt emotionally connected to its entire four thousand year heritage. I tried to envision the many important dramas that had taken place on this spot, this focal point of history. With a number of Muslim pilgrims kneeling in prayer around me, offering their thanks to Allah, a strong desire to pray overcame me so I closed my eyes and offered my own prayer of peace and unity to the One God who seemed, for some fathomless reason, to have chosen this rock as the nexus of three major religions.
A security guard approached, wagging his finger in chastisement, and said, “No, no, no, you must not pray. Only Muslims may pray here.”
“Same God,” I said, my eyes slowly opening.
“I am sorry,” he replied, seeming sympathetic. He whispered, conspiratorially, “It is the rules of the management, I am sorry.”
Bemused by his odd choice of words, I walked away from the guard and circled around the Rock. When he was out of sight I gave in again and closed my eyes in prayer. Within seconds he was all over me like a mad hornet, all sympathy gone, replaced by duty.
“I warned you not to pray in here! Now you must leave!”
“Wait a second. Are you really throwing me out of the Temple of God for praying?”
“Yes, and you must go this very minute!”
“You’re kidding, right?” But he wasn’t, as he poked me toward the entrance with a short wooden club. I was soon standing outside the Mosque of Omar on a dirt path, the doors of the Temple closed to me. Looking skyward, I silently demanded, “How can You allow this?”
A mild breeze blew past me and, out of the silence I heard the music of clarinets and an oud coming from the distant bazaar. In front of me, dust spiraled into a small cone and then settled back onto the path. My body and mind inexplicably relaxed and filled with something I can only, inadequately, call peace. For a flickering moment, an instant, I saw this scene from an aerial view as if, I thought, maybe through the eyes of God. I saw a scene of children, fighting in a big sandbox, squabbling over prayer rights to holy places, fighting over land rights to ancestral ground. I clearly heard these words in my mind, but as if spoken aloud: “We will work it out one of these days. Be patient. We are all still kids.”
I began to laugh and, shaking my head, made my way back into the Arab section of the Old City, into the bazaar, searching for the source of the music. As I wandered through the maze of corridors, passing booths of Arab merchants selling rugs, artifacts, tourist souvenirs, and foods of all types, I spotted Harry in front of a food stand, standing in the shade of a palm tree, eating a pita sandwich filled with hummus, a mound of baba ghanouj also on his plate. The music seemed to be coming from a hut behind the stand but I could not see any musicians; they were inside the hut. Harry offered me a piece of his pita bread and I tore off a few strips and scooped up a portion of the baba ghanouj. The creamy, lemony, eggplant and garlic paste went down soothingly, like my grandmother’s chicken soup, and then I had a craving for something sweet, like chocolate ice cream. I told Harry about my encounter with the security guard and about the ‘honor,’ as I now viewed it, of getting thrown out of the Temple.
“I can’t believe it. You actually got thrown out? How does somebody get thrown out of God’s house for praying?”
We both laughed and then we finished off his plate of food. Harry offered to buy me a platter of my own but I said, “Wait, I want to get something for you,” and went back to the Arab’s booth. I returned a minute later and broke off a piece of halvah and offered it to him. I told him about the young man who thought it was a magic paste sent from Allah and how he married his princess. We agreed that the halvah tasted so good that we’d happily eat it even if were scraped off someone’s face, and that we were glad to be together, at that moment, in this Jerusalem, the City of Peace.
“Que sera sera, Harry.”
“Definitely. que sera sera, bro.”