This is just one in a series of ongoing posts on the educational innovations in Israel. You can see additional coverage here.
When Michael Biton took the role as Mayor of Yeruham, a small desert city, made up of about 10,000 mostly Israeli immigrants he had some challenges to realize one of his visions for the city. Known for it’s historical and archeological sites, the city was to become a sought-after tourism hot-spot. One that, among other things, offers sumptuous ethnic meals and gives visitors insight into the heritage, culture, and traditions of regular Israelis.
But first, he had to overcome a couple problems:
- The small town couldn’t afford any restaurants. The market was too small.
- There was a high unemployment rate for women
Fortunately, Biton had a recipe for success that included a combination of exploration, motivation, and innovation with a dash of chutzpah.
He recognized that there were some homes in city that had become hubs for community meals. From these homes the aroma of home-cooked, traditional recipes made mouths water. Fulfilling Jewish values of hospitality, caring, and solidarity, these families welcomed their neighbors into their homes.
It became apparent that these women had something to offer that might not only satisfy the appetite of tourists seeking delicious ethnic meals and insights into the Jewish culture, but it could also serve as a vehicle to provide added income for these unemployed women.
It wasn’t long before the Culinary Queens of Yeruham project was born. It has served as a win, win for both the community and those who come to visit. There is perhaps no better way to learn about history, heritage, and culture than by experiencing a meal in the home of the people of that culture.
During my stay in Yeruham, as part of Vibe Israel's #VibeEdu tour, I was one of five edubloggers invited to have lunch with one of the “Cooking Women.” We were greeted by three generations of grandchildren, children, and parents who served us their traditional dishes. Families showcase ethnic and cultural traditions and stories. The family benefits include not only financial gain, but it brings the women of the community out of the shadows and into the center to share “her story.” Another bonus is that the hosting families get to hear stories and make connections with visitors from across the globe.
This is made possible by an NGO called Atid Bamidbar (Future is in the Desert) which creates connections bringing together people from different backgrounds, and connecting them with Jewish culture through the ages and with the challenging realities of Israel today, in creative ways.
When I asked Mayor Biton how these families deal with all the rules and regulations imposed upon typical restaurants, he explained that he feels it is his responsibility to ensure these families are not burdened with such complications. Families have been serving their neighbors for generations without risk or harm. He would not let regulations stand in the way of innovation.
Tourists who visit meet women like Rivka Azulai. Rivka was born in Casablanca, Morocco in 1952 and immigrated to Israel in 1963. Though she had many suitors, Rivka married Solomon, the one who was most persistent, at age 18. Her boyfriend who came to visit from Morocco was heartbroken, but Rivka had a solution. She introduced him to her sister and they remain happily married today.
Rivka studied several languages in school including Portuguese and French. After school she learned to sew. By the time she was twelve she was able to sew men’s suits and women’s evening gowns. This skill became her profession as she moved to Israel. At her husband’s insistence, when she began having children (as was common) she stopped working. Her craft moved from sewing to making healthy, organic food, that gave her children strength and whose tempting fragrance could be detected all the way down the street. Her children are now grown and her cooking talent has become her new profession as a Culinary Queen of Yeruham.
Cities like New York, where I work, are fortunate in their great diversity. Many of our children come from families with talented cooks like Rivka Azulai. But you don’t have to be a melting pot to invite visitors into your home to learn about your family’s history, culture, and traditions. There are lessons we can all learn from the Culinary Queens of Yeruham to both provide income opportunities for families in our communities as well as help our own students learn about the heritage and traditions of other cultures.
Photo credit: Amit Shemesh