September 18, 2013
Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain took his CNN travel show, Parts Unknown, to Israel for a program that aired Sept. 15. And three-quarters of the way through the episode I found myself pleading, “Please, Anthony, visit a typical Israeli.”
Bourdain is a self-styled “bad boy” of cuisine and travel, and in his previous Travel Channel documentary series, No Reservations, he was always great company as he raced around the world in search of local taste sensations. More cynical and more thoughtful than your average TV host, Bourdain used these meals to reveal something about the cultures that produced them.
Think National Geographic magazine meets Bizarre Foods.
His CNN series, now in its second season, tilts the balance a little bit more toward the former than the latter, although native cuisines are still the organizing principle. Fans were disappointed that Bourdain hadn’t visited Israel in his previous travels, and in the opening of the Israel show, wrapped in tefillin by a helpful Chabadnik, he suggests why: The son of a Jewish mother and Catholic father, he describes himself as a devout secularist who is repelled by believers who claim to have the answers. He’s not the first Jew for whom a visit to Israel is a challenge, a rebuke, and an identity puzzle to be solved.
Bourdain also acknowledges that you can’t talk about Israelis and Palestinians without angering one side or the other, and probably both. Yet he dives in, with stops in Jerusalem, a Palestinian refugee camp, a Jewish settlement, and Gaza. His hosts at each stop cook him a meal, and he interrogates them gently — too gently, no doubt, for fans of his often insightful sarcasm. He delicately asks a clean-shaven, kipa-wearing settler about the “Death to the Arabs” graffiti scrawled at the settlement’s entrance, and earns a sheepish acknowledgement that it should “probably” be erased.
At the Aida refugee camp outside Bethlehem, he asks a children’s theater director why the local heroes are armed gunmen, and not, say, TV stars or singers. The man admits the situation is not healthy.
In Gaza, he meets and dines with Laila el-Haddad, a Palestinian cookbook author. The Gazans they meet pine to see Jerusalem and the West Bank, although neither he nor Haddad discusses who or what is to blame for the Gazans’ isolation.
During each of these segments, you could almost hear the tweets pouring into CNN: Why no talk of Arab incitement? Why have they chosen to remain “refugees” after 60 years instead of accepting reality? Aren’t they better off in Gaza than Syria?
Meanwhile, I was praying, “Please, Anthony, visit a typical Israeli.”
When he does return to Israel proper, he travels to Ein Rafa, an Israeli-Arab village, where husband and wife Yakum Barhum, an Arab, and Michal Baranes, a Jew, run Majda, a gourmet vegetarian restaurant. Their story is as irresistible as the meal they whip up for Bourdain: Romeo and Juliet with an organic garden. It’s a lovely interlude, eliding a counter-argument that individuals and peoples are entitled to their distinctiveness.
In Jerusalem’s Old City, Bourdain’s guide is Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born chef whose best-selling cookbook Jerusalem I wrote about a few weeks back. A visit to Jerusalem is an essential introduction to the clashing religious and historical claims to the Holy Land, but, again: It can provide few insights into a “typical” Israeli experience, as elusive as that might seem.
It’s not “bias” when a documentary seeks out the unusual or contentious. You can’t ask a journalist to ignore the obvious — as Bourdain says, Israel just might be “the most contentious piece of real estate in the world.” Hearing perspectives from Gazans, settlers, and Palestinian refugees is essential to understanding the place. In fact, most American-Jewish visitors to Israel rarely travel outside what Peter Beinart is calling the “cocoon” — that is, “isolated from the experiences and perspectives of roughly half the people under Israeli control.”
But whenever I see a report on the conflict, I wish the crew spent some time in Holon or Ofakim. Maybe taste the borscht made by the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who arrived there when no other countries would take them. Or share shakshuka with a family whose parents were expelled from Algeria or Tunisia, who sacrificed a son or brother defending Israel’s hard-won independence. If all sides deserve a voice, why not the Israeli majority who have been there for generations, raising families, going to school and work, and managing to maintain a mostly functional, relatively progressive, and determinedly Western society in a pretty lousy neighborhood?
Just when I was about to give up hope, Bourdain does meet such an Israeli — the owner of a Brazilian restaurant who lost a daughter in a missile attack from Gaza. He has decorated the nearby bomb shelter in her memory and as an expression of his hopes for peace. His perspective — mournful yet somehow optimistic — saves the show from what Bourdain had earlier called “very mushy thinking.”
Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor-in-Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. Between columns you can read his writing at the JustASC blog.