Photo by Stacy Babani
That's the only word to describe this week's "Ethnic Flavors of Israel."
Promoted as "an interactive culinary experience," the weeklong program brought not only the tastes and smells of Israeli cooking to a variety of venues throughout the Valley, but also the chance for Israeli and American women to meet and mingle, where else, but in the kitchen.
"Women can experience power in many ways," says Anita Gutkin, a participant at the kickoff event at the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus, "but cooking expresses the love and passion we have for making people love and enjoy it."
And that's pretty powerful, particularly when the cooks are seven women from Kiryat Malachi, one of two Israeli cities (Hof Ashkelon is the other) in the TIPS partnership with Phoenix, Tucson and Seattle, and represent the veritable melting pot of Israel's exotic ethnic mix.
Dressed in colorful native garb from Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, Ethiopia and Uzbekistan, each of the women shared the remarkable story of her family's journey to Israel, speaking with the help of Sharron Topper-Amitai, community shlicha, and Smadar Kaplinsky, the "Ethnic Flavors" director, who translated for them.
"The stories were powerful," says Gutkin, who serves as the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix's Women's Philanthropy campaign chair, adding extra spice to the mouth-watering array of dishes they provided at the buffet lunch. There was Ethiopian injera, a spongy pancakelike bread filled with a delectable mix of green beans and lentils, Moroccan cooked tomato and red pepper salad, and Iraqi kubbeh, oval meat-filled grain patties, and much, much more.
Food was prepared in the kitchen of Levi Catering Cafe & Bakery, the campus' resident eatery, with a backup "kitchen" upstairs in the offices of the federation. There, counters and conference table became work space for the Israeli cooks and their cadre of "sous-chefs," volunteers from a number of other Jewish women's organizations who signed on to help.
After lunch, and a cooking demonstration by the Israeli visitors, Gayle Weiss donned plastic gloves to peel beets, her smile as bright as the red vegetables, while her Israeli friends scurried to help prepare dishes for the group's next stop at the Barness Family Jewish Community Center in Chandler. Earlier that morning, Virginie Polster was one of a half-dozen or so others who did prep duty for the crowd of some 70 women, representing five sponsoring organizations, who came for lunch.
"We cut and chopped," says Polster, smiling but tired after her three-hour stint, "and cut and chopped." Many of the dishes are vegetarian, and the week's event, with other stops beyond Scottsdale and Chandler in Sun City and Phoenix, requires mountains of beets, tomatoes, cauliflower and other vegetables.
"Ethnic Flavors" was conceived by the TIPS (Tucson, Israel, Phoenix, Seattle) partnership to provide people-to-people connections, educate communities about TIPS and its work, and heighten the self-esteem and confidence of the women in the program, explains Cindy Saperstein of the TIPS committee. The group of cooks was selected on the basis of cooking, leadership and communication skills.
Ultimately, says Kaplinsky, the group hopes to form a food-service cooperative in Israel.
The experience in working on the "Ethnic Flavors" program has helped them learn to work together and hone their skills
"They are clever and smart," she says of her cooks, many of whom come from impoverished backgrounds. "And if they can do something for themselves, they can change life for their children and grandchildren."
To view photos from some of the Phoenix events, please go to: http://www.jewishphoenix.org/page.aspx?id=209593
For brief biographies of the women from Kiryat Malachi, visit the Valley View blog at http://blog.jewishaz.com/lwoldoff.php