When Avishai Pearlson cooks meals for large groups, he likes to think his food is not only nourishing people in the physical sense, but in the spiritual one as well.
“I wish to be present and to have the cooking be a prayer and infuse it with blessing,” Pearlson says. “The kabbalistic idea of raising the sparks is what I wish to bring, and celebrating shefa, abundance.”
The founder of Berkeley-based PassionFoods (passionfoods.weebly.com), Pearlson is not only a chef, but a practitioner of Breema (a cross between yoga and massage), a part-time Hebrew teacher and, most recently, a rabbinical student in the Jewish Renewal movement.
Raised on Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi in the Upper Galilee, Pearlson, 50, says that while he was always a spiritual person, he struggled with the lack of spirituality in his upbringing.
“The religion in the kibbutz was work,” he says, “and only recently I leaned that avodah [work] in the Bible is service to God. But when I grew up it was working hard from morning until night. I never explored my spiritual inclination in the Jewish realm because we were not comfortable with the Orthodox organized religion.”
Growing up on a kibbutz, Pearlson also never had the opportunity to cook. Meals were prepared in the communal dining hall, and when families ate in their homes on Saturday nights, his family always had scrambled eggs.
He first learned to cook from his fellow soldiers in the Israeli army; Pearlson served on a patrol boat in the navy, where the crew of eight had to cook their own meals. Roasted chicken with olives was the first dish he learned to make.
Pearlson’s travels took him to many places: the Findhorn community and ecovillage in Scotland, which grows most of its own food; homesteading on a farm on Cortes Island in British Columbia; and then working at Hollyhock, a retreat center on Cortes. It was at Hollyhock that he honed his cooking skills, working in a kitchen that produced healthy, gourmet vegetarian fare for hundreds of people at a time.
While at Hollyhock, he immersed himself in varying forms of meditation, Breema, tai chi, yoga and other forms of spirituality, which slowly led him back to Judaism.
After living in Oregon for many years, Pearlson arrived in Berkeley five years ago. Recently, he began teaching Hebrew and tutoring bar and bat mitzvah students.
His introduction to Jewish Renewal and his passion for food have him trying to combine the two in everything he does. “I want to bring all the experience I have studying meditation and the art of being present, wellness, food and growing food and sustainability with my passion for studying Jewish spirituality and mysticism,” Pearlson says.
One way he has been doing that is by serving as chef for Wilderness Torah events, which has him cooking out in the desert or on a farm. Volunteers at these events always help Pearlson in the kitchen, and before they start chopping, he leads them in a meditation.
Pearlson specializes in soups and stews using produce that is organic, local and seasonal. He doesn’t rely on recipes, more on intuition, so his instructions are approximate. For Rosh Hashanah, he shared his “recipe” for fish soup (see page 13).
Both fish (because of their eggs) and pomegranates (because of their seeds) represent abundance and fertility, which is why they are often used as symbols of the new year. Pearlson also pointed out that while some Jews think it’s lucky to put a fish head on the table, others associate the Hebrew word for fish (dag) with the verb to worry (lidog), and so they avoid doing that.
Pearlson notes that in Peru, where his wife is from, it is believed that eating a fish head gives all kinds of nutrients that cannot be found elsewhere and that it will improve dreams.
“My suggestion for Rosh Hashanah is to make a big fish soup that will be enough to eat the next day because then you don’t have to cook again, and also, most soups taste even better the next day,” he says.
A tip: Pearlson suggests cutting root vegetables into round shapes. In Yiddish folklore, carrots are associated with gold coins, so they represent prosperity and good fortune. It is a custom to eat round things, symbolizing the new year and wholeness.
Yams, sweet potatoes and apple slices can also be added to add sweetness.
“I think [this soup is] a good way to start the year because it’s taking a step toward eating the healthiest food,” Pearlson says. “Soups and stews offer us the most amount of nourishment. In times when we want to watch our food budget, soups and stews are the most economical way to feed a family in the healthiest way.”