the two women stand before an audience preparing ingredients
Gina Waldman (left) and Corrine Levy at the March 23 "Beyond Bubbie" event (Photo/Alix Wall)

Going ‘Beyond Bubbie’ with flavors of the ‘Old East’

If there was a lesson to be learned from the “Beyond Bubbie” evening at Berkeley’s JCC East Bay last week, it was this: Never underestimate the power of an eggplant and green pepper salad.

Gina Waldman may have been just talking about a family recipe, but when she called it “the recipe that saved our lives,” it added a whole other level of drama to a presentation about food.

Waldman, a founder of JIMENA (Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries) was one of three participants in an evening presented by JIMENA and Reboot, whose mission is to make Judaism relevant for a new generation by offering a host of creative projects; “Beyond Bubbie: Taste of the Old East” is one of them.

Also sharing traditional Sephardic Passover recipes were Corrine Levy, who grew up in Los Angeles and is of Moroccan origin, and Gilad Mimran, an Israeli who is part Moroccan, part Ashkenazi. Levy made salads, while Mimran prepared hummus and tabbouleh.

However, Waldman’s story, if not her recipes, definitely stole the show.

“Recipes are not just what we eat; they are what nourishes the soul, they are about nostalgia and what we grew up with, and how these recipes came about,” she said, by way of introduction.

Waldman then launched into her story, which began in Libya during the 1967 Six-Day War. She has told her story many times, but this time, it was focused on a recipe and her family’s relationship with an Egyptian man who lived above them in Tripoli.

While at one point the Jews of Libya numbered around 36,000, their numbers were down to about 6,000 when Waldman was growing up, she said. And every time there was a war with Israel, more Jews would be expelled.

By the time the Six-Day War began, Libyan Jews already had been stripped of their nationality and right to vote. In addition, they could not work for the government, Waldman said.

Nonetheless, when Waldman’s grandmother and mother would cook Shabbat dinner every Friday night, they would always make extra for their neighbor Ibrahim.

“During these times, we were able to build a relationship with our neighbor through food. Once you break bread with Arabs, you become part of their ‘protection,’ ” she said.

Whenever her father would run into Ibrahim, the neighbor would give him the ultimate compliment: “Your wife has golden hands,” meaning she was a fine cook.

When the war broke out, riots against Jews started in Tripoli, she said, and many Jewish homes were doused in gasoline and set on fire. Waldman had already been sent elsewhere by this point for her own safety, but nonetheless when rioters showed up at the Waldman home, Ibrahim told them that the Jewish family had gone away.

“They’re no longer living here,” he told them. “You’ll just kill your brothers. I’m a Muslim brother, go away.”

It may have been more than the recipe, Waldman admitted. “I’m sure he would have saved us no matter what, but this is how we got to know him: through sharing food.”

While Passover lasagna —one of those dishes people make to use up matzah — rarely has much of a story behind it, Waldman proved otherwise. When her family got out of Libya, they arrived in Italy, almost penniless. They mostly subsisted on pasta, but of course during Passover, that wasn’t allowed, so her mother came up with matzah lasagna.

Waldman makes hers by layering matzah with tomato sauce, vegetables and cheese and sometimes olives, but it can also be made with ground meat.

Attendees walked around to the different tables, tasting the dishes the chefs had made, and many shared stories and dishes from their own families, which is exactly what Beyond Bubbie is supposed to inspire.

But one woman was heard sighing, after learning that a Moroccan salad took the better part of a day to make.

“I would never make that,” she said. “It’s too much work.”

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."