On a recent evening in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood, in the compact, open kitchen of the apartment that Dalit Gvirtsman shares with her husband, a dozen Hebrew-speaking women jostle for space. One is chopping tomatoes, another is sautéing onions, and another is squeezing a few dollops of honey into cooked egg noodles. Just beyond, the dining room table is set; each place setting has a napkin with an image of the Israeli flag on it. A platter of borekas decorated with miniature Israeli flags already has been devoured.
It’s another monthly installment of Mevashlim B’Ivrit, “Cooking Up in Hebrew,” this one celebrating Yom HaAtzmaut, or Israel Independence Day. The yearlong group — which happens to be all women, though it’s not always that way — has come together to cook, shmooze and eat, not necessarily in that order.
In fact, a few members of the group admit they don’t even like to cook that much but come for the camaraderie, like Sarit Rabinovich, who has driven all the way from Cupertino. “I hate cooking, but I like the atmosphere,” she said. “We’re laughing all the time. I come because I like to be with other Israelis and meet new people.”
Mevashlim B’Ivrit is in its third year in the Bay Area; it is part cooking class, part cultural discussion, part educational — and a big part social. Gvirtsman and Dana Greitzer-Gotlieb cooked up the group when they were brainstorming together about ways for Israelis living abroad to connect to home, as well as to each other.
Greitzer-Gotlieb had become a fan of Gvirtsman’s blog, BaInyanim, where she writes in Hebrew about things of interest to the local Israeli community. Then she saw and smelled the croissants Gvirtsman pulled out of her oven.
“You made those?” Greitzer-Gotlieb asked her. “Yes,” was the answer. “From scratch?” she asked. Again: “Yes.”
“The wheels started turning,” said Greitzer-Gotlieb, who is based in San Francisco as Bay Area regional director of community engagement for the World Zionist Organization.
The Mevashlim B’Ivrit program is part of the WZO’s Department for Diaspora Activities, which “works worldwide to promote the connection between Jews around the world and Israel, through an open, relevant discussion about questions concerning Israel and the Jewish world.” Another partner is Israeli House, part of the Consulate of Israel in San Francisco, which serves as “a meeting place for Israelis where they can express their Israeli identity in a Hebrew-speaking environment.”
Gvirtsman writes the curriculum (she also happens to be a teacher) and the recipes come from Einat Abramovitch Partin, an Israeli chef in San Diego. There is also a group in the East Bay, led by Israeli chef Aliza Grayevsky Somekh, and the program has spread to more than 25 locales around the world, including Poland, Uruguay and South Africa. There’s even a group of Mormons and Christians in Boise, Idaho, using it to learn about Israel. All use Gvirtsman’s curriculum and Partin’s recipes.
Gvirtsman taught Hebrew at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto for 16 years and began teaching at the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City after she and her husband moved to San Francisco two years ago. She also has a passion for cooking and thought it could be a good vehicle to foster connections to Israel and Israeli culture.
“Food connects people,” said Gvirtsman. “Food is love. And the subject of Israeli food and Jewish food is so large.”
“Plus, cooking allows a certain kind of experience,” Greitzer-Gotlieb added. “When you create something with your own hands, you enjoy it more.”
But they don’t only cook. Gvirtsman plans each session with a different theme having to do with Israeli culture or Jewish heritage (her group is a year ahead of the others, so they are the “guinea pigs,” she said. The evening always starts around the table with a few selected readings, meant to spur conversation around the theme. Gvirtsman has done fall soups, for example, cooking with the seasons, and one whole session about yeast. She never repeats a topic.
On the night I was there, participants were asked to choose a few words from Israel’s Declaration of Independence and explain what was personally meaningful about the passage. (All of this discussion took place in Hebrew, but Gvirtsman gave me a copy of the curriculum translated into English so I could follow along.)
The evening began at 7:30 with the readings and discussion, and we didn’t even get cooking until almost 9 p.m. We sat down to eat at nearly 10, with the last dish (a Moroccan savory pie called maakouda) coming out of the oven at 10:25. Gvirtsman had prepped a lot of the ingredients before the group’s arrival, and it was amazing to see how quickly the women made seven dishes (Algerian Bulghur Salad, Russian Blini with Sour Cream and Caviar(!), Polish chopped liver, Russian Olivier Salad, Egyptian Majadara and a Polish noodle kugel, in addition to the maakouda.)
Amy Ovadia is the only group member not fluent in Hebrew; her father is Israeli, and she says attending has improved her Hebrew more than any ulpan she has taken.
“I like that I’m just thrown right in,” she said, noting that Gvirtsman’s skill as a teacher is evident in the way she speaks slowly and clearly. “That’s the best way to learn new words. Plus, it’s not just about the cooking. We end up talking about life and culture, and there are introspective questions.”
Bambi Twersky says there’s yet another reason the program is so popular.
“Dalit has the perfect personality for this,” said Twersky. “Her love of food and cooking and hosting is amazing.”
As if to prove that point, we are all sent home with goodie sacks with a bag of Bamba (the Israeli peanut snack) and a cube of Telma chicken bouillon.
Gvirtsman will be starting a new group next year in San Francisco for English speakers. If interested, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. And to find out about starting a group in your area (in Hebrew or English), contact email@example.com.