Quite a few Israeli-born chefs work in the Bay Area, riding the wave of popularity that Israeli cuisine is currently enjoying. Aliza Grayevsky Somekh is among them, but she is the only one serving up a succession of courses around a particular theme.
Most recently, Somekh presented a multicourse dinner at S.F. Congregation Emanu-El based on her memories of celebrating Sukkot in Jerusalem, where she grew up. On the holiday, she recalled how all of the families in her apartment building would bring down their pots bubbling with something delicious to share with each other in their communal sukkah.
On Nov. 22, Somekh will be cooking dishes from Greece, Turkey, Italy and North Africa for a celebration of Sephardic culture, highlighting the countries where Jews fled after their expulsion from Spain. The meal at Walnut Creek’s Congregation B’nai Tikvah will be accompanied by music and teachings by Rabbi Jennie Chabon.
The first time I tried Somekh’s cuisine, it was at a dinner at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, where she made 14 vegetarian courses. Every dish was from a different wave of immigration to Israel, and cultural anthropologist Analucía Lopezreveredo spoke about each group’s aliyah. On this night, shakshuka represented the immigration from Tunisia, an herb salad with quince and cardamom represented Iran, and a tapioca pudding represented the Jews from Cochin, India. Her za’atar-dusted Druze flatbread — which represented an ethnic minority in Israel as opposed to an aliyah — was one of the food highlights of the evening; people were audibly excited as it came out.
Somekh always has these kinds of ideas for multicourse dinners and special events swirling around in her head. She brings them to life through her company, Bishulim SF (the Hebrew word for cooking). Down the line, her dream is to open a nonprofit that she envisions as an Israeli community kitchen, complete with an herb garden out back. She would offer workshops and pop-up dinners and collaborate with Palestinian chefs or Iranian chefs, for example, people she could never cook with in Israel.
Somekh grew up Orthodox in Jerusalem; she is an eighth generation Jerusalemite on her father’s side.
“Our Friday night dinners always had to be something different and special,” she said, recounting how when she and her brothers were in the army, they got calls from their mother on Wednesdays asking what they wanted that Friday for Shabbat dinner. “Food wasn’t a healing thing, but it was an enriching thing,” she said. “Something to broaden our horizons.”
Somekh, 44, has spent many years abroad. As a child, she lived in London when her father’s work took the family there. She later ended up working as a shlichah, or Israeli emissary, which brought her to the United States and, ultimately, to the Bay Area.
“When we lived in London, I saw how much you can gain, leaving your comfort zone. Later, as an adult, I felt I had a lot to give but also so much to gain.”
In the ’90s she worked as an emissary on the East Bay Federation’s teen Israel trips. For a short time in 2000, she switched gears and worked as a photographer for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot. (She had studied photography at an art school after the army.) It was during the second intifada, and her assignments often took her to the site of bus bombings. After six months, she felt traumatized and needed to put her camera away.
She turned back to Jewish education, working with American young adults in Israel on Young Judaea programs and designing a culinary track for those who were interested in learning about food. After two years as a shlichah in Chicago, she came to the Bay Area to serve the community here.
When her position as an emissary was cut in 2015, she and her husband decided to stay.
One day, a friend tasted her food and asked if she would cook for an event. That was all it took; she started her business the next year, in 2016. It was a way for her to continue representing Israel, doing something she loved.
“That first meal, I was driving with shakshuka and breads in my car and thinking, ‘Who do you think you are?’ I was so nervous,” she said. “But the way people reacted was such instant gratification.” Soon she was doing events on the EatWith website, which allows chefs to market their events, and at her synagogue, Beth Abraham, which has become a culinary home for her.
While Somekh enjoyed her work representing Israel as a shlichah, she’s finding that by using food as her medium, she can reach more people, sometimes in a more effective way than before.
“People are not only interested in the food, but in their experiences, too. For me, food always has stories connected to it. By doing these dinners, I can talk about the Israel that I love that’s not connected to the conflict or the religion.”
Somekh has gotten support from the Jewish incubator UpStart to help further her idea, and in the meantime, is doing pop-ups, dinners and catering events for the growing market of Israeli food enthusiasts.
For information on the Nov. 22 event in Walnut Creek, visit tikvah.org.