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Gleanings – Natalie Wood – (A special thanks to Miriam Kresh for permitting us to reprint her recipe as well as her photographs).
“And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleaning of thy harvest” (Leviticus 19:9).
Jewish tradition so prizes the tender, pastoral story of the convert, Ruth that the text is placed next to The Song of Songs in The Tenach – Hebrew Biblical Canon.
“Her mother-in-law said to her, ‘Where have you picked today and where have you wrought? May your benefactor be blessed” (Ruth 2:19).
It’s therefore natural for it to have prompted some of English literature’s most cherished works, including John Keats’s verse (below) and Somerset Maugham’s story, The Alien Corn.
“Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn ….”
‘Ode to a Nightingale’ – John Keats
The poet and the master prose writer both turned the biblical tale upside down, making their subjects mourn their emotional exile, whereas Ruth was anxious to leave Moab to return to Judea with Naomi, her widowed mother-in-law and to be part of Israelite society.
I was aged only 16 when I first saw Maugham’s story adapted for television and was captivated by the romantic anguish of the failed musician who killed himself. But reading the original as an adult, it becomes clear that the author, a closet bi-sexual in an age when practising homosexuality was illegal, wrote it to reflect his own sense of isolation and estrangement.
While the plot and characterisation are pervaded by the popular anti-Jewish stereotypes of the European inter-war years, in real life Maugham was personally friendly with Jews. So I insist that The Alien Corn cannot be about wealthy German Jews desperate to be accepted as members of the British aristocracy. Instead, I view it as an extended metaphor for Maugham’s personal condition, representing first his family who uprooted themselves from Yorkshire to become urbane metropolitans and then himself, someone who was not only unable to satisfy his voracious sexuality but was forced also to acknowledge that his own talent, like that of the would-be pianist, George Bland was no more than “in the very front row of the second rate”.
Hungry Israeli Kids? That’s Hard To Stomach!
All of this returns me to present-day Israel where it doesn’t take the droppings from a back-breaking investigation to discover that in barely a decade Leket (‘Gleanings’) has become the country’s largest charitable food bank and food rescue network.
Arriving as a western immigrant I was surprised to learn that about one-third of Karmiel residents lived on benefits. This is not just an Arab issue as the only real poverty I’ve witnessed has been among former Russians, like the man scavenging for cigarette butts in a public dustbin or another ahead of me at a supermarket check-out paying for his goods with a thick wad of vouchers.
The cost of living in Israel is at least twenty per cent higher than in Europe yet jobs are hard to find and wages are very low. How do people balance this paradox? I’ve been told that if they earn enough to open a bank account, they live on permanent overdrafts! But the strange anomaly of being urged to emigrate to Israel – to live in the Jewish State but without the means to enjoy it – is no laughing matter for those at the sharp end.
Some privation is self-inflicted by people who simply refuse to work. More is suffered by new immigrants from countries like Ethiopia who arrive after extraordinarily courageous journeys with only the clothes they wear and then discover they face many more years of grinding poverty while they become accustomed to western life. But most upsetting is the apparently unending line of needy school children whom Leket helps to feed daily.
This is what hurts: Leket estimates that 1.9M Israelis live in poverty and “… nearly a quarter of the country’s population suffers from an imbalanced or insufficient diet” due to that hardship. Indeed, if Leket did not do its sterling work, about 850,000 Israeli children of all backgrounds would go hungry each day while hundreds of thousands of tons of food would simply rot away.
No matter where they live, there are always those on the poverty line and below who are constitutionally unable to provide even the basics for themselves as they do not understand how to budget and find it difficult to save. These are the type of people who need help.
When I volunteered during the summer at Leket’s storage depot in Nesher, Haifa, I met other volunteers along with paid staff who confirmed that Leket also assists Israel’s ‘at-risk’ sector and the non-profit organisations which offer nutrition education among other facilities.
But when I helped to sort vegetables and load crates at the depot or enjoyed a couple of invigorating sessions pulling turnips and kohlrabi from Leket’s specially designated field at Moshav Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley, I was only one of 45,000 volunteers helping in a wide range of activities which include rescuing more than 770,000 hot meals, 110,000 loaves of bread and more than 18M pounds of produce and perishable goods. Other volunteers make more than 7,600 sandwiches each day to feed underprivileged children at 113 schools in more than 30 cities throughout Israel. Furthermore, food is reclaimed from hundreds of suppliers which is then redistributed to 190 non-profit organisations which help a wide range of people of all ethnic groups. No-one, no matter their background, is denied assistance. My most recent volunteer picking session took place in September during the harvest festival of Succot – Tabernacles when I was part of a very large crowd which pulled 95,000 lbs of kohlrabi to help feed more than 12,000 needy families. These sessions invariably exude a jolly party atmosphere so it’s no wonder that families celebrating a barmitzvah or batmitzvah often participate as a treat which ends with the child receiving a commemorative certificate to mark the day. Even less surprising is that this year’s World Food Day harvesting project became so popular that some applicants had to be turned away!
Before closing, I want to commend Leket Israel for producing an outstandingly attractive website which displays its aims and achievements while offering readers an ingenious look at traditional Jewish ‘soul food’: Its new ‘Parasha (Biblical portion) Project’ involves celebrated scholars offering bi-lingual food-related commentaries on the biblical portion of the week. Their essays are supported by relevant recipes from well-known food writers and chefs. Typical was the commentary and accompanying recipe for the week ending Sabbath 09 November when the study passage was written by US poet Professor Alicia Ostriker of Rutgers University while the recipe for ‘Sinyeh – Kebab Patties baked in Tahini’ – came from Miriam Kresh of Israeli Kitchen.com.
Sinyeh – Kebab Patties baked in Tahini
Ingredients for Kebabs
1 kg/2 lbs ground lamb (beef, turkey or chicken may be substituted), coarsely ground
2 tablespoons olive oil or, if available, 25 gr./1 oz. ground lamb fat
1/2 onion, chopped fine or grated into the meat
1 heaped teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1/2 bunch fresh parsley, chopped fine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper.
2 cups (use unprocessed tahini paste straight from the jar, preferably whole-grain) Juice of 2 lemons
1 cup of cold water (important that it be cold)
1 large clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
Note: do not use shop-bought ready-to-eat tahini. It will separate in cooking.
1 onion, sliced
1 bell pepper, any colour, sliced
1 large tomato, sliced
1 lemon, sliced thinly
Mix all the kebab ingredients. Cover and put in refrigerator to mellow for 30 minutes.
Prepare the tahini. Mix all the ingredients, stirring with a whisk. The mixture might be lumpy at first. Don’t worry; keep stirring. If it is too thick, add a little more cold water. The consistency should be thin. It will thicken with cooking.
Correct taste. It should be lemony.
Preheat oven to 180˚C. – 350˚F.
Roll kebabs into 5 cm/2” balls. Sauté, in batches, in olive oil until browned on both sides but not cooked through. Remove to a platter.
Add the onion and bell pepper to the hot oil used for frying the kebabs. Fry 2-3 minutes until onion just starts to change colour.
Place kebabs on a clean frying pan (or oven tray). Cover with fried onion and bell pepper slices. Scatter sliced tomato and lemon over all.
Pour tahini over the kebabs and jostle the pan a little so it seeps between the kebabs and spreads evenly. Place the frying pan over medium heat or oven tray in oven.
Cook for 5 minutes, until the tahini thickens and changes colour from white to light brown.
Look for the golden-tinged edges.
Serve with plenty of pita to mop up the sauce.