By Laura Porter
“I believe that food connects people and that it’s an international language.”
It’s a language that Chef Israel Noah Odles speaks well, and one that he will share with three of the twelve communities in Partnership2Gether’s Southern New England Conference (SNEC) when he arrives from northern Israel in May.
Odles, who is head chef of the Gilboa Herb Farm restaurant in the Gilboa Mountains, and Tamar Salameh Digmi, an educator from Afula who also specializes in royal icing cookie decorating, are part of the Taste of Israel chef delegation from Afula/Gilboa. From May 8 to 14, they will offer workshops and demonstrations in New Bedford, the Berkshires and Worcester.
In Worcester, the chefs will present a cooking workshop, Modern Israeli Street Food, on Thursday, May 12, at 6:30 p.m. at Worcester Technical High School.
On Friday, May 13, they will visit the Jewish Community Center, where Digmi will do a pastry/cookie decorating program for the morning session of preschool and the PJ Library and Israel will run a lunch workshop for seniors. Both of these events are free.
The chef delegation is “part of the effort to build a living bridge” between Israel and communities abroad that defines the work of Partnership2Gether, says Neta Kopelzada, the Living Bridge Coordinator for the partnership in Afula, SNEC’s “twinned” city in Israel.
“The main goal of the partnership is to connect people and put a face on Israel, so that when you say ‘Israel’ in Worcester, you think about the young emissary you hosted, or the program you went to,” she says.
Indeed, there was so much demand for the chef delegation that the P2G added a second week, with another chef arriving to visit Greenwich, New Haven and New London after Israel and Tamar return home.
“I hope they will bring their Israel to the community and will show a different side – the culinary side – of Israel,” says Neta Kopelzada.
Odles, 41, “began cooking the day I started to eat,” he says. “For me, the kitchen was the place in which I felt the best at home.”
Until he was 28, however, he played soccer and drove a trailer.
“Then I made a radical change and decided to make my living from doing what I love to do,” he recalls. He enrolled in a cooking school at the Tiberias Holiday Inn and, after he began to cook within the Isrotel hotel chain, attended workshops to develop his knowledge of varied cuisines and cooking styles. He spent a decade as head chef at one of the chain’s most prestigious restaurants in Eilat.
Influenced by his mentor, Chef Peter Homel, head of both the Isrotel and El Al, Israel specializes in Italian cuisine and loves working with dough and pasta.
He notes the popularity of vegan cooking and the “trendy diets such as gluten-free, Paleo, etc.” in Israel (as in the United States). But the country’s defining cuisine emerges from its multiculturalism: “the ‘ingathering of the exiles’ that characterizes Israel combined with our encounter with local Arab cooking,” he says.
His philosophy of food is both simple and profound: “It’s the fuel that drives this machine called the human body,” he says. “In order to preserve that machine you need to feed it what’s best for it. To quote two fathers of medicine, Hippocrates and Maimonides: “ ‘Let thy food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food’ and ‘Let nothing which can be treated by diet, be treated by other means.’ We should enjoy food each day anew and at each moment!”
Two years ago, Tamar Salameh Digmi embraced royal icing cookie decoration first as a hobby and then as a small business secondary to her work as an educator. She was on maternity leave after the birth of her second son when she took a creative workshop on royal icing decoration.
She wanted to “get out of the house a bit and take a break from the chores of maternity leave,” she says. “So I came to this by chance, and I fell in love!”
Now she takes orders for small events such as birthdays, anniversaries or family celebrations. Her designs are intricate and lovely, making each cookie a work of art in miniature.
During her visit to the States, “the plan is to prepare creations connected to Israel and to Judaism—like the Israeli flag, the Seven Species, the Dove of Peace, Israeli children’s figures and the like,” Digmi says. She wants to teach workshop participants how to “create cookies by themselves” so that they have the knowledge to continue on their own.
In 2000-2001, at the age of 18, Tamar spent a year in Connecticut during the first year of the Young Emissary program. She calls it “an extraordinary opportunity to get acquainted with a new community, with a different lifestyle, with a different kind of Judaism that had denominations unfamiliar to us in Israel at the time —remember, this was 16 years ago!”
Currently a member of the Jewish Agency Steering Committee in Afula/Gilboa, she fully recognizes the value of those early connections “for both sides.” Such encounters are “extremely important at the diplomatic level, and on the levels of friendship and religion,” she says.
Odles concurs, observing that learning about the Partnership region and its local foods provides Americans with “an avenue for connecting with Israel.”
At the same time, he is anxious “to learn from you about American food culture, to meet chefs and witness American culinary trends.” n
To register for the May 12 Israeli Street Food event at Worcester Technical High School, contact jewishcentralmass.org/israelichefs or call the Federation office at (508) 756-1543. For more questions, contact Mindy Hall at MHall@jfcm.org.