Ben Berlinger and I are both American born Jews. We are also both members of the “A Safe Harbor” group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/a_safe_harbor/messages), an internet discussion forum primarily focused on political issues (both American and international) but also touching on numerous other topics such as music, sports, and philosophy. At least at first blush, however, that is pretty much where the similarities between Ben and me end. Oh, if I think a bit I can find some others. We’re both married to professional women and we both have great kids. Oh, and neither of our living rooms is a paragon of neatness.
But it is the differences that have, for the most part, stood out. Ben is to the right of Attila the Hun (who, by some accounts was a bit of a proto-Socialist, sharing – as he did – the pillaging proceeds amongst all his troops). I certainly have described him that way. They were far from the harshest words I’ve directed at Ben. I, on the other hand, fancy myself as left of center but a bit closer to the middle than the Moonbeam Patrol. Of course Ben would appear to think otherwise of me. He’s certainly said as much (and worse) on the list.
I live in California. Ben lives in Israel. While some have referred to Israel as the 51st state (along with, at various times, England, Australia or Canada), I have yet to find maps or documentation backing up such claims. Of course others have referred to the US as additional territory under Israeli control. There is not much proof of that either.
Perhaps, though, it may not be enough to say that Ben lives in Israel. He lives in the West Bank. He lives in a Settlement. It is this – together with his oft-stated approach to issues involving the West Bank, Settlements and Palestinians – that has spurred me to label him “a living, breathing impediment to world peace.” He did not like that. I can appreciate the reasons why.
* * *
But when Gwennie – our daughter – made the soccer team for the JCC Maccabi Games in Israel and Nancy and I decided to go as well, I determined to try to sit down with Ben and see if we could find more common ground by conversing together rather than talking across each others’ bows on the list.We exchanged cell phone numbers and made loose plans to get together.
And so it was that after the soccer part of the Israel trip had ended I found myself on the phone with Ben: “I can meet you in Jerusalem,” he offered. We were staying in Tel Aviv at my cousin’s place, so it was a nice suggestion.
“Yes,” I said. “Or perhaps Nancy and I could come out to your place.”
“Really?” Asked Ben. I learned later they don’t get many visitors.
“Sure,” I said. “Why not? I’d like to see for myself what a Settlement really is, instead of just reading stuff and filling in the rest from my imagination.”
“Well, OK,” Ben said. “We don’t exactly have a lot of restaurants and cafes here, so I guess I’ll figure out something to do for lunch.” And with that, Ben gave me directions to Khokav HaShahar (pronounced “co-shahv hahsh-a-har), his Settlement. Khokav HaShahar lies slightly North East of (and about a thousand feet of elevation above) Jericho and, depending on traffic, half an hour from Jerusalem.
It was, in short, nearly as far out in the West Bank as you can go. It is no exaggeration that you can see Jordan from there.
In the days before going to meet Ben we discussed the trip with a number of family and friends ranging from some of my cousins to some of the parents of other girls on Gwennie’s Maccabi team. The most common question was: “Is it safe?” My most common response? “Have you walked across the street in Tel Aviv?”
The second most common question was: “Why would you want to do that?” My answer was essentially the same as I had told Ben. I wanted to see it for myself. Even without getting involved in notions of the existence or political direction of media bias, the simple fact is that the media does an incomplete job, at best (and a rather poor one, at worst), of accurately portraying the West Bank as a whole, or the Settlements in particular. Moreover, inasmuch as the Settlements’ very existence is the issue, there’s been a surfeit of focus on the existential question and little on life in those Settlements. I hoped to go a bit deeper by actually going there.
* * *
While Ben’s directions were less than completely clear – or perhaps it was my notes – it was a problem easily fixed by resort to the Google Machine.
From Tel Aviv’s famed beaches to the equally famed (if somewhat infamous) West Bank Wall running along the border between Israel-proper (to the West) and the Palestinian West Bank (to the East), is a distance of about nine miles. Just West of that border Wall runs the Yitzakh Rabin Tollway (6), a sleek and ultra-modern Superhighway traversing much central Israel, from Be’er Sheva north towared Haifa.
Looking over the Wall from the West the overwhelming impression is of a mass of humanity hemmed in by that Wall. The Minarets and crowded towns, one after another with barely a break between them, seemed to be signs of another society, one separated from Israel for Israelis’ protection. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, the image of a prison, and an overcrowded one at that. It was a perspective that Nancy and I had clearly seen as we’d driven north on the 6 a week before.
But our trip eastward on the 5, an East-West Superhighway running from Herzliya – a major suburb just north of Tel Aviv – deep into the West Bank showed a very different face of the West Bank. While there were occasional population and commerce centers, for the most part it was a sparsely populated area.
This was not a situation of copious olive groves being cut down for no reason. Nor was it that which it had seemed to be from the other side of the Wall: an indigenous Palestinian population literally popping at the seams of the Wall. It might be easy to suggest that these roads were routed to paint just that picture, but it is not as if these roads are frequented by tourists. And the vistas visible from these roads make clear the picture is pretty much the same for the foreseeable distance.
What it was, however, was the picture of an underdeveloped land without a lot of obvious source for ambition. The towns seemed modest, at best, and the countryside did not seem to be hopping in natural resources, not that there was evidence of exploitation efforts.
My easy answers to doubters notwithstanding, our decision to make the trip similarly notwithstanding, I was not without doubts myself. The thought did cross my mind that if something went wrong on the trip it might go from not good to very bad … and do so very quickly. But our trip up the Ayalon (Tel Aviv’s North-South freeway artery) to Herzliya took only slightly less time than our trip east on the 5. Several roundabouts and jogs later, the smaller roads got us to Kokhav HaShahar
Only a few turns and we were into a community that did not in any way whatsoever resemble what I had expected. It was one part gated community, one party military encampment…and yet neither. Clearly nobody was getting in there through the front gate unwanted. And yet it was not exactly an American upscale suburban faux paradise.
What it looked like – and what it may, indeed, be – is a military encampment somewhere along the yet-to-be-completed process of becoming the closest thing it could become to an American upscale suburban faux paradise….set in the middle of a really, highly contested desert. And the word for the day (and maybe the year, decade or – perhaps – century) is: incomplete.
After several false starts we found Ben unloading his car after a trip to the grocery store in Jerusalem. and followed him into his house, a relatively new two story structure that – in and of itself – was not so different from something that might be found in any American suburb. I’ve seen neater living rooms (even my own from time to time). But, frankly, I’ve seen messier…this week.
What it was, first and foremost, was a living room that spoke to a value: kids come first. Ben’s house – and Khokav HaShahar as a whole – was fundamentally different from the classic WASPy American suburb in at least one way: it was not a place where children were meant to be seen but not heard. In fact, it was a place owned by the children…their parents were only fortunate to live in the children’s world.
And the village practiced what it preached. Ben’s four kids were something on the low end for a village that averaged ten per household. This is not an inconsiderable point in the debate over the settlements. Where should those kids go to live when they grow up? Must they leave their villages? If you say no you have to realize you are supporting additional construction. It’s a matter of, to put it lightly, some controversy in a country that pioneered the “Occupy” protests with an occupation of Tel Aviv’s famed Boulevard Rothschild to protest the high cost of living, in general, and of housing, in particular…protests that lasted most of the summer.
This – and nearly every other aspect of life other than politics – was the subject of conversation. And as we talked, Ben cooked. He cooked as a father used to cooking for his children. It would only be hours later – when his wife, Yael, came home and spilled the beans — that I learned that this was not only the first time that Ben had cooked for company, the first time he had cooked lasagna, but (some percentage of puffery aside) the first time that he had cooked….ever.
Lasagna? Why would I be impressed by lasagna? I’ve had lasagna more times than I can count – made it more than once – but clearly never, ever ordered it in a restaurant.
And yet, Ben’s lasagna was more than a dish, wasn’t it? It was – for that living and breathing impediment to peace (or so I’d called him) – something of a peace offering. It forced me to reevaluate more than one thing about Ben and what he had to say.
Lasagna of Spinach with Kale and Three Mushrooms
For the Pasta
- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 cups semolina flour
- 5 eggs
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 pinch salt
For the Tomato Sauce
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 large (or 2 small) carrot, diced
- 1 large fennel bulb, diced
- 1 can of tomatoes, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 cups red wine
- 1 bay leaf
- several sprigs of thyme and rosemary
- 1 can tomato paste
For the Mushroom Filling
- 1 onion, finely diced
- 1 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small handful of dried Porcini mushrooms, rehydrated
- 1 Portobello mushroom, sliced
- 10 Crimini mushrooms, sliced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- For the Kale Filling
- 1 onion, sliced
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 bunches, kale (Italian, Russian or whatever looks best)
- 1 pound mozzarella cheese, grated
- Kosher salt and black pepper
For Garnish and Misc. Use
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Pecorino Romano Cheese, for grating
1. Begin Making the Pasta Dough. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with its dough 5hook, mix the pasta ingredients and knead into smooth, soft dough. Roll the pasta into softball sized balls, wrap the balls in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least half an hour.
2. Make the Tomato Sauce. Place the onion, carrot and fennel in a large sauce pan and sweat over low heat until they have given up their liquid. Increase the heat to high, add the tomatoes and season with salt to bring out their natural sweetness. Add the garlic and cook for one to two minutes until a whiff of the garlicky goodness reaches your nose. Add the wine and herbs and cook for ten minutes. Add the tomato paste and reduce by half or to a sauce consistency.
3. Finish the Making the Pasta. Bring a large pot of oiled water to a boil. As it begins to heat (enough to make it slightly uncomfortable to insert a finger) add salt. Using the mixer’s pasta attachment, a pasta machine, or hand, elbow grease and a rolling pin, Stretch the layer of pasta to a thickness of less then 1/16 of an inch (on a pasta machine, take it to its last notch). Cut the sheets into dimensions to match your baking pan. Add the pasta sheets to your water and cook for about two minutes until just short of the “al dente” point. Remove the pasta from the water and drain.
4. Make the Mushroom Filling. Place the onions in a sauté pan with the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. When the onions are translucent, add the mushrooms and sauté until they lose their water and the liquid is all but eliminated.
5. Make the Kale Filling. Place the onions in a sauté pan with the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. When the onions are translucent, add the kale and sauté until the kale loses most of its testure.
6. Assemble the Lasagna. Preheat the oven to 375° Fahrenheit. Oil the bottom of the lasagna pan with a tablespoon of the extra virgin olive oil. Cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of pasta sheets. Cover the pasta sheets with a layer of the mushroom filling. Cover that with a layer of the kale. Cover that with a layer of cheese. Cover that with a layer of sauce. Cover that with a layer of the pasta and repeat the layers one more time. Finish with layers of pasta, then sauce. Sprinkle cheese lightly over the top of the sauce.
7. Bake the Lasagna. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes or until the lasagna sheets are tender and the top is golden.