On the jewish food scene: Tomatoes and cucumbers by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

My family performed a community service every year. Rather than planting our own garden, we offered to take the extra produce from our neighbors. Many times, people harvested far more food than they could eat. (Think about people trying to give away their excess zucchini. In fact, Google Marge Piercy’s great poem “Attack of the Squash People” to learn how she handled that.) My favorite gift was vine-ripened tomatoes. Sometimes I ate them plain like an apple, but they were also wonderful with just a little bit of salad dressing and a touch of fresh onion.

When thinking about how no one gave me any fresh tomatoes this year. I began to ponder tomatoes from years past. Since my mind tends to hop, skip and jump around, that led me to memories of tomatoes and cucumbers, which, at least in the apartment I shared in Beer Sheva, was the Israeli national dish.

First, let me give you some background. I was required to spend a year in Israel when I was in rabbinical school. Unlike some schools, which have their own buildings, students from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College went to a variety of programs based on the year they chose to study. I was at Ben Gurion University during the 1996-97 school year to study modern Jewish history. I organized my studies through the school’s exchange student program and, as a result, shared a dorm apartment with three 24-year-old Israelis.

The kitchen in our apartment was almost non-existent, but somehow we managed. What struck me, though, was that my roommates ate tomato and cucumber salads with almost every meal. That sometimes included breakfast. This in itself might not have seemed strange except that they cut the tomatoes and cucumbers differently depending on the meal. I could never get them to explain why one cut was better for this meal and a different one for another meal. I don’t think they could have: they just automatically knew what cut went with what dish.

Misunderstandings about foodstuff went both ways. One roommate in particular was the least adventurous eater I ever met. I once brought bagels back from Jerusalem and she refused to try them, even though I told her they were just bread. Although she used mint leaves to make tea, my herbal teas (which were the only teas I drank at the time) made her shudder.

I was much better at trying Israeli dishes, from the numerous styles of falafel offered in the stands located in the Old City of Beer Sheva (I’ve only had one falafel in the U.S. that was anywhere near as good) to an Egyptian bean dish called fool (which reminded me a bit of refried beans, although you smashed a hard-boiled egg into the beans) to an awesome type of fried potato (I never did learn the name) that definitely was not good for your arteries. But if you looked at what was eaten in my dorm apartment, tomatoes and cucumbers qualified as the number one food of Israel.