When I visited Beit Shemesh, not far from Jerusalem, earlier this spring, almonds were bursting into white bloom in the countryside. I was in search of good home cooks, and here in the biblical home of the Kohanim, the priests of the tribe of Levi, I found them.
Beit Shemesh has long been an immigrant town. After World War II, Holocaust survivors settled there, followed by North African immigrants and, most recently, Russians. In the 1980s, Mickey Blumberg, a South African immigrant living in Jerusalem, started the Women’s Empowerment Program in the Negev, and in 2004, she brought it to Beit Shemesh. With support from the South African Women’s Zionist organization, the program offers low-income women seed money to develop small businesses—sponsoring open houses that showcase cooking projects and getting micro-dairies and olive-oil presses off the ground—and organizes overseas trips for them to introduce their food to Jewish communities around the world. “In the 1980s, the Beit Shemesh area began to suffer particularly,” Blumberg told me as we drove through the countryside where David slew Goliath. “Many of the older women cannot read; they work as maids in houses in Jerusalem, have no pensions, and have little pride in what they do. Cooking they do well.”