Haifa’s residents are eating a lot more than latkes and sufganiot this Hanukkah. In addition to the holiday staples, those in the city are able to taste traditional Arab cuisine like hilbe, habisa, and haroumanieh, as part of what’s being billed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Israel’s first ever Arab food festival.
Named after the Arabic word for the Levant region, the A-sham festival is part of the 22nd Holiday of Holidays, an annual celebration of Jewish-Arab coexistence hosted by the city of Haifa. During the four-day festival (December 8-11), festivalgoers can eat special dishes created by 25 Israeli chefs who have been paired with local restaurants, cafes, and bakeries.
Co-artistic director of A-sham, Dr. Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, explained that the goal of the festival is to “let the Jewish public know more about Arab food,” to recreate “traditional Arab dishes in danger of becoming extinct.” Atamna-Ismaeel, winner of the 2014 season of Israel’s popular TV show Master Chef, specified that these dishes are no longer being prepared due to time-intensiveness or because of their associations with poverty.
For Alla Musa, who runs the El Marsa restaurant in Acre, Israel, the festival is an opportunity to show Jewish Israelis that “Arab cuisine consists of more than falafel and hummus.” He spent the afternoon preparing saiadiah, a complex dish that takes “a lot of work,” consisting of fish and rice served with tahini, herbs, garlic, and hot pepper. But it turns out that not even the promise of better food can stop Israelis from demanding hummus. On the first day of the festival, hundreds flocked to the restaurants where four of Israel’s top chefs were preparing specialty hummus dishes.
A highlight of the festival for Jessica, a 28-year-old tourist from Florida, was participating in a baking workshop run by Christian Arab women from a village in northern Israel. “We baked traditional cookies that Arab women would prepare before holidays,” she said. Other events at the festival included panel discussions about cuisine, gender roles, and, of course, hummus.
Families and couples strolled through the breezy streets near the city’s port holding their festival maps, hopping from one storefront to the next to see what was being offered. For Zehava, a Haifa resident who attended the festival with her daughters and grandchildren, coexistence means a lot more than the food. “It’s magnificent,” Zehava said repeatedly as she admired the atmosphere. “Jews and Arabs enjoying the holiday together can be a model for the rest of Israel to show what’s possible.”
Eyal, 32, who bartends in the area, said that Haifa’s residents “don’t need an excuse to coexist” but that it was “good to see large crowds mid-week.”
Still, Atamna-Ismaeel says she is not naïve about the effect of a four-day food festival; that it alone will be unable to “eliminate racism or end the conflict.” Nonetheless, A-sham’s co-artistic director, Arieh Rosen, feels that by simply allowing Jewish Israelis “to see things from a different angle,” the festival experience has the power to change hearts and minds.
If nothing else, it will definitely fill stomachs.
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Yitzhak Bronstein is a master’s student at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a regional Jewish educator for Moishe House.