Teaneck—What if the Meraglim (spies) had delivered a good report to B’nei Yisrael? What if they had prepared a festive meal to praise and thank God instead of bitterly complaining and publicly doubting Him? “This was not designed to be a tikkun. What we are suggesting by doing this (meal) is to re-create what might have been. And if it had gone this way things would have been very, very different,” said Danny Senter, the host and one of the lead innovators of a unique Shabbat lunch prepared by nine local families.
The Meraglim Meal Families: Miriam and Leon Schenker; Esther and Jerry Friedman; Jodi and Danny Senter (hosts); Anne and Harvey Senter; Carol and Harvey Granoff; Sharon and Tzvi Sebrow; David and Tzipporah Wallach; Sheryl and Alan Krantz; Yehuda and Andrea Rosenbaum
Limiting themselves to using only the ingredients available in ancient Eretz Yisrael, these nine enthusiastic, observant couples journeyed back, to the time of Parshat Shelach to celebrate what might have been. For some it was their second seuda and for others the very first time, but for everyone it was a humbling and liberating experience. Authentic in every possible way, Kiddush was made with a wine infused with honey, dates, figs and bay leaves. Personally, I prefer dry and refuse to drink sweet but this seemed to be neither dry nor sweet, I finished the glass and had a second. Jars of Senter Honey Bee honey and sumac-flavored vinegar-water flowed from Mason jars. This vinegar-water drink was unique and unlike anything I have ever tasted before. Some liked and it and some didn’t. I felt its neutral taste was refreshing and perhaps even cleansing and healing to the digestive system. (See recipe on JewishLinkBC.com - keyword meraglim.)
While we made hamotzi on fragrant Yemenite Pita, lying in wait and holding court in the center of all the tables, were massive, bowl shaped, Bukharan Noni Toki. These extraordinary-shaped matzot-like flat breads tipped the exotic scale, with a visual reminder that this was no ordinary Shabbat meal among friends. A cold tray containing new pickles and cucumber salads prepared by the Wallachs and the Schenkers were passed around along with two extra-virgin olive oil dipping sauces. One contained a red peppery and fiercely hot-looking spice called sumac. Its flavor was actually quite benign and mild while the garlic cloves, which looked innocent, were actually quite strong, spicy and packed a flavorful and powerful punch.
The diet eaten during Biblical times was an early Mediterranean one of grains, legumes, wild plants and meats such as mutton and goats mostly raised by nomads. Melons, cucumbers, leeks, and onions grew wild and duck, pigeon, quail geese as well as fish and birds’ eggs are also mentioned frequently.
If I weren’t standing their actually smelling the ancient delicacies on Erev Shabbat, taking pictures while Senter rattled off the list of ingredients, I would have been turned off completely. Goat stew with turnips, garlic, and wheat berries; goat stew with dates, figs, and lentils; and the big kahuna of it all—goat ribs. As I photographed the latter, an indescribable smell permeated my senses and I decided right then and there that I would. On Shabbat my only disappointment was I didn’t have enough appetite to eat a second one. They were incredibly tender and delicious.
The Torah and the Talmud describes foods and cooking in great detail—mainly what is permitted and what is not. From these text-based sources, the group compiled a list of “Biblical foods” in which they confined themselves to using exclusively. They researched recipes of the period and also prepared Nile perch with leeks, chickpeas, garlic, and sumac; stuffed grape leaves with lamb, millet and lentils (grape leaves plucked from Senter’s backyard garden).
Among the main dishes, quail and pigeon prepared by Sheryl and Alan Kranz were petite, completely whole and looked, well, like birds. After a long pause, I managed to taste them and am happy I did. They were savory and sweet, a little bit tougher than chicken but very tasty. Quail eggs made the rounds. Beautiful, teeny tiny sized, spotted and flecked, eggs that we peeled right on our plate. Aside from the mini-size and pretty shell they tasted just like hard-boiled eggs.
An exciting array of salads made with grains and fruits such as endive, pomegranate, and fig salad; cucumber salad; millet and lentil salad; mini lentil pancakes—lightweight and more nutritious than traditional wheat pancakes with an estimated two percent of daily protein from only a couple bite-sized cakes. Honey Senter, Danny’s mom, made a cold chopped turnip salad that, like the other salads, complemented the taste and texture of the various types and flavors of meats.
Foods and breads of the ancient world have historically been important to Jews. As a wandering people it is one of the ties that bind us to both the Oral and Written Torah, sustaining the continuity of our faith and culture both in and out of the Diaspora. From the quail that descended upon the camp as described two weeks ago in Parshat Beh’aloscha to this past week’s parsha, where it took eight meraglim and two poles to carry a single cluster of grapes. The spies sent by Moshe indeed confirmed that God’s promise was fulfilled. The land was flowing with milk and honey but they took it too far by reporting scary things that sent shock waves of fear and mistrust through the tribes. What if they had had total faith? Total trust in Hashem in spite of what they saw? Weren’t the miracles, the cloud, the manna, the battle victories enough proof that Hashem was indeed protecting them, guiding them and providing for their every need?
The meal was topped off with two types of fruit cup. Even though these fruits were available in the ancient land of Eretz Yisrael, they consisted of nothing more than the varieties of melons and grapes available in our own modern-day markets. Yet, somehow, the spices transformed the flavors completely. I found I liked the odd yet refreshing mix of braised pears with leeks and cumin prepared by the Rosenbaums, and considered how much better could it have been for Klal Yisrael if they—the great, powerful men of their generation, the patriarchs, influencers and eyewitnesses to countless spectacular miracles —what if they had understood that Hashem is more powerful than the scores of men in Pharoah’s army, or the volume of water contained in the Reed Sea, and certainly more powerful than anything they could have spotted on their once-over of this Holy Land?
I realized as I ate this ancient concoction that the meraglim forgot to report a key finding. Just like the cumin integrated the opposing flavors of the pears and leeks, so too did these great men omit from their report the emes of the integrating force of HaKodesh Baruch Hu to empower the weak, defeat the strong, and transform the natural order of the world He created.
Maybe Danny Senter and the others are right and you cannot correct and make a tikkun for another person. But one can certainly hope that the enormous effort, the deep gratitude, strong faith and the trust this group of nine committed Jewish families displayed this past Shabbat were like the delicacies they prepared and spread upon the Shabbat table, filled with the sparks of the divine.
Senter Honey Bee Farms Honey available on Thursdays at the Teaneck Farmers’ Market.
Get recipes online at JewishLinkBC.com. Follow @elysehansford
By Elyse Hansford