Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Wandering columnist

David Suissa

Being a weekly columnist while visiting Israel can be really stressful. Every hour or so, you get hit with a potential subject for a column. After a few days now in the Holy Land, I have no clue how to pick from this embarrassment of riches. So let’s go on a mini-tour of some of those difficult choices.

My first night with my friend Yossi Klein Halevi was definitely a good candidate for a column. Yossi took me to the Mahane Yehuda Market (the shuk) in Jerusalem, which is as far in appearance from Century City Mall as Jerusalem is from Bakersfield. We walked through several alleyways overflowing with mostly food and spice vendors and ended up at this little restaurant called Mizrahi, which has a long history in the shuk. The really interesting story of Mizrahi, though, is that several years ago, the daughter of the owner decided to study cooking in France. Apparently, she came back one day and said something like, “Hey, Dad, want a new menu?” I’m no foodie, but if I were, I would describe in detail how we feasted on Middle Eastern flavors married with the elegance and creativity of French cuisine. Here we were in this ancient market eating in an eclectic restaurant that would feel right at home in West Hollywood.

And conversing, of course, about how to save the Middle East.

I could also have written a few columns on some of the stuff I heard from cab drivers. My favorite ride was from a driver who considered himself an expert on the quality of Israeli food exports. For a solid half hour, I heard about how Israel was now “the best at everything.” According to my driver, Chaim, Israel has figured out how to make cheese so good they’re exporting it to France and Switzerland, and chocolate so good they are exporting it to Belgium, and wine so good they are winning international awards, and baked goods and pastries so good that Israeli chefs won a recent contest against top chefs in France.

If I’m not mistaken, I think he also mentioned something about the “best olive oil.”

Let’s put it this way. He may have been exaggerating a little, but I’m a sucker for great stories about Israeli ingenuity, so I’m not the best person to do the checking.

Speaking of Israeli ingenuity, another cab driver, who took me from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, went on at length about … human waste. Apparently, several years ago, someone had the brilliant idea of turning a massive waste dump off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway into an ecology recycling center where students and tourists can learn the latest about recycling technology. From a waste dump to an eco-tourist attraction — how do you beat that? I checked this one out myself, and he was pretty accurate: What was once the notorious Hiriya garbage dump is now Ariel Sharon Park.

Another great subject for a column would be the restaurant Liliyot in Tel Aviv, which integrates a social project into its activities. The restaurant is owned by a group of entrepreneurs with a social vision. All the employees are former at-risk youths who are given an opportunity to integrate into society in a positive way. The service was so good that several waiters fell all over themselves to find me a Wi-Fi connection so I could file this column.

I could also have written a story on the utter absence of conversational discipline during business meetings. One of the reasons I’m here is to visit clients and potential clients for The Jewish Journal. Well, at a meeting with the largest hotel chain in Israel, I got a 20-minute history lesson on the story of Bulgarian Jews and how they were protected during World War II.

At another meeting with a major new developer in Tel Aviv, the client, a hard-core Zionist originally from Holland, showed me on his computer how he spends his nights fighting the PR war on online forums in Holland.

At yet another meeting with a representative of a Tel Aviv hotel, just as I was presenting a creative idea, the client interrupted me with a philosophic musing on how Israelis’ passion for life is an integral part of the “brand of Israel.” I nodded vigorously, hoping that that would create an opening for my pitch. It didn’t — it just made her get even more philosophical. Eventually, I thought of a way to convey my idea in a quick 10-second burst. She liked it, but it’s possible that what she really liked was that it only took me 10 seconds to explain it.

Over the next few days, I will cover the annual Herzliya Conference, a summit on global policy and Middle East affairs, which means another 30 or so possible columns. Meanwhile, I’ve been reading news sites and getting updates on things like the Likud elections, the Iran nuclear crisis, the nonexistent peace process, the committee report on the Carmel fire and the leadership struggle in Kadima.

This might be a country obsessed with political stories, but if you’re a wandering columnist visiting from Los Angeles, the best stories are definitely on the street.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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