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I go to Target a lot. I get diapers, or groceries, or clothes. But every so often, I have to buy something that’s not on my usual list, and since Target is a huge store, I sometimes need to find an employee to show me where, say, the humidifiers are.
There’s only one problem — I often can’t find an employee, either.
Why is that? It’s because technology is radically changing how economically valuable human beings are. After all, humans can work only a few numbers of hours at a time. They get distracted. They require vacations. Their kids get sick. Computers don’t have those issues, and as a result, many companies are investing more money in technology and less money in people. Why pay for a cashier when a computerized self-checkout can work just as well?
And while technology has always changed economics, in many ways, we are starting to enter uncharted territory. That’s the message that YouTube educator CGP Grey makes in his troubling, fascinating and important video “Humans Need Not Apply”:
Humans Need Not Apply - YouTube
The upshot of the video is that just as mechanical muscles long ago replaced hard labor in the American workforce, mechanical minds will soon replace jobs such as drivers, doctors, and even artists. After all, those are jobs that require information-gathering and decision-making, and computers are already far superior to people for those tasks.
The biggest change, though, is that the “mechanical minds” we created are able to learn and grow on their own. Interestingly, this new challenge parallels the way many religions view God: as an entity that created something (namely, humans) and then watched with some significant trepidation as they learned and grew on their own.
Now, whether or not you believe in God, it’s undeniable that the story of a creator God who couldn’t quite control the resulting creations has been a dominant narrative throughout history. And so just as automation is (and will be) radically changing the economic landscape, technology is (and will be) radically changing how we perceive theology and God, as well.
For several thousands of years…[h]umans were deemed to be made in the image of God. But if you believe humans are made in the image of God…then we have done well, because we have birthed our own creation…
I find it hard to believe that we could manufacture robots that actually worked and not have them disturb our ideas of religion and God. Someday we will make other minds, and they will surprise us. They will think of things we never could have imagined, and if we give these minds their full embodiment, they will call themselves children of God, and what will we say? (356-8)
So with mechanical minds becoming more and more prevalent, how will technology change the way we think about God?
Our images of God have always paralleled the culture they arose out of. In Biblical times, God was a shepherd. Then, God became a king. More recently, we have seen the rise of perspectives such as feminist theology and liberation theology. What theology would match this new world we live in?
Kelly suggests “Process theology,” and it’s one that I would advocate, as well. Process theology suggests that God is not a “big, bearded man in the sky.” In fact, God isn’t even a thing — God is a process. As described Rabbi Bradley Artson,
[E]verything is in the process of becoming, and every process — you, me, the world, the cosmos, God — is not a substance, a thing, but rather a distinctive pattern of energy that retains some measure of constancy in the midst of change and growth. It is God who provides the grounds for our creativity, our becoming more connected, more just, more compassionate.
So, for example, I don’t believe that “God heals.” I do believe, however, that “God is found in the healing process.” I don’t believe God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. I do believe that I experience God’s presence when we make our world more just. Process theology, then, is about recognizing and embracing the changes that naturally occur in our lives and in the world at large.
And that’s one way in which technology can inform our theology. Our dominant framework today is that everything is changing, and it’s changing fast. Soon — or perhaps even now! — we will no longer be able to control the technology we create.
Indeed, technology — like humanity and like God in process theology — evolves. The challenge is that it’s hard to determine when technology’s evolution becomes a blessing and when it becomes a curse.
Certainly, that issue has economic implications. Will technology improve our lives by making things cheaper, or will it harm us by eliminating jobs?
But we need to remember this: humans are more than economic engines. We are people with hopes, fears, love, and responsibilities. Even more so, we are people who look for meaning and purpose, even in the midst of unsettling change.
So yes, to survive in the physical and material world, we need to keep up with technology. But the physical world and the spiritual worlds are linked. The question, then, is this: in this world of rapid technological change, can our view of God keep up, too?
“[Hummus] generally offers more vitamins and minerals than many other dips or spreads,” she says, since it includes calcium, folate and magnesium. This blend of nutrients can also stabilize blood sugar and help prevent heart disease, says Los Angeles-based registered dietitian Lindsey Pine. Hummus also contains what she calls the “trifecta of macronutrients”—healthy fat, protein and fiber—that keep you full and satisfied, which is key to maintaining a healthy weight.”
But too much of a good thing can be bad. Chickpeas and tahini, two core ingredients in classic hummus, are nutrient-dense but also high in calories. So you shouldn’t eat an entire tub. Great, common sense: Don’t eat an entire tub of Ben & Jerry’s or hummus. Check.
It’s not just the quantity, but the ingredients. If you are noshing store-bought hummus, make sure to check what’s in it and watch out for extra sodium, preservatives, or added sugar, which can all derail the health factor of your hummus.
The best option of all? Make your own hummus, which allows you to control the ingredients, and make sure to serve it with fresh veggies instead of loads of pita, chips, or crackers.
Summer is all about the hot dogs and BBQs. And while we already think hot dogs are pretty Jewish (don’t believe us? Read a little more about the history of the kosher hot dog here), why not get even Jewier with this classic for all your summer shindigs? And if we’re being honest, hot dogs are just delicious all year long.
Don’t expect leftovers, because these challah dogs disappear every time. Think of them as the ultimate pigs in a blanket.
The Shehechiyanu blessing is said whenever we realize the miracle of the present moment. Traditionally, it is recited when we do something for the first time that year — such as lighting Hanukkah candles, hearing the shofar, or shaking a lulav and etrog — as well as at the start of most Jewish holidays. The blessing honors and expresses the wonder of having arrived.
Blessed are You Eternal Spirit who has given us life, sustained us and allowed us to arrive in this moment.
In truth, however, each day is a momentous arrival. Our whole existence has led us to every single moment — the culmination of our lives so far, which we are privileged to experience in the fullness of now. God, that miraculous force of grace unfolding, has brought us home. In encountering and honoring that force of homecoming, we turn and receive the gift of life.
If we are truly present, we could say the Shehechiyanu in every moment, because every moment is new and truly unprecedented. Unfortunately, we often get distracted or complacent, and we habitually miss the miracle that is right in front of us. This blessing is an opportunity to do teshuvah, to return, and in returning, to bring attention back to the miracle of this moment, to the realization of the blessing of being alive, conscious and receptive.
The traditional formulation of the blessing thanks God for three things: shehechiyanu (given us life), v’kiyimanu (sustained us), vihigiyanu laxman hazeh (allowed us to arrive at this moment). Implied in this blessing is a commitment to vitality, to sustained presence and awareness.
Vitality (shehechiyanu): Tune in to the life force that has brought us here. We have all been through so much, struggled and been blessed and guided. There is a treasure in this moment waiting to be discovered and mined. There is a force that animates us — a soul-spark that kindles enthusiasm for the journey. This realization that life has a unique purpose is energizing. Remain loyal to the inner essence, the tzelem elohim (Divine image), that manifests as vitality — the animating life force.
Sustained Presence (v’kiyamanu): We have survived in order to thrive in the world that is emerging right now. Sense the potential in this moment and make a commitment to explore and unfold that potential in ways that will sustain and inspire others.
Awareness (v’higiyanu lazman hazeh): Make a commitment to fully inhabit life. That means accepting particular predicaments and challenges, while opening to the gifts that allow us to rise to those challenges. Open up an awareness to the big picture and to our small yet essential place in that vastness.
When we say this blessing, we expand to receive the gift of life. We are reminded to take nothing for granted and to allow ourselves to be surprised.
Rabbi Shefa Gold leads workshops and retreats on the theory and art of chanting, devotional healing, spiritual community building and meditation. She is also a leader in ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal and is the director of C-DEEP: Center for Devotional, Energy and Ecstatic Practice in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. Her website is http://rabbishefagold.com.
You have to love that our most ancient ritual, Shabbat, starts with a most contemporary aesthetic: dining by candlelight. In Jewish tradition, lighting candles at sunset on Friday is the last act of the workweek, the literal spark that carries us into Shabbat.
For children, this moment can feel magical, especially with a little added drama. In the house Aliza grew up in, she and her siblings would race to stand by the dining room light switch, at the ready. The goal was to switch off the overhead light at the exact moment that a parent struck the match to light the Shabbat candles. So literal; so gratifying. Then the youngest, who was likely shoved on the way to the light switch, got to blow out the match, thereby taking another essential role in “turning on” Shabbat and extinguishing the week that was.
Yet nowhere in the Torah does God command us to light two candles at dusk. Rather, over the centuries, the sages linked the practice to shamor and zachor, the commandments to keep and remember Shabbat.
Ritual doesn’t exist for the sake of itself; it is an ancient technology designed to accomplish something. The rabbis of generations past reimagined the light of the Shabbat candles as a way for us to accomplish these mitzvot, these commandments. Through ritual, we transform a warm centerpiece for our home into a symbolic reminder to keep and remember Shabbat. Added to that, many find in the candles a physical reminder to slow down, to see each other differently, with candlelight reflecting in our eyes.
Perhaps even more remarkable is the recognition that candle lighting was, for our ancestors, a ritual as practical as it is spiritual. Before there was electricity, candle lighting ensured that Shabbat wouldn’t be celebrated in the dark. In fact, our legal sources clearly state that if you can only afford to buy one thing to ready your home for Shabbat, it should be candles. Why? If you can’t see your table, your wine, your food, your guests, it’s impossible to achieve the ultimate goal: oneg Shabbat, the sheer enjoyment of Shabbat.
From birthday cakes to campfires, we know from our daily lives that gathering around firelight can be magical. With Shabbat candle lighting, we are invited to close our eyes and, with a little light and a little magic, welcome the weekend.
Aliza Kline is the founding executive director of OneTable, which empowers young Jews to develop a Shabbat dinner practice. Rabbi Jessica Minnen is OneTable’s director of programs.
Tolya Kurchenko—the protagonist of my debut novel, Forgiving Maximo Rothman, and its sequel, Forgiving Mariela Camacho—has a unique identity. Born and labeled a Jew in Soviet Russia, then mocked as a half-breed in the United States because his mother was a gentile, estranged from his own heritage and married to a Dominican woman, Tolya finally finds himself deep in the barrios of Santo Domingo. Realizing his true nature helps him to accept his past and to create his own future and the future of his family, in both Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. The two meld together for him. They are not mutual or exclusive, but rather parts of a greater whole that is his identity.
“The sweet whine of the guitars and the vocals sparked his Russian soul, the soul he was teased about endlessly. It often brought tears to his eyes for its simple, emotional, honesty. He realized after a week in this warm, close place, where everyone touched everyone all the time, that there was less separating him and them than connecting them to each other. He didn’t really need the language. He needed only to respond to a smile with a smile. He was something by birth—Russian, Jewish, an immigrant American who learned to love baseball. He was never sure. But he knew now what he really was. He was Dominican by choice.” – from Forgiving Mariela Camacho, page 329
I view identity as fluid, and that’s why I wrote Tolya Kurchenko the way I did. We can be born one thing and grow into something else entirely. Our identities can be multi-faceted and tailored to who we are and can and should change over time.
I was born into a pretty typical white, Ashkenazi-Jewish family. That’s what I was raised to be. That’s what I knew. At a young age though, I realized we were a little different from other Ashkenazi-Jews. We were Hungarian, not Russian or Polish. My grandparents didn’t speak Yiddish like everyone else’s. They spoke Hungarian. We ate Hungarian. And then there was my uncle Max, from the Dominican Republic, who was as dashing as a 1930s movie star and spoke Spanish too.
I lived a “normal” Jewish-American life. College, career in business, marriage, family, life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the most Jewish neighborhood in America. But truthfully, I never felt like I really belonged there. Nor was I quite satisfied with that life. I had wanted to be a writer, but my parents pushed me into a business career. Then along came the Great Recession. After some 25 years in real estate finance, my career was over. In retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened to me, along with moving to Washington Heights.
Washington Heights is home not only to a large and old Jewish community but also the largest concentration of Dominicans outside the Dominican Republic. As I became involved with the community, I met and established friendships with many Dominicans including my friend William. My uncle Max’s tales of his time at Sosua, a refugee settlement of 854 Jews who escaped the Nazis, resonated through our friendship and my connections to the Dominican community.
William has become my closest friend. I traveled with him to his home in Santo Domingo in 2010. I now return there with him every winter. We have traveled to Sosua together.
The story of Sosua, which is at the heart of Forgiving Maximo Rothman, is a great example of how those from very different backgrounds can establish close relationships, of how to reach out over cultural lines. On another level, the story of the descendants of the Jews of Sosua and their connection to the Jewish world is important in a Jewish universe that is become increasingly diversified. There are some 70 descendants of those settlers in Sosua today, the product of mixed Jewish and Dominican parents who consider themselves both and hold on dearly to their unique Jewish story.
My bond to both Sosua and to the Dominican Republic is a vital piece of connective tissue in my life and psyche. It’s one of those things that keeps me inspired and at the same time is sort of a mystical place that’s just over the horizon, a plane ride away. Beautiful to see, even more beautiful to touch.
The Great Recession, and my wonderful wife, gave me the opportunity to do what I always wanted to do: write. I wanted to write about Sosua and about Washington Heights, and about the interface of Jewish and Dominican communities and cultures both here and there. The result are my novels and the soon to be published third and final installment in the “Forgiving” series, Forgiving Stephen Redmond.
Bakery cookies in Israel are as diverse as the Israeli demographic, drawing inspiration from a whole melting pot of cultures. Don’t expect monstrous, American-style chocolate chip cookies on the menu — Israeli bakery cookies are meant to be small, sweet bites to accompany a good cup of tea or coffee. So sit back and get excited to go on a global tour of flavors like dulce de leche, tahini, and just about everything in between.
Alfajores are a heavenly Argentinian shortbread sandwich cookies brought to Israel by the some 50,000 Argentinian immigrants who have settled in the holy land over the years. They have become an Israeli bakery staple largely due to just how darn delicious they are: rounds of crumbly shortbread (often made extra short with the addition of cornstarch) that are filled with a thick layer of caramel, or more accurately, dulce de leche, and then rolled in coconut. The original, mass-produced alfajores were actually coated in a layer of chocolate (there is still a kosher version that exists today) but a chocolate coated cookie is not particularly realistic for Israeli weather, and so it isn’t particularly popular.
Savory cookies may sound strange to find in a bakery otherwise filled with sweet goodies, but they are quite common throughout Israel, a country with a deep love of savory pastries (like bourekas, yum). One popular savory cookie you are likely to find are Parmesan shortbread cookies, often made with leftover cheese from the bakery’s other savory treats. Another cookie from this category is the popular savory Moroccan cookie, often just referred to as salty sesame cookies, or Abadi cookies, after the popular brand you’ll find in the supermarket aisle. These are identifiable by their small “O” shape and telltale smattering of sesame seeds. And yet another common savory bite are cookie-crackers topped with Nigella seeds, or mixed with herbs and/or Parmesan cheese. Whatever version you come across, know that they will most definitely make a great addition to your party spread and pair perfectly with wine.
These sandwich cookes are more widely known around the world as Linzer cookies (oogiot sandwich riba) and unfortunately, they are usually made with bright magenta-colored industrial jam from a bucket. These simple little cookies, with a peekaboo cutout from which jam peaks out, are dusted with a fine snow of powdered sugar and are a product of Austrian influence. Eastern European Jews were among the first Jews of modern times to populate Israel in the late 1800s, and so these beloved cookies have stood the test of time as a bakery staple.
You might know these classic treats as chocolate crinkle cookies. The Israeli version is like a teeny tiny powdered-sugar covered brownie. They can be called snowballs (an odd name for a place that hardly ever gets snow) or more appropriately sla-im (Hebrew for “boulders”). While the origin of these cookies is debated (is it American-born? Is it originally a German cookie?), we’re guessing that it’s also part of the traditional European cookie club that made its way to Israel via good old immigration.
The Middle Eastern baby of a strudel cookie and a rugelach cookie, date “shtrudel” cookies are often called ruladet tmarim (date roll). These rolled treats are like the most fabulous grandma cookie you can imagine. Made from a buttery shortbread dough, spread with warmly spiced date spread, and sometimes sprinkled with chopped walnuts, then rolled up and cut into homey looking swirled cookies, they will be the first thing you think of when you need some old-fashioned cookie comfort.
These fancy European style cookies (which are also common in many American bakeries) are made from almond slices and held together with a goopy candy-like syrup that sets as it bakes. Sometimes they are even a topping for a shortbread cookie, and sometimes they are the cookie themselves. All we know is that they are a life-saver for that one gluten-free friend/travel partner with the insatiable sweet tooth.
7. Nut crescents
Another Middle Eastern version of a Christmas cookie, crescents, or horns as they are referred to in Israel, are the perfect answer to the Israeli bakery’s nut fetish. In fact, nuts play a prominent role in many Israeli baked goods: walnuts, almonds, and pistachios often take center stage in Israeli desserts. Nut crescents might remind you of a pecan sandy cookie, since the nuts are ground and added to shortbread dough. They are a delightful, not overly sweet treat perfect for your afternoon cup of tea or coffee.
Forget oatmeal cookies, granola cookies like these ones here are the healthier version of this classic cookie that you’ll find boxed up on the Israeli bakery shelf. They are usually small rounds that are a bit crunchy and stuffed with nuts, seeds, and even a dried cranberry or two. Is it granola? Is it a sweet? We’ll just call it fuel you can enjoy on the run, which actually makes a perfect tribute to the healthy way Israelis tend to eat, anyway.
Tahini is a common ingredient used in both sweet and savory dishes throughout Israel, so it’s no surprise that tahini shortbread cookies are so popular here. They are often topped with additional sesame seeds, so it’s unlikely you will be confused about their identity. There’s no question that these cookies are of Middle Eastern origin, but as with many other popular foods like falafel and hummus, it’s not easy to tell where the line is drawn between immigrants recreating their home cuisines (after all, nearly half the country is made up of people who originated from Middle Eastern countries), and mixing with the local food culture.
You can often find these wafer thin, crunchy almond biscotti stacked-up neatly in the cookie boxes at Israeli bakeries. Showing off just how beautiful sliced almonds look in profile, and making a case for rock-hard cookies that last forever in your cabinet, these are perfect for when you just want a little almondy crunch with your afternoon tea break. Also check out the many versions that show off Israel’s extraordinarily plump dried fruit selection, which are especially popular around Tu Bishvat.
This one pot paprika chicken is a take on my mom’s memorable paprika chicken recipe. I have very fond memories of cleaning the whole bird and then rubbing it down with loads of paprika for weeknight dinners. The spice gives a deep rich color and imparts a delicious smoky flavor. This is my updated and modernized variation of mom’s simple recipe made into an easy one-pan meal. Oh, and find yourself some Castelvetrano olives—they are buttery with a bit of brine and are oh-so-addictive.
Tip: If you can’t find the specified olives, substitute with the easier-to-find green manzanilla olives.
The Palestinian participants in the group expressed their hesitation when the plan for the day was first presented.
“We really don’t want to go to a memorial site for the three Israeli young men murdered by Hamas. It’s not that we don’t feel pain for what happened. But the memorial complex and forest were created on stolen Palestinian land and it is surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements. We cannot feel comfortable there. We’re afraid. And the war is going on in Gaza. Our brothers and sisters are being killed. The situation is too tense. It is not the right time.”
The German participants in the group may have heard or sensed the Palestinian opposition. Or perhaps they did not. But they did not know enough about the day-to-day reality on the ground to really understand what was going on. They were out of their element and went along with whatever was happening.
Most, if not all, of the Israeli participants in this unique trilateral reconciliation workshop, were staunchly against the occupation and the settlements. Still, they felt it was important to visit the memorial in order for all sides to understand the geopolitical circumstances. They may have harbored ambivalent feelings about visiting the memorial, but certainly no fear. What could happen? They listened to the Palestinians but did not fully fathom their partners’ predicament.
From the moment the group disembarked from the bus at the site, the Palestinians noticed that they were surrounded by settlers. Fear gripped them. As the guide began his explanation, an Israeli settler woman began filming them. They had no idea why she was doing so but for them, it was a clear provocation. The Palestinians were afraid of being filmed in such compromising circumstances – at a memorial for Israelis killed by Palestinians, part of a group that included Israelis, in the presence of settlers. Their reputations would be ruined were such a clip to make the rounds on social media. One of the Palestinians asked the women to stop. She rudely dismissed the request and refused. He asked again, and then in anger impulsively reached for her camera. She started to violently curse him and screamed that a Palestinian terrorist was attacking her. She yelled and shouted that the army must come and save her from this savage. Within seconds uniformed Israeli soldiers, weapons were drawn, converged on the scene.
The Palestinian participants, already fearful and disoriented, sensed an imminent threat. They were terrified. They had heard many stories of innocent Palestinians shot by soldiers, knives later planted on their bodies. Some were sure that it was about to happen to them. Images of friends and relatives who had been murdered in the conflict flashed before their eyes.
The soldiers ordered the group to leave immediately. The participants hurriedly made for the bus. The woman did not cease filming. Neither did she desist from her violent cursing of Arabs. Shaking and enraged, some of the Palestinians responded in kind. One of them may have instinctively lunged at her. The soldiers surrounded the women to shield her. The Palestinians continued to feel menaced. From their perspective, the soldiers were protecting the perpetrator, leaving them vulnerable.
The bus left. It was over.
But it was not over. The trauma remained despite the extended debriefing that the group went through later.
I heard this story from a young Palestinian man – let’s call him Mohamed – who had been part of it. He told it 22 months after it occurred, at a trilateral seminar that included some of the original Israeli, Palestinian and German protagonists. I was among those attendees who had not been there when the events had first transpired. One of the German participants had earlier brought up the outlines of the incident. Many emotions and pain bubbled to the surface. We went around the circle and one of the Palestinians – the one I am calling Mohamed – said he needed the floor. He could barely control himself, sobbing and reliving the trauma as he recounted his experience. We realized that he and the other Palestinians had experienced the events very differently than the Israelis had. From their perspective, only a hairbreadth had separated between them and certain death. They had been permanently scarred by what had transpired during those few short minutes.
I cried inside as I listened. I felt intense empathy. My whole body convulsed as I struggled unsuccessfully to hold back tears. I knew the young man from earlier seminars and from other times we had spent together. There had been a unique bond between us since our first meeting, despite the 35 years separating us. I had hugged him lovingly when I saw him at the outset of this seminar, and the day before the story took center stage, we had sat down for lunch together, talking about matters of religion and faith. He was an open, gentle young man.
When he concluded his retelling–reliving of the events and tried to compose himself, there was a long tense silence. I wanted to give him a big hug. I hesitated. The facilitator began to speak, and I did not want to interrupt the process that he was now putting our group through. Minutes later, when the time was right, I gave my young friend one of the longest, most powerful hugs that I have ever given, full of tears. I wanted to hold him tight, to cry with him, to protect him from the terrible reality in which we live.
I cried not only for ‘Mohamed’ and for what had happened. I cried in resentment and in protest against the deeply embedded fear and prejudice that made it happen, the terrible debilitating narrative of ‘them and us’ and the two-dimensional caricatures that leave so little room for simple humanity.
For my dear Palestinian friend, Israeli settlers are a violent, dangerous breed. They are barely human. Soldiers are a source of dread. All settlements are illegal and built on stolen land. Being filmed by Israelis is nothing but a sinister provocation and being filmed with Israelis is a deathly danger to one’s reputation and social standing. Knives are routinely planted on the bodies of dead Palestinians arbitrarily executed by cruel Israeli soldiers. That is what he thinks. That’s his reality. And it rules his life.
We Israelis have our own traumas. We are guided by our caricatures and our fears just as the Palestinians are guided by theirs.
Stereotypes poison us. Fear breeds more and greater fear. The results are catastrophic. There are times when fear leads to bloodshed. It could have happened in this case, just as it has happened in many other cases.
One of the many exercises we did during the course of this seminar had me paired with a German and a Palestinian. Each in his turn, we had to stand between the others and to fall backward and forward, trusting that our partners would support us and prevent us from tumbling to the ground.
Afterward, the three of us talked about how it felt. The Palestinian, a prominent peace activist with whom I have had a positive contact in the past, said that he felt great trust and that that confused him. Asked why it confused him, he responded that I was a settler and that a Palestinian cannot trust a settler. After mulling it over for a long time, he said that perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that I hold American citizenship! I was dumbfounded. I gently pressed him and suggested that perhaps it is just that I am a human being. He looked back at me and seemed to try to wrap his mind around the possibility…
Whether you call it date syrup, date honey, or silan, this Israeli ingredient has been popping up in restaurants all over North America. Lower on the glycemic index than either honey or maple syrup and vegan to boot, date syrup may be the next Middle Eastern staple poised for mainstream success. In fact, Soom Foods, the company that changed America’s view of tahini, recently began offering their chef clients an organic silan made from Israeli-grown dates. And chefs from Boston to Miami are responding enthusiastically.
Silan is a syrup made from dates and water that have been cooked and strained. As sweeteners go, date syrup is one of the oldest, going back to Biblical times. Many scholars believe the “honey” in the phrase “the land of milk and honey” is actually date syrup because there is no evidence that Biblical people kept bees. In recent times, Iraqi Jews are credited with reviving the popularity of silan in modern-day Israel.
You can use nutrient-dense silan just as you would any other natural liquid sweetener such as honey or maple syrup. “At first, silan has a sweet caramel-molasses flavor, but it also has this deep, roasted complexity that you don’t normally find in something lighter like agave or honey,” says Caitlin McMillan, chef at Philadelphia’s kosher vegan falafel stand Goldie.
In Israel, you are most likely to see silan served at breakfast. Inbal Baum, founder and CEO of the culinary tour company Delicious Israel, suggests drizzling silan on a bowl of yogurt mixed with muesli or using it to sweeten tea. Other common uses for silan include as a spread for toast, a sweetener for baked goods, drizzled on top of ice cream, or an ingredient in smoothies and shakes, such as the popular tahini-banana-date shake.
Indeed, Israelis love to mix silan and tahini. Shelby Zitelman, the CEO and co-founder of Soom Foods, calls a tahini-silan sandwich “Israel’s version of PB&J.” The very thought makes Chef Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia’s famed Israeli restaurant, Zahav, wax nostaglic: “On crusty bread, it is perfection.” But you are just as likely to see date syrup used in savory applications, such as marinades or salad dressings. Solomonov concurs: “Silan works so well with both sweet and savory. You simply drizzle it on top of everything. It doesn’t really ever have to be cooked.”
Today, there are many reasons chefs are embracing silan. For one, silan, unlike honey, is vegan and depending on your clientele, that distinction matters. At Plant Miami, a kosher vegan restaurant, Chef Horacio Rivadero says he uses silan “in everything.” At Goldie Falafel, the vinaigrette used to top the falafel salad is sweetened with silan. McMillan says, “Mostly everything in the salad is savory, so a hint of sweet date syrup is just the right extra touch.” Similarly, at Harvest2Order, a micro-greens salad bar that recently opened in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the signature chickpea miso-tahini dressing is sweetened with silan. Co-founder Liz Vaknin, who is of Israeli-Moroccan heritage, has been cooking with date syrup her whole life. Even though her restaurant is not strictly vegan, the fact that silan is vegan was important to her — and to the kind of customers likely to frequent a micro greens salad bar in Brooklyn.
Other chefs just love the rich flavor. Count James Beard award-winning chef Tony Maws among silan’s fans. His Boston restaurants Craigie on Main and Kirkland Tap & Trotter both use Soom Foods’ silan. Solomonov reports that “at Zahav, we like to drizzle silan on top of stewed lentils with eggplant or glaze foie gras al’haesh with it.”
Another place you might start seeing silan is in your favorite cocktail. At Portland chef Jenn Louis’s Israeli restaurant, RAY, guests love the restaurant’s date mojito. “Date syrup made the minty drink work with our menu and shows the creativity of melding a classic recipe with a unique ingredient,” says Louis. With recent news of an impeding agave shortage due to over-harvesting, some mixologists are seeking less expensive and more sustainable sweeteners for their craft cocktails and silan fits the bill perfectly.
For the moment, Soom Foods’ silan is available only to its wholesale customers, but Zitelman says the company plans to roll out a retail version by the end of the year. Zitelman is relying on the company’s chef-partners to showcase the versatility of silan and hopes that sampling dishes made with silan at their favorite restaurants will inspire home cooks to add silan to their pantries as what happened with Soom tahini a few years ago.
Wondering where you can find silan? Many Middle Eastern grocers will carry it and there are many varieties of silan you can order online from Date Lady Silan, which is made in California. Soom Foods silan will be available at the end of 2018. Once you have procured some you’re going to want to test them out on one of these recipes: