Once we had a firm commitment that Ray O’Canto was coming to Israel to film his television show “Dining Out Along The Road” we set out to arrange and produce something unforgettable. We wanted to expose Ray and his US Audience to some of the best food and wine in Israel but also to help tell the real story about what’s happening in Israel and it’s definitely NOT apartheid.
So we continued our habit of walking the city streets but now we had a laser-like focus. We began telling restaurant employees and owners that we were scouting locations for an American television program which piqued everyone’s interest and made the process much easier. It was our first glimpse at the power that media credentials might provide.
Ray and his team arrived on August 31 and we hit the ground running. After picking them up at Ben Gurion, we drove and hour and half north to Galilee where our friend Chaim Malespin, director of The Aliyah Return Center, provided a lakeside villa for 2 nights. We got an early start the next morning and headed over to Binyamina where Oded Shoham would give us a tour and tasting at the winery of a founding father of Israeli wine, Yair Margalit.
Well, after 6 whirlwind days, we completed the first Israel edition of “Dining Out Along The Road”and it could not have gone better. Becky and I went to bed each night, exhausted, but grateful that the schedule we arranged had gone so well. Ray, Adolfo & Evan experienced Israel in a unique and powerful way. Most tours of Israel revolve around ancient biblical sites which are life-changing experiences and we were never the same after our first trip with my brothers in 2010. But we think it’s just as important to expose people to modern Israel so they can meet and experience the people who are actually building this country.
Since our Stand With Israel mandate is to comfort his people and to remind them of who they are, let me share three brief stories that illustrate exactly how we do it.
One day last May I was getting my haircut at “Dave’s Hair Design” in our old neighborhood “The Baka”. Dave is from Boston and rides a motorcycle to work. Every summer, and if he’s lucky the fall, he stays up late or gets up early to watch his Red Sox play ball. It’s fun talking to American Jews who’ve relocated to Israel. I explained the project we were working on to Dave and he said I needed to meet his friend from Chicago, Oded Shoham.
He said Oded was the premier wine expert in Israel and if I was going to help produce a show about Israeli wine, Oded was my guy. It turns out Oded and his partner Adam Montefiore own and operate “The Israel Wine Experience”. Perfect!
Oded agreed to meet at The Grand Cafe for coffee. He was rather late and as I was getting up to leave, in walked this character in an AC/DC T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. I introduced myself and we sat down. Oded is not a native Israeli… he immigrated in 1973, the first day of the Yom Kippur war. I’ve spent a lot of time in Chicago and Oded is classic Chicago thick crust and similar to the “Sabra” legend in Israel; a little obnoxious on the outside but sweet on the inside.
Oded and I were grooving just fine but once Becky arrived 30 minutes later the chemistry spiked. Becky has a talent to playfully probe in conversations with men. She was like that when we met in college. She’ll get you laughing and while your shields are down… she hits you with the most remarkable and penetrating questions but because they’re cloaked by laughter and playfulness, she’s got you.
Oded didn’t stand a chance and I think it’s one reason why Oded and Shoshi have become our good friends. I really wanted to feature him and his business in Ray’s show so we were pleased that he agreed to go on camera on behalf of Margalit and Clos de Gat, two of the finest wineries in Israel. When you see Oded on camera he’s sweet and vulnerable just like a cluster of ripe grapes on a vine.
Together with Ray and his team, we all loved on Oded. He was valued and recognized for a lifetime of effort in Israel and you could see it going into him, he was visibly affected. We continue to get together with Oded and Shoshi and we’d really like to help him develop his business.
I’m sitting in front of Sam’s Bagels on the crowded Ben Yehuda Street with serial tech entrepreneur, James Oppenheim. I reached out to James after we met his son at “Crave Gourmet Street Food”. We mentioned we were scouting locations and he said his dad was one of the owners and I should meet him. James grew up in New York and is a caricature of the Jew with the big loud personality.
We sat for nearly 3 hours sharing stories and laughing. James said we were brothers from different mothers. An hour into our meeting 2 of his 7 kids walked up laughing… they said they could hear his voice a block away. I asked why he was here and how all of this happened. He explained why he is the only member of his large Jewish family who has immigrated to Israel, that after reading Conor Cruise O’Brien’s tome “The Siege” in college, he knew in his heart that he had to come. He said he wanted to use his life and energy like brick and mortar to help build Israel. When he said that, I knew I had to help tell his story.
James is a Jewish energizer bunny. He writes for The Times of Israel and was already involved with several high tech startups when he co-founded “Crave” with some friends.
The atmosphere at Crave is quintessential Israeli. It’s young, hip and groovy, and the food is ridiculous. Crave pulsates with energy and, even though it’s kosher, it’s filled with religious and non-religious Jews as well as Arabs and Christians, hanging out together enjoying the food, the music and the vibe. I think his restaurant is just a prop he’s using to help Israeli’s be who God intends them to be.
When I explained why Becky and I are here… his eyes welled up with tears and with his broad, gap-toothed smile he stood up and we hugged… then he said, “No… the wrong side… we need to hug heart to heart, my brother”. I told James that I thought he was dancing with HaShem. He shook his head and said, “No, you are”. We laughed and said we both are. A week later Becky and I were walking around downtown and we ran into James. Jerusalem is like that… a very small town. When we saw each other you’d have thought we were lifelong friends.
James has moved on from Crave to pursue new culinary ventures and we keep in regular contact. The other day I texted him to say hello and he replied that he was in San Francisco on business. He asked me to pray for him.
A couple of weeks later Becky and I drove up north with our friends Tony and Nicole Jansezian and their 3 kids. I’d read about Limousine Restaurant in a Facebook post by Chaim Malespin. I left a voice message for the owner and he called back inviting us to come. Rami Ginat is an authentic Israeli Cowboy. He’s big, tall, tanned and rugged but it didn’t take long to draw out his heart, it seldom does here.
Rami and I climbed into his big Chevy pickup and while we drove up to his ranch he told me about growing up on a kibbutz… a commune, and how, as a kibbutznik… still living and working on a commune at 30, he came to the conclusion that he wanted something of his own… something he could build with his own two hands to pass on to his kids.
He’d been cowboying with Amir Talmor in the Golan Heights so he took his meager savings of 300 shekels and he and Amir started raising their own beef. He described the early days and what it was like to be on horseback with a rifle and to literally chase off cattle rustlers from the neighboring village. And then, with a sobriety that only comes from staring contests with death, he talked about what it felt like sitting on his ranch with his young family watching missiles fired from Lebanon explode nearby.
I pictured how we used to sit in front of our house in Clovis each July 4th with our kids and neighbors watching the fireworks show at Buchanan High School. I tried to imagine if those rockets had warheads and were raining down on my neighborhood… I just couldn’t comprehend it.
Like a lot of Israeli’s, Rami is an optimist. So, after a few seconds of silence, he shrugged his shoulders, smiled and changed the subject. He started telling me about his passion for raising the best beef in Israel and the breeding experimentation and trials and errors involved. We climbed back into his truck and drove down the hill to his new headquarters, a 3 story building overlooking a gorgeous bucolic setting that could easily be Central California.
The first floor is a state of the art meat processing plant that furnishes meat to his steakhouse and new hamburger chain, “Burger Saloon”. The entire second floor is the “Limousine Restaurant”. Like “Black Angus”, “Limousine” is a cattle breed. The restaurant has an open kitchen, seats 250 and is usually full. The third floor is used entirely for catering and events. Rami described what it felt like over the last 30 years to carve out a successful ranch and restaurant amid the unusual difficulties in Israel and to build his new multi-million dollar facility. He told us that although he and his family had the resources to do pretty much anything they wanted, they still preferred to drive south into the Negev desert and camp like Bedouins. He said he prefers his cows and the quiet of the desert. When he walked us into the refrigeration units to see his aging steaks, his face lit up like a proud dad showing off photos of his kids.
Afterward we all sat down to enjoy plate after plate of the finest cuts of meat in Israel. Ribs, Sirloin, Filet, and Asado. It was without a doubt, the best meat I’d tasted in Israel, just amazing… it was a great day to be carnivores.
As we sat there enjoying the food, the laughter, and our new friends, Isaiah 25:6-7 rolled in front of my eyes like a ticker tape.
“On this mountain, the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine… the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain, he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations”.
I leaned into Rami and quoted that verse and told him, “Do you know where I think your passion comes from? The same heart described in that passage is beating inside your chest… I think you are dancing with HaShem” Like oxygen, he breathed those words in and when he exhaled he didn’t say a word.
That’s the kind of stuff we do here… that’s comforting His people…
that’s reminding them of who they are…
That’s Standing with Israel