Sunday, June 12, 2005

More Cheese Please

“What are we going to do today?” six-year-old Aviv demanded as he shoveled in his tenth spoonful of cornflakes in as many seconds.

It was shortly before the Jewish holiday of Shavuot last year and the kids were off school. Then ten-year-old Merav and twelve-year-old Amir were now looking up from their breakfasts as well, waiting for my pronouncement.

But I was ready. I had concocted the perfect plan.

Now, one of the traditions of Shavuot is to eat dairy products. So I declared in as animated a way as I could: “We’re going to a cheese farm!”

“A what?” asked Amir with more than a hint of cynicism.

“I read about it in the paper. There’s an organic goat farm that sells these incredible cheeses. It’s only a few minutes outside the city. Wouldn’t that just be perfect?

But to my surprise, the kids were into it. I should have known; they like just about anything that has to do with eating.

So later that morning, we took off for the Har HaRuach Goat Farm in the hills just outside the village of Nataf, about 20 minutes west of Jerusalem.

Har HaRuach is run by Haim and Dalia Himelfarb who studied cheese making at Israel’s Rupin Institute. The farm is an ecological project and the goats are left to graze in a natural meadow year-round. Even the milking is done in a highly goat-friendly way.

The newspaper article said that the road “is a bit rough” in spots. That was the understatement of the year. Rocks the size and shape of small fax machines were strewn all along the road.

But the payoff was worth it. There at the top of the hill was a charming dining room…and a take-out window. We had our choice. I opted for the latter, in no small part because I found the idea of a take-out window in the middle of the woods so utterly incongruous and amusing. Add a drive through window and I’d be set for life.

Dalia was manning the counter and insisted that we try a taste of all of the cheeses, plus the yoghurt made from that morning’s 4:00 AM milking and some sweet and spicy goat-cheese pesto. We nearly filled up just on the sampling.

But it was smart marketing: we wound up ordering four containers: a smoky-hard goat-cheese camembert; a semi-soft local creation called “Itla,” spreadable lebana drizzled with olive oil and zatar; and a cheese named after the nearby village of Nataf which had large chunks of raw garlic inserted throughout.

We had thought ahead and brought our own fresh pitas which fortunately didn’t bother Dalia. The bill came to NIS 73, just over $16.

Picnic benches were scattered throughout the pines just below the restaurant. Amir, who had been skeptical throughout (“I don’t really like goat cheese,” he confided quietly just before we arrived) took one bite of the garlic-infused Nataf and was in hog heaven. So to speak.

Aviv favored the lebana while Jody and Merav went for the Itla. I was the sole fan of the camembert. Their loss.

As we soaked up the cheese on a perfect spring day, our conversation turned to the upcoming holiday. Shavuot symbolically marks the day the Israelites received the Torah on Mount Sinai after leaving Egypt.

“So, does anyone know where the custom of eating dairy on Shavuot comes from?” I asked.

Blank stares.

“Um…I think it had something to do with when they left Egypt, they didn’t have enough time to take any meat...” Merav ventured a guess.

“That was the matza,” Amir corrected her.

“Maybe they didn’t have meat plates?” I joked.

“They didn’t use dishes,” Amir and Merav both shot back in unison and then dipped their pita into their cheeses to drive home the point.

All the joking, however, didn’t diminish the fact that here we were, chowing down on some delectable dairy products...and we hadn’t the foggiest idea why. It was terribly embarrassing.

Before I could chastise our lameness, a faint sound of tinkling interrupted. The goats were returning from the pasture in time for their 3:00 PM milking.

Talk about saved by the bell.

We packed up our cheese and went to watch before tackling the bumpy ride home.

All the way back, though, the question of “Why Dairy?” kept eating at me. I proposed a contest. We have several computers at home. We would divide into teams and scour the Internet. Whoever came up with the best explanation would get to finish off the remains of the cheese at dinner.

Amir and I headed for the computer upstairs. Merav and Jody took control of the downstairs machine. We came back together and shared the results of our research.

From Team Merav:
Shavuot was when the Jews accepted the Torah which means it’s also when we learned about separating milk and meat and the various laws governing animal slaughter. Before that, what else could we eat but dairy? OK, but that sounded a little too much like my joke about the dishes!

Israel is known as the land of milk and honey. But then why don’t we eat honey cake on Shavout instead of cheesecake and blintzes?

From Team Amir:
The gematria (the practice where each Hebrew letter is assigned a numerical value) of chalav – the Hebrew for milk – is 40, the same number of days that Moses was up on Mount Sinai. Maybe, but a whole holiday based on what essentially comes down to an ancient magician’s card trick?

Receiving the Torah was a form of rebirth. So we celebrate by eating baby food. Namely: milk.

Even Amir shook his head at that one.

Finally, it was Jody who found what we all agreed was the most acceptable, if somewhat obtuse, explanation.

According to the mystical book of the Zohar, for the 49 days of the Omer period – the amount of time between Passover (leaving Egypt) and Shavuot (receiving the Torah), the Jews needed to be in as pure a state as possible. Abstaining from eating meat, which is inextricably connected with death, facilitates such purity.

“But wait a minute,” I said. “If Shavuot is supposed to be the night we got the Torah, then we should be celebrating by eating meat. The 49 days of purification are over. Time to break this flesh fast. Let the party begin!”

“Meat, meat, meat,” the two older kids began to chant and we all burst out laughing.

Except for Jody who turned to us and, with a single withering look that encapsulated exactly why it is so difficult to change 3000 years of tradition, said simply:

“So, what am I supposed to do with all that lasagna?”

To reach the Har HaRuach Goat Farm, drive out of Jerusalem, exit at Abu Ghosh and follow the signs to Nataf. Turn left when you see the sign for Ya’ar Polin (which memorializes Polish victims of the Holocaust) and follow the (very) bumpy dirt road uphill until you hear the goats. The cheeses have a kashrut certificate; the restaurant does not. You can eat on the picnic benches adjacent to the farm or continue further up the road to the scenic look out point which also includes a children’s playground.

Himmelfarb Farm at Har HaRuach: +972-2-534-5660. Fax +972-2-570-9312

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