Turtle Soup

Turtles are one of the first wild creatures to which kids have a connection. It is a wild animal that moves slowly enough on land that any fairly coordinated 3-year old can capture it. Additionally, its ability to retract its head and legs makes it a custom crafted “toy” for the younger set. My summer vacations in northern Minnesota inevitably including taking our turtles into town for a race, an interesting endeavor since turtles neither move quickly nor care about getting to the finish line.

As we grow older, we learn that turtles are some of the most ancient animals alive today. As soon as early humans found turtle meat under those hard shells, turtles began to be hunted and eaten. One million years ago in Africa, people hunted and ate turtles. As they moved out of Africa, they took their hunting skills with them. In the Qesem Cave, tortoise shells attest to their inclusion in the prehistoric human diet 400,000 years ago.

turtleResearcher Rebecca Biton, who 3 years ago discovered an extinct frog species in the Hula Valley in northern Israel, has been examining sites there for signs of amphibious life. She discovered in a Middle Paleolithic site (60,000 years ago), next to the paleo-Lake Hula, evidence of hunting of the freshwater Western Caspian Turtle which is indigenous to Israel. Sixty bones from sites in this area have been identified as having been from freshwater turtles.

Interestingly, when we think of harvesting food from lakes, we first think of fishing, not hunting. Fishing, however, only started in the Upper Paleolithic era, 40,000 years ago. These turtle bones predate fishing and suggest that freshwater turtles were hunted in the water much as their cousins, Mediterranean Spur-Thighed Tortoises, were hunted on land. Both land and freshwater species have been found by Biton in various sites in the area.

Protein requirements consisted mostly of  deer, gazelles and cows during the Middle Paleolithic period in Israel.  There is some thought that turtles provided a sort of “canned food” option which rounded out people’s diet.  Everyone likes some variety in what they eat – even thousands of years ago.

Considered a delicacy in some Chinese communities today, Turtle Soup was apparently also enjoyed by our human ancestors in Israel 40,000 years ago.


The Most Daring Thing

“My servant, Moses, is dead. Prepare to cross the Jordan, together with all this people, into the land that I am giving to Bnei Israel.”  Joshua 1:2

Over the past week, I embarked with 17 others on a classic Israeli journey called Yam L’Yam. The trip starts at the Mediterranean Sea and 85 or so kilometers later (about 55 miles) ends at the Sea of Galilee. Our goal – to have a great time, enjoying the beauty of Israel and the company of friends as we traveled across Israel. We planned for the last few months, some of our group went on practice hikes with packed bags on Fridays, we had planning meetings and google docs and yahoo groups. We made reservations, gathered up the gear we thought we needed, checked the maps, read blogs.

The hike is generally done in 3, 4, or 5 days. (Although I have a friend who has a friend who said he did it in one, 22-hour day – if it sounds like a fish tale, it probably is one.) Since our group ranged in age from 13 to 60, and we wanted to do it in one week so we could be home for Shabbat, we decided to plan the 4 day option – Monday through Thursday. We would use Sunday as a travel day to get to the beginning of the trail, and hire a mini-bus to take us home on Thursday night. This expedition would take the place of our annual summer “Friends’ Vacation”, a time that we generally dedicate to hiking, touring and having a good time together. This trip would vary from our standard vacation – we would be sleeping outside most nights, carrying our gear, and relying on our wits and our feet to carry us along. No one brought a car.


yam l'yam train

It’s interesting traveling in a group with 18 people. Although we spend a decent amount of time together generally, being together 24 hours a day is a different experience. Moving 18 people, feeding 18 people, taking care that no one is left behind emotionally, physically, or mentally is sometimes a challenge and


requires a good amount of patience and empathy.


Building community is one of my life’s focuses. I came to Israel seeking to be a part of a community, and have found satisfaction for the last 19 years in helping to build community locally in Chashmonaim and nationally. I build webs of people who genuinely care about each other, wherever I go and with whomever I meet. Much of my work over the past 19 years, especially my work with Taglit/Birthright, focuses on the importance of community affiliation.

Why is community important? Numerous studies show that connection to community lengthens our lives by as much as 14 years! Despite this, and despite the flourishing of electronic communities, people today feel less connected than ever. Average Americans claim to have 1.5 friends on average despite what their Facebook account tells them. Sad.

According to Kurt Vonnegut, “What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

As we went through our trek, our group had to deal with many challenges – the heat, the lack of water, our crazily heavy packs, mosquitoes, wild boars, naked Nachmanites at 2:00 A.M. There were fears, anger, and disappointment. Through it all, though, we stuck together as a group, drawing on each other’s strengths to pull us through the challenges. We figured out which changes to our plans needed to be made in order to accomplish our goals – not just our individual goals, but our group goals.

People told us that attempting this hike with so many people was foolish and was sure to end in failure. And maybe for the ME generational outlook, the way our Sea to Sea trek ended would be considered a “failure”. Those of us on the trek understood it much differently. It was a most daring thing and ended in complete success.

Iced Tea

iced teaThis morning I noticed a cup which I hardly ever use on my kitchen counter. There is nothing outwardly special about this cup. It is one of those large cups sold at amusement parks and filled with enough soda to make anyone bouncy and happy all day long. But I didn’t get it from an amusement park. In fact, the circumstances which surround how this cup came into my possession are far from amusing. I began telling my kids the story of the cup, the story of events over 17 years ago. I know, the experts would tell me that a more than 17 year old plastic cup has way out-lived its lifespan, but it is part of my Israel experience and I won’t give it up.

My good friends moved to Israel only a few months after my own family did. After living in the city of Jerusalem for a year, they decided to move out to the “suburbs” for all the reasons that people move to suburbs – more green, a feeling of community, beautiful scenery, less crowding. But that summer, something happened which drove home the fact that living in suburban Jerusalem has little in common with Teaneck, NJ or Silver Spring, MD.

During the night of September 9, 1995, a terrorist from a neighboring Arab village broke into the home of my friend’s neighbor, killing the husband, stabbing the wife and fleeing. The wife was 5 months pregnant and after battling for her life, lost the life of her unborn child.

It was the era of the Oslo accords and Israel stood between hoping for peace and fearing for her life. Less than 2 months after the attack in my friend’s community, Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzchak Rabin would be murdered in a Tel Aviv square for his part in signing these same accords.

In the small suburban community where everyone knows everyone, my friend could not imagine not accompanying her neighbor on his last journey to the grave. Funerals in Jerusalem are not scheduled at the convenience of the mourners, but as soon as the body can be prepared for burial.  Tradition holds that burial should take place as soon as possible, even if that time may be the middle of the night.  My friend couldn’t take her two small children with her to the cemetery and was nervous to leave them home with a teenaged babysitter only one night after a terror attack. So, she called me to sleep over. I drove an hour to arrive at her home with my one-year old son, Naftali. I have to admit, I was scared. I trusted the Israeli army would watch over the community on a night when a large portion of the adults would be absent, but I was scared. Thank G-d, the night passed and all were fine.

Before my drive home early the next morning, I wanted to have my morning iced tea to wake up. I had remembered to bring the jar of instant tea, but didn’t have a cup to make it in – so my friend gave me this cup from the amusement park. “Just keep it,” she said as she thanked me for coming. And so the cup remains a symbol of one of my Israel experiences.

This last summer, during one of my Birthright trips, we had a speaker about modern Israel. He asked all the Israelis in the room (staff and soldiers) to stand up. He then asked us to sit down if we DID NOT personally know someone who was killed or injured in a war or by a terrorist attack.

No one sat down. NO ONE.

If you want to get inside the Israeli head-space, you need to understand that this is the reality of Israel. We know what the costs are, not just in some sort of nebulous way, but in a very real sense. Yom HaZikaron, Remembrance day takes on a whole new meaning in light of this reality. It is not a day for bargain-hunting, cook outs, and vacation. On this day, no one “sits down” – as almost everyone sadly knows someone who needs to be remembered.  It is a day where people, whose lives were taken by those who would rather not see us here, can even be remembered in a simple glass of iced tea.


It’s Magic!

Caves are magical.  Caves provide us with an “ultrasound” of sorts into the earth’s interior.  Caves also provide shelter to many unique plant and animal species and were the first homes for humans.  (For another post on dwellings      in this area.)  People explore caves for the mineral riches contained underground, for scientific studies of this netherworld and for the sheer thrill of it.  Sometimes, caves provide clues not only to the earth’s interior, but to our own human past.  Such is the continuing research at Qesem (Magic) Cave in Israel.

Qesem Cave was discovered during a civil project to widen the road between Rosh HaAyin and Ariel.  This road has been a thoroughfare  throughout history and, apparently, also during prehistoric times.

Humanoids have been in the current Land of Israel for 1.5 million years, having migrated north up the Syrian African rift.  The recent excavations at  Qesem Cave explore  the period of occupation is between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago, which corresponds to the Lower Paleolithic period, a period with mixed humanoid populations.

What was interesting to me as I was learning about Qesem Cave were the same things that interest me particularly about  archaeology – namely the interplay between history, the environment and technology – are evident in paleontology as well.  More  than 400,000 years ago, Homo Erectus was the dominant species of  hominid species and his main food was ELEPHANTS!


Once you think about it and get past the picture of Dumbo flying  in the sky, however, elephants are an ideal food.  Killing one  elephant provides enough meat to feed a lot of people.   It is a very efficient dinner.  But times change.  And around 400,000 years ago, elephant populations lessened/disappeared in current  Israel.

And so, between 400,000 years ago and 200,000 years ago, the period of the current findings of the Qesem cave, hominid species had to adapt.  We do not know exactly what caused the disappearance of the elephant, but removing this staple from the diet of early humanoids had a profound affect on their technologies.  Switching the main food source from elephant to fallow deer and other smaller mammals meant that there needed to be a change in the Qesem kitchen.   Fallow deer became so important that their bones were found through all 9 m of layers from this time period excavated in the Qesem cave.

We have in the Qesem cave the oldest evidence of daily household use of fire IN THE WORLD.    Talk about an Israeli Start Up – home cooked food!  Food was cooked on a daily basis and not only sporadically.  Because the area of the kitchen had a new importance, certain areas of the cave were set aside for this purpose.  Not only cooking, but other activities in the cave dwelling were carried out in specific locations within the cave leading to developing of areas for “cottage industries”.

Qesem_Cave_bladesThe level of innovation was high in this cave.  Besides cooking food on a daily basis and having an area set aside for this, and other, functions, over half a million flint tools were found, some “before their time” being the earliest instance of that tool type found IN THE WORLD.  We are not talking about random flint knives, but rather about complete knife sets, each knife for a specific purpose.  Uniform flint knives were found that were used only once for slaughter, then they were recycled for cutting meat.  This recycling is the only instance of this behavior IN THE WORLD at this time.

The research at Kesem cave has been carried out for the last 12 years by Tel Aviv University Department of Archaeology under the direction of Ran Barkai and still continues.  Next summer the archaeologists hope to start work on a new cave dating from still earlier.  Wonder what new “firsts” will be discovered this summer?

Do You Diguette?

I went to the Negev yesterday with a few colleagues and I got into a discussion with Shany about the JNF (Jewish National Fund) plantings we saw.  I contended that the technique for planting the rows of trees was called “Liman”; she called them “Terrasot” (pl. for terraces in Hebrew).  Shany said that “Liman” is a term only used for planting trees in bowls – depressions in the ground made to preserve water in the center of the bowl.  According to her, these lines of piled up soil on the sides of the hills were terraces, similar to the terraces we see throughout the central mountain range.

Up until this point, I thought I understood Negev agricultural terminology; and, I was so convinced that I was right, I decided to do a bit of research to find out if both the desert farming technique using “bowls” and the technique of building up lines of soil on hillsides were both called “Limans” or if one was a Liman and the other a simple terrace.

This research took me into another question I have been wanting to tackle which was posed by Leah from my Tour Guide class.  She asked what was the name and the purpose of the rock piles we see all over the Negev.

I like to remind people who are traveling with me that despite appearances, Israel has plenty of natural resources.  We have water, sun, access to other places, trees, land – and all this was sufficient for supporting rich societies here ONLY because people knew how to manage them.  Ecology may be a 21st century idea for the rest of the world, but here in Israel ecology has been a necessity since the dawn of civilization.

So, too, in the Negev, an area which received less that 200 mm rainfall a year (in some places much less).  In antiquity, the people living in this desert climate figured out how to harvest water during the bleak winter rains, channel it to fields and grow wheat, barley, wine, olives, figs, etc.  It may take a lot of engineering and a lot of land, but it is possible.  Around the area of Avdat, approximately 25 acres of land were needed to collect enough water for 1 acre of crops.

One technique used by ancient peoples was the Liman.  A Liman is a depressed area surrounded by low hillocks.  The water falling on these hillocks flows into the center of the “bowl”.  This technique was initially used by the JNF  for planting large trees to provide shade.  You can see many JNF Limans on the road down to Beer Sheva. Most of the Limans planted in the Negev today are populated by Eucalyptus trees as they grow quickly.
Another technique is the Diguette.  Diguettes are small mounds built along a line on a slope.  Trees can then be planted uphill from each of these lines.  The mounds help to catch the water flowing down the hill and give it a longer exposure to the plant, decreasing run-off.  In Hebrew they may be called “Terraces” but actually they have a special name/function when they are in a desert climate. Diguettes are used around the world in arid areas, including Africa, and boost the ability of an area to produce crops thereby saving lives today.  The JNF uses Diguettes today to plant indigenous species and it is the main technique used in the Yatir forest project.

Catchment farms were used in natural stream beds.  Various dams were built along the stream bed.  The rain which fell on the surrounding hills flowed naturally into the stream bed, where the crops were. The water which overflowed each step of this terraced structure flowed to the step below, controlling the amount of water in each step and holding the water in the farmed area for a longer amount of time.

The rock piles my friend Leah asked about are an interesting phenomena in the Negev.  They are called by the local population Tolilat al-Anev (Grape Mounds).  In the 1830’s when these were first described by 2 British surveyors/explorers/botanists/geologists, it was assumed that these mounds were used in ancient times for growing grapes.  On further inspection, not only were there no grapevine remnants found in any of the areas, but also there were no adjacent wine presses.  There still is no definitive explanation for these mounds, but there are a few theories.  One is that the  clearing of the rocks into mounds allowed for more erosion of the soil on the slopes.  This soil was washed to the
valleys and mixed along the way with organic material to make a richer soil in the valleys.

The mounds are not only found on the slopes of hills, but also in relatively flat areas.  This leads to another hypothesis that the rocks randomly strewn about impinged upon the rainwater’s path to a central point.  Gathering the rocks in mounds meant that there was more free and clear smooth ground to draw the water to that central collection area.

Turns out that I was only partially right about Limans.  Shany was correct that Liman is a very specific term and not a general one. Thanks to Shany and Leah for piquing my curiosity and pushing me to learn more about agriculture in the Negev!

Do you Diguette?  I DO!

Tell Me a Story….

Being a tour guide is not only amassing facts and understanding the history, science, topography and ideas of a place, it is also about being a good story teller.  When I am guiding, my story telling is about actual people and events, but understanding how a story is built is key whether you are dealing with fiction or non-fiction.

Six years ago, in my constant search not only to inject content in my children’s education, but also to get them to “think out of the box”, I developed an idea.  I call it cooperative fiction.  The aim of cooperative fiction is to stretch your brain, while learning about what it takes to make a good story, how to develop plot, story arc, character development.  Writers of differing ages and abilities sign up with the project, basic guidelines are set, and the project is launched.

Each writer writes the first chapter of a multi-chapter book.  After a week, the developing books are reassigned to another writer who, after reading chapter 1, must then write a chapter 2 continuing the story line.  This continues until the set amount of chapters is reached, usually between 6 and 8 chapters.  Discussion of the books between authors is not allowed, thus insuring that each author comes to the book “fresh” without any preconceived notions.  An editor makes sure that all writers stay on track, follow the rules of the project and submit their chapters on time.  (Already in the second year, software was developed by project participants which allowed all work to be done on line – thanks to Elliot and Joey for development and continued support!)

Printed, published books: Summer 2012

I started the project with educational goals for my kids, but some of the lessons I learned have been surprising.

1.  This project is enjoyable for all ages.  Creative exercise is good for the brain.  This is true whether you are 10 or 72.  In fact, 10 year olds may have an easier time taking a situation and running with it than older people.  As people get older, they become more set in their ways – less flexible – and having to write in someone else’s world is a real mental work-out.

2.  No matter who you are or what kind of a writer you are, the reaction to receiving a book that you have not started and now must continue is the same.  You read the book and declare to any and all around you that “this is the stupidest book I have ever read and there is no possible way to continue it”.  This happens for every writer, every book, every time.

3.  Other people do not think the same way that you do.  Don’t expect that people who write after you will continue the book in any sort of fashion that seems to you to be obvious.  This is true especially if you are a sloppy writer.  If you leave holes, grammatical mistakes, mix up the characters’ names, someone who writes after you is sure to pick up on these discrepancies in ways that you didn’t intend.

4.  People become emotionally attached to “their book”, that is, the book for which they wrote chapter 1.  The book will not turn out as you suspected.  Don’t get upset.  Books are like boats which you set to sail and do not touch upon again until they are at the end of their journey.  It could be that all the characters die; it could be that they fall in love.  Although these outcomes are out of your control, you still see a personal stake in that book.   Enjoy the connection but take your ego out of the equation.

Tonite was the signing party for the Summer 2012 project.  I printed all the books and we all sat around and read them, laughing and critiquing, asking questions and reading favorite lines, eating and drinking foods which were tangentially connected to our first chapters (or just yummy).

If you are interested in reading some of our stories, go to the site and check them out!

Zevitan Hike

This week school will start for Gideon and Hill.  We spent last week squeezing the last bits out of summer while trying to prepare for the upcoming year.  As part of that effort, we went hiking in the Golan – something that was missing from our summer until last week. In previous summers and vacations throughout the years, we have hiked most of the more popular hikes in the area, and last week we repeated one of the good hikes – Upper Nahal Zevitan.

What makes it a good hike?

First of all, it needs water, preferably enough water in which to swim.  Nahal Zevitan and its continuation in Nahal Meshushim have pools surrounded by the black hexagons which characterize this stream system.  The pools are cool and deep – I could not stand up even at the edge of the pool at which we stopped to swim.  The stepped hexagonal prisms provide a “diving board” up to 12 feet above the surface of the pool.  Everyone had a chance to jump into the cool water, and most did.  About 4 million years ago, Golan volcanoes covered the limestone crust with igneous basalt.  This basalt cracked due mostly to tectonic activity as the Golan lies on the upper end of the active Dead Sea Fault System.  The Zevitan Stream lies on a major surface fault and so the canyons are very steep.  Water erosion carves narrow canyons through the basalt.  When these canyons fill with water, very deep, narrow pools form.

Secondly, a good hike requires a bit of nature.  Our first foray into the Zevitan system a few years ago led to our first experience with Sabra (Prickly Pear) fruit.  Boaz convinced us that we could safely pick, peel and eat a sabra right from the cactus with only a pocket knife and a bandana.  Anyone who has tried this knows that this is almost impossible.  But the fruit looks so alluring, so juicy, so wonderfully edible that you can’t help but try.  After picking prickers out of peoples hands, arms, lips, tongues, we realized that we should leave the sabra-picking to trained professionals (or at least those with leather gloves).  The Golan is also populated by rock hyraxes which you can often see along this trail.  And the views.  The views through the crevasses toward the Sea of Galilee were exquisite.  The winding stream bed, which gives Nahal Zevitan its name, covered in low trees and bushes and yellow grasses framed the blue water in the distance from the sea – just beautiful.

The third factor in a good hike is a bit of history.  We walked for a bit in an aqueduct.  The issue of water has been a major factor in the development of history in Israel.  Here, in the Golan, the control of water is key.  In 1964, the National Water Carrier opened, pumping water from the Sea of Galilee as far south as the Northern Negev.  As a response,  Syria and Lebanon started plans for a Diversionary Canal which would take water from the headwaters of the Jordan and carry them to the Yarmuk Stream bypassing Israel. The tensions which resulted, and the tank and artillery exchanges which took place between 1964 and 1966 provide a backdrop for one of the causes of the Six Day War in 1967.  Even in ancient times, control of the water meant that you could water your fields and your animals.  In this part of the world, water is connected to survival and prosperity.  It appeared to us that the aqueduct in which we walked was modern, being lined with cement, possibly to bring water to a nearby Syrian farm, whose remains we came across later in the hike.

The last major factor in a good hike is a bit of challenge.  The beginning was filled with climbing over rocks and through pricker bushes.  My feet got totally bruised and reinforced that it really was time for new hiking boots.  Next time we do this one, we will dedicate more time to it and climb down to the base of the waterfall and continue on to the Sea of Galilee.  I like that – the plan for “next time” and how we can improve our experience and push just a little farther.  It is one of the things I like most about hiking with this group of friends.  We will be there for each other and there will be a “next time”.  The walk from the overlook of the waterfall back to the Yehudiya parking lot was, quite honestly, a bit boring, with the biggest challenge being how long it would take to hitchhike from the parking lot back to the car.  My hitchhiking karma bank must be doing o.k. – it only took Gavi and I five minutes to get a hitch.  After another 15 minutes of walking on the road, we were back to the car.

It was a fitting hike for the end of summer, with all the factors of a “good hike”.

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

Last week I took a group to hike in Lower Nahal Og.  I had done the hike about 4-5 years ago when I started hiking with Yossie.  The hike is in one of the dry (or mostly dry) stream beds which leads from the Judean desert to the Dead Sea and, as such, descends for its entire length.  Along the path, as the chalk gives way to dolomite and the canyon becomes narrow and steep, and in order to continue to descend, you must navigate a series of three ladders.

“Ladders” in hikes in Israel are not what you may think of as ladders in other parts of the world.  “Ladders” here consist of metal u’s,  the width of 2 fists, which are stuck in the sides of rocks allowing you to descend/climb otherwise sheer rock faces.  The three ladders on the Lower Nahal Og hike are 4, 7, and 10 meters high (10 meters is higher than my house!).  You ease yourself over the cliff and carefully climb from rung to rung, often coached by those who have descended before you.  At points it sounds like a Twister game as shouts of “move your left foot a little to the right!” guide descent of one hiker after the next.

The hike starts in the Central Judean desert on the Plain of Hyrcania.  This is the driest part of the Judean desert – there is no residual moisture from the Judean hills to the west and are no springs of the Eastern Judean desert/Dead Sea valley.  It is a great hike for noticing the changing geology and plant life.

But besides nature, there is a historical human footprint in the area.  Despite the existence of a more heavily traveled road to the north in the area of Nahal Prat connecting Jericho to Jerusalem, there was also a secondary road which went along Nahal Og.

Why were there two parallel roads so close to each other?  The answer lies in a product which has fueled world politics and science, exploration and cuisine.  SUGAR!

In today’s world, we take sugar for granted, but it wasn’t always so.  Sugar domestication started about 10,000 years ago in the South Pacific – at approximately the same time as wheat was domesticated here in Israel.  The first sugar addicts chewed the sugar cane stalks to achieve their sugar high.  Later, the stalks were ground and soaked with the resultant liquid left to dry, leaving the sugary residue behind.

Meanwhile, in Israel, sweetness in food was obtained by adding honey (dvash) to foods.  “Dvash” in the Bible almost always (with the exception of the story of Shimshon’s riddle to the people of Timna) refers to sweetener derived from fruits such as dates.  When the Bible is speaking of Israel as a “Land Flowing with Milk and Honey”, it is speaking about fruit honey and not honey from bees or other plants. This meaning is preserved in Arabic where “Dibis” refers to sweetener made from any fruit.

Back to Sugar Cane….  Sugar (from sugar cane) became the main sweetener in India, finally making its way to the Arab world.  With the Moslem conquest of the Land of Israel, came also the taste for sugar from canes.  The Moslem conquerors soon discovered that the reeds around what is today Einot Tzukim were suitable for the production of cane sugar.  The plant requires both lots of water and lots of sunlight – both  available in abundance in the Dead Sea area.  It also can tolerate a relatively high level of salinity in its water source, leading it to take over areas closer to the Dead Sea where other plants could not survive.  The Moslem conquerors brought their engineering know-how and made the extraction of cane sugar more efficient and profitable.  They needed to bring their crop to the closest large market (Jerusalem) and also to service the Byzantine monks in the Judean desertand both Muslim and Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.  This is the famed Sugar Route which passes through Nahal Og, joins the monastery of St. Euthymius, to El Azaria and into Jerusalem.  With the coming of the Crusaders, sugar was introduced to the West.  The Europeans were crazy about the sweetener and from the beginning of the Crusader era, sugar refineries were present in Israel, not only for local consumption but for exporting to the markets of Europe.  These industrial installations required a mill, an aqueduct, hearths, and many ceramic pots for storing the resultant sugar powder and the molasses byproduct.   (These installations have been found by archaeologists around areas where sugar cane is grown, including along the Sugar Route.)  At the time of the Crusaders, sugar was just as expensive in the European markets as the spices which were brought from Yemen, such as cinnamon and cardamon.

When the Crusaders were kicked out of the Levant by the Mamelukes, the supply of sugar was now in the hands of the not-so-friendly Arabs who jacked up the prices.  As always, these market pressures forced people to become creative.  Sugar from beets, which are readily grown in Northern European climates replaced cane sugar.  This inferior product, however, was soon supplemented by sugar cane introduced, grown and processed in the New World.

As in Ramle with the development and export of the Gothic arch, in the Judean desert, we walk in the footsteps of history.  A fortuitous confluence of Eastern foods, the development of engineering which allowed for production on a mass scale and the opening of European markets led to the introduction of one of the staples of the modern Western diet.    And no matter what you think of sugar, it definitely  has clutched the stomachs of most of the people on the planet.

Please Pass the Eggplant

Eggplants have been a part of the diet in Israel for a long time, but they are not indigenous to this part of the world.  Rather, like the Prickly Pear (Sabras), they are immigrants.  The first mention of cultivated eggplant is from the 1st century BCE in China.  Eggplants clearly made it into the national psyche there as, traditionally, Chinese brides had to supply 12 recipes for eggplants in order to enter into a marriage.  Travelers brought the eggplant west with them on their way back from the Orient, and eggplants made it to European markets during the middle ages.

The first eggplants seen in the West were small and white.  Thus, Europeans called them egg-plants.  These small, white vegetables/fruits were bitter.  Selective breeding led to larger, and increasingly more purple plants which were less bitter.  It is these eggplants that we most often see on grocery shelves.

Because eggplants grow well in warm climates, the Mediterranean basin soon became a comfortable new home for the plant.  In particular, Turkey, long a cross-road for different cultures, took to the plant;  currently today, Turkey produces 19% of the world’s eggplants.  The common dish Baba Ganoush is Arabic for “a spoiling, cuddly father” – a good name for the inside pulp of this fruit/vegetable.  Only after a bit of cooking, the flesh of the eggplant breaks down and turns into a mush.

To peel or not to peel, that is the question?

The skin of the eggplant, in contrast to the mushy flesh, is resilient, tough, and (in most cases) purple.  Many who cook eggplant would prefer to remove the skin – it does contribute to the bitter taste which sometimes accompanies eggplants.  New studies, however, suggest that just like for most other fruits/vegetables, an inordinate amount of the vitamins and minerals are located in or just beneath the skin.  In particular, nasunin (what makes eggplants purple in the first place) has many benefits.  The benefit to the plant is that nasunin protects the fruit from the harmful rays of the sun acting as eggplant sunscreen.

For people, nasunin is an anti-oxidant.  Anti-oxidants are important to neutralize free radicals and thus are anti-aging nutrients.  (As my birthday is coming up next month, please pass me some more of that spicy eggplant salad!)  Nasunin inhibits free radicals at their source, by binding with Iron.

Think of chemicals in your body as children in a nursery school with toys.  Each child is happily playing with his/her toy.  Then, all of a sudden, one boy’s ball rolls under the fence.  He is unhappy, and goes to take some other child’s toy.  The second child then becomes unhappy, and steals someone else’s.  This continues over and over until the nursery school is in disarray.  Eventually, with all those unhappy children, something gets broken.

Some anti-oxidants are like teachers who  go around the nursery school, trying to give each child a new toy.  Sometimes this works and sometimes the child just wants their old toy back.  Nasunin, though, is like a string which attaches each toy to the appropriate child, thus preventing free radicals, lost and stolen toys, and general disarray.  Free radicals are very damaging for the nervous system (all those crying, miserable children running around the nursery school can give you a headache), so stopping them at the source protects your brain.

The other benefit nasunin gives to the body is that is curbs growth of new blood vessels.  What could be good about that?  Well, generally, we have all the blood vessels we need.  When does the body generate lots of new blood vessels?  That occurs when we develop growths.  These growths need an increased blood supply to thrive and so our bodies produce new blood vessels.   Some growths are cancerous – so by curbing formation of new blood vessels, eggplants are part of a program for slowing cancer.

So much good stuff in eggplant skin.  Next time you cook eggplant – KEEP THE SKIN ON!

(Thanks to Moshe for piquing my curiosity.)