A year and a half ago I had the honor and privilege to travel to Israel as a part of the Rubin Israel Experience. This annual program, the brainchild of local philanthropists and all-around wonderful people Ron and Pam Rubin, provides 10 individuals who have never before visited Israel with an all-expenses-paid first visit. The principal purposes of the trip are to deepen people’s connections to Israel and to increase awareness of the contributions the St. Louis Jewish community, the Jewish Federation in particular, make to Israeli cultural, educational, economic and social programs.
My journey provided a lifetime of memories spanning religious, cultural, political and deeply personal contexts. I got to pray at the Western Wall, walk the streets of the Old City, dip my feet (and nothing else, thank you very much) in the Dead Sea, visit the top of Masada, spend a few days on a kibbutz, observe the Knesset on the opening day of the new session, sit in on a hearing in the Israeli Supreme Court, and many, many other things.
And among those many, many other things was eating halva for breakfast.
Every. Single. Day.
What is halva (or halvah, or halavah, or halevah, and so on) you may ask. That is subject to almost as many interpretations as there are spellings for it, but for purposes of this piece I am speaking of a confection that is comprised of pulverized sesame seeds that have been blended with liquefied sugar and flavorings such as chocolate, vanilla or cinnamon, and allowed to cool into cakes or loaves. As you can guess by its composition, halva’s health benefits are superior to only a handful of organ meats and anything being served from the concession stands of the Texas State Fair.
Naturally, I love it.
Halva has a very unique texture. Served chilled, it’s pleasantly gritty as it disintegrates in one’s mouth. At room temperature it takes on a slightly smoother texture thanks to its oil content, but there’s still a slightly grainy mouthfeel to it.
My mother eloquently likened halva to sawdust. If, in fact, that is what sawdust tasted like, I guarantee you would find me hanging out by the dumpsters at Home Depot.
Although it is a Middle Eastern delicacy, halva can be found fairly easily in the States, even in St. Louis. Some local delis stock it, as do certain international and ethnic grocers, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the domestic offerings, but Israeli halva is some next-level goodness. And it was generously offered up at all of the dining venues where my group ate breakfast. As they say, when in Rome, er, Jerusalem . . .
As Shabbat approached, my fellow Rubinites and I visited the Mahane Yehuda, a.k.a. the Shuk – a massive marketplace in Jerusalem that is known for its huge quantity and variety of food vendors. And on that lengthy roster of vendors is a magical place called Halva Kingdom. I made a pilgrimage within a pilgrimage.
Arrayed before me was a majestic assembly of the treat. There were gargantuan cakes of the stuff in every conceivable flavor. And there were free samples. I exploited the largesse of the friendly salesman (I’m pretty sure he wasn’t the actual Halva King, but I could be wrong.) Don’t judge me. I’ve seen some of you at Sam’s and Costco on a Saturday. And I did eventually make a purchase – a nice slab studded with ground espresso beans.
It didn’t last 12 hours.
Fast-forward to this past February. A very dear friend whose professional obligations require him to travel to Israel periodically posted a Facebook check-in from the Shuk. I immediately posted a comment pleading for a delivery from the Kingdom, hoping against hope that he would be checking his updates while trying to navigate the market’s cramped and narrow labyrinth. No such luck. When I saw him a week later, he explained that he hadn’t seen my comment until he was already at the airport for his trip back home.
Two days after that, we were together again for a meeting. He handed me a Ziploc bag containing a sizeable chunk of something wrapped in a bunch of wax paper. I was overcome with elation and shock.
As I put my eyes back into their sockets he explained that while he hadn’t gotten my order in time, he did bring back a decent halva stash and he was happy to share. This time I was more judicious with my bounty – it lasted an entire four days.
The 2015 class of Rubinites will be announced later this Spring. If anyone reading this happens to be among the chosen ones (pun intended) . . . let’s talk.