When Gil Hovav tossed together his tabouleh salad in Livingston on Jan. 12, the Israeli culinary star slipped in some unexpected ingredients to turn it into “an extravaganza of delight.”
They included pomegranate seeds and “a lie” — some labor-saving supermarket-bought couscous (“The Lebanese would faint if they saw that!” he declared).
He was doing more than getting mouths watering; he was sharpening appetites for a new Jewish cultural project, World Jewish Heritage. Hovav, a food critic, television personality, and novelist — who happens to be the great-grandson of “the father of modern Hebrew,” Eliezer Ben-Yehuda — was the guest presenter at WJH’s first-ever public event.
The gathering was the “pre-launch” of the nonprofit’s maiden undertaking, an e-book called Israel’s Top 100 Ethnic Restaurants. The official launch was scheduled to take place two days later, on Jan. 14, at Balaboosta restaurant in New York City, but the Livingston fund-raiser had a special personal feel: It was hosted by Dr. Arie Schwartz and his wife, Fran, the sister of WJH founder Jack Gottlieb, and drew a thoroughly haimish crowd of friends and supporters to their home for a cooking demonstration and Moroccan-inspired buffet.
And as it happened, Fran pointed out, Jan. 12 was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s birthday.
Fran and her brother Jack grew up in the Boston area, the children of European immigrants. Jack Gottlieb ran a business there, but a few years ago he stepped back and decided it was time to pursue philanthropic passions in Israel. He established Gottlieb Productions and the Gottlieb Film Fund, to encourage Israeli screenwriters. And then — after a “roots” trip to Eastern Europe and with an eye to the new dynamics of social media and the need to communicate in fresh ways — he set out to create an information resource on places of Jewish cultural, religious, and historic interest around the world, and to make that information readily accessible on the Internet.
“We decided that what was needed was a kind of UNESCO for Judaism,” he told guests. “Our business model is designed to attract tourists to those sites, which would mean it would be supported by the countries they are in.”
This month, the site is highlighting the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, the Dizengoff Food Fair in Tel Aviv, and a walking tour of the Lower East Side in Manhattan.
“This is about community and getting everyone involved,” Gottlieb said. “If we’re wrong about something, we want people to tell us we’re wrong.”
The e-book was based on such feedback. “We asked people what they thought our first focus should be, and they said ‘food,’” he recalled. “We agreed. It’s an undiscovered asset, a hidden gem. Israel is a culinary paradise and people didn’t know where to go.”
He sought guidance from Hovav, 52, who began his career as a food critic and journalist, and went on to create some of Israel’s most popular TV food shows.
“I thank Jack and his crew for doing something very special,” he said. “I’ve always had this frustration that people come to Israel and eat sh—- falafel and think they’ve done Israeli food. That’s not true!”
Fran introduced her brother, saying she is proud of his undertaking, and the employment opportunities he has already provided for dozens of young Israelis. Gottlieb had brought with him from Israel three of his top people, including Hadas Midbari, his PR and creative director and a former Israeli shliha, or emissary, for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
“It’s great to be back,” she said, especially in support of a project she feels so passionate about.