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October 25, 2014 | 1st Cheshvan 5775

Wheat

Galilee Diary #340, June 3, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

Praised are You, O Lord our God, who brings forth bread from the earth.
-Blessing before eating bread

Recently we took our staff on an in-service day to Ramat Hanadiv, near Zichron Yaakov. Ramat Hanadiv, literally, “benefactor’s highland,” is a memorial to the “the well-known benefactor,” Baron Edmond James de Rothschild. Rothschild played a major role in purchasing land and in helping the early Zionist settlements with funding, agricultural training, and industrial development. The Carmel Winery, in Zichron Yaakov and Rishon Letzion, is one of his better-known projects. When he died in 1934, funds from his estate set up a magnificent memorial garden on a plot of land he had purchased, near Zichron Yaakov. The gardens at Ramat Hanadiv remain one of Israel’s beauty spots. Less well-known was the decision of the estate to set aside over 1,000 acres as a privately owned nature preserve open freely to the public. The preserve operates an ecological research station, and extensive educational programs. We had heard about the place and its programs, and decided we should get a first-hand look, as well as have an outing on a beautiful spring day. The tour was most interesting, and we got a number of ideas for programs we could do there with groups interested in Judaism and ecology.

Among the sights was a plot planted with the primitive Emmer wheat that is known as “mother of all wheat.” In the early 20th century, one of the settlers at Zichron Yaakov was Aaron Aaronsohn, a Zionist activist who set up the Nili spy ring that sought to help the British defeat the Turks in the First World War. This was a risky business, and indeed, the Turks broke up the ring; Aaronsohn’s sister Sarah committed suicide in captivity. When not involved in intrigue, Aaronsohn was a biologist, and is credited with discovering a rare strain of wild wheat in Israel that is believed to be the most primitive form of the species. This discovery was valuable for the process of genetic improvement of cultivated wheat through cross breeding – a process that continues today. At Ramat Hanadiv, school children tended, harvested, and ground the wheat – and made pita from the flour.

Every child in Israel knows the story of Aaronsohn and his wheat – and baking pita over a fire is a standard activity on school and youth group outings. Bread is the symbol of all food, and indeed is often used as a synonym for food in various languages. The blessing for bread “covers” any other foods eaten at a meal, so it is our equivalent of a general “grace” before eating. Israel imports the vast majority of its wheat and other grains. The importing is the monopoly of a family-run business – which owns the huge Dagon grain elevators that dominate the Haifa skyline. Following from the belief that bread is the basic food, it is subsidized: the two simplest forms, “white bread” and “black bread,” are sold at artificially low prices. For years, these two staples dominated the market – both are firm loaves with a hard shiny crust, traditionally delivered and displayed unwrapped, unsliced, piled in a plastic crate. “White bread” is much firmer than the American variety; more like Italian or French bread in consistency. “Black bread” is not black, but a mild rye with no seeds. And of course there was always pita – and simple, not-sweet, mass-produced Challah on Friday.

As the country has become more civilized, globalized, whatever, the bread department has grown, and, for a price, you can get anything you want, from sourdough bread with sun dried tomatoes to Russian pumpernickel to an attempt at a bagel. Lately, more and more stores have put in in-store bakeries, many using dough purchased from Pillsbury.

There was something authentic, elemental about the “old days” when bread was bread, heavy and shiny, and really delicious when fresh. But nostalgia aside, one really can’t complain about the variety of delicious breads now available. Why, sometimes we fast for a week just so we can afford to buy an excellent, hard-crusted, chewy loaf from the thriving sourdough bakery in Karmiel. Mother of all bread.

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