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‘Israeli Cuisine’ an enticing treat on Jewish film fest menu

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“In Search of Israeli Cuisine” takes viewers on a journey through the country’s widely varying kitchens and communities. (Courtesy photo)
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Showcasing 67 films from 15 countries, the 36th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival promises to be a feast for the eyes.

Opening Thursday and running through Aug. 7 in The City, Berkeley, Oakland, Palo Alto and San Rafael, the event also is serving tasty dishes, such as “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” a film by Roger Sherman offering a banquet of edible delights.

Presented in a breezy style that tours kitchens and communities all over Israel, “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” (screening at 3:50 p.m. July 23 at the Castro, 2:15 p.m. July 24 at the CineArts, noon July 30 at the Roda and 4:20 p.m. Aug. 5 at the Smith Rafael) asks the basic question: What exactly is Israeli cuisine?

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The answer goes back to the founding of Israel in 1948. That’s when significant numbers of immigrants started arriving, bringing their culinary practices to the new nation — divided broadly into Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions as well as the cookery of countries of origin, from Morocco to Iran to Russia, Poland and Germany and everywhere in
between.

But while the foreign cuisines Jewish immigrants brought with them have been major factors behind the development of Israeli cuisine, other key influences — kosher culinary practices, Arabic cooking, and newly available fresh, locally grown foods, and ingredients native to Israel — make for a lively and evolving cooking scene.

“I had never heard the phrase ‘Israeli cuisine’ and when I did, I reflexively thought hummus and falafel,” says Sherman, who wrote, directed and produced the film, and will appear at screenings in San Francisco and Palo Alto. “As I traveled the country, it came as a shock to discover perhaps the most dynamic food scene in the world. Diving deeper on return trips, I was astounded to find cooking that was informed by some 150 traditions that were brought to Israel or had never left.”

Michael Solomonov, a James Beard Award-winning chef whose Philadelphia restaurant Zahav specializes in Israeli cuisine, serves as the film’s culinary guide. He experienced firsthand how food has helped to bring people from various cultures together in Israel.

“It’s about building relationships and building communication and it’s been accomplished in such a short period of time,” Solomonov says. “But at the same time, with all of this progress and all of this forward thinking, these things are rooted in tradition. The way that people process their own form of religion, the Ashkenazi and Sephardic and Yemeni and all of these things that were created or polished in the diaspora or in Palestine, or in the Levant, or wherever, for them to be all absorbed and processed in one place, there is something so incredibly special about it.”

Ultimately, the film suggests, cuisine and the taste for it are universal, timeless themes all people share and that are not unique to one culture.

“The funny thing is that cuisine and flavor are among the most objective things,” Solomonov says. “They don’t come from anywhere or belong to anyone.”

IF YOU GO: San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.

When: July 21 through Aug. 2

Tickets: $10 to $75

Contact: (415) 621-0523, www.sfjff.org

Note: Screenings also are at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, Piedmont Theatre in Oakland, Cinearts in Palo Alto and Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

SFJFF selected highlights

The Tenth Man: The opening night feature is the California premiere of the touching, exuberant Argentinean comedy about a Jewish man in New York who heeds the call of his father in Buenos Aires to return home to help him with his business — but dad also has matchmaking plans for his son. (6:30 p.m. July 21, Castro)

Norman Lear-Just Another Version of You: Screening in its Bay Area premiere, the film follows the American TV sitcom giant’s career from sketch writer for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis through his activist-imbued satires “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “Maude.” He will be in attendance to accept the SFJFF 2016 Freedom of Expression Award. (3:15 p.m. July 24, Castro)

Wrestling Jerusalem: Bay Area writer-actor Aaron Davidman accomplishes the tortuous feat of retelling the narratives of 17 characters with diverse backgrounds and opinions on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. San Francisco is among the locales featured in the world premiere of this film based on a play Davidman wrote and performed. (6:20 p.m. July 27, Castro)

For the Love of Spock: The biopic, screening in its West Coast premiere, traces the life and career of Leonard Nimoy, the son of Jewish immigrants who would become the beloved half-human Vulcan character Mr. Spock in “Star Trek”; director Adam Nimoy charts a touching paean to his father. (7:45 p.m., July 31, Castro)

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