As a foreign correspondent for CBS News starting in 1976, Dan Raviv reported from more than 35 countries and covered events ranging from Wimbledon tennis to the Falkland Islands war, from Middle East terrorism to the fall of the Berlin Wall. He has interviewed world leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat and covered papal trips in more than a dozen countries. While living in Israel (1978-1980), he reported on the peace talks between Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin.
Now based in Washington, DC, as national correspondent for CBS Radio, Raviv hosts “Weekend Roundup,” a national radio magazine. He covers everything from elections and the Presidency to the space shuttle disaster, September 11 and ongoing domestic terrorism. Raviv is author of several books including Spies against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars and the national bestseller Every Spy a Prince, both with Yossi Melman.
Talking with Raviv about Jewish food reveals a wonderful family history and how food has always been part of the family’s expressions of love.
Jewish Food Experience: When I say “Jewish food,” what does that mean to you?
Dan Raviv: It means family, from generation to generation, as the old saying goes. I’ve known four generations of family: my four grandparents, my parents, my brother and I and my wife (and her five siblings) and now our two grown children and their cousins.
Food has been tremendously important to all—as a symbol of love. There’s no doubt about that.
JFE: What are your earliest and fondest memories of Jewish food in your life? Tell us about Jewish food from your past.
DR: First, a bit of background. I was born in New York, about four years after my parents moved there from Israel. They never really intended to stay in America, but job prospects and education worked out that way and they did stay.
When I was able to visit my paternal grandparents—who lived in Israel from 1929 until their deaths fifty years later—they showered me with questions and with the family’s favorite dishes. Homemade gefilte fish and other, more bony and gelatinous kinds of fish served cold figured prominently, best I can remember.
I guess I never really learned the names of all those delicacies, except for this irony: those grandparents were from Poland, and the family name (which later was changed to Raviv) was Riba, the Polish word for “fish.”
My paternal grandparents had a wonderful home garden, not to mention the chickens in the backyard that were producing the freshest of eggs for a hungry American grandson.
Savta Hannah and Saba Feivel won’t be forgotten—for their love and for the old-fashioned meals in their modest one-story house on the eastern edge of Tel Aviv.
JFE: And what about your maternal grandparents?
DR: My mother’s parents? They moved to Israel around 1930 from Romania—actually a small town that had a lot of Jewish families until the calamities of World War II. It was in an area that was swallowed by Russia and is now part of Moldova.
I also got to know them during visits to Israel, but the big change came when they moved to America in 1964, more specifically to our town, Great Neck, on Long Island, so they could be closer to their only daughter, my mom.
Saba Eli wanted to teach me languages and how to play chess. During those lessons—almost every afternoon after high school because they lived about halfway between the school and my house— Savta Raya would ply us with cornbread fresh from the oven (they called it “malai“*), pickled vegetables and leftovers from the previous night’s dinner, where boiled chicken and kasha (yes, with the bowtie pasta) made repeat appearances.
Savta Raya’s masterpiece, however, was stuffed cabbage. It was slightly sweet, often with raisins, but not too sweet because the tomato sauce was tangy. It seemed to me that the rolled leaves never fell apart. Excellent!
And the good food represented love.
JFE: These are some wonderful memories! What about today—how is Jewish food part of your life now?
DR: My wife Dori and I still feel that good food is a symbol of love. We feel that way about lots of foods we enjoy–including brisket, made with patience (and Bubbie Jeanne’s Brisket Magic All Purpose Cooking Sauce) in a crock pot…not every Friday, but the more often the better. The Friday night dinner, starting with Shabbat blessings, is something we try to do, especially when our grown kids, Emma and Jonathan, come to visit us. Allow me to slip and say, “Especially when the kids come home.”
JFE: Do you have a favorite Jewish food?
DR: Our visits to and living in Israel years ago allowed us to broaden our definition of Jewish food to include Israeli specialties—usually from the shared culinary culture, of course, of Israel’s Arab neighbors. Falafel has been a favorite, although trying to avoid fried foods, we don’t have that too often. But hummus and tehina (our favored name for it, rather than tahini) seem to be major food groups in our lives.
When I think about it, I realize that for me, Israel redefined “Jewish food.” Yes, when I visited my grandparents there, the plates and what was on them were little changed from what they’d have eaten had Jewish communities survived in Eastern Europe.
But the younger Israelis were eating new, Middle Eastern foods. My own cousins and friends introduced me to the finest falafel, kebabs and shawarma long before those became staples in many American cities.
JFE: You have covered nearly every major news event over the past four decades and interviewed countless world leaders. Have you ever done a story about Jewish food or has Jewish food ever played a part in one of your stories?
DR: As I traveled more in the Arab world, usually as part of my job as a CBS News correspondent, I realized, of course, that those “nouveau” delicacies such as shawarma are really Middle Eastern foods—just one of many things that ought to bring the people of the region together, rather than push them apart in competition and hatred.
When I traveled to several Arab countries with President Bill Clinton in October 1994, I remember that the elegant waiting rooms, set aside for us reporters in ornate palaces in both Syria and Saudi Arabia, featured the same foods that I had started to see as “Jewish”: interesting grainy hummus, creamy and tangy tehina, an excellent selection of meats on skewers and delectable sweets laden with pistachios and honey.
Unfortunately, despite the common foods, a recipe for peace and understanding has not been found.
*JFE note: “Malai” is Romanian for corn and often refers to a cornmeal cake usually made with sour cream or a cheese such as cream cheese, cottage cheese or ricotta.
Top photo: Dan Raviv indulges in one of his favorite foods, falafel, at a spot in DC’s Dupont Circle.
Photos by Dori Phaff.