For Feigi Pam, my family friend, cooking has always been her life’s passion. Born and raised in New York City, after high school, Pam moved to Israel to participate in a three-year Jewish studies program. When she returned to the US she settled with her family in California. In addition to cooking for her four children, she hosted frequent dinner parties to share food with friends. Her son Nathan recalls that when he was growing up, “We had shelves of recipe books, and nothing got her more interested than a new healthful cookbook. Her friends loved her cooking. I can’t tell you how many times I heard ‘Feigi, you should open a restaurant!’”
Pam realized her dream when she returned to Israel in 2000 and opened the vegetarian Tree of Life restaurant in Safed (Tzfat).
While there are many dairy kosher restaurants, Pam’s is unique in offering vegan, organic and whole grain options that are not traditional Israeli fare. Though they have gained some popularity, global food and whole grains are less common in Israel, and especially in Safed, than in the US. Pam can find ingredients such as rice noodles, soy sauce and coconut milk in grocery stores, but she makes her own curry paste with ginger, chili pepper, coriander, lemon, honey and garlic. Her pizza dough is made with 100 percent whole wheat, and whole wheat tortillas come from a Jewish Mexican immigrant who opened a bakery an hour from Safed.
Pam offers her favorite popular dishes from California: quesadillas, teriyaki stir-fries, quinoa salads, quiches and Thai curries. Nostalgic Americans can taste home with homemade apple pie, cheesecake and the restaurant’s signature giant muffins. Energy shakes and homemade health bars fuel busy tourists and locals alike. A self-described “nut-case on food research,” Pam constantly scours the Internet and food blogs for new ideas.
Customers at the Tree of Life restaurant can experience “a new awakening” of good, wholesome food as opposed to heavy street foods like pizza and shawarma. Pam explains, “When people eat naturally, they can return to their essential selves, making them whole within themselves and more centered and open.” Rabbi Abraham Isaak Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, said that vegetarianism is what we should aspire to. He believed that in the days of the Messiah, people will be vegetarians again, as in the days prior to Noah.
When I interviewed her for this article, Pam was up at 4 am making challah for her family. While most of us would not get out of bed that early, she thinks, “Yay! I get to cook now!” She experiences deep spirituality while cooking, adding, “As soon as my hands are moving around, touching live stuff (like fresh produce), then I feel uplifted. Magic happens in the kitchen with the alchemy of watching separate ingredients turn into something new. It never ceases to amaze me when making laffa bread that you can put flat dough on a hot griddle and watch it create little bubbles, rise and turn into a bread.”
Fresh off the griddle, the rounds are nestled between a folded tea towel in a plastic bag to keep them warm and tender. If you are fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of the laffa, be sure to top it with ubiquitous, all-purpose green tahini, and you’ll be in freshness heaven.
Pam’s creation, Tree of Life, has been thriving for 15 years now, providing nourishment, comfort and a home away from home for many expats. After a life of moving and wandering, Pam has found her place.
Top photo: A fruit parfait at Feigi Pam’s Tree of Life restaurant in Safed, Israel. Photos by Leora Schostak Henschel.