Michael Solomonov Headlines Jewish Federation’s Taste of Israel Festival

Michael Solomonov (Courtesy of Steve Legato)

James Beard Foundation award-winning chef Michael Solomonov didn’t set out in his career to depoliticize Israel. The Israeli just wanted to connect with his home country by cooking its food — and then sharing that food with others.

But in Philadelphia, at least, his popular restaurants Zahav, Abe Fisher and others have transformed the Jewish state from a political position to a culture, and one with five-star dishes at that.

Now, on May 7 at the Kaiserman JCC campus in Wynnewood, Solomonov and the Philadelphia area Jewish community will celebrate those dishes. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is hosting a Taste of Israel Festival from 1-5 p.m. as part of its month-long celebration of the Jewish state’s 75th birthday. Solomonov is headlining a “tasting area and cooking demonstrations,” according to israel75.jewishphilly.org.

The Federation’s birthday party for Israel has already included a community mitzvah day and Shabbat gatherings around the area. Doing mitzvahs and using the Sabbath to reflect are very much in line with Jewish and Israeli values. But it would not be a Jewish celebration if it did not culminate with food, as the Taste of Israel Festival is the last U.S. event on the Federation’s Israel 75 calendar. (A trip to Israel for those who are interested and can pay is also a part of the month.)

“It’s a celebration. It’s a big party. Kosher food. Regardless of your practice, you’ll feel welcomed,” said Jeffrey Lasday, the Federation’s senior chief of external affairs, of the food festival. “It’s an opportunity to taste all the different tastes of Israel.”

Solomonov’s story has been told before, but it’s worth reiterating: Born in Israel and raised in Pittsburgh, it was the Jewish state that inspired his career choices. At 18, he moved back to Israel and got a job in a bakery because he couldn’t speak Hebrew. The job made him realize that he wanted to be a chef, so he attended culinary school in Florida, moved to Philadelphia and worked in upscale Italian and American restaurants, including one owned by future partner Steve Cook. Solomonov and Cook opened a Mexican restaurant, Xochitl, before they started focusing on Israeli cuisine.

But in 2003, Solomonov’s brother David, an Israel Defense Forces volunteer, was killed by enemy snipers on the border of Lebanon. Solomonov and Cook decided to open their first Israeli restaurant, Zahav, five years later.

Today, their restaurant group, CookNSolo, has a lineup of Israeli, Philadelphia-based eateries focusing on falafel (Goldie), hummus (Dizengoff) and other Israeli delicacies. Cooking, of course, is not a political act, as Solomonov explains. But it can present a different side of Israel to American Jews and non-Jews.

“Oftentimes, Israel gets sort of a bad rap, and I feel like being able to celebrate or promote things that are often not seen in mainstream media, things that are cultural, is an opportunity for us,” Solomonov said.

The chef believes that Jewish food has a “weird reputation” in America. It’s deli or it’s blintzes, or it’s…whatever, as Solomonov put it. But Jewish food in the old country was more complex than that, according to Solomonov. The range just hasn’t emigrated to the United States.

The restaurateur’s career mission, stated or not, is to ensure that the diversity of Israeli cuisine does emigrate to the rest of the Diaspora.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done,” he said. “We just felt like we’d open Zahav, and then things sort of took off from there.”

Now, Israelis and Jews are represented in the American dining scene.

“In certain ways, there’s a truth to it. Food represents humanity. I try to be as non-political as I can about this, which is challenging because everybody wants to make Israel a talking point,” Solomonov said. “If you make really good food and promote inclusion, I think people are chill.”

“I’m not going to say that making challah is going to create peace in the Middle East. But opening a door to a conversation increases productivity among people,” he added.

Tickets for the Taste of Israel Festival are $18 for adults, $7 for children and free for kids 3 and under. You can register and pay at israel75.jewishphilly.org.

Solomonov hopes to see you there.

“The easiest way to connect with where I’m from is by making Israeli food. The easiest thing to give me satisfaction is sharing it with other people,” he said. “That’s what this event is for.”

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