By Jeffrey Barken/JNS
Honest cooking and sincere storytelling rely on similar ingredients: tradition, love, humor and spice, among others. These components are found throughout “Candies from Heaven,” the newly translated memoir of leading Israeli culinary journalist and TV personality Gil Hovav.
A descendent of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the reviver of the Hebrew language, Hovav grew up among an eccentric family steeped in old-world customs, yet blessed with a healthy appetite for novelties. The series of 22 short stories in “Candies from Heaven,” interspersed with cherished recipes, offers a delectable glimpse into the Hovav family dynamic as each member adapted to the realities of life in the early days of the Jewish state. Complementary illustrations by Noam Nadav capture comic expressions, the streets of Jerusalem and the winding roads through the Jordan Valley, rendering each page of Hovav’s memoir a heartwarming and earnest slice of life.
Readers will at once observe the influence of famed Israeli author Amos Oz on Hovav’s prose. One story even borrows Oz’s iconic title, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” Both writers describe similarly cramped apartments and daily life with a tinge of cynicism, but Hovav’s redeeming sense of humor casts his experiences in a brighter light.
During a summer gathering at his aunt Chava’s home, for example, Hovav describes a spontaneous family reunion. As the house becomes congested with people, “Gili” (Hovav’s nickname) worries that had the daunting task of providing accommodations fallen to his mother, Drora, she would have divorced her husband and the “whole world too.” Hovav’s “unflappable Aunt Chava,” however, rallies to the challenge and prepares a variety of creative sleeping arrangements.
“My parents, as usual, received the best bed in the house, which for some reason was in the living room,” Hovav reflects. His brief, yet vivid description of the improvised apartment setting immediately transports readers back in time with the same powers of illusion Oz employs in the opening pages of his memoir.
Much as the scent of good food tempts taste buds, Hovav is adept at teasing details that simultaneously reveal character as well as unexpected backstories. In one telling scene, Gili and his older brother Bonnie set out to catch the 961 Egged bus to Tiberias for a summer vacation stay with aunt Chava. Prior to their departure, the boys must first endure a long list of fretful warnings from their mother. Drora’s existential fears are perhaps justified.
“The route passed through the Jordan Valley, where Abu Jilda’s gangs of bandits would raid camel caravans and sew destruction,” Hovav writes. But he quickly discredits his mother’s apprehension, noting, “It’s true that since the last raid the Jewish state was established, a few wars were waged and we even conquered the Jordan Valley.”
When the boys are finally released from their mother’s supervision, Bonnie urges Gili to pick up the pace. “Come quickly already, before she catches up to us with umbrellas,” he says. The scene will draw an initial laugh from readers who easily conjure an image of the stereotypical overbearing Jewish mother preparing her sons for an improbable mid-summer rain storm in the desert. The fact that the family is living in such close quarters has bred behavioral expectations, and readers are momentarily led to believe that Bonnie has keen insight into the workings of his mother’s mind.
Undisclosed to the reader at this juncture, however, is a deplorable instance that occurred the previous summer. Bonnie took Gili to the movies and made him sit in a particular seat on the ground floor so that he could ascend the balcony and pee on his younger brother. Hence, Drora’s parting warning when she catches up to the boys and insists they take umbrellas, “in case you go to a movie,” is less a nagging act and more a thoughtful gesture to protect her youngest son from his older brother’s cruelty.
Gili certainly endures considerable belittlements at the hands of his family. On several occasions Hovav reflects that little was expected of the “skinny cross-eyed Jerusalemite boy,” and the fact that his character does not readily push back on such assertions may frustrate some readers. If there is anything lacking in this autobiographical work, it is a building sense of purpose in the life of the narrator. Beyond the fun and quirky family anecdotes, Hovav’s pivotal realization that he is passionate about pursuing a career in the culinary arts seems missing.
“Candies from Heaven” reads more like a tribute to Hovav’s grandmother, Mooma, the family matriarch, and the other adults who helped raise him than it does a work of self-actualization. Yet readers will be charmed by Hovav’s voice and unique resilience. “Everyone laughed and that didn’t bother me in the least,” Hovav is able to say even when harsh jokes are leveled at his expense.
Perhaps Hovav’s expressed consciousness is a subtle literary statement of which only a master chef is capable. Hovav’s incredible ability to quietly observe his family’s traditions, and the volatile moods of the people in his life, inspire nostalgic and savory recipes tailored to evoke love and happiness while bookmarking the tides of time.