Celebrated Israeli foodie blends grub and family in new memoir

In ‘Candies from Heaven,’ TV personality Gil Hovav reminisces about coming of age in Jerusalem, peppered with recipes from his childhood

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Gil Hovav in front of his childhood home in Jerusalem. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Gil Hovav in front of his childhood home in Jerusalem. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

It’s been a long time since Gil Hovav lived in his birthplace of Jerusalem. The Israeli food writer and TV personality visits frequently, but didn’t need to actually go there to write his most recent book, “Candies from Heaven,” the third in his trilogy of memoirs.

The slim volume was written from the desk in Tel Aviv, with just his memories and images as the basis for the book that keeps Hovav’s droll, ironic tone as intact as ever, even when translated from Hebrew. (Ira Moskowitz translated the book to English).

The memoir, a collection of essays with a recipe to close each chapter, takes readers back to Jerusalem of the 1960s and 1970s, when Hovav was growing up with his eccentric, talented parents, along with his grandmother and brother.

Gil Hovav and his latest memoir, ‘Candies from Heaven’ (Courtesy Gil Hovav)

There are tales of summer soccer games, trips downtown with his grandmother, Mooma, the adventures of hot summers in the city, and the love and humor of his large, extended family, ever-present at holiday gatherings and in the day-to-day experiences of Hovav’s young life.

There is the food as well, from more familiar recipes like “Oven-roasted potatoes” and “Mejadara,” to more esoteric fare, like “Candies from Pomelo Whites” and “Quince Candies.”

It all takes place in a city that was far different than the Jerusalem of today. Yet even now, on a cold, wet winter morning, Hovav sat in Talbieh, the restaurant under the Jerusalem Theater — and, in between being recognized by local fans, reminisced about the city of his youth.

“It’s changed so dramatically,” said Hovav. “It’s not necessarily changed for the bad; for me, it’s now just a tourist destination.”

“Jerusalem is like nothing else,” Hovav continued. “It was like East Berlin, an enclave. You had to travel through a narrow corridor to get to Jerusalem, the border was always present, and yet it was the capital city, where the important university was, where culture happened, it was everything.”

It was the “whole world in a nutshell, a special place to grow up,” he said. “I can show you the best hiding places.”

מתכון הסוכריות מהלבן של הפומלות מבית מטבחה של מומה זכה לכבוד גדול – צולם על ידי דייב כץ (הלוואי שאצלי הן היו נראות ככה!)…

Posted by ‎גיל חובב – Foodspy‎ on Monday, December 18, 2017

The family lived in Katamon, in south-central Jerusalem, on the edge of a magical forest grove, one of several in the city, where young Hovav captained a ship on the mast of a massive rock, and played soccer with his neighborhood friends on a piece of flat ground, just beyond that ship.

“I would sit here every evening and sail away,” said Hovav, pointing out the boulder now partially covered by lichen, although the reserve is still intact, a verdant piece of forest still regularly visited by neighborhood children and adults strolling through.

Times were tense, too, and Hovav well remembers being a small child of five when the Six Day War broke out in 1967, and the family spent four days living in their building’s shelter.

He recalled running alone in the street during heavy gunfire, as the whole grove was filled with tanks and soldiers and was heavily bombed during the brief, but intense war.

“The tanks were everywhere,” he said. “The only time we left the shelter was to run to the corner store to get bread and milk.”

He pointed to a small grocery store that still exists on HaPalmach Street, a later iteration of the corner store of his youth.

Hovav loves the memories, even the more frightening ones, and the beauty of the city where he was raised. Tel Aviv, he said, “is so ugly,” and Jerusalem is so majestic. The weather, the clear air and the fact that it’s different. Tel Aviv isn’t everything.”

Still, he left for good when he graduated Hebrew University at 25, and not one of his generation of friends and family is left in the city; they’re either living on the outskirts of Jerusalem or in Tel Aviv.

“It’s too religious,” he said, thinking of why they all left. “It’s tense and it’s poor and it’s not very friendly. As a place to visit, it’s amazing.”

The book is an ode to that city of yore, as well as to his beloved family.

“The mixture of Jerusalem and my weird family gave me a lot to write about,” he said.

Drora Hovav, Gil Hovav’s mother (Courtesy

The Hovavs lived on Mevoi Yoram, a short street that dead ended at the grove, and was named after a soldier who died in the 1948 war. Their building was small but elegant, just four apartments occupied by them, one of Hovav’s aunts and two other sets of neighbors.

His mother, Drora Hovav, a founding member of Israeli radio, was the daughter of Itamar Ben-Avi, the founder of modern Hebrew journalism and the granddaughter of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the reviver of the Hebrew Language.

His father, Moshe Hovav, was also a radio personality, and that’s how the two met, although his mother, who was already 40 when Hovav was born.

“There was a thread of madness in the family,” Hovav said, only slightly joking. “They were really eccentric people and did not obey the rules and they felt like they were aristocracy. Which is ridiculous because they were all dreaming of Formica cupboards. But they felt they were above it all.”

His parents each had affairs and his mother had been married several times previously, although she kept that detail a secret. She never celebrated her birthday so as to avoid acknowledging that she was older than his father, and he couldn’t call his grandmother ‘Grandma,” because that would also disclose her age.

Hovav tells how his mother never attended parent-teacher conferences, telling “Gili” to tell his teacher that she should “thank God” she had him in her class.

Moshe Hovav, Gil Hovav’s radio announcer father (Courtesy Israel National Photo Collection)

Hovav would write notes to the teacher in his mother’s handwriting, and even when he was caught by his teacher for misspelling several words, all his mother did was admonish him for not better checking his spelling.

As a result, Hovav, now the parent of a 14-year-old daughter, with his partner of 30 years, Daniel, said he can be fairly strict about certain things, particularly her Hebrew and her manners.

“My grandmother was very strict and believed in old values which I believe in as well, I find it very heartwarming,” he said. “You can’t not see the charm in it.”

Indeed, Hovav has retained his own sense of gallantry and charm, whether greeting an elderly fan in a restaurant, or a young chef who wanted a selfie, later during lunch in Mahane Yehuda.

But he loves what he does, whether it’s speaking to crowds of “blue-haired ladies” in the US, or traveling to Asia and other parts of the world to talk and teach about Israeli cuisine.

In many ways, Hovav is a pioneer of Israel’s foodie generation, having begun his career as a restaurant critic for Yediot Achronot, before getting involved in creating, producing and presenting some of Israel’s first and best-loved television food shows. There was “Pepper, Garlic and Olive Oil,” “Captain Cook” and “Going to the Market,” some of which have also become bestselling cookbooks.

He embarked on the culinary path well before any of the reality cooking shows, which Hovav refuses to participate in, waving his hand at all the hype. He has, however, begun to post on Instagram, whether offering photos of his travels, or pictures of the food he’s cooking at home, Yemenite kubane bread and fresh fava beans, borscht or a bowl of fresh-picked lemons.

He’s a natural at this facet of social media, playing the Foodspy, the name of his website, teaching a little Israeli food history and sharing his knowledge, all at the same time.

Hovav likes to say that his parents’ voices — both were well-known news announcers — opened doors for him in his career, although there were times when he worked hard to make his own way.

His memoirs, like his cooking and seminars, however, are his own creation, albeit weaving together his memories of family and food.

“When you write a memoir, you learn that life is juicier than you thought,” said Hovav. “You invent some characters and then they become true.”

At least they do for Gil Hovav.

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