As the first group of Israeli hostages were being released from Gaza last Friday, a new Palestinian/Israeli restaurant was preparing for its first evening of business in Vancouver.
Bar Haifa is owned by a group of friends, Palestinian and Jewish. A larger, more upscale offshoot of their Toronto establishment The Haifa Room, this downtown Vancouver spot was supposed to open months ago, but the universe (and construction delays) had other plans. Its opening night ended up taking place just shy of seven weeks into the war.
“We questioned if we should open at all,” Mark Kupfert told me, as five of the six partners sat around a table the day before the airy restaurant’s official opening. “It just seemed wrong and off. And then we discussed that maybe it’s actually more important because there’s all this heartbreaking, devastating news every day. Like this story is maybe what’s needed.”
It has been so hard to find any hope for so many of us who have connections to the Middle East over these past weeks. I thought maybe I could find some at this new restaurant, with this amazing ownership structure: descendants of Palestinian refugees and Holocaust survivors opening a restaurant together.
Mr. Kupfert’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors who came to Canada after the Second World War; his grandfather’s brother immigrated to Palestine. He was born and raised in Montreal.
Waseem Dabdoub’s grandparents were displaced from their home in Akko, in what is now Israel, and became refugees in Lebanon. He was born and raised in Windsor.
Fadi Hakim’s father is Palestinian from Haifa. He had to leave the country for Lebanon, where he met Mr. Hakim’s mother. Mr. Hakim was born and raised in Toronto.
Joseph (Yossi) Misrahi Eastwood was born to Jewish parents in a Jerusalem bomb shelter just before the 1967 Six-Day War. His mother had escaped Greece from Nazi occupation. His father’s family’s roots in Jerusalem go back at least six generations. The family moved to Toronto when he was 3.
Friendship and food across the divide; what could be more healing? Pollyannaish, I know.
As the echoes of this war reverberate through the world, causing ugly divides, even food has become an issue.
At a pro-Palestinian rally in Vancouver last month, one person I spoke to described what they called the renaming of Palestinian dishes as a form of genocide. Israeli salad, for instance.
There is a sort of Yelp protest going on as well, as keyboard warriors give one-star reviews to Palestinian or Israeli restaurants, depending on which side of the issue they are on. “Every one-star review from Zionists is a badge of honour to us,” the Vancouver restaurant Tamam posted on its Instagram page.
When Bar Haifa announced it was opening, there was a lot of love, but also some angry reaction, Mr. Kupfert says. Comments such as “you’d better not be serving Israeli wine.”
Like its ownership structure, Bar Haifa is all about fusion food. “There’s this age-old thing,” says Mr. Hakim. “Who’s got the better hummus? Who’s got the better falafel?”
For the falafel, they discussed family recipes, traditions and preferences, each offering strong opinions (“It’s supposed to look like the desert inside,” Mr. Misrahi Eastwood argued).
“We tried it 36 different ways. And we had a spreadsheet,” says Mr. Hakim. “It came together organically, with a lot of fighting and a lot of Coca-Cola just to cut the grease.”
They don’t all agree about politics either. “We have differences of opinion on the matter; it’s so personal,” Mr. Dabdoub says.
“But there is this ability to communicate and sit down and see each other’s humanity no matter what,” Mr. Kupfert says.
“When you have to work together, it’s very, very, very important that all other opinions are respected. And in that you … distill all of that down,” says Mr. Hakim. “Just like we did with our falafel.”
I can report that the collaborative hummus and pita are out of this world (I didn’t get to try the falafel). But the most nourishing part of that afternoon for me was the chat.
No meal, no matter how delicious, can solve a crisis of such magnitude, obviously. Nor can a cross-the-divide joint venture. But breaking bread in a place like this can feel very good. And feeling good is in very short supply these days. And maybe that’s good enough, for an evening at least.