Published in the New York Daily News -- Tuesday, December 27, 2005 -- Columnists section
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Dialogues over dinner
By Judy Kuriansky

     With the holiday season in full swing - replete with families and friends gathering round the table for lavish meals and carolers singing for "peace on earth, good will to men" - consider this food for thought for the New Year: put peace on the table. It's a principle behind the Living Room Dialogues run by a California couple, to bring Palestinians and Jews together to share a good meal and their stories transforming supposed "enemies" into friends and creating mutual understanding.
     Says Dialogue co-founder and retired pediatric dentist, Len Traubman, "Whenever we sit down together to break bread and make a good relationship, it is a sacred and blessed place."
     His wife, Libby, a retired clinical social worker, adds, "When we feed our stomachs together, we feed our souls."
     That's exactly what's happening during this holiday, when the Traubmans opened their home to four Arab students who could not travel home to their native East Jereusalem and Jordan, and when the peace-loving couple hosted eight Palestinians and eight Jews in their living room to share holiday memories, music, candle-lighting - and of course, a celebratory dinner. The group included holocaust survivors, Palestinian refugees, and Arab and Jewish college students.
     "Picture Muslims, Christians and Jews, Palestinians, Israelis, Jordanians and Americans, all in a living room listening to each other, sharing hurts and hopes, and blessing one another," says Len. "It was the perfect reflection of the holiday spirit, and of our motto of 'neighbors forever' and 'for all peoples, equally'."
     As the 23rd Psalm goes, "Though preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies."
     The celebration began and ended with a full table -- full with fruits, pita, hummus, fool mudammas, and lokum, a Middle Eastern candy also known as Turkish delight.
     Four of the Arab students - Lama, Reem, Sara and Mais, three from East Jerusalem and one from Jordan - are studying at Brigham Young University but unable to go home for Christmas or Ramadan. The Traubmans, having met two of them at a Family Peacemakers Camp, opened their home to the young women to create the feeling of family for them for the holiday.
     Adva Saldinger, Israeli-born Northwestern University junior, was there that night. Having founded a Muslim-Jewish dialogue group on her Northwestern University campus, she found that, "The sharing was a really good model of how to listen to other people's experiences and face challenging subjects with deep respect."
     The next morning, long-time Dialogue partners and close Traubman friends Nahida and Adham Salem hosted the Holy Land visitors for breakfast. The Salems now live in Ramallah but come back to America to spend time with their children at this time of year. They met Libby Traubman 13 years ago when she came into their deli. "Libby asked for some Middle Eastern food for a fundraiser and we agreed," Nahida explained. "It took Libby a year to convince me to be part of the dialogue groups but finally, I figured I can't lose anything by getting to know the 'enemy' and so I agreed. Then my husband and I showed up at one of their dinners with some of our Palestinian friends, and Libby wept." Nahida subsequently convinced some Jewish couples to join in.
     For the morning gathering for the group, Nahida prepared a feast of Middle Eastern foods: baklava, hummus, falafel, homemade bread, zatar, homemade cream cheese, and fava beans. She told me how to make the fava bean favorite dish: boil the beans with chopped garlic and parsley. Add a little lemon juice. Top with olive oil and serve with pita bread.
     Palestinians and Jews have a deep connection in their love of delicious food, Len explained, which is why making meals is an important part of the "Living Room Dialogues." That's what the 30 Arabs and Jews have named their evenings of quality listening to personal narratives with a full range of emotions in the safety of each other's homes. Sharing life experiences, feelings, and culture inevitably leads to feeling shared humanity and equality, says Len. Each evening begins with food, ends with food, and contains finger-food throughout the meeting.
     "Palestinians and Jews are both good cooks," says Libby. "You can say that the conflict is really between the kitchensto see who can put out the best spread and be the most generous and creative."
    "The proof is in the pictures taken when the group first started and then twelve years later," she adds. "You can see how many of us have grownin size as well as spiritually and emotionally.
     The dialogue groups started in July, 1992, when the Traubmans brought together a small group of American Jews, Palestinians and supportive others in their living room in San Mateo, California. They had just helped Israeli and Palestinian citizen leaders meet in the California redwoods to forge the historic 1991 document, "Framework for a Public Peace Process," preceding the Oslo Accords. By 2004, with six local Dialogues established, they initiated the First Midwest Palestinian-Jewish Dialogue Weekend held in Duluth, Minnesota, and just this past fall, the second Midwest gathering was held in Louisville, Kentucky.
     The idea for the groups dates back to the 1980s when the Taubmans helped launch the successful "Beyond War" movement in response to the global threat of nuclear war. From many initiatives with Soviet official and citizens -- and Len teaching himself Russian -- the couple realized the secret to working towards peace: nothing could replace face-to-face relationships with the "enemy."
     Later, in the early 1990s, the Traubmans initiated "Black-White meal-sharing" gatherings in their hometown of San Mateo. Meal-sharing is based on a model in South Africa, when the Koinonia Southern Africa movement brought together courageous Black and White citizens who met in public "meal groups" - despite social and political risk -- to counter apartheid by exploring ways to break down stereotypes and build bridges of understanding.
     The experiences began to reverse fear, mistrust, stereotypes and ignorance of one another, and helped change the fabric of national relations in South Africa. The model proved successful when applied in other parts of the world for groups with ethnic, social, and political differences.
     In the Traubmans gatherings, African-American and Caucasian couples met in a meal-sharing group once a month for a year in each other's homes -- providing a private non-threatening environment allowing them to relax and open up to new ideas and insights.
     The success of those gatherings gave the Traubmans insights on how to apply that model to the Middle East situation. Hundreds of examples of relationship-building successes are on the Traubmans website at .
     Participants -- Palestinians and Jews -- alternate taking up to 30 minutes to recount highlights of their life story -- their birthplace, family, childhood and adult experiences, highs and lows, successes and failures, beliefs and values, obstacles and disappointments, goals and dreams -- and to share personal stories revealing experiences and emotions never heard before by the "other side" even though often painful or shocking to hear. The others listen without judgment, and then ask questions, to clarify but not confront. Lively and challenging discussions ensue. In this way, "adversaries" get to know one another on a personal level, build trust, and overcome stereotypes and assumptions learned in their separated and distanced communities.
     "We remind people that the idea is to build trust, understanding, and relationship, not to object, deny or judge," says Len.
     "An enemy is one whose story we have not heard" is the repeated motto of the Dialogue movement.
     At the start of the Palestinian-Jewish Dialogue, Len explains that participants often say, "I don't have a story," "My story isn't important," or "You wouldn't be interested in my story." By the second or third gathering, group members get better at sharing their story and realize that their story matters.
     In the beginning , too, some participants might be overly cordial or overly assertive about their views without listening carefully to each other. They are reminded that casual conversation, dogmatism and win-lose debate differ from "sustained dialogue" that involves compassionate listening, respect for authentic personal narratives, and motivation to learn.
     It is often harder to get Palestinians to join the meetings or to speak freely, as Jews are more used to talking openly in a circle, even to new acquaintances, about their feelings and opinions.
     "This cannot be just a hobby or quick fix, but requires dedication," explains Len. "Change takes time and continuing a relationship."
     To teach people about the groups, the Traubmans send free-of-charge printed guidelines, videos, and success stories, and travel the country helping others organize the meetings. Requests come from their worldwide e-mail circle of over 2,500 interested citizens and institutions.
     The living room dialogues are thriving -- the San Mateo group of 30 Jews and Palestinians has met over 160 times -- with six groups in the San Francisco Bay Area and more than 50 others across the United States from Rhode Island to Hawaii, in homes and on high school and college campuses.
     Dialogues are also thriving on the east coast, here in the New York area - in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Westchester -- and have been held on campuses like NYU, Fordham and Queens College. Marcia Kannry, founder of The Dialogue Project and a Jewish American who has lived in Israel, says the groups flourished after 9/11 when Muslims and others felt the need to reach out to their neighbors. Father Khader El Yateem, the Palestinian Christian minister of the Salaam Arabic Church in Bay Ridge Brooklyn and board member of The Dialogue Project, was once bitter towards Israelis when he was imprisoned for six months, but softened when one soldier retrieved his Bible and looked after him, and now, through participation in The Dialogue Project, is teaching his six children not to hate Jews. He now hosts dialogues in his church, teaching forgiveness and acceptance.
     When people really listen to others without judgment, change happens. Former attorney and now mediator Paula Pace, another board member of The Dialogue Project leads the group in what's called "transformative listening" -- a communication process through which antagonistic sides deal with disagreement or conflict by expressing themselves, listening to the other, and empathizing with each other's emotions, experiences, views, and values.
     Besides listening, "meal-sharing" continues to be a prominent part of the Traubmans living room Dialogues -- revealing a hunger to learn.
     "The way to a person's heart is through the stomach," says Libby, explaining their belief that this is especially true to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians since food is such an important part of both cultures.
     "In the beginning, this is about heart connections," adds Len. "Sitting the family down at a meal is the place where we come together, so why not to bring the two 'families' of the cultures together?"
     A few years ago, a large number of families did come together - in fact, 420 Jewish and Palestinian Americans and others -- for an historic relationship-building dinner-dialogue in San Francisco, called "Building a Common Future."
     "We enter into these new relationships at the 'human' level, rather than at the point of political differences," says Len. These Palestinians and Jews have met with Congresspeople and State Department officials, teleconferenced with a former Ambassador to Israel, and hosted a Palestinian Foreign Minister in a Jewish home and an Israeli Minister of Justice in a Palestinian home for food and heart-to-heart Dialogue. Still, their bedrock principle is reflected in a statement by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and negotiator of the Camp David Accords, Harold Saunders: "There are some things only governments can do such as negotiating binding agreements. But there are some things that only citizens outside government can do, such as changing human relationships."
     Len quotes anthropologist Margaret Meade, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
     The puns about peace and food are endless. As one Dialogue participant said, "If the negotiation table doesn't work, the meal table can."
     Judy Bart Kancigor, creator of Cooking says, "If Israelis and Palestinians would meet in the kitchen, it would save a lot of bloodshed."
     The food of both cultures is similarly Middle Eastern. Both share hummus, falafel and tabouli, although Nahida Salem says the Palestinian versions are spicier than the Jewish ones. Jewish recipes include more Western and Eastern European dishes, consistent with the background of the emigrants, including potatoes, beets for borscht, raisins in rugula cookies, and of course ingredients for the all-famous chicken soup. Common in Arabic food are dried beans and mint, the spice zatar, flat leaf parsley, orange flower flavoring, salted chick peas, and of course, garlic and onions.
     According to scholars, the Prophet Mohammed's favorite foods included yogurt with butter or nuts, cucumbers with dates, pomegranates, grape and figs.
     Important sharing and discovery, says Libby, often comes around the meal preparation and cleaning up, besides the eating. Washing dishes together is a very bonding and equalizing experience, says Len.
     Recognizing the power of food for peace, the Traubmans and their local Dialogue partners put together a book of recipes from participants from both cultures. The 100-page collection, "Palestinian and Jewish Recipes for Peace" includes sample meals, complete with appetizers, couples, salads, entrees, side dishes, breads and desserts. Each section starts with messages of peace with word play, like, "For the garden of your daily living, plant four rows of squash: Squash stereotypes, squash indifference, squash blame and squash violence."
     Eric Gattmann contributed his mother Bertha's recipe for marble cake, and his wife, Hilda, shared her grandmother's chocolate almond cake.
     "Our best recipes are not for 'fast foods'," says Len. "When you take a lot of time to prepare, it gives you hours to talk together in the kitchen and then around the table." For that reason, not all the "recipes" in the book are for foodsome "recipes" describe how to have a better dialogue or how to listen without judgment - skills crucial in resolving and preventing conflict. There are photographs, and stories behind some dishes about what they mean to a person or family, reminding them of a special ceremony, event or relationship.
     Nazih Malak, a Palestinian Muslim, shared that his favorite holiday while growing up was Eid Al Fitr - the breaking of the fast after the month of not eating from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan (commemorating the revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed). To break the fast, family and friends feast on favorite foods like tabouli, baklava and stuffed grape leaves -- that can take two weeks to hand roll. Nazih recalls how the children complained of hunger and prayed to get sick to have an excuse to stop fasting.
     Nermeh Nazzal recalled that one year after she was married, her husband Jiries challenged her to prepare New Year's dinner for his whole family, without any help from his mother. Nermeh made all the favorite Arabic appetizers - hummas, kibeh, falafel and pizza-like sfiha -- and proved she could do it.
     The favorite holiday for Maida Kasle, a Jew with Russian roots, was Passover when all the cousins came and gathered around the piano and sang. Raeda Ashkar's favorite holiday is New Year's Day in Nazareth, when family and friends have a huge party and lunch of Kebeh and stuffed cabbage rolls -- symbolic of rolling into the New Year.
     "So many people get to appreciate each other and their culture, and see how different but how similar they are in their celebrations and their identity," says Libby. The receipes are passed from generation to generation, and now across cultures.
     Henriette Zarour from Beit Jala passed on to her two daughters her mother's recipe for special Easter cookies -- called Mamoul -- shaped like the crown of thorns or like the sponge used to wipe the lips of Jesus as he carried his cross.
     Nijmeh Hadeed, a businesswoman from Ramallah, recalls Christmas "back home" as a special time with gifts and good food. Her favorite dish at holiday time is Mahshi, or white zucchini stuffed with baby eggplant and rolled grape leaves.

Recipe for Mashsi - a special mixture of rice and lamb used in stuffing:

Mix 1 cup of uncooked rice, 2 cups of uncooked ground lamb, salt pepper, allspice and a little butter. Remove the insides of a small white zucchini or baby eggplant. Stuff them with the prepared meat/rice filling. You can also use the filling in rolled grape leaves. Cover a small pot and bring to a boil for about 5 minutes and then turn to simmer for another 40 minutes to an hour. Serves 4 to 6.

Recipe for Tabouleh

     Ingredients: cup cracked wheat, 2 large bunches of parsley, 4 tomatoes, 2 cucumbers, 1 bunch mint, 2 lemons, 1 cup of extra virgin olive oil, Salt to taste

Steps: Fill bottom of bowl with the wheat. Soak with cold water until soft, then drain. Chop parsley and mint fine. Chop tomatoes and cucumbers into chunks. Mix together. Mix juice of 2 lemons and olive oil in the salad. Add salt if needed.

Recipe for Chicken Jerusalem

Ingredients: 40 oz. chicken breasts, cut into serving pieces, cup flour, 2 tsp. vegetable oil, lb. mushrooms, cut into pieces, 6 oz. marinated artichoke hearts, 2 cups chopped tomatoes, 2 cloves minced garlic, teaspoon oregano, freshly ground black pepper, cup sherry.

Steps: Heat oil in frying pan. Dredge chicken pieces in flour and brown in the oil. Place the chicken in a casserole with the mushrooms and artichoke hearts. Stir garlic and spices with tomatoes and pour over chicken. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 to 1 hours or until tender, adding sherry during the last few minutes of cooking time.

Recipe for Potato Kugel

Ingredients: 3 eggs, 3 cups grated and drained potatoes, 1/3 cup potato flour, tsp. baking powder, 1 tsp. salt, 1 grated onion, 4 tsp. melted butter or fat.

Steps: Beat eggs until thick. Stir in remaining ingredients. Turn mixture into a greased baking dish and bake at 350 degrees for one hour, until browned. Serve hot.

     Don't forget an opening prayer before the meal. At one collective dinner ceremony, the Dialogue group used this:

 We are troubled and sad that governments continue to lack the will to enact a just peace We also believe that politicians ultimately follow the people Governments alone cannot move beyond war without us Thus, we will continue our efforts in the "public peace process" that increases face-to-face relationships and changes the hearts and minds of more and more citizens Therefore, we gather together this evening . . To re-affirm: We are neighbors forever and interdependent. We want the best for each other and will resolve all conflicts without violence, beginning with listening. Working together, we will build our common future for the good of both peoples, equally.

     Hope prevails, as it did around the table at the Traubmans' "Season of Light" holiday dinner this week. Mais, a college freshman from East Jerusalem, had always doubted that there were people on the other side who were serious about change, but the evening gave her hope. Reem also found hope, "I have been given such a privilege to experience this evening's kind of hope. Of course it will take more than my one candle light, but many lights to finally touch enough others."
     Sara, a Jordanian student, wants that message of hope to go back home. "Back home they are still very inhibited from doing thisPeople from this room need to take this back home." Lama is optimistic, "I know that one by one, citizens - people like me - will make a differenceto a new individual, society and nation."
     Lama is already making a difference, as a staff member of an organization "Building Bridges for Peace" - a summer program in Colorado that brings Palestinian and Israeli teens together. After breakfast feast at the Salem's house, the Traubmans took the four young women to the Golden Gate Bridge - symbolic of the bridge they are building between themselves and many others.

For more information, contact:

Len and Libby Traubman at (650-574-8303), e-mail: or go to the website at for the recipe book "Palestinian and Jewish Recipes for Peace," Reconciliation Resource booklet for how to conduct the Dialogues, and other resources.

The Dialogue Project in the New York area is at , call (718) 768-2175 or email .