He needed the person who understood all the different cultures that make up Israeli cuisine, and who could speak the language of all these different cultures
When we initially had the idea for How Do You Jew, the thought was to send out a short list of questions, to get a sense for how (and if) Judaism helps shape a person’s identity and path.
When I reached out to Roger with the request to highlight him, he happily accepted, with one stipulation. I was not to send him the questions, but rather set up a call. The follow-up questions, he said, is where the magic happens. He was right!
Roger Sherman, in his words, is a filmmaker, author, cinematographer, producer, director, and still photographer. He began his college career with the goal of a career as a still photographer, but made the decision to drop out and move to Europe. After a year, upon returning to the U.S., he enrolled in Hampshire College as a double major in photography and film. He and his college roommate, none other than Ken Burns, founded Florentine Films, along with Buddy Squires. Their first film, Brooklyn Bridge, was nominated for an Academy Award. The three founding partners, along with Larry Hott, have maintained Florentine Films. However, each partner has pursued independent projects due to a passion for the art of filmmaking and a reluctance to trade that passion to handle the business aspects of running the company.
Part of the reason Roger agreed to speak with me is that our site is meant to be Jew-ish, which is how Roger identifies himself. There are very few holidays he observes, but Passover holds special memories for him. As one of 16 cousins on his mother’s side, the holiday was an opportunity for a large family gathering, which was loud, fun, and fantastic, but certainly not religious.
I was amused to learn that Roger’s favorite Jewish food is brisket. Perhaps because of the project that introduced me to his work, In Search of Israeli Cuisine, I expected something more exotic, but the choice is kind of perfect. Few things spring to mind as quintessentially, unequivocally, and historically associated with Judaism quite like brisket.
When I asked Roger for his earliest memory of being Jewish, I was not overly surprised that he struggled to recall. Roger was surrounded by Judaism growing up, not by choice, but by circumstance. He grew up in Scarsdale, NY and spent summers at Camp Takajo in Maine. In self-identification, Roger names American, New Yorker, filmmaker, photographer, but not Jewish. He sees Judaism as his historical identity but does not incorporate Judaism into his daily life.
So how does a Jew-ish filmmaker end up making a documentary about the history and future of Israeli cuisine? Quite haphazardly, it seems. Roger is embedded in culinary society by association, being married to Dorothy Kalins, founder of Saveur magazine, and, sometimes shooting for her. He was presented the opportunity to join a culinary trip to Israel, and, not working on a project at the time, grabbed his camera and traveled to a place that wasn’t even on his bucket list. The experience knocked him out, not just in terms of the food, but also the people. Upon returning home and sharing the experience, Roger witnessed two types of reaction, one being laughter and the other disbelief. The filmmaker in him, always aiming to surprise and delight, knew he had to pursue the project based on those reactions. The question was how. Roger received an introduction to Lior Lev Sercarz, spice blender extraordinaire to people such as Daniel Boulud and Federal Donuts and Zahav (among others!), who told him if he wanted to eat the best Israeli food in America, he must go to Zahav. He went with Dorothy. Michael Solomonov joined them at the table for ten minutes prior to returning to the kitchen, and in that time Roger realized this was his guy. He had initially thought he would pursue a younger “him” who would replay the epiphanies he experienced on that trip. Not an Israeli, maybe not even a Jew. But ten minutes with Mike provided its own form of epiphany. He needed the person who understood all the different cultures that make up Israeli cuisine, and who could speak the language of all these different cultures. Mike is funny, self-deprecating, and knowledgeable. He’s a guy you want to take home with you, which, by the way, is a very Israeli experience, as well!
I was fascinated by my exchange with Roger. I did not want the conversation to end. I asked him what else he wanted to tell me about the film that I had not asked. He reminded me I had not asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and there is no way to discuss Israel without discussing the conflict. In speaking with the subjects of the film, the attitude is that “you cannot be my enemy when you’re sitting at my table.” But the idea of food for peace is a hard subject to portray without losing the audience and making it less believable. The Palestinian point of view had to be organically weaved into the story, as well.
In Search of Israeli Cuisine is reaching another major milestone this week, with its theatrical debut in multiple international cities. We encourage you to find out where it is playing, and learn about Roger’s other projects.