Note: This is the second of two stories on kosher travel.
Over three decades of globetrotting, Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky and Dr. Ari Greenspan have cultivated a career as kosher adventurers — and accidental entomologists.
Their reputation was definitively cemented a few years back when a locust plague hit Cyprus, providing a rare opportunity for the two scholars to witness a phenomenon usually confined to the Haggadah.
“We had never seen a real plague, and this was our opportunity,” said Greenspan, a Jerusalem-based dentist. “So we got on a plane right away. In 10 minutes I identified the species.”
It just so happened that because this locust is a kosher North African delicacy, it was the only species they were familiar with. But the Cypriots, bowled over by the duo’s esoteric knowledge, assumed they were in the presence of renowned entomologists. “We were picked up by a team of agronomists and followed around by news cameras everywhere,” recalled Greenspan with a chuckle. “They thought we were these big experts.”
The “two Aris” — as they are known to readers of their chronicles in Mishpacha and other publications — are indeed experts, on kosher travel if not precisely insect-based cuisine, having foraged for Jewish life together in places as diverse as Namibia and Uzbekistan, Iraq and Uganda. I caught up with the pair recently over Skype from their homes in Israel, curious as to how they’ve maintained kashrut in places without plumbing.
Their most eye-opening discovery: Eating kosher can actually be easier in the developing world. Foods are often simple, like fried bananas in India or camel’s milk in Djibouti. “There’s nothing going into it,” explained Greenspan.
Recently modernized countries can also be kosher-friendly. “In Bahrain, it was one of the easiest places to keep kosher, because nothing was locally produced,” explained the dentist, who found British-made matzah and kosher staples like Coca-Cola.
“You can live, by the way, for two weeks on bananas and Coke,” added the rabbi knowingly.
Their diet is doubtless spicier this week: The pair is currently in India leading their first-ever mission for the Orthodox Union, a two-week “halachic adventure” through India’s Jewish communities — from Mumbai’s Baghdadi Jews to the Bnei Menashe in the north and a southern enclave of ex-Christians eager to become Jews.
India holds enduring fascination for the pair, though Rabbi Zivotofsky is convinced his partner’s favorite country is Ethiopia: “He’s been there at least 10 times, five by himself, and every time he comes back, he swears: ‘I’m never going there again.’”
Rabbi Zivotofsky prefers the Tunisian Jewish community of Djerba, though not necessarily for the food: “They have a custom that’s observed nowhere else in the Jewish world” — a ceremonial feast of raw, oiled, fermented dough. Did it taste good? “Not to us, but they seemed to like it,” he said.
Another memorable feast: In the pampas of Uruguay, the pair joined Jewish gauchos for an epic meat roast. “It’s not Jewish, but it is a religion,” joked Rabbi Zivotofsky. “You didn’t need to eat for days afterward. I think there was one bowl of salad for 40 men, and it was still there by the end.”
The American-born pair, both 52, met as teenagers at an Israeli yeshiva. Greenspan is also a mohel, shochet and sofer; Rabbi Zivotofsky is a professor in the Brain Science Program at Bar Ilan University. The pair started traveling in earnest in the 1980s, starting with a Jewish research mission to Ethiopia and Kenya.
“In those days, if we were offered a free flight, we went,” said Greenspan, recalling a diet of salami and chocolate bars on that first trip. They were bitten by the travel bug in Africa, and their lively accounts of struck a chord with readers; Jewish publications sponsor their investigations of Semitic life around the globe. “We haven’t paid for a trip since,” said Greenspan.
They still, however, travel with salami — as well as matzah and canned tuna for convenience, although their halachic expertise allows improvised kosher meals in the most unlikely places.
In a “hole in the wall” in Alexandria, Egypt, Rabbi Zivotofsky determined the pita — made from only flour, water and yeast — was kosher by default: “There’s nothing else being made on those surfaces.” The men have gone inside kitchens and kashered the pots, and once at the Addis Ababa Hilton, they kashered the oven and made their own pizzas after closing.
“The best thing we’ve ever eaten on any trip was a fish called tambaqui in Brazil,” said Greenspan, recalling how they kashered a pot at the river, cooked the fish and ate with plastic forks.
If this doesn’t sound like your idea of vacation — well, that’s why their families usually stay home. “We’re like meshugas. We hit the ground running at three a.m., and we do in 48 hours what people think is crazy,” said Greenspan. “I have to say, our wives deserve medals, because this is our passion — the digging, the finding of these ancient traditions, the connections.”
“The chutzpah,” Rabbi Zivotofsky chimed in. “He even took his wife once with him instead, to Morocco.”
But maybe there were locusts on the menu, because she hasn’t been on an expedition since.