The lesson was part of the school’s neighborhood culture studies unit, which focuses on different foods from different cultures, and how they’re represented in one community. Rafi brought the lesson out of the classroom and into his restaurant, teaching the students about Israeli culture and cuisine by showing them how to make a falafel sandwich.
He led with a discussion about the history of the restaurant– how he came from Israel and why he chose, eight years ago, to open Miriam. He took questions from the kids, which ranged from “Why do you make this kind of food?” (because it’s “from [his] home”) to “What is the most important thing in your life?” (his wife and son).
He continued into the cooking portion with a demonstration on hummus, mixing it in front of the rapt audience and even passing around ingredients for tasting and smelling. After the spread was ready, he and his staff dispersed servings to each table along with plates of pita bread and falafel. Then came the really fun part: Rafi instructed the audience, step by step, how to open up the pita bread and build their own falafel sandwich.
And the children loved it. They gobbled up the sour pickles with glee and scrunched faces. They unanimously loved the “powdery bread.” They packed their pita to the brim. (“I can’t eat it!” one girl giggled.)
This isn’t the first time that Rafi has offered up his time and talent to children in the community. Last year, he hosted a group of children with disabilities, and it’s something he’s interested in continuing on a grander and more regular scale.
“I’d like to bring in children from all around Brooklyn and the city to learn about cooking and different cultures,” he says. “It’s fun, and it’s important.”
When the school originally got in touch with Rafi through class mother Kim Smith, the plan was for just one of the classes to sit in. It was at his own insistence that they bring the whole grade– four classes and around 100 students over the span of two days– and that he do it for free.
“It’s difficult for families to pay for field trips,” says Carrie Evans, one of the second grade teachers. “He’s going above and beyond to allow children to experience different food, different culture, in a really hands-on way. It’s important to talk about it not just in the classroom– why do people come to America, what is culture?”
It’s evidently a subject by which the children are fascinated. As I walked among the tables, the children offered up their backgrounds freely, talking about where their families have come from (Israel, India, China, Italy, to name a few) and what it’s been like to visit. One girl asked me what country I was from and looked utterly crestfallen when I told her here. (I saved face by telling them that my family came from Italy, though they all noted that I “looked different” from the other boy who was also Italian.)
As the students quieted down after finishing their meals, the teachers turned their attention to Rafi for a closing lesson in Hebrew phrases. After learning how to say hello, goodbye, and thank you, the kids each thanked Rafi– one even said it was “the best meal [he] ever ate.”
It is likely a lesson they won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
Enjoy Rafi’s hummus along with his many other delicious dishes at Miriam, located at 79 Fifth Avenue at Prospect Place.