On Za’atar

Considering a spice mixture that is far more than the sum of its parts

One day not long after we’d moved to Jerusalem—we lived there from 2006 to 2007, when I was the visiting writer at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv—my wife, Melanie, and I were just inside Jaffa Gate, the huge arched limestone entrance into the western side of the Old City. 

Melanie was taking photos of the gate and the Tower of David near it, the limestone tower like a medieval castle you’d see in a movie. Something David himself never laid eyes on, the walls and tower having been built by the Ottomans only after the Crusaders had been cleared out. 

I was standing, watching, and saw, just inside the gate, a kid beside a cart, a beat-up square green thing with bicycle tires for wheels. 

What lay atop it was what got me: a couple rows of big, elongated bread rings, foot-long crosses between bagels and soft pretzels, sesame seeds baked into the tops. They looked sort of exotic, and maybe tasty, and pretty easy to tote. And I was hungry; we’d been walking the quarters all afternoon. 

So I took a step toward the cart. 

Before I could say a word, still four or five paces from contact, the kid—he couldn’t have been more than ten, his hair buzz-cut, shirt too big—zeroed in on me, said, “Five shekels,” and held up his hand, all five fingers extended. 

I nodded at him, held up two fingers. “I’d like two, bevakasha,” I said, and he gave a smile, nodded hard. He picked out two, with the other hand reached somewhere inside the cart and brought out a small black plastic sack, loaded them in. 

“Toda,” I said, and handed him a ten-shekel bill. He gave me the bag, nodded again, smiling, and started to stuff the bill in his pocket. 

But then he stopped, quickly turned to look behind him, and I realized someone was talking to him. 

There on the stoop of the shop behind him sat a man in jeans and a striped polo, who looked just like the kid. He was leaned back on his elbows, feet crossed in front of him, taking it easy. A dad, his son working the cart for a while. 

Again he said something to the kid, who shrugged, looked into the cart, retrieved something, and held out his hand to me. 

Two small triangle-shaped parcels, the same size as the paper footballs we flicked back and forth during study period in seventh grade. They were made of what looked like newsprint, off-white, compact, and I slowly put out my free hand to take whatever they were. 

“He forget give you,” the man said from the stoop, and I looked at him. He was smiling, and nodded. “My boy new on this job.” 

I laughed, and the kid dropped the two triangles in my hand. I nodded at the kid, the man. “He’s doing a great job!” I said. 

I dropped the triangles into the bag with the bread, turned to look for Melanie, no clue what the little packets held. 

The bread rings were called Jerusalem bagels, I found out not long after from one of my grad students, though there were other names too: Israeli bread, Palestinian bread, ka’ak. The same student told me never to pay more than three shekels for one, five for two. 

But once Melanie and I made the twenty-minute walk from the Old City back to our apartment in German Colony and I took a bite of that bread ring—chewy, but baked, not boiled like a bagel, a little nutty for the sesame seeds, a whisper of sweet in there too—I wouldn’t care what it was called, or that I’d overpaid. I loved it. 

Then I fished one of the packets from the bottom of the bag, carefully unfolded it on the kitchen table to reveal a good solid tablespoon of dark green herbs and spices and sesame seeds. 


This was supposed to go with the ring. So important a father had to watch over his son to make sure he passed it along. 

I tore off another piece, pushed it into the spice, took a bite. 


Later still, I’d figure out to dip the bread first in olive oil, then in za’atar. 

It’s all about the za’atar. 

There’s an etymological descriptor for the kind of word za’atar is: a loanword. Which means exactly what you think, a word loaned out from one language—in this case Arabic—into others. And though you don’t hear the word za’atar bandied about in American kitchens like you do mustard (French, an easy one) or ketchup (Chinese) or even coleslaw (Dutch), it’s a pretty common—very common—loanword in the Middle East.  

Because it’s everywhere, used on pretty much anything. But it’s also a valued element of a dish, not a throwaway spice sprinkled for the sake of sprinkling. I’ve put it on chicken and steak and every roasted vegetable you can think of; on scrambled, fried, and hard-boiled eggs; on pizza and salad and, sometimes, in the morning, simply a piece of toast with olive oil. And every time it tastes like za’atar, and everything tastes more for it.  

When you put salt in a dish, and you taste it—and provided you’ve added the right amount of salt—you’ll say, Better

But when you add za’atar, you’ll say, There

The taste: dark, green, a little bitter. A forest, lemon. An old taste, as in a taste past time, a hearkening back to some other place. 

When you put salt in a dish, and you taste it—and provided you’ve added the right amount of salt—you’ll say, Better. But when you add za’atar, you’ll say, There.

The earth. 

There’s also a bit of possible confusion in that za’atar is both a plant and the spice mixture. The plant itself—Origanum syriacum—lives throughout the Middle East and grows in stalks with pale gray-green leaves. But za’atar the spice mixture doesn’t always contain za’atar the herb.  

Oftentimes you’ll find in the spice mixture dried marjoram and/or oregano and/or thyme, but no za’atar the herb. Sometimes there’ll be dried zest of lemon or orange in there too, and now and again dill, or even caraway seeds and cumin. The real thing, though, is made simply with the herb, toasted sesame seeds, ground sumac (with its gloriously rich burgundy hue), a little bit of sea salt, and a dash of olive oil. 

Things get even more complicated the deeper you dig into the word za’atar. The Classical Hebrew word for za’atar in the Old Testament is ezov, which, when it was translated into the Septuagint—the translation made in the second and third centuries for Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt—became the word ὕσσωπος: hyssop. And now, in this moment of words on a page, the surprise discovered in the triangular newsprint football suddenly unfolds in manifold and mysterious ways: the primary ingredient and namesake in the herb mixture becomes the tool for painting lamb’s blood on doorframes the first Passover; it becomes the means by which one is cleansed, whether from leprosy in Leviticus or the deepest reaches of sin (“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow,” David cries out in Psalm 51); in 1 Kings it becomes an element of the wisdom of Solomon (“He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls.”).  

And the Gospel of John tells us of its role in quenching Christ’s thirst as he hung there on the cross, the sponge dipped in sour wine and held up to his lips on a hyssop stalk to give one last moment of earthly relief before his work here was complete. 

Somehow, in this tablespoonful of green and bitter herbs mixed with spices and seeds, I am partaking of the history of my faith, tasting time and place and salvation. 

It is a marvelous flavor. 

Eleven years later, after having lived and taught here, and after all our other visits, Melanie and I are on our first bus tour of Israel, riding in one of those giant rectangular ships that swarm the country, no matter where you are. 

But this is no typical land cruise. We participants have dubbed this one the Magical Mystery Tour. A cliché, sure, but we’re all okay with that. 

We’re a gathering of artists, writers, musicians, and most of our spouses. Sixteen of us in all, including Or, our gangly, shaven-headed, six-foot-four guide. In his long-sleeve plaid shirts and ever-present backpack, forever on his head a gray thin-brimmed sun hat, he’s hipster hip. He’s a Sabra, the Israeli-born among the citizenry, sabra the Hebrew word for prickly pear cactus: tough on the outside and sweet on the inside.  

And then there’s Luke Moon, who brought us all here. A Seattleite in his forties, with curly salt-and-pepper hair and matching beard and an easy smile and kind eyes, he’s the deputy director of a group called The Philos Project, the New York–based organization that’s sponsored this whole thing. The Philos Project is, to quote its mission statement, “a dynamic leadership community dedicated to promoting positive Christian engagement in the Near East,” and seeks to share its vision of recognizing the many ethnic, racial, religious, and social groups found here while promoting the common civilization they all share. Their final goal is “a pluralistic Near East based on freedom and the rule of law where nations, tribes, and religious communities can live beside each other as neighbors.” 

A worthy mission, certainly. Given that the way we see this country is through the lens of immutable division.  

And given this lens, this fixed perception from afar, the Project’s primary goal is to bring groups here for “immersive travel programs” (also in the mission statement)—first-person explorations of these issues with people living inside them. Luke has brought American groups of business leaders, politicians, and even sports figures for these tours.  

But, he tells us, he’s never before brought a bunch of artists. He tells us this because, now and again, we get out of hand.  

We sing songs. We tell jokes, recite poetry, and tell each other stories from our lives. We’re hard to herd, all of us engaged with and in everything we see. We talk, and talk, and we laugh. A lot. 

Luke laughs along with us, but it’s more a soft chuckle, sometimes accompanied by a rueful shake of the head: Who are these people, and why are they making me laugh? And why won’t they get back on the bus? 

But there are also many times when we all sit and look pensively out our bus windows, trying to take in all the disparate and complementary perspectives we’re receiving. We visit a hospital in the north that cares for wounded Syrian rebels who are clandestinely dropped off by their fellow fighters at the border with Israel; we attend a briefing on the Palestinian situation with a lead Israeli negotiator, who tells us the only way both sides can hold onto things is by giving them up; and we sit in Midron Yaffo Park with its sloping lawn down to the azure Mediterranean and listen to a Palestinian woman, her family residents for untold generations of the old port city of Yaffo—Joppa—Jaffa—tell us how the towering concrete of Tel Aviv to the north creeps relentlessly into this historic place, threatening to erase its culture.  

From where we sit listening to her we can see the breakwater for the old port of Yaffo, where Jonah began his escape from God by heading out to sea. From where we sit we can see the white bell tower of St. Peter’s Church, built on the site, it is believed, where Peter stayed at Simon the Tanner’s house.  

But we also have our fun. We spend a day at a resort on the too-warm Dead Sea, where first we bob in the water like corks, then get refreshed with a swim in the cool water of the resort pool. In our hotel in Tel Aviv, the morning cappuccini come with happy slogans cocoa-stenciled in the foam (“It’s Your Lucky Day!” with, strangely, a draw game of tic-tac-toe; “Good Morning!” with a baby chick chirping); at the Mamilla Hotel in Jerusalem, the breakfast buffet stretches fifty feet. We walk the streets of Old Jaffa and gaze up at the apartment building where it is rumored Gal Gadot lives or might have lived or is thinking about living. 

There’s a lot to put together in this tour. 

And now we’re headed toward Nazareth from the north, hills easing up to the left, the land falling away little by little to our right. We’ve spent the last long while driving through the brown and rolling hills above and to the west of the Sea of Galilee, but now we start passing strip malls. Then the shops edge right up to the street. 

We’re in Kafr Kanna, or Cana, where Jesus turned the water into wine at the wedding feast. Now it’s electronics stores and telephone stores and tire stores (why are there so many tire stores?) and traffic all bunched up. The street seems to grow narrower for our bus in the middle of it, all of us looking out our windows at the cars everywhere, people walking out there too, and riding bicycles and scooters and motorcycles. 

Any predictable Holy Land tour would stop at the church that stands on the traditional spot where the wedding feast was held, but instead we’re headed to an olive oil cooperative, where we’ll listen to its story and have a tasting of its products. 

This is the Magical Mystery Tour. 

Suddenly the bus driver takes a right off the highway, and we roll on down a street away from the main drag, the street narrowing until it seems the bus will scrape the bumpers right off the cars lining the road.  

Another turn, another, the stores now industrial buildings, limestone warehouses with big bay doors. There’s a truck repair shop, and a tractor dealership, and an open lot with granite and limestone sheets stacked on their sides and piles of limestone bricks.  

Then the bus stops at a warehouse, green bay doors closed, a fenced lot out front with metal barrels and carts and industrial-looking Other Stuff. Or stands at the front, turns to us all, and says, “Okay. We are here,” in the deadpan way he does at every place we go. Then we all rise, file off the bus, and head up a short set of stairs at the left of the building. 

Inside is a cool and spacious gift shop. Wooden shelves and cabinets line the walls, filled with bottles of olive oils, baskets, soaps, olive-wood utensils, jars of honey, candles, even a small jewelry kiosk. Old wooden cable spools serve as display tables, on them gift boxes of olive oil. It’s a nice space, friendly with all its wood everywhere and the smell of the soaps. 

A few minutes of browsing, and then we’re lined up for the tasting, held at the counter where purchases will be made. The women working here, friendly, happy, administer to us tiny plastic cups, inside each a teaspoon of oil. The first is one of their single-cultivar pressings, the taste full, green, a little peppery, a little keen on the tongue: excellent. Then a second oil to taste, the house blend: smooth, a little fruity and maybe a little rounder where it lingers at the sides of the tongue. Excellent too! We’ll buy some of both to bring home with us, decision made just like that. 

Next, Or and a woman who seems to work here hustle us—in a subtle but certain way—into a large side room, a square space lined with low cushioned benches against three walls, four or five tables to one side with chairs before them. The fourth wall has a sofa of its own, three people standing in front of it: the woman who’s gotten us in here, maybe in her forties, with long and curly hair, glasses, jeans, and a white smock; a balding man maybe in his thirties in a gray polo with the collar popped; and a woman who wears a black abaya and a purple-and-gray-checked hijab fit snugly so that we see her face only from her eyebrows down to her chin. She is perhaps the same age as the other woman—it’s hard to tell with the hijab so perfectly framing her face—and she doesn’t look happy. Stern is more like it. 

Three posters hang on the wall behind them, two of them large photos of women in hijabs and abayas working together—settling bottles into boxes, weaving baskets.  

The poster in the middle is light green with a white version of the logo we’ve seen on all the goods here: a stylized olive tree with, on either side of the trunk, the outline of a feminine face created by the leaves. On the left of the tree is something in Arabic, on the right something in Hebrew, and along the bottom the English translation of both, Sindyanna of Galilee: The Taste of Fair Trade

Okay. We are here.  

The two women sit on their sofa, and the man—I can’t catch his name, his Hebrew accent thick—tells us a bit about the products, the olives harvested from old Arab groves that have been revitalized over the last twenty years, and the new fields begun over that time as well. All of it certified organic, Sindyanna a member of the World Fair Trade Organization since 2003. He tells us one of the oils was recently awarded an Extra Gold Medal at an international competition in Italy. Their oils are served in fine restaurants throughout Israel now, and sell all over Europe. Select Whole Foods markets in the United States sell it now, and Amazon will soon carry it too. 

Then comes the woman in jeans and the smock, named Nadia, the chief facilitator and manager of the Sindyanna center, and the story story of this place genuinely begins. 

The headlines most of us have known all our lives about this country have been of the enmity between people here. An immutable division. A fixed and hopeless lens.

She tells us in her accented English that Sindyanna began when people with vision saw a way to bridge the gap between Arab producers and Israeli consumers—and that it was the women here in the Galilee, Arab and Jewish alike, who had finally grown tired of the lack of opportunity for anything beyond their roles as housewives. There were tracts of land with old groves on them, and the women banded together to make something happen here, something good that would bring money in to support them, especially the Arab women. Next came soaps, and spices, and traditional baskets, all manner of goods produced, packaged, sold, and shipped under Sindyanna’s name by the women who work here. It’s a nonprofit, all proceeds fed back into the company and its programs for Arab women. 

And the whole thing works.  

Then Nadia introduces the woman in the abaya and hijab—I can’t catch her name—and slowly she stands, and in Arabic she tells her own story, haltingly, with Nadia translating.  

Haltingly, because it is a very difficult story. A story of particular oppressions, of poverty, of no future to head toward or even imagine, but a story that, through Sindyanna, has some sense of light now, some sense of hope. Some sense of good, and as she relays this all to us, Nadia speaking for her, we can see a smile, however timorous, however glancing, when she speaks of this place, and her work here, and the people here to help.  

We are quiet when she finishes, and a moment later several Thank yous murmur up from among us, then someone claps for her, and we all join in, clapping for her and for the story of this place, this vision. The desire to create, through agriculture and industry, commerce and hope, something true and good and beautiful. 

Luke, sitting on the cushioned bench to my left, is smiling. He has a hand to his chin, his elbow cupped in the palm of his other hand, legs crossed. He’s been here a few times before. He’s heard these stories. But still, I can tell, he’s moved, and, like me, like Melanie, like all the others in our group, our herd of cats, right now, here, we are amazed at the notion—no, proof—that Arabs and Jews can work together in a meaningful and purposeful and redemptive way, despite all the apparatuses hard at work to keep them apart. 

We are blessed by this fact. We are made better by this fact.  

We are seeing. 

The woman in her abaya and hijab doesn’t really know what to do with our clapping. Her stern look returns, a countenance it now seems easy to understand, given the story she has lived. But a few smiles show up again, and she nods sharply at us, and then she and Nadia are moving toward us from the front of the room, arms out as though to herd us—it seems, on this tour, we are always being herded—and Nadia says, “Okay. Please find your seat at the tables.” 

We all dutifully rise from our benches, move to the tables, find seats, and now the woman in the abaya and Nadia are bringing to the table—where did they go and return from so fast?—clear glass bowls, and even as they set them down, and as I recognize what is in them, Nadia calls out to us, “Now we make za’atar.” 

Here before us are bowls of ground sumac, heaps of rich burgundy; here are bowls of golden sesame seeds, toasted and aromatic; here are Styrofoam cups of white salt; here too are bottles of olive oil; and here, here, are bowls of ground dried za’atar the herb, heaps of pale green leaves.  

Hyssop, and all its concentric circles emanating out from this herb: cleansing, redemption, history, and time and place.  

Hope. Here in a bowl before me. 

Nadia and the other woman set smaller white bowls and plastic spoons in front of each of us, and Nadia instructs us on proportions, how much of each ingredient to put into our bowl, while the woman in the abaya circulates, nods at the color and texture of what we have made, drips in a little more olive oil here and there, spoons in just a little more sesame seeds or za’atar or sumac. 

She smiles at us now and again as she helps us. 

Finally, they give us each a small jar, and we spoon into it our own za’atar the spice mixture, screw on the lid, then peel off a narrow label from the roll of them at the center of the table, press one end to the side of the jar, pull it snugly across the lid and down the opposing side to seal it. 

The labels are preprinted with the logo of this place, that olive tree with its profiles of two women—one Arab, we know now, the other Jewish. Together, grown and growing in the same beautiful tree. 

The jars of za’atar are for us to keep, Nadia tells us. We can take them home and use the spice on our food, so that we will remember Sindyanna and what is happening here. 

Thank you, we all say, and how wonderful this is, a real gift, a meaningful souvenir. 

Both Nadia and the woman in the abaya smile and nod, smile and nod. 

Later, after we have lined up at the counter and made our purchases, and after we have made our long thanks and our goodbyes and thanks yet again, Or and Luke herd us out the door and down the steps and into the bus, waiting for us there at the limestone warehouse with its green bay doors, its fenced lot with metal barrels and carts and industrial-looking Other Stuff. 

We file up into the bus. We take our seats.  

The headlines most of us have known all our lives about this country have been of the enmity between people here. War. Rockets. A wall. Bombs on busses. The bulldozing of homes. Tunnels, and munitions, and death. An immutable division. A fixed and hopeless lens. 

But, in this moment, we sit quiet at the vision of peace we’ve just glimpsed, brought about by women and the land and its bounty.  

We look out our windows as the bus pulls away, our magical and mysterious tour headed on to its next destination.  

About the Author

Bret Lott

Bret Lott is the author of fourteen books. “On Za’atar” is from his forthcoming collection, Cherries on the Golan, Olives in Jerusalem, about food and hope and the Holy Land.

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