Hello, Old Friend

We gathered mushrooms.

On a rainy January day, I wandered through a dark forest, over stones and moss and pine needles.  My husband strolled nearby with our basket; our friends and guide, Ido, were somewhere out there too.  We peeked under rocks and beneath piles of wet leaves like children on a treasure hunt, searching for edible treasures.  The purple mushrooms were the most visually appealing, smooth and perfect, with lavender gills underneath. Despite their beauty, they bore the distinctly unattractive name of “Blewits.”  Along with the purple blewits, we gathered orange-y red mushrooms, rubbery beige ones, giant milky yellow types, and dark brown ones that grew on trees and looked like snails.

Since our first forays onto Israel’s hiking paths years ago, I had been dreaming about collecting mushrooms.  As a food lover and avid cook, I wanted to unearth exotic fungi in nature instead of paying top dollar for dried versions at the grocery store.  I’d been harassing elderly Russians with buckets on nature trails for years; I would always ask about their collections.  Oftentimes, I offered my expertise on picking wild asparagus in return.  But despite my years of fungi fascination, I had never actually taken the steps to learn how to find edible mushrooms on my own…and more importantly, avoid the poisonous ones.

It was surprising that we finally found our way into the world of mushroom collecting during wartime.   These types of adventures never seemed to fit into the hustle and bustle of regular life.  But with war came an end to all regularly scheduled programming.  After months of partial paralysis from shock and fear, we had decided to plan a fun morning, a break from the wartime routine with our adventurous friends.  It had been raining all week long, and the storms were scheduled to continue.  Water sports were out, and so was biking.  With a quick series of WhatsApps, our friends scouted out a local guide, someone willing to teach us about mushrooms for a small fee.  And that’s how we ended up wandering in a forest on that Sunday morning.

The atmosphere in the woods certainly fit the mood of wartime.  Every so often, we heard ominous booms coming from somewhere not far away. It was dark, gloomy, and cold; a gentle drizzle fell through the tall pine trees.  Bundled up in warm jackets and waterproof boots, we stayed mostly dry as we foraged for perfect specimens, splashes of color hidden in the darkness.  But when we saw a mushroom cap poking through the carpet of leaves, every one of us got down on our knees into the dirt. We scooped through the pine needles, digging in with bare hands, mud deep in our fingernails.  One by one, our hands came up into the air with our prizes.

“Is this the dafonit or the sibit?”

“Is this purple one still good? Or past its prime?”

“What are these round ones without stems?”

Ido, patiently and carefully, explained the different telltale signs – of the poisonous mushrooms and of the edible ones.  He showed us how to tell the difference, and repeated the common Israeli adage, “Im yesh safek, ein safek,” If there is doubt, there is no doubt.  That’s good advice when it comes to mushrooms.

Cute, but inedible.

When our baskets were full, we returned to a picnic table under the fig trees. The rain had let up, and the sun had begun to shine through the clouds.  I was struck by the beauty of our surroundings: yellow leaves on one tree, pinkish-white almond blossoms on another. I had been hidden away at home for so long that I had forgotten this beautiful forest only fifteen minutes from home. 

Together, we spread what we gathered on the wooden table. Ido carefully reviewed every mushroom once more, making doubly sure that we hadn’t mistakenly gathered any poisonous ones, or confused the fibrous and inedible Sibit with the delicious Grey Knight variety.  When our collection was declared edible, we packed it away in our bags and set off for home.  “Bye guys!” we told each other, “It was great to finally see you again!”

Our friends drove off deeper into the forest, having decided to extend their time in nature with a trip down to the winter river, which was surely flowing on this rainy day.

As I sat in the car thinking about what I would prepare with our mushrooms, it dawned on me that my usual thoughts of the war, the troops, and the kidnapped victims in Gaza had momentarily fled my consciousness.  For one morning, I had lost myself in the pursuit of Israel’s nature, of learning its secrets, of gathering its bounty. For months, it seemed that our typical fun pastimes always had to be judged by the standards of war.  Nothing felt the same anymore.  Different activities fell into different categories.  An evening spent planning summer vacation? Out!…who knew what life would be like come summertime?  Five minutes looking over old photos? Definitely in…we needed those positive memories. Hiking somewhere – in the new reality would it be safe or dangerous? That could be a no go.

Somehow, this spontaneous trip into Israel’s nature near home had seemed OKAY.  At least right now.

Returning home afterwards, I carefully spread the mushrooms on the kitchen countertop, then snapped a few photos to share with our family.  War or no war, I was excited about our haul; it was nice to have something mundanely fun to talk about.

That night, after carefully cleaning and checking what we had gathered, I presented my husband with dinner: a vegetable stir fry featuring our prized mushrooms, and teriyaki salmon.  On the side, we had the Saffron Milk Cup mushrooms, sauteed in wine, and Wood Ear mushrooms with shallots and butter. My kids eyed our feast with skepticism. “Ew. You better not die from eating poisonous mushrooms!” said my fifteen-year old daughter, “That would be the most embarrassing thing right now.  Can you imagine?”

“Yep,” my oldest daughter agreed, “Can you imagine the shiva? ‘My father didn’t die in battle – he died from eating poisonous mushrooms.’”

Thankfully, nobody died.  We finished every last bite of everything on the table (except the white rice I made to go along with it, which nobody touched). That dinner was the most delicious that I can remember for quite some time.  I felt we had tapped into a lost feeling, something we hadn’t experienced in a while. The mushrooms were fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but I think that the joy I felt while consuming them came from some deeper place…

I felt connected to the land of Israel again.  I felt like I was rekindling a relationship with an old friend, learning something new about her. In recent months, my deep connection to Israel had been challenged by the rhetoric of our hostile world.

Mushrooms, I thought, could be a metaphor for many things: they are so simple, so unassuming.  They grow in the dark shadows, in the mud and dirt.  Heavy rains and forbidding storms cause them to proliferate. We’d been hiking for years and have never really noticed how many of them are hidden on the forest floor. Some are deadly, and some are delightful.

With my soldier son out of Gaza (for the time being), I’m finally able to look around and assess this unbelievable situation we find ourselves in.  None of us wanted this war.  And none of us wanted the death and destruction that came along with it.  But despite the pain and suffering, I feel that I’ve gained a new perspective.  I see things that are beautiful (like the outpouring of goodwill and unity from Jews in Israel and around the world) and things that are deadly poisonous (like the depraved and brutal acts of October 7th).  And, like those sibit mushrooms masquerading as dafonit, I see things that I’m just not sure about.  But I know one thing for certain: I will never look at my life in this country in the same way again.  Something has changed.  A new awareness has set in.  Time will tell what meaning it will carry into our future.

I can only hope and pray that one day, the good things, the miracles that emerge from this war will be as plentiful and easy to see as our collection of colorful mushrooms.  That the deadly poison will get left behind in the darkness of the forest. That we’ll learn the lessons we need to from this difficult time and learn to distinguish bad from good. And that, with God’s help, our nation will collectively gain new perspective that will deepen our connection to this land we call home.

Israel’s edible treasures.

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