Wednesday 26 July 2017

Gil Hovav: 'I started cooking the day my grandmother died - I wanted to remember her'

Gil Hovav (55) is a culinary journalist, TV personality and author. He has written cookbooks and fiction. Born in Jerusalem, he lives in Tel Aviv with his partner, Danny, whom he met during national service in the Israeli army, and their daughter, Naomi (13)

Culinary journalist Gil Hovav. Photo: David Conachy
Culinary journalist Gil Hovav. Photo: David Conachy

Ciara Dwyer

I'm 55 years old, but I think that I'm at least 80, because I have the habits of an old person. I go to sleep at 8.30pm each night, and then get up at 5am. I'm the first one up. I live in Tel Aviv with my partner, Danny. He was my officer in the intelligence service in the army. We have a 13-year-old daughter, Naomi. As she pointed out when she was four years old, 'Danny was Gilly's officer in the army, and Gilly is Danny's officer in life'. Danny is a professor of computer science.

When I first met Danny, we were both straight. I finished my army service, graduated from Hebrew University and I was going to marry my girlfriend. Then I realised that I loved her, but I wasn't in love with her. After that, I came out. When I re-met Danny, we were both gay.

Although gay people can get married, we didn't get married, because I'm not going to marry an Ashkenazi Jew. It is beneath me! I am Sephardic - the Jews from Asia and Africa - and Ashkenazi Jews came from Europe. So, each side thinks that they are superior. Of course, Danny thinks that I am inferior, too! Being Jewish is all about not being the person next to you, looking down at the person next to you. That's the joke.

I'm an Israeli first; gay, second, and then Jewish. But I'm totally secular. I do not believe in God, and never have been bar mitzvah-ed. I was never sent to synagogue and don't eat kosher. Pork and dairy: I take the lot. I'm a heathen. But being Jewish is part of my legacy; it's not a religion thing, but a knowing.

At 5am, I read the newspaper. I'm enjoying the world, because the day belongs only to me. Then I wake my daughter. I tiptoe into her room. It's very important to be positive in the morning, so I say, 'Good morning, little sunshine. The world loves you, it's time to get up.' And then this voice comes from beneath the blanket, 'Get out of my room. Now!'

Having kids was completely Danny's idea. I never liked children, but it was clear to me that it would be immoral to prevent my partner from having a child. And now Naomi is the apple of my eye.

We raise Naomi with her mother, a wonderful woman who used to be on the national team for basketball. We knew her, but it was officially arranged with a clinic. Biologically, Naomi is the daughter of Danny and this woman, and I am just Gilly. That's what she calls me.

Gay parenthood is very acceptable in Israel. Almost all of my gay and lesbian friends have children. When a child grows up in two homes, it's different. There is less pressure. Her mother lives on the same street, so she grows between two houses, like a child of divorced parents, but happily divorced. It's great that she has a mother, because when she wants to go to Disneyland, I can say, 'This is what you have a biological mother for. Go with your mother'.

I drink coffee. I never eat in the morning. Then it's the worst hour of the day, because I go to the gym. I hate it. People around me are having the time of their life there, but I just hate it. People tell me that the endorphins will kick in, and I'll feel good. I never do, during sports or afterwards. I feel much better having a glass of wine. But I put on weight even without eating, so I must go to the gym.

Afterwards, I stop for coffee and then I go home. It's already 10am. If I'm lucky, I'll sneak a baby's nap between 10 and 11am. I really like sleeping. I'm probably the laziest person you've ever met. When I was working in newspapers, I was a slave, but then suddenly I got out and I saw that there was so much more oxygen in the air. And now that I can afford it, it's lovely.

At 11am, I call my day-time husband, and we arrange where we'll meet for lunch. Danny is my partner, but this friend, who is straight, is a director. We've done television together for 15 years. It's something I do on the side. I started out in newspapers, doing bar reviews, then restaurant reviews, and then I became an editor. I used to do a lot of food shows on TV, but I moved away from food as I decided it was already saturated. My last series was about the evolution of sports all over the world. I have a TV production company and a publishing company, so I have many working lives.

I still do food because I have a restaurant column, and I've written several cookbooks, including my first one published in English - Confessions Of A Kitchen Rebbetzin. [In the book, Gil asumes the persona of a rebbetzin - a rabbi's wife - and details the food she makes for her seven children.] After Nigella, I knew that I could never be a domestic goddess, but I could be a rabbi's wife.

You would expect me to say that I learnt everything from being in the kitchen watching my mother and grandmother; not so. My mother never cooked - she was a career woman. My grandmother was the queen of the kitchen, but she never let me watch her. In Sephardic families, men in the kitchen bring only two things - dirt and bad luck. But the day she died, I started cooking to remember her, because for me, taste and memory go together. That's how it started. The food I cook is very basic. I like stews from pots with lids and red sauce; something trustworthy, so that your plate is full, and so is your soul.

After lunch, I sleep from 2pm until 4pm. Then, when my daughter comes home from school, I cook for her. That is the humiliation of the day, because she tells me that I should learn from her mom how to make chicken soup. I say, 'But your mom is the tractor-dyke and I'm the gay person here; come on'. Her mom laughs at this. I usually cook very simple food for her, like steak and chips, or schnitzel and pasta. Then, while she is doing her homework, I do some writing. I've written a novel, three collections of short stories, and I've just published my first children's book.

Then I go to bed with a book. Danny stays up watching TV. I sleep like a goat. I've had my share of difficulties, of working hard, being poor and building my career. I think I'm harvesting now. I'm not afraid of it. I enjoy it.

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