I'm not sure when I first tasted arak. Wikipedia tells me that it's the traditional alcoholic beverage across Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. It turns out that arak is typically made from the distillation of fermented grapes and/or vines, making it a sort of grappa, though on the second distillation aniseed is added -- hence the drink's characteristic liquorice taste.
I have a distinct memory of drinking arak with Ethan at a bar in Amman back in 2002. That was a business trip for him and a pleasure jaunt for me; I spent most of my days sightseeing, he spent most of his days in meetings, and then in the evening we'd meet for dinner and to stroll around the city and explore Amman by night. And one night we wound up at a bar sipping arak. I seem to remember that I'd tasted arak before that, though. Or maybe it just reminded me of other anise-flavored beverages from other corners of the Mediterranean. I've always loved anise, especially when its setting is at least as much savory as sweet, so arak and I were immediate friends.
During the summer when I lived in Jerusalem, I used to walk from our sublet on Rechov Lincoln to a nearby restaurant and bar. This is five years ago now. It seems both far more recent, and far more distant -- an artifact, I suspect, of the ways in which life shifts when one has a child. But this was in our pre-child days. And because Ethan and I have lived in rural America for the better part of twenty years, I took pains that summer to go out from time to time, if only to experience the unique gifts of city life.
My housemates were a dear rabbinic school friend, her husband, and their daughter, who was three and a half that summer. Their kid was the same age then that our son is now, which is humbling and amazing when I stop to think about it; that was my first experience of living with a little one, and it was part of what made me feel able to take the leap into trying to get pregnant the following fall. Anyway, that kiddo and her mama went to bed early, for reasons I understand now all too well. So sometimes, in the evening, I'd walk to the nearby Restobar by myself, wanting to get out of the apartment and to take advantage of living in a city for a change.
Restobar was usually busy in the evenings, but I could usually find a table where I could nestle out of the way by myself. When my server came around, I would order kos arak, b'vak'sha. When it arrived, I would open up my laptop and use their wireless internet to correspond with Ethan or with friends back home (there was no internet in our apartment) as the melting ice turned the clear liquor cloudy and my mouth tingled with anise. Their menu also featured arak with grapefruit juice, but I was never able to imagine that combination of flavors -- and anyway, my blood pressure meds make grapefruit generally contraindicated. So I stuck with drinking it on the rocks, and was quite content.
Despite living in a small town in western Massachusetts, Ethan and I live a fairly cosmopolitan lifestyle -- but there are certain flavors which are hard to come by around these parts. None of the stores in our entire county stock arak, and for whatever reason, sambuca (which is easy to find) doesn't have the same zing for me. At the end of my Jerusalem summer, I spent my final wad of shekels on a bottle of arak at the airport duty-free shop, meaning to bring it home for Ethan to enjoy with me...only to have it poured into a trash can by an overzealous customs agent at Heathrow, because it hadn't been in a sealed ziploc bag when I got off the plane. Needless to say, I was miffed. (Obviously on some level I still am, or I wouldn't remember the story so well.)
On a recent trip to the big city -- for the final Rabbis Without Borders retreat -- I happened into a liquor store and noticed that they had Israeli arak on their shelves. Bingo: I picked up a bottle and schlepped it happily home. After that, the Berkshires were cool and rainy for a while (there was even danger of frost) so I forgot about the arak entirely. In my mind it's a hot weather beverage, something to sip slowly over ice on a warm night. But this weekend, summer has arrived wholly. And after I put our little guy to bed, my eye chanced on the bottle, and I poured myself a few fingers over ice. It swirled milkily as the ice began to melt on contact with the room-temperature anise-flavored liquid. I wondered whether I would still like it, after all this time.
The first sip was extraordinary. If I closed my eyes I could be right back at the Restobar, listening to people cheering and shouting in Hebrew at a televised soccer match, knowing that an endlessly ancient and endlessly complicated city was just outside the door. Or back at that bar in Amman, sitting on a barstool beside Ethan, listening to the sounds of Arabic around us. Instead here I am at our house in western Massachusetts, listening to local birdsong, surrounded by the rustle of green leaves, our son (God willing) at last falling asleep in his downstairs bedroom. But the taste of the Middle East is delicious and complicated on my tongue, and I am grateful for it.
Is there a bracha for an apéritif? The traditional answer is that alcohol which isn't wine is blessed with the blessing known as shehakol; it's the garden-variety all-inclusive one, the blessing for anything that doesn't have its own dedicated bracha. (It goes like this: "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, Who creates all things with Your word.") But I can't help thinking that the right blessing is actually the shehecheyanu, the blessing through which we sanctify time. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being, who has kept me alive, and sustained me, and enabled me to reach this moment -- and enabled me to be so immersed in memory -- and enabled my connections with places and moments which are far away, but which still live in my mind, and in my heart, and on my tongue.
Related: Foods of Israel: Arak cocktails in The Jew and the Carrot.