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Bourdain used food to bridge divides — even between Arabs and Jews

Anthony Bourdain at the Whitby Hotel in New York, July 17, 2017.

Anthony Bourdain was quick — and often willing — to publicly offer his own flaws.

“Until 44 years of age, I never had any kind of savings account,” Bourdain said in 2017. “[I] always owed money. I’d always been selfish and completely irresponsible.”

Despite or maybe because of such flaws, Bourdain would stumble into fame, parlaying his latent talent as a writer into hosting three increasingly sophisticated variants of the same food-oriented travel show — first on the Food Network, then on the Travel Channel and finally on CNN.

“For a long time, Tony thought he was going to have nothing,” his publisher, Dan Halpern, told The New Yorker. “He can’t believe his luck. He always seems happy that he actually is Anthony Bourdain.”

In his professional ascendance, Bourdain developed a unique journalistic voice, demonstrating an underlying, at times seemingly innate ability to acquaint viewers with foreign lands and cultures divergent from their own without mocking his subjects. Instead he humanized the local tapestry of individuals, implicitly encouraging his viewers to do the same. It is for this reason that various communities, including the Jewish community, trusted Bourdain with their respective cultures and heritages — and mourned deeply the news of his death, at 61, on Friday.

In the opening of the 2013 episode in which he visits Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Bourdain notes that the region is “easily the most contentious piece of real estate in the world. And there’s no hope — none — of ever talking about it without pissing somebody, if not everybody, off.”

And yet, still simply happy to be here — happy to have accidentally secured the reverence now attached to his name — he worries not of angering partisans, instead focusing on his task: telling individual stories through food.

“By the end of this episode, I’ll be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an orientalist, fascist, socialist CIA agent and worse. So here goes nothing,” he said.

In addition to addressing his own internal struggles, by wrapping himself in tefillin at the Western Wall and praying, as a Jew, for the first time in his life (he described himself as “hostile to any sort of devotion”), Bourdain interrogates his subjects, who span the cultural, ethnic and political spectrums. He coaxes them to explicate the extremism of their respective communities.

Over a meal in a Jewish settlement, Bourdain asks a resident about local graffiti reading “Death to Arabs”; the settler admits that it should “probably” be expunged. At the Aida refugee camp outside Bethlehem, he prods a local children’s theater director, asking why communal heroes are armed gunmen, hijackers and suicide bombers rather than TV stars or singers. The director, like the settler, offers a moderate apology, acknowledging that the situation is not healthy.

In Israel proper, Bourdain speaks with the Jewish Natan Galkowicz, who lost a daughter in a missile attack from Gaza.

“I know that my daughter was killed for no reason, and I know that people on the other side have been killed for no reason,” Galkowicz tells Bourdain. “Bottom line is, let’s stop with the suffering.”

The father’s voice underscores the entirety of — that Israelis, Palestinians, Colombians, Georgians, Malaysians, Cambodians and Hungarians, among countless others, welcomed Bourdain into not only their locales and cultures but also into their own homes. He did not glorify conflict nor local struggles, but yearned to understand and talk about individuals within their midst.

Floating above the ocean of biased or one-sided media coverage that only serves to reinforce pre-existing communal extremism, Bourdain was a lifeboat of, and for, humanity. He made us all a little more interesting, a little smarter and a little more tolerant of others.

A chef and accidental journalist, Bourdain did the type of reporting that all within the field, particularly in the midst of a global expansion of attacks on the free press, should aim to emulate. His suicide, ominously following news of this week’s CDC report indicating that suicide is rising sharply, shows perhaps how deeply he suffered from his own flaws and contradictions. It was these contradictions, however, that made Bourdain so quick to recognize and respect similar tensions in not only other individuals but in other communities.

For his voice, and for all he taught his viewers, Bourdain will be severely missed, not only in the Jewish community but also, due to his international expansiveness, around the globe.

Charles Dunst is an editorial fellow at JTA.

Editor’s note: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24/7, is 1-800-273-8255.