If one wanted to understand how the barbecue, or "mangal" in Hebrew," became the classic Israeli symbol of Independence Day, one would need to look back to the very days of the state's creation.
Originally, Independence Day was marked by dancing in circles and the hora, imported from Eastern Europe. But barbecues? Did anyone even hear of it back then? Of course not.
It was only a decade later that Israelis embraced picnic culture, and even then it wasn't linked to Independence Day. Rather, Israelis started to adopt this new tradition for Shabbat and holidays.
Everything got a boost in the mid-1960s when nature reservations started being built on land belonging to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF). The first of these announced in 1964, was the Hula Valley nature reserve. It was later followed by others, such as the Ben Shemen Forest, which allowed Israelis to go to nature reserve parks to celebrate the holidays with picnics.
However, over the years, the picnic evolved into the barbecue, which first started to be linked to Independence Day during the late 1970s and became fully entrenched in Israeli culture in the 1980s.
Israelis found a variety of places in nature to light up the grill and mingle at the mangal on Independence Day, such as in Sacher Park in Jerusalem and Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv.
Prof. Nir Avieli from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's Sociology and Anthropology Department conducted a study between 2002 and 2009 examining Independence Day celebrations in Sacher Park. He examined the reasons the barbecue managed to become the definitive symbol of Independence Day in Israeli society, surpassing even the Air Force flyovers, the torch-lighting ceremony and the Bible competition.
Thus was born his seminal article: "Grilled Nationalism: Power, Masculinity and Space in Israeli Barbeques."
"In this article, I offer three answers to understand this subject," Avieli said.
"First, I asked if there is a link between roasting meat, space, masculinity and controlling territory. I call it the Palmah narrative. Next is the narrative of 'that's our tradition' and another narrative, 'that's what they do in America.' But one of the interesting things I discovered is that even if people do similar things, it doesn't mean they all do it for similar reasons."
Barbecue party like the USA?
"Even in Sacher Park, there were people doing the same things, but they gave different reasons for it. Some told me it was similar to making sacrifices at the Temple. Some didn't give any reason or meaning. The beginning of all this is rooted in the historical roots of Israeli culture. The Israeli barbecue isn't a local imitation of the American barbecue, but an expression of several cultural narratives that shape the contemporary Israeli-Jewish-Zionist identity; first and foremost, the dilemma between strength and weakness... and the constant struggle over territory."
According to Avieli, some of the people he interviewed in his research embraced it as a cultural marker for traditions established before the state.
"These were signs that it was an imitation of American Independence Day celebrations," he said. "Interviewees, mainly those of high socio-economic status, emphasized the difference between the barbecue and the mangal [Israeli barbecue] and indicated the cultural model with which they identify – the American barbecue, not the mangal, which is considered simple and common."
"Interviewees, mainly those of high socio-economic status, emphasized the difference between the barbecue and the mangal [Israeli barbecue] and indicated the cultural model with which they identify – the American barbecue, not the mangal, which is considered simple and common."Nir Avieli
In addition, according to Avieli, interviewees from South Africa, Argentina and Morocco and other parts of North Africa indicated a similar narrative: Celebrating while eating meat.
According to Avieli, until the 1980s, grilling was something Mizrahi families did as a culinary tradition of eating grilled meat, but after the political upheaval of 1977 and Menachem Begin's rise to power, it became the tradition of all Israelis.
And who is the one standing behind the grill? The men, of course.
"The men take on the classic role of providers who feed their families," Avieli wrote. "The order for eating – 'children first because they can't wait,' and then immediately after, the women eat the wings and chicken – reaffirms the accepted Israeli narrative about putting children at the center and the willingness of men to sacrifice themselves. This is a narrative that is given attention and affirmation on Remembrance Day and Independence Day."
Even with grilling the meat, Avieli found a fixed order, almost like a religious ritual: First goes sausages, then wings, hamburgers and chicken cutlets. After that, steaks and lamb chops.
On the one hand, this is an order of price, with cheaper meat going first followed by the expensive meats. On the other hand, when asked for the reason behind the fixed order, some people said the softer meat is meant for women and children and therefore must be made first. The rest were "manly" foods.
Where do the chicken cutlets come from? They arrived at a later date and only started becoming popular in the 1980s.
A study conducted in 2019 by a US meat company found that women are actually better at manning a barbecue than men. The research found that 73% of women put more work into the meat, seasoning and marinating it, compared to just 59% of men. However, barbecues are still something many prefer to leave to men.
The vegan angle
The 1980s were a time of important breakthroughs in many fields for Israel. On one hand, there was a huge wave of Israelis who left the country. On the other hand, the country opened up to pop culture from the West. The standard of living rose despite inflation and people were able to purchase many different types of meat. It was then that barbecues became the accepted way to celebrate a holiday, especially a national holiday.
But something else happened in the 1980s: Barbecues entered Israeli music.
One iconic moment happened on an Independence Day episode of Zehu Zeh! where cast members sang a song called "Sihim al ha'aish" (Skewers on the barbecue). Even then, it was funny and humorous, depicting a phenomenon that was only continuing to grow.
In 1986, "Shir Hamangal" (Barbecue Song) joined the celebrations, with the melody taken from a song by German pop duo Modern Talking and the lyrics written by Yair Nitsani.
The satirical song became the biggest hit of the year and became a classic Israeli symbol, accompanied by a man in a tank top, mustache, and flip-flops fanning the flames of the barbecue.
Almost 40 years later, in 2022, a new song was recorded, "Hamangalim," created by Dolly and Penn and recorded by Static and Ben El.
In the 1990s, when almost everything was taken to the extreme, barbecues turned from something done with friends in nature to a gathering on balconies or in the yards of houses, with expensive pieces of meat, kebabs that you prepared yourself at home and skewers adorned with onions and tomatoes. At this point, the barbecue fully left the borders of the periphery and reached Tel Aviv, so much so that the Tel Aviv Municipality greeted residents with a huge billboard with a photo of a vegetable skewer on a barbecue.
It should also be noted that meat – certainly during periods of economic hardship but also in general – was considered a luxury in Israel. In the 1970s and 1980s, the chicken quarter was the flagship dish at wedding halls throughout Israel. Over time, however, the meat turned from a luxury to a basic consumer product. However, skewers made by hand or bought from delis and a gas grill on a balcony became the status symbol of the Israeli bourgeois.
"People don't think about the social and cultural meaning of what they do at a given moment, but changes can be analyzed retrospectively," Avieli said. "When I finished my research on Sacher Park, I realized that its popularity on Independence Day is decreasing. But you don't see this in field research, because even if it's less popular and people are finding alternatives, there are still a lot of people there. It is there that one could see the formation of what former president Reuven Rivlin would later call Israel's tribes."
The culinary processes that have taken place in the last decades, including the rise of vegetarianism and veganism, gave birth to vegan barbecue, which has gained momentum every Independence Day for the past decade.
"In some ways, the symbolism of the barbecue has been preserved, even though killing an animal isn't involved," Avieli said. "It is, first and foremost, about strength, and there is still the act of grilling and fanning the flames, but some things are substituted. Essentially, it is exactly the same, with the same meanings behind it, even if it's done with vegetables or meat substitutes."