Books: A bite of Israel

Two books take an in-depth look at the evolution of Israeli and Jewish culinary identity – from bagels to falafel.

President Reuven Rivlin takes a bite of a falafel with all the fixings (photo credit: GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin takes a bite of a falafel with all the fixings
(photo credit: GPO)
Food has the power to be both the ultimate unifier and divider.
Historically, groups have fought over access to precious resources; today, we see squabbles over origins, claims to unique dishes and foods.
Is falafel Israeli? Palestinian? Egyptian? Is the bagel Jewish? Polish? American? There is no doubt that food holds a powerful place in Jewish ritual life and in modern Israeli society: every holiday – religious or secular – has its iconic foods. Wine and halla form the centerpiece of Shabbat, doughnuts proliferate on Hanukka; matza on Passover, and the national pastime of barbecue can be smelled in every city in Israel on Independence Day.
Two recent tomes examine the role of food in Jewish and Israeli life – both in a somewhat scholarly manner: Yael Raviv’s Falafel Nation and the anthology Jews and Their Foodways, edited by Anat Helman.
The latter is a series of essays on all manner of intersections between food and society, from food in post-Holocaust Germany to meat consumption among Ethiopian olim and contemporary Jewish food in North America.
In “The New Immigrant Must Not Only Learn, He Must Also Forget,” Ofra Tene studies how Ashkenazi olim to Israel adapted their traditional cuisine to their new life and climate. These Jews, who rarely ate vegetables in their native lands, suddenly encountered tomatoes, eggplants, olives and zucchini. Indeed, a 1926 song by Yehuda Karni and Yoel Engel called “Tomato” includes the verses “Tomato, tomato!/ Just yesterday we came off the boat/ and already you feature in our borscht,/ our salad, and our meatballs...”
In “Bagel and Falafel,” Shaul Stampfer examines how those two foods became such icons for American and Israeli Jewry, respectively. While in Eastern Europe bagels were not a specific Jewish food, it was the Jewish immigrants to New York who baked and disseminated this Old World snack in their new home. The combination of the bagel with cream cheese and lox was an entirely new invention for American Jews, perhaps a kosher reaction to the trendy eggs Benedict: lox for ham, cream cheese for hollandaise sauce, and a bagel instead of an English muffin, posited the late food historian Gil Marks.
Falafel, by contrast, was a food not brought by immigrants to Israel but adopted by them. The gradual emergence of falafel as a national food – in its iconic form served inside a pita alongside tomato, cucumber and tehina – was part of a “vigorous and conscious effort to create a national identity,” writes Stampfer.
Indeed, Raviv devotes Falafel Nation to examining the deliberate intention to forge a national character in Israel among its many diverse immigrants, in particular by rallying around its agricultural products and elevating foods to national symbols.
While falafel became one of the most enduring culinary symbols of the Jewish state, it was hardly the first. In the early days of the state, much national pride surrounded the Jaffa orange, which for many decades was its No. 1 export. So much so, in fact, that in the 1960s, writes Raviv, El Al flight attendants wore bright orange uniforms with orange-shaped helmets.
In a very conscious fashion, the state used food and agriculture as a nation- building tool, using flyers, postcards and even songs to encourage not just adapting to a new cuisine but supporting local products – totzeret ha’aretz.
Raviv also examines the role of non-kosher foods in Israel – something out of the national spotlight but not entirely invisible. With the influx of Soviet immigrants, the availability of pork products increased, putting a larger gap between official state policy – where the army, government and national airline offer only kosher food – and the streets.
Israeli cuisine has come a long way from its ascetic, utilitarian beginnings by pioneers, through periods of war rationing before the later discovery of the joys of cooking. This trajectory can be seen in the cookbooks published by women’s organizations like WIZO and Hadassah in the first decades of the state, pushing health, nutrition, rationing and penny- pinching. But with the 1970 publication of Sefer Hata’anugot by Amos Keinan, Raviv says, a shift began, “perhaps, the most striking departure from previous cooking publications…. Efficiency, practicality, and housewives are not this book’s concern.” Following Keinan, the world of Israeli cookbooks continued to expand and grow, calling for more specialized ingredients, and eventually expanding to include a variety of global cuisines, localized for the Hebrew market.
Raviv also takes a look at the history of IDF food, a nationalized cuisine that by default reaches practically every Israeli at some point. The army’s most iconic historical food product is luf, a canned preserved meat which is basically the kosher version of Spam.
“Some people claim Luf is tasty, but then again there is no accounting for taste,” writes Raviv, recounting some of the many suggestions over the years for improving the taste of the canned meat in a variety of recipes.
Raviv’s well-researched and methodical book delves into almost every aspect of Israeli food culture, from kibbutz dining halls to the spectacle of Mimouna celebrations, and even touches on the emergence of celebrity chef culture and high-end cuisine today. It’s a fun read, but she does jump back and forth in time frequently, which can be slightly jarring.
Both Falafel Nation and Jews and Their Foodways have somewhat academic tones, though both are fun reading for those with a keen interest in the journeys and evolution of a national and ethnic cuisine.