Independence Day the Amirim way

The vegetarian moshav trades the traditional carnivorous barbecue for nature walks and a picnic

Amirim 521 (photo credit: ILANA SRAIER-PHILLIPS)
Amirim 521
For most Israelis the smoke-filled air and mouthwatering aroma of meat sizzling on the barbecue has become synonymous with Independence Day. Blue-and-white flags adorn car windows as hundreds of thousands of “mangalists” brave the heavy traffic and flock to the parks and forests armed with barbecues, meat and a merry disposition. As the day unwinds, every patch of grass in the country rapidly becomes packed with patriotic families taking advantage of the short-lived spring weather.
But on a pastoral moshav in the Upper Galilee, an entirely different scene unfolds. Amid the treetops from which Amirim takes its name, the fresh mountain air is devoid of the carnivorous odor of barbecued meat. Here, you’re more likely to catch a whiff of tofu and vegetable kebabs cooking on the fire, or savor the taste of patties made from mallow and nettle leaves.
The reason for this is quite simple: the moshav members are sworn vegetarians and vegans, as the sign reading “Vegetarian Holiday Village” at the entrance to the moshav attests. The mainstay of its members is a combination of agriculture and a thriving B&B industry.
How did it all begin? Amirim was founded in 1958 by a group of young vegetarians. Dalia Cohen, owner of the famous Dalia’s restaurant, is respected not only for the superb culinary skills that won her the title of “Queen of the Kitchen,” but also as one of the moshav’s pioneers. Cohen tells how they came upon a dilapidated area that had been abandoned, and approached the Jewish Agency requesting to develop the land for agricultural purposes. “Take it! Let’s see you!” the man at the agency replied doubtfully, thinking it couldn’t possibly be transformed into the lush, green paradise it is today. And so Amirim was born, 10 years after the proclamation of the state.
But as every Israeli knows, independence comes with a high price and this is no more evident than at Mitzpe Menahem, where a memorial in honor of fallen pilot Menahem Kashtan bears witness to the sacrifice he made for his country. Cohen, who was Kashtan’s teacher, relates how every year the entire moshav gathers at the memorial, the only reminder of the young pilot being the reconstructed plane showcased there.
From remembrance to independence, the residents of Amirim celebrate Israel’s birthday, but in a different way.
“Independence Day isn’t exactly our style, because most people go outdoors and have barbecues,” says Cohen. “But something wonderful happens… that because we’re vegetarian a lot of people come here.
Every year I feel more people come to the restaurant.”
These people prefer food based on fresh, seasonal vegetables over barbecues. “We also go out for a picnic, but more walking in the forest,” adds Dalia. “There’s a guide who teaches the children the names of the plants and flowers. There’s a much stronger emphasis on nature rather than food.”
On Independence Day, many of the forest walkers opt for a hot meal at Dalia’s restaurant, where old-world charm oozes from the lace curtains and flowered tablecloths.
There, on a balcony overlooking Lake Kinneret, Mount Arbel and Mount Tabor, diners are invited to contemplate the wonders of a country so small yet so diverse, and bask in the joys of being Israeli.
“On Independence Day we feel that our country is very special,” concludes Cohen.
Neta Buchnik, born and bred on Amirim, describes the Independence Day festivities, which include a communal picnic with separate tables for vegetarian and vegan food. For the first time, the celebrations will be open to outsiders, offering vegetarians at a loose end an opportunity to mingle with likeminded brethren.
“We decided to take advantage of Independence Day, it being the most symbolic, the most prominent for vegetarians and vegans,” says Buchnik, “and to allow other people who don’t live here to enjoy the luxury… It’s a luxury to know that you send your kids to kindergarten and there’s no meat in the kindergarten, no tuna in all the institutions and at the parties, at friends.
People I know who are vegetarians and live in the city… it’s much harder. Here it’s a kind of bubble, which makes it much easier to be vegetarian.”
Buchnik is a virgin to the temptations of meat. “I’ve never tried to eat meat. I have no idea what it even tastes like,” she adds thoughtfully.
Shani Tzahor, a Russian immigrant who made aliya 23 years ago, recently traded the hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv for the beauty and tranquility of Amirim.
Tzahor, who adopted veganism seven years ago, will be spending her first Independence Day on the moshav this year. She plans to run a workshop on vegan cooking, demonstrating how raw food can be dressed in a matter of minutes by adding different types of vegan cheese or yogurt, nuts, or even a water-based sauce made with ground cashews.
When it comes to vegetarianism and veganism, one thing is clear: there appears to be a much greater tolerance and respect for people who have chosen this alternative lifestyle. Gone are the days when the concept of raw food was totally foreign. It’s hard to extinguish the flame of a tradition that has become a national pastime, but for those having second thoughts about mangalism – why not celebrate Independence Day the Amirim way?