The Human Spirit: Let them eat falafel

Where should our diplomats take visiting foreign dignitaries to eat?

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
Recent headlines in Yediot Aharonot revealed a rebellion among Foreign Ministry employees. The cause? Those diplomats whose jobs require hosting visiting dignitaries feel chafed by restrictions that limit them to patronizing kosher restaurants. In a petition signed by 30 ministry employees, among them senior diplomats, Director-General Aharon Abramovitch was implored to modify the kosher-only policy. Chief among the reasons for their request was the alleged difficulty - I kid you not - of finding an appropriate kosher restaurant in the Jewish state. According to the petitioners, many of the eateries certified kosher are nothing more than falafel stands and roadside steakiot - the ubiquitous restaurants featuring grilled meat, salads and humus. "Do you want us to bring European parliament members to such establishments?" asked the diplomats. Seeking out kosher restaurants wastes valuable time and consequently hard-earned taxpayer's money. True, some taxpayers might bridle at the idea of their representatives sitting down to a plate of pork chops and lobster Newberg. Foreign Ministry employees promised to avoid "hard-core" treif, for example such overtly non-kosher choices as artichoke hearts filled with shrimp, seafood fettuccini with veal tonsils or grey mullet with mussels and crispy celery (all genuine entrees from contemporary menus in Tel Aviv). To avoid the awkwardness of restricting foreign visitors, officials could request special censored menus of their "kosher-style" dishes. "Kosher style" has always been such an intriguing term. In America where I grew up, it meant a mix of non-kosher cold cuts and kosher pickles served on rye. But in Israel, what exactly would constitute kosher style? Kosher can mean anything from osso buco to blintzes. It would take a skilled diplomat indeed to negotiate such a menu. KOSHER DINERS from Israel and abroad will be surprised by the hardship kosher dining seems to impose. After all, kosher food has improved greatly, both in variety and in elegance of service. In decades past, Israelis ate interesting home-cooked food, while hotels and restaurants offered dull approximations of what they assumed foreigners would like. Not anymore. Ethnic delicacies and sophisticated dishes abound. You can get kosher veal kofta with Jerusalem artichoke on a bed of lentils, veal carpacchio, sirloin in chestnut and port or gnocci in truffle sauce. Nonetheless, there's no denying that kosher restaurants do have restrictions. You're not going to get Parmesan on your veal or real cream in your coffee. I'd like to suggest to the diplomatic corps to turn the lemons of those restrictions into lemonade. Even a veteran diplomat appreciates an icebreaker or two to get the conversation rolling with a foreign counterpart. What could be more organic than explaining how their honed and honored eating habits have impacted the Jews. If you were eating in Korea, you'd expect the local diplomat to explicate the origins of kimchi. The spiritual, ethical and traditional concepts of kashrut have a lot to say about the Jewish people. Understanding how seriously we take biblical injunctions and the Oral Law - so much so that the majority of homes, not just an exotic fringe, don't mix milk and meat - might be good preparation for a foreigner striving to understand our attachment to our biblical homeland. EATING AT restaurants serving kubbeh, Moroccan carrots and Ethiopian injara provide an easy introduction to the ideal of ingathering our scattered people, as well as the often forgotten exodus of Jewish communities from Arab lands. History buffs will enjoy the theories about the origin of falafel, whether it came from India or if it crossed the Red Sea from Egypt like the Israelites. A dairy meal would provide an easy way to crow over our agricultural technology. Holstein cows in the arid Negev somehow produce as much milk as those tranquil Swiss herds. What better way could there be to explain socioeconomic problems than a business lunch at Lilith, a posh kosher restaurant in Tel Aviv where teens at risk are employed? There's even a lesson in Israeli salad, that finely chopped mixture of tomatoes and cucumbers that still proliferates despite a recent trend toward exotic greens. Visitors are often so dazzled by our Tel Aviv skyscrapers and our upscale malls that they forget the humble origins of our state - as if we were born a developed and prosperous nation. Once we too were a poor Middle Eastern country. We gained our expertise in eggplant and zucchini by turning it into ersatz chopped liver and "apple" pie. We became the world's largest per capita consumers of turkey not because of an aversion to beef and lamb, but because we couldn't afford it. Israeli adults today recall nutrition day camps for skinny kids and washing and drying plastic bags even before recycling became popular. Our pioneers made do with little. Let us not forget how they chopped a tomato into a hundred equal pieces for early-rising kibbutzniks who returned from the field for breakfast, sacrificing to build a modern nation for their children. European diplomats can get plenty of seafood and veal tonsils back home. When they're in Israel, let them eat falafel.