Food as metaphor

Is there some connection between culinary attitude and enterpreneurialship and a way of life in general?

Independence Day barbecue 370 (photo credit: Tanya Sermer)
Independence Day barbecue 370
(photo credit: Tanya Sermer)
Israel’s recent 65th Independence Day was a nostalgic time for me. The last time that I celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut in Jerusalem was in 1978. Now, 35 years later, I walked the streets of the central triangle of Jerusalem and ventured into a couple of public parks, curious to see the changes.
There were still popular public stages with captivating entertainment.In front of one of them, there were even people dancing in circles. Men (with tiny woven kippot) and women (modestly clothed) were dancing separately.
The atmosphere in the streets was celebratory and elated, but I could not avoid noticing large groups of youth as well as extended families wondering around searching to be entertained by someone else. Plastic hammers were still very popular.
So, what was changed and new to me? Mainly, two phenomena.
First, the spraying of sticky white foam that, for some reason, children and teenagers find amusing and fun, but adult bystanders try their best to avoid. Second, felafel vendors were almost completely replaced by “mangals” (barbecues).
Especially in the parks, the smoke of barbecues was dominant.
On the streets, the second choice of food was pizza – the American New York City imitation and not the originally Italian oven-baked concoction.
Independence Day is frequently described tongue in cheek in the local media as “The Feast of Mangals.”
Families and friends gather around the mangal and barbecue a variety of meats.
The approach of the day of celebration is also marked by a proliferation of advertisements for outdoor gas barbecue devices. It is reminiscent of the American way of celebrating the Fourth of July, but the barbecue has been adapted to the Middle East mangal, which is of Arab origin. The hamburgers are replaced with kebabs, and steaks with shishlik. Nonetheless, frankfurters (kosher, of course) are inching their way onto the menus.
Smelling and enjoying the smoke-filled atmosphere, I started thinking about God and Abraham’s “Covenant Between the Portions.” Then, lo and behold, a surrealistic scene.
A police motorcycle cavalcade with pulsating red and blue lights was horning its way up Jaffa Road, parting the crowds to the sides. It was not making way for any dignitary.
Behind it was a Jerusalem Light Rail train, crowded with passengers, lights on, whistles and bells ringing.
Just imagine the sight: A misty Jerusalem night, smoke elevating to meet the fog and – out of the fog emerges a giant, modern divine fire, snaking its way between the parting crowds of Israelites feasting on smoked portions – a 2013 renewed covenant.
And who are the partners to this covenant? Jerusalem has evolved to be a mosaic of people of multiple shades, appearances, clothing, styles and ways of life. On the streets, you hear Hebrew with many distinct accents, and also a flood of Russian, English and, indeed, Arabic. In some neighborhoods, Yiddish is still spoken as the everyday language.
But the streets’ and restaurants food is mostly so-called “Middle Eastern” kosher fair. The variations are often in the way that the food is served – in a pita or a lafa – but inside, it’s almost the same.
The diversified populace eats “mother’s kitchen” cooking at home. For outings, you have to try harder to find the Jerusalem restaurants that reflect the diversity of the people.
Uniformity of public-domain food is the rule. Exceptions are slowly proliferating but life for the nitch restaurant owner is not easy, especially when you need to get and maintain rabbinical kashrut approval.
It is time for me to provide a proper disclosure of information.
I ate only kosher in my parents’ home and, as long as they were alive, I had two sets of dishes – dairy and meat – at my home, so they would be able to eat with us.
I eat kosher, but I also eat nonkosher.
A friend once commented, “Uri eats everything that does not eat him.”
Not having a permanent home in Jerusalem, I became acutely aware that if a tourist or business person sees his or her visit to the Holy Land as affirmation of a Jewish identity – and many colleagues symbolically wear yarmulkes during their pilgrimage here – and you wish to eat kosher on Shabbat, you have a problem.
To maintain a rabbinical kashrut certificate, a restaurateur is required to adhere to strict Shabbat observance.
The connection between kashrut and Shabbat is very clear to observant Orthodox Jews. But most contemporary Jews do not align themselves with the kashrut regulations of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and even less so with more extreme ultra-Orthodox sects.
Furthermore, the many billions of international food consumers all have locally flavored diets. Some of them observe their own religious restrictions. Some of them impose their rules on everybody within their jurisdiction. Just consider the strict Indian-Hindu laws.
Modern food systems, such as vegetarianism and veganism, may be observed by some with zealotry and conformity as much as any other food-restricting tradition.
On the other hand, there are the Chinese and French who eat everything that walks, flies, crawls, swims and of course, grows. The Chinese use chopsticks and the French forks, knives and wine. The French also maintain the “good old” eating tradition at home.
Although you may still see men walking home for dinner with a baguette in their hand, nouvelle cuisine is proliferating outside.
In China, McDonald’s and Pizza Huts were introduced, but their success is negligible in comparison to the flood of Chinese restaurants in the West.
In China, even Mao Zedong – who imposed Communist ideology and a dictatorship – did not suppress culinary diversity and innovation.
His successors encouraged the meticulous, comprehensive use of all available resources, creation of new ones, and diversification and adaptation to foreign markets to build a winning economy while maintaining the core ideology.
Is there some connection between culinary attitude and enterpreneurialship and a way of life in general? King Solomon, who was considered to be the wisest of all human beings, built God’s Temple in Jerusalem, a Temple that – God willing – will eventually be a house of prayer for all nations and a magnate for Jews around the world.
But Solomon, who was a master of personal, peaceful diplomacy as a tool for Israel to be prosperous, strong, secure and influential in the region, allowed and even encouraged his multiple wives to maintain their original ways of lives and practice their own versions of warship.
In foreign relations, he was cooperative and respectful. The king of the Phoenicians donated the wood for the Holy Temple, but did Solomon demand that this fatherin- law convert to his Jewish faith in order to participate in the mitzva of building God’s Temple? Mao did not invent the concept of “Let 1,000 (or perhaps, 100) flowers bloom.” He just uttered it in Chinese, and for his own purposes.
It may be argued that Solomon with his (probably metaphoric) 1,000 diverse eastern Mediterranean wives, taught us ideological lessons to be internalized and practiced.
The writer is chairman of the WPA section on interdisciplinary collaboration, chairman of PEMRN and professor and director of biobehavioral research in SUNY-AB. He is currently a Fulbright scholar for MENA regional studies. The opinions expressed here are his own, and do not reflect and are not endorsed by the Fulbright Program or any other US agency.