Israel's sausage politics

Russian immigrants are seen as champions of pork consumption. That's not how they want to be perceived.

russians immigrants meet (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
russians immigrants meet
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
You are what you eat. And where there are expatriates from the former Soviet Union you'll likely find a "Russian grocery" selling pork. Groceries in towns like Ashdod, Ashkelon and Bat Yam display pork products generating little public reaction, but when similar groceries are opened in Jerusalem and Bet-Shemesh - where there are large concentrations of haredim - local people protest and municipalities place restrictions on just where the delicacy can be sold. A Russian-speaking professor of mathematics, temporally turned politician on behalf of a now defunct anti-clerical party, made pork the central issue of the 2002 Knesset campaign. In Hungarian-accented Russian, a certain European gentleman - now an ex-Knesset member - promised to turn Israel into "the land of the Internet instead of the Land of the Bible" and defended the right of every citizen to buy pork-sausage - anywhere, anytime. Some Russians were so impressed by this culinary emphasis that they rewarded said gentleman with some four of the 15 Knesset seats his party garnered in those elections. WHILE THE pro-pork forces were winning battles on the political and legal fronts, a powerful chain of supermarkets targeting Russian clients called Tiv-Tam emerged. Now there was a huge chain filled with Russian-speaking personnel and various foods from all over the world appealing to Russian culinary tastes. But tastes were changing. Suddenly in Russian groceries there are more kinds of feta cheese than sausages, and such un-Russian products as humus displayed alongside Caspian caviar. Olives are taking more and more space at the expense of pickled cabbage, and clients are asking for sun-dried tomatoes instead of pickled-ones. RECENTLY, THE natural order of things was further disrupted when the fiercest attack on pork consumption came not from Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, but from a man who preaches Jewish tradition with a Russian accent - Arkadi Gaydamak: "The promotion and the distribution of pork here is a sort of aggression" (from the interview to Russian-language weekly Novosti); "Those who insist on the unnecessary pork consumption are just the 'sausage alia' (" And finally: "To those who must drink their vodka with lard of all things, I say, before they open their jaws, they would do well to understand and begin to think" (to PORK IS just peanuts when placed up against "Nash control" of Jerusalem's City Hall. As satirist Marc Galesnik put it in the Russian daily Vesti: "The road to haredi hearts goes through Russian stomach." The power game between Gaydamak and Tiv-Tam's board of directors - which opposed the chain going kosher - resulted in Gaydamak's stepping out of the deal and a subsequent slide of the Tim-Tam's stock by 11 percent in one day. Gaydamak will not be an owner of Tiv-Tam unless it goes kosher and we Russians can expect more verbal attacks on both pork promoters and pork consumers from him. For Gaydamak the "pork battle" transcends business considerations - indeed, it's devoid of business logic. It's interesting that Gaydamak announced the cancellation of the Tiv-Tam deal after his return from St. Petersburg and on the way directly to the Eli Yishai's daughter wedding. UNLIKE THE small Russian groceries where you could find Russian party newspapers and propaganda leaflets, Tiv-Tam for years stood clear of politics and the culture wars. Gaydamak's failed kosherization attempt changed all that - for better or for worse. Paradoxically, if Tiv-Tam remains under non-Russian control it will continue to serve mainly Russian consumers with non-kosher products. Reporting on TV news about the alleged Russian worries over Tiv-Tam going kosher, presenters showed mostly North Tel Aviv yuppie types expressing their relief about Tiv-Tam not going kosher after all. Real Russians are, I suspect, less bothered. Unlike Gaydamak's Sderot enterprise which boosted the ethnic pride of Russians and was applauded by the majority of them, this time opinions split - and not just along Russian Jewish versus ethic Russians lines. In one talk-back in the site, a man who claims he is not Jewish wrote: "It's absolutely crazy to insist on the pork consumption and make of it such a big deal. Why to invent a problem where is no problem? Look around you, we are surrounded by enemies and all what you care about is your piece of pork, which is even not healthy, and besides local pork tastes bad." "It's because they feed it with Israeli oranges" someone else replied. THE TRUTH is that many Russian elites feel uneasy about the image of Russian Israelis as the standard bearers of pork consumption. They are not happy with the political and cultural implications of this image. There is something blatantly vulgar in this pork fixation - something grotesque in making pork a cornerstone of citizen's rights issue. And it is really insulting to Russians to be recruited in such a culture war. Russians have learned their lesson: they have nothing to gain from a culture war over pork and much more to lose. Best to leave this "struggle" to the Tel Aviv crowd. We Russians are eating more humus lately - and we are what we eat. The writer is a veteran Russian-Israeli journalist who lives in Kiryat Ono.