Is there actually Israeli cuisine?

Is there actually Israeli cuisine?

Just recently (but it seems a million years ago!) there was a weeklong pause in the war that Israel is fighting. During that time, nearly 100 hostages were returned from the bowels of Gaza; most had been held in Hamas’s underground tunnel network. Not all of those returned hostages were Israeli, nor were they all returned to Israel. They were not all Jews. All they had in common was that they were near Gaza on October 7, Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, when Hamas and allied groups came and kidnapped them, while violently and brutally rampaging through Southern Israel. The affected area extended far beyond the so-called Gaza envelope (otef Aza) and included Ofakim, halfway to the West Bank. On that day, now known as “Black Sabbath,” 240 people were stolen and spirited away into Gaza by motorbike and pickup truck, being transformed almost immediately from human kidnap victims into hostages, commoditized things to be used as bargaining chips by the perpetrators of the violence.

Now, two months later, those attacks have morphed into verbal and physical attacks on Jews and Israelis worldwide. Student protesters accused chef Michael Solomonov’s Goldie restaurant, a Philadelphia vegan falafel joint, of genocide.  According to an article in the Guardian, the restaurant and chef are also guilty of cultural appropriation, passing Palestinian food off as Israeli and not crediting indigenous food as worthy of mention. “Restaurants and businesses claiming to sell ‘Israeli’ food, fruits, vegetables, and products are part of an ongoing colonial campaign of stealing, appropriating, and profiting off of Palestinian food and culture as a means of erasing Palestinian existence,” read an Instagram post. This, despite the fact that Solomonov specifically mentions and credits  — on his menus and in his cookbooks — his dependence on Palestinian Arabic foods and ingredients. For years now, some people in the food world claim that there is no such thing as Israeli food or cuisine. Instead, the food that is presented that way is a colonialist attempt to profit from that which they have unjustly appropriated.

Meanwhile, as the returning hostages have been debriefed, one of the details that has emerged from a number of them is that when they were being taken into Gaza, their captors pushed their legs against the motorcycles’ burning tailpipes, branding them so that if they somehow managed to escape, they could be identified by the marks on their legs and recaptured. We can understand why someone with a precious object would desire to mark their ownership in such a manner, although we can also understand why branding a child’s leg might also be understood as cruel and dehumanizing.  It also, however, calls into question the Israel as settler colonialist narrative: if the captives could escape into a crowd of Palestinians in Gaza and become invisible, necessitating a unique mark, what happens to the claim that these Israeli children are less indigenous than the Gaza kids?

Indigeneity is a fraught concept. Why do people seem unable to accept that multiple human tribes might have grown up on the same land, seeing it as their homeland, eating its particular produce, and learning how to exist in its terroir through generations of experience? Why must ownership of a place cancel others’ right to call it home?

Can there, then, be a specific Israeli cuisine? Israeli couscous is a perfect example of such a food. Unlike “real” couscous, a north African steamed dish made from semolina flour, Israeli couscous, which is called “p’titim” in Hebrew, is made from wheat flour rolled into pearl-sized balls. It was invented by the Osem company at the urging of Israel’s prime minister, David Ben Gurion. He wanted to be able to feed the influx of (Jewish) immigrants from Middle Eastern countries whose diets depended on rice.

Israeli couscous is a dish created in response to extreme poverty and with the willingness to invent something new to feed your people. Wherever you find Jewish foods throughout the world, their origins almost always begin in a response to poverty, scarcity, or exclusion. Fish and chips, the use of offal meats (chopped liver), Italian fried Jewish-style artichokes, and even brisket and pastrami all began in this way.

Jews most often think of kosher foods as a response to God’s commanding authority, but in the book of Genesis (32: 25-33) we see the dual results of Jacob’s nocturnal struggle with a mysterious figure: his name is changed to Israel (because you struggled with God and with people and you survived), and he was injured on the hollow of his thigh through which the sciatic nerve (gid ha-nasheh) passes, causing him to limp. After this, the text tells us, “That is why the descendants of Israel do not eat the sciatic nerve that is upon the hollow of the hip to this day “(Gen 32:33). The Israelites do not eat certain cuts of meat, which turn out to be the tenderest and most expensive hindquarters, not because God commands it, but because this reminds them of overcoming past struggles.

Rather than basing identity as Israel on a particular swatch of land, this text asserts, Jews and Israelis have a 3,000-year cuisine that continues unbroken to this day, wherever they may find themselves. Should any Palestinian Arabs wish to forgo the prized sirloin or filet mignon to assert their authentic indigeneity, they are welcome to share.

The struggles Jews and Israelis have been through over the centuries, like the cuts of meat we consume, have made us tough but flavorful, and define a unique cuisine based not only on Levantine ingredients, but in cooking methods that overcome the inherent difficulties of the ingredients. This is, perhaps, what it means to struggle with God and with humans — and to survive.

To transform pain and injury and attack into something tasty that can sustain your family: this is what it means to be a descendant of Israel. B’te’avon — Bon appetit!

David Bockman is the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn.

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