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September 15, 2014 | 20th Elul 5774

Israeli Culture II

Galilee Diary #246
August 14, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

Ruth follows her mother-in-law Naomi back to Israel from Moab when they have both become widowed. Naomi sends Ruth out to glean from the fields of a distant relative, Boaz. Romance is in the offing. Indeed, Boaz notices her and suggests they do lunch:

At mealtime, Boaz said to her, “Come over here and partake of the meal, and dip your morsel in vinegar.”

-Ruth 2:14

The popular Israeli novelist and columnist Meir Shalev, in his series of lectures and essays giving a modern, secular interpretation to the Bible, argues that “vinegar” is a mistranslation. The Hebrew word “chometz” is indeed from the root referring to fermentation or souring (chametz is leavened bread, chamutzim are pickles), and in modern Hebrew means vinegar; but Shalev insists it is related to the Arabic “chumus,” or chickpeas. If so, then the luncheon menu of Boaz’s workers was not bread in vinegar, but bread in chumus, which makes, I suppose, a lot more sense (at least to my taste).

Among the older generation of tourists to Israel, first-time visitors seem surprised not to find plentiful bagels – or corned beef; after all, if this is a Jewish state, how can it not serve Jewish food? For those a little more sophisticated, it used to be that falafel symbolized Israeli food. Now, every group I meet seems obsessed with shawarma, (gyros), traditionally made from lamb, though usually today from turkey. I’m with Meir Shalev – for me, the Israeli food is chumus. It is totally ubiquitous – in the simplest fast food joints and in the fanciest restaurants; it is served as part of the standard appetizer salad bar – and as a main course, plain and with a whole range of additions, from beans to pine nuts to meat. Nowadays the variety of brands and flavors of prepared chumus fills a whole section of the supermarket refrigerator. It is cheap, nourishing, relatively easy to make, and the perfect sandwich filling or dip. Probably the three most common lunchbox or picnic sandwiches in Israel are chumus, yellow cheese, and chocolate spread (though chocolate spread pretty much drops out of the running once you graduate from the army). Only Americans eat peanut butter and jelly.

As an ingathering of immigrants from every corner of the world (and foreign workers), Israel indeed offers bagels and corned beef, Thai and French delicacies, Moroccan couscous, Italian pizza, Russian sausages and Ethiopian bread, Argentinian steaks – and of course Macdonalds and KFC. You really can get anything you want. So what is Israeli food? Interestingly, none of these Jewish or global imports has really assimilated. Israeli food is regional food, Palestinian food: chumus, falafel, shawarma. Our comfort foods are the foods we found here, not the ones we brought with us.

I’m not sure this is intuitively obvious, nor trivial: it raises the interesting question, how much of Israeli culture is Jewish culture? How much of who we are is where we live? In rebelling against the culture of the Diaspora and seeking to create our own, authentic Jewish culture, we revived our own ancient language, we created a new literature and art anchored in the past by historical themes and textual allusions, we set our traditional texts to modern music – and wrote and composed “folk songs” that reflected our experience in returning to our land… but what about food? On holidays we eat the foods we ate in the Diaspora - they link us to our roots in a Jewish tradition filtered through the Diaspora experience. But on weekdays we eat the foods of the land and of the people of the land. Maybe we like chumus so much not only because it is tasty, cheap, and nourishing, but because by making it ours, we affirm our belonging to this place.

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