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September 21, 2014 | 26th Elul 5774

Red Hot Chile Peppers

Galilee Diary #504, August 18, 2010
Marc Rosenstein

...We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna...
        -Numbers 11:4-6

Since my travel back to Shorashim from HUC is usually over the dinner hour, I often stop at the Jerusalem bus station and buy a falafel or shwarma (gyros) to eat on the bus. Last week, as usual, I placed my order for shwarma in a pita, and barely paid attention as the teenager behind the counter did his work, asking me mechanically, "Humus?" "Yes." "Hot sauce?" "Yes." "Salad?" "Yes." "Sauerkraut?" "Yes." "Pickle?" "Yes." "Fries?" "Yes." "Techina?" "Yes." I had him bag it, paid, and boarded the bus. I was pretty hungry, and was enjoying my feast as we rolled down the mountains toward the coastal plain. But as I got near the bottom of the pita (shortly before Sha'ar Hagai interchange), I discovered that instead of the timid half-teaspoon of hot sauce that is usually smeared on the humus layer, my "chef" had dumped in a healthy dollop, so much that the red juice was soaking through the pita, and my mouth was in distress, with no uncontaminated pita and little of my bottle of drink left to dilute the sensation. I was nearly half way home to the Galilee before the discomfort faded and I could think about topics other than my mouth.

The hot pepper is a staple of the Israeli diet, finding expression in such familiar foods as the "schoog" sauce served with shwarma and falafel, "chraima" Moroccan fish, the little hot pickled peppers served along with humus, etc. Being able to tolerate and even enjoy this taste always seemed to me a sort of test of Israeliness, even though, in fact, there are lots of Israelis who have no particular affinity for capsicum. Actually, the use of hot pepper as a dominant seasoning is found in foods from just about all the warm countries of the world (South America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East) - it seems that northern Europe and North America are among the few regions where this taste is foreign. Be that as it may, for me (and I suspect for many other North American and European Jews) the challenge of "charif" (hot-pepper based seasoning) is primarily associated with the Israeli dining experience. As such, it fits in with a perception of Israel as a "hard" place, where stoicism in the face of discomfort or even pain is part of the national ethos - in dining as in history you have to be tough and keep smiling.

Whatever cultural value we assign to hot peppers, and whatever the global distribution of capsicum-based seasoning, one significance they have here is that they are firmly Middle-eastern, still one more reminder that Israel is where it is. However much Israel is dominated by Ashkenazi elites or influenced by American or global culture, we live in the Middle East, and our senses remind us of that as we experience the climate, the natural landscape, and the tastes of our surroundings. Herzl imagined it would be different, that the high civilization of turn-of-the-century Vienna would civilize the Middle East. But then Herzl was a product of the period of European colonialism - and he couldn't have foreseen how low that high civilization could sink.

On one level, it seems, Herzl's vision has come true: today Israel can feel like a pretty civilized, cosmopolitan place. You can get anything you want in Tel Aviv's restaurants. We grow our own caviar and limes, you can order a quinoa and cranberry salad even in the peripheral fringes of the Galilee or the Negev. You can get carried away with how sophisticated and high-techy we are, citizens of the world. And then you get a mouthful of pita saturated with hot pepper sauce that burns away your illusions and reminds you of where you live and why nothing is as simple as Herzl imagined it.

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