Food as a means to inspire national unity?

I was very interested to read an account of how Israel used food as a means to inspire national unity, and reconcile different groups to a common sense of identity.  Here’s an excerpt.

One of the biggest shocks for many foreign visitors to Israel is the lack of familiar Jewish cuisine. Where are the smoked salmon, bagels and cream cheese at breakfast? What about the delis that define Jewish cuisine from Montreal to Los Angeles? Or the kugel (a casserole made from egg noodles or potato), gefilte fish (an appetizer made from poached fish) and matzoh ball soup served at Jewish tables around the world? Time Out Tel Aviv even has a section entitled ‘Where to find the best Jewish food in Tel Aviv’, and the few cafes that do sell Ashkenazi food (like Eva’s) typically emblazon their menus and awnings with the label ‘Jewish food’, something you would never see at a neighbourhood shawarma joint. These are strong indicators of just how spare this kind of cuisine is here.

In reality, Israeli cuisine has long been more closely associated with its immediate environment, a fusion of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern traditions and ingredients. The early Zionists eagerly adopted Palestinian dishes, such as falafel, hummus, and shawarma, while in recent years Israelis have developed a more diversified palate. Still, ‘Jewish food’ remains scarce. But very few visitors know the reasons behind the dearth of it in Israel: despite the fact that the early settlers were mostly Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, they forsook traditional Jewish food both because of scarcity but also in deliberate service to the formation of a new national narrative.

. . .

Early adherents to the Zionist project, committed to creating a Jewish state in the territory now known as Israel, sought to abandon vestiges of their past. Just as the European settlers favoured Hebrew over Yiddish and khakis over frock coats and homburgs, they also purposefully chose to eat indigenous foods over Ashkenazi ones. “Many of the first Ashkenazi Jews who came here, the ideological pioneers, were interested in cutting off their roots from the past and emphasizing the newness of the Zionist project,” explained Shaul Stampfer, professor of Soviet and East European Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “One of the ways of doing that [was] through the food.”

The adoption of indigenous food lent the early European implants an air of authenticity. The production of local ingredients – the things that grew well in the desert and along the Mediterranean coastline, and the many dishes adapted from Arab kitchens – became part of the Zionist narrative. Advertisements at the time implored the population to eat locally grown ‘Hebrew watermelons’. The Jewish people had returned to Zion and had the diet to prove it.

Later, as Jewish immigrants from Morocco to Ethiopia began piling in, each with their own unique style of cooking, the creation [of] a national cuisine became ever more important. “They were grappling with people from different cultures and traditions and it was a challenge to convince them that they belonged together,” said Yael Raviv, author of Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel. “They had to use everything and anything to forge this unified nation. Food is so tied to Jewish heritage, laws of kashrut [kosher dietary rules], and the Israeli economy is really driven by agriculture – so it became a very effective tool because it could be used in these various ways.”

There’s more at the link.

I must admit, I wouldn’t have thought of deliberately using food as a tool to foster national pride and patriotism!  Intrigued, I looked for the book mentioned in the text.

From the blurb:

Yael Raviv’s Falafel Nation moves beyond the simply territorial to divulge the role food plays in the Jewish nation. She ponders the power struggles, moral dilemmas, and religious and ideological affiliations of the different ethnic groups that make up the “Jewish State” and how they relate to the gastronomy of the region.

. . .

Focusing on the period between the 1905 immigration wave and the Six-Day War in 1967, Raviv explores foodways from the field, factory, market, and kitchen to the table. She incorporates the role of women, ethnic groups, and different generations into the story of Zionism and offers new assertions from a secular-foodie perspective on the relationship between Jewish religion and Jewish nationalism. A study of the changes in food practices and in attitudes toward food and cooking, Falafel Nation explains how the change in the relationship between Israelis and their food mirrors the search for a definition of modern Jewish nationalism.

I’m reading the book at present.  It certainly presents a new perspective on how food not only is already an instrument of cultural expression, but can be used as a deliberate tool to redefine, reinvent and propagate a different culture.

I couldn’t help comparing the Israeli experience to the foods eaten in different regions, and by different groups, across the United States.  It’s intriguing – and amusing – to ponder whether:

we might not accomplish greater cultural unity here too!

(On the other hand, I remember introducing my wife to one of my favorite South African curries . . . not nearly as successful as felafel, I fear.  The heat nearly cooked her from the inside out!)



  1. A pox on all the houses.

    Give me my gumbo and my rice and gravy and my boudin and my catfish courtbouillon and I will stay down here in Acadiana.

    Mostly Cajun.

  2. France did something similar to encourage the assimilation of Alsace and Lorraine back into France after World War I (the two provinces having spent 40 years under German rule). The French government subsidized high-quality French restaurants in the newly-regained areas, on the theory that a few years of excellent French cooking would erase any lingering Germanophilia.

    As to Israeli vs. Jewish food, a while back my wife acquired a cookbook of Jewish recipes from around the world. It was striking how little the dishes had in common with each other. Essentially it was a mix of Russian, German, Italian, Dutch, Greek, Levantine, etc. recipes, all adapted to Orthodox dietary rules but otherwise indistiguishable from what Gentiles in those lands were eating.

    Even those "Jewish" foods mentioned in the article — salmon, bagels, cream cheese, etc. — would not be out of place on a Gentile breakfast table anywhere east of Switzerland, especially on Fridays.

    So Israeli cuisine pretty much HAD to be a new creation, and it makes sense to adopt indigenous foods; there's usually good reasons why the locals eat what they do.

  3. Personally, I like our diversity of cuisines. Who wants to eat the same things day-in-n-day-out?

    But here is another look at everybody eating the same cuisine, different agricultural climates in the same country. What grows well in the desert SW doesn't grow well in New England and vice-versa not to mention the South or the Pacific NW. Israel is one growing climate not the 14 zones we have here in the USA.

  4. Commenter Cambias brings up what the original articles don't – what we think of as "Jewish food" is a mix of the foods in countries where Jews settled and interacted with western Gentiles. There's a strong influence of German and Russian foods in there. There was also a recent repatriation of Ethiopian Jews into Israel. I'll bet few of the Ethiopians had heard of the European dishes.

    I've been to Israel twice; once on a short business trip and once on a longer leisure trip. The constant is that Israelis have a larger breakfast and lunch than their dinner – except for Tel Aviv restaurants that cater to tourists. At one kibbutz I was in, lunch was a massive buffet of various styles of food. The hotel I stayed in for the business trip had a mind blowing breakfast buffet. Traditional western style foods: eggs, quiches, muffins, (not having bacon is not a surprise, right?) along with salads and foods Americans would think "too heavy" for breakfast. Lox and eggs became my favorite.

    1. I *love* that story! I'd always heard it as a *chili* contest, but curry works too! Either way, I had to stop before the second tasting description, because I can't risk the inevitable, agonizing gales of laughter and tears right now.

      PS: that's a story that is even more dangerously hilarious when read aloud, with a bit of voice acting sprinkled in to drive home the suffering…oh the suffering …that poor b@st@rd…
      *snorts/giggles* *covers mouth*

  5. …but cultural appropriation, you are only allowed to eat food that your grandmother made…

    This great melting pot has cracked and now we all are in the fire…

  6. Just had 8 pounds of crawfish tonight myself. Yum!

    I understand their reasoning, but it is sad they gave that up, instead of adding new flavors to it.

    I too say +1 on Mostly Cajun. 🙂

  7. Speaking from 'flyover' country, I think the whole world would be better off with a diet of corn on the cob, fresh garden tomatoes-with a main dish of bratwurst from the grill. Given the growing season in Wisconsin though, better off would be confined to August and September. Might be an improvement from now however.

  8. I noticed that once upon a time. I've also seen it among immigrants to the United States. Folks who immigrated and should have been making outstanding fare from their native traditions descend into casseroles because it's 'more American'. It's their kids and grandkids who revive the old recipes. I've watched on old German grandmother who came over after WWII fall into tears when her granddaughter presented her with a plate of rouladen and spaetzle. She hadn't had it since coming to the United States.

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