Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel

Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel

by Yael Raviv
Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel

Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel

by Yael Raviv


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When people discuss food in Israel, their debates ask politically charged questions: Who has the right to falafel? Whose hummus is better? But 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. How do we interpret the recent upsurge in the Israeli culinary scene—the transition from ideological asceticism to the current deluge of fine restaurants, gourmet stores, and related publications and media?

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. 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803290211
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 11/01/2015
Series: Studies of Jews in Society
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 304
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Yael Raviv is the director of the Umami food and art festival in New York City. She has a PhD in performance studies from New York University and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU. Her work has appeared in Women and Performance, Gastronomica, and elsewhere.

Read an Excerpt

Falafel Nation

Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel

By Yael Raviv


Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9021-1


Putting Down Roots

Agricultural Labor and Icons

A land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, land of olive trees and honey.

— Deuteronomy 8:8

Food has been used as a marketing tool for the land of Israel since ancient times. In biblical times the land of milk and honey was advertised with the aid of grapes, and ever since, food has continued to play a significant role in Zionist propaganda and Israeli tourism campaigns. These campaigns tend to use natural, whole foodstuffs such as grapes, olives, and oranges. These "fruits of the land" are perceived as direct links to the land itself, and creating and enforcing these links has been the primary concern of the Zionist movement. The most significant change in the treatment of these culinary symbols began with the First Aliya (immigration wave) toward the end of the nineteenth century. The members of the First Aliya had a new point of view: they not only were interested in consuming symbolic slivers of the promised land but also attempted to forge a more direct and powerful link with the land of Israel. They wished to put down roots by growing these products themselves; by working the land, they attempted to create an immediate and intimate bond between people and place.

This chapter focuses on agriculture in the Zionist project, particularly in its early years, as both practical tool and ideological trope and on the relationship between ideology and practice (sometimes supportive and often at odds). "Working the land" was a fundamental stage in the Zionist national project, a performance of Zionist ideology in the sense of "execution," "doing": connecting to the land of Israel in the most literal way and establishing an independent economic foundation. Growing food meant establishing strength and self-reliance in the present and the future, as well as forging a bond with the physical land both by working its soil and by consuming its fruit. In addition to the greater project of agriculture, specific agricultural products took on a similar role: growing and/or consuming them equaled the praxis of Zionism. Before the national movement could rely on official state symbols, it could use these products as physical markers of national identity.

One of the early challenges of the Jewish national movement was the first encounter of the young immigrants from Eastern Europe with the reality of life in the land of Israel. The Zionist movement could claim that the Jewish people are directly descended from the biblical Israelites, but in reality the new immigrants were raised in a different climate and were used to different foods. One of the most trivial-seeming yet essential steps to settling in a new land is being able to live on the available food products. The early Jewish immigrants felt this acutely because of the difficult economic situation and the limited products available to them.

The difficulty in adjusting to the unfamiliar foods of Palestine during this period is beautifully described in S. Y. Agnon's novel Temol Shilshom (Only yesterday). The "green" pioneer, Izchak, is offered a meal by a more experienced fellow pioneer after a frustrating day of unsuccessfully trying to find work in the moshava (village). The meal consists of tea, bread, tomatoes, and olives. Both tomatoes and olives are strange to Izchak and not quite to his liking even after he is persuaded to try them, but his friend admonishes him: "If you wish to be a son of the land of Israel, you have to learn to eat what you find."

Agnon makes it clear that one cannot be "a son of the land" if one cannot live off what that land provides. We are later told that Izchak becomes accustomed to these new foods: "Even the foods that were foreign to Izchak at first became tasteful to him. The fried eggplants in oil and in tomato sauce and all manner of dishes that are common in the land, are his foods every day, and needless to say olives and tomatoes." This is an essential step in the assimilation process of the immigrant Izchak. Agnon follows this with a lush description of the available seasonal fruits: apricots, grapes, prickly pears, watermelons, figs, dates, pomegranates, oranges, and mandarins. These fruits were more readily accepted by most immigrants, since they were already somewhat familiar with them. The immigrants had been exposed to them in Europe as very expensive, special, and prized products representing the land of Israel, the land of milk and honey. The sweet taste of dates, oranges, or pomegranates would symbolize the promise of the biblical land of Israel. These fruits are used in the novel to help present the land as bountiful, although one had to be open to trying the local products.

Culinary Icons

As Agnon's story demonstrates, fruit as a symbol of the "promised land" was a familiar device. In the early days of Zionist settlement in Palestine, these symbols were extended and expanded to forge both emotional and literal links to the land. Several food products were employed both as concrete symbols of an intangible connection to a new land, a unifying device, and as an attempt at a practical solution, a crop choice for a new farming endeavor.

Four decades after Agnon wrote Temol Shilshom, Benyamin Tamuz wrote a fictional account of a young halutz visiting his family in a town in Eastern Europe during approximately the same historical period. He brings them olives as a special gift from the land of Israel. Tamuz highlights the gap between the idealized image and the sometimes literally bitter reality:

As soon as he said it must be olives, immediately everyone almost fainted. Olives we have seen only in the Bible when we read "land of olive oil and honey," as it is written in the book of Devarim, as we have learned; and you must remember well that it is written there also "olives you will have in all your borders ..." and in Prophets olive is written a thousand times. But who in his life has seen an olive? ... "So a man walks into a store and buys olives?" asked grandfather in a whisper. "Sure," said Yehiel, "they are very cheap and the halutzim eat them a lot since they are very cheap."

The family then invites most of the town (everyone who is anyone) to view and partake of the olives. They all gather promptly and wait for the rabbi, who, after a short deliberation, gravely announces that these are indeed olives from the land of Israel. The gathered crowd is beside themselves. They pass around a crystal dish with the olives for everyone to have a small taste.

2. "A land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, land of olive trees and honey" (Deuteronomy 8:8). From the collections of the Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem.

The taste was, may the kodesh borech-hu forgive me, as if you put a chicken's gallbladder in your mouth. Far be it from me to speak badly of the olive that is a holy fruit from the land of Israel, it must have spoiled in the meantime, since I cannot believe, and simple logic does not allow, that the olive would be so bitter. It must be sweet as honey, providing you eat it fresh off the tree like you would apples and pears. The entire world knows that you should not eat spoiled fruit, but because of the olive's sacredness you do not mind it.

Both the writer of this letter and the other guests display their excitement over the olives through their connection with the biblical text by quoting relevant passages and sayings. The olive embodies the bond between Jewish religion and heritage, a mythical golden age, and modern Jewish nationalism. However, the encounter with the reality of the olive, the actual taste, is a clear marker of how alien it is to them, how removed they are from life in the land where the olive grows. The olive has a strong association with Arab foods. Its foreignness to the Eastern European Jewish palette stands in marked contrast to its role as a staple in the Middle Eastern Arab diet. The olive tree itself became a powerful symbol in Palestinian mythology, coming to signify the Palestinian connection to the land and the bearer of Palestinian memory and national identity.

In the early days of Jewish settlement in the land of Israel, grapes and olives played a central role as culinary "ambassadors." They were both linked to biblical times through their place among the seven minim (species) the land of Canaan was said to be blessed with (the others were almonds, wheat, barley, pomegranates, and figs). As such, both grapes and olives support the Zionist historical narrative, which traces a direct line from the ancient Israelites to the modern-day Jewish nation. Concurrent with its attempt to shape a new, vital, and self-sufficient Jewish figure, the national movement wished to show the Jewish nation as natural, constant, and historically linked to the land of Israel. Grapes (and all their by-products, such as raisins and wine) offered a perfect trigger to the collective Jewish imagination, encapsulating all these objectives in a small, sweet package.

3. The Fourteenth Zionist Congress, Palestinian Exhibition. From the collections of the Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem.

The early Zionist settlers arriving in Palestine toward the end of the nineteenth century chose grapes as one of the main agricultural products for cultivation in their attempt to create a productive, self-sufficient Jewish society. Two unique ventures, Petach-Tikva, a moshava established in 1878, and Mikve Israel, an agricultural school established in 1870, were early attempts at agricultural work by Jewish people in the land of Israel prior to the First Aliya (1884–1903). They represent the seeds of the attempt to bring Jewish people out from behind the city walls and into a new, more independent existence. It is important to note that despite the prevalence of the Zionist narrative of the First Aliya as the first to introduce agricultural work to the Jewish community in a significant way, Jewish agricultural work is in fact a much older practice. Historian Israel Bar-Tal attributes the encouragement of agricultural labor among Jewish people in the late 1800s to the Russian government's influence and to Eastern and Central European intellectuals' economic views. They regarded agricultural labor and craft as essential to a country's economic prosperity (unlike commerce and trade) and therefore encouraged mass migration of Jewish communities to rural areas and farming life throughout Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century.

The members of the First Aliya founded twenty-five new agricultural settlements (moshavot, plural of moshava) between 1882 and 1903. These agricultural settlements should be distinguished from the moshavim (plural of moshav), the cooperative villages established in the early 1920s, because the early moshavot were not structured as communes or cooperatives but as more traditional villages with private plots and hired help. The emphasis on self-labor ("Hebrew" labor), particularly agricultural labor, was one of the main innovations of the First Aliya.

The ideal of self-labor was difficult because of the harsh economic conditions in Palestine, lack of experience and agricultural knowledge of the immigrants, and shortage of capital. The moshavot established by the immigrants of the First Aliya survived largely due to the support of Baron Edmond James de Rothschild through a system of overseers and agricultural advisors and teachers. Later immigrants criticized the members of the First Aliya for receiving this support from Rothschild. They saw it as akin to the money of the haluka (the organized distribution of financial support from communities abroad, viewed as a handout) that had been given to the old Yishuv. So despite the original intention of the First Aliya to create a new Jewish image, to change the Diasporic lifestyle into a productive and independent one, subsequent immigration waves believed the first wave betrayed these ideals.

Rothschild's advisors helped the settlers develop crops such as grapevines and olives. New technologies gave a great push to citrus and orchard products. Creating a basis for an independent national economy was an important contribution by the First Aliya's members. It was the first attempt at a conscious national endeavor. The settlers originally wanted to grow wheat. Producing bread, the staff of life, through their own labor was their ultimate goal, but they chose orchards when they realized the small size of their plots would not support wheat growing.

The decision to plant grapevines was due not only to Rothschild's influence but also to the financial reality: settlers generally invested all the money they had in purchasing land and therefore favored a crop that would give a fairly quick return. Vines give fruit after two years, while citrus produces fruit only four years after planting. Later, though, the settlers realized that in order to produce wine from the grapes, a much greater investment and longer period of time were necessary (including building production facilities and shipping the wine to Europe for sale), and citrus growing rose in popularity.

Oranges replaced olives and grapes in the late 1920s both as the main agricultural product and as a powerful symbol. Citrus growing was promoted as one of the main export branches of the Jewish community in Palestine. The climate in Israel appears particularly well suited for citrus growing, and it flourished. Over a period of about six years following the First World War, the area of Jewish citrus groves tripled. Ninety percent of these citrus groves were privately owned and influenced the growth of related industries. The orange is markedly associated with successful Jewish agricultural labor in Israel. It has no connection to the Bible, lacking the mystic and historical connections to land and forefathers that olives and grapes had, yet that lack of connection is also its advantage: like the new non-Diasporic Jew living off the land, productive and strong, the orange is a new agricultural product, a foundation for a national economy. Despite the later success of other products such as avocados and tomatoes, the continued importance of grapes and olives, and the addition of other citrus products, the orange remained for several decades the premier agricultural export of Israel.

The oranges were mostly of one particular type known as Shamuti — an almost seedless, elliptical, sweet fruit that was easy to peel. These were becoming known in Europe as Jaffa oranges. Initially, every company would ship oranges under a different brand name, but by the mid-1920s the brand name Jaffa had begun to appear on orange crates from the land of Israel. In the 1940s the Council for the Distribution of Citrus Fruit was established by the British Mandate. They realized that Jaffa was associated with a high-quality product and began distributing all citrus products from Israel under that brand name.

Despite the fact that citrus growing in the region began as a product of Arab labor (and, like the olive, the orange had also been adopted as a symbol of Palestinian nostalgia for a lost homeland), its increasing success as an export product was tied to Jewish labor and initiative. Oranges became identified with the Zionist project, and the Israeli state embraced the orange as "quintessentially" Israeli. The orange began to play the role of a national icon, invoking national pride much like a flag would. Carol Bardenstein offers as an example the uniforms of El Al Airline stewardesses in the 1960s. The idea of Israel as a Jaffa orange was translated into the stewardesses' bright-orange uniforms with orange-shaped helmets.

This use of the orange in a tourist-oriented enterprise such as the national airline is particularly significant, since it projects a certain image of the Israeli state to the outside world. Stewardesses' uniforms could have been blue and white, for example, the colors of the national flag, but instead they were modeled after the orange. The orange indicated certain characteristics that the state wished to promote as part of its image, such as self-sufficiency and rootedness in the land. The orange not only stands for the nation but also presents a particular national portrait. Other examples show the use of oranges as emblems of Israeliness for the Israeli public as well: they grace the covers of folk-song collections and have been reconstructed and questioned by Israeli artists.

The orange has lost much of its cachet as an Israeli national icon in recent years, with technology becoming a central Israeli export and the importance of agriculture declining both economically and ideologically. Today growers in other countries can purchase the right to use the Jaffa brand. They must pass an Israeli board that assesses the quality and characteristics of their oranges and then pay for the privilege of using the brand name. It is apparently a worthwhile investment, since consumers abroad associate the Jaffa brand with quality and are willing to pay a premium for it. Today it is just as likely that a Jaffa orange comes from Spain or South Africa as from Israel.


Excerpted from Falafel Nation by Yael Raviv. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. Putting Down Roots: Agricultural Labor and Icons,
2. Patriotic Distribution: The "Hebrew" Watermelon,
3. Kitchen Lessons: Educating Home Cooks,
4. The Virtual Kitchen: Making Room for Pleasure,
5. The Professional Kitchen: Articulating a National Cuisine,
6. No Table Required: Consumption and the Public Sphere,
Appendix: Historical Context,

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