Israeli Food is so Jewish, Here’s Why
The foods that make up the Israeli cuisine tell the story of the Jewish people.
People are falling in love with Israeli food more and more these days as Israeli food culture becomes widely known around the world for its unique mix of tastes and colors, smells and spices.
But what makes Israeli food specifically Israeli?
Is falafel Israeli? What about bourekas or hummus? Is there anything specifically Jewish about the food eaten in the Jewish state?
Now, there are a lot of reasons people love Israel. The history, the beauty, the special feeling you feel being there. And, again, the food.
But why? How could the food in tiny little Israel compare or compete with food cultures in other countries much bigger and much older than it?
The answer, I think, is the story behind the food, which is really the inspiring story of the Jewish people returning home after 2000 years of exile.
You see, Israeli food isn’t uniquely Israeli. If I walk the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, or Haifa and Beersheva, I’ll find all kinds of foods that I can find in other parts of the world.
Bourekas? From Turkey.
Shakshuka? Northern Africa.
Hummus? Eaten for centuries around the Middle East before the creation of Israel in 1948.
And don’t tell Israelis this but most food experts agree that falafel is originally from Egypt!
It’s interesting to note that oftentimes Jews in these countries made these local traditional foods uniquely Jewish in some kind of way. For example, Yemenite Jews ate jachnun on Shabbat morning after prayers (and in Israel many of them still do) because it’s a dish that is left to cook overnight for many hours.
And, to Israel’s credit, it was in Israel that falafel was served for the first time in a pita, becoming the classic food icon that it is today.
Now, the only reason these foods are now part of the Israeli cuisine is because these were the foods Jews cooked and ate in their corners of the Diaspora. And when the gates of the Jewish state were opened wide in 1948 and Jews from the four corners of the Earth traveled by boat, by plane and even by foot to return home, they brought with them their cultures including their languages, styles of dress, music and unique Jewish traditions, as well as their beloved foods.
Turkish Jews ate bourekas in Turkey, Moroccan Jews ate shakshuka in Morocco, Yemenite Jews ate jachnun in Yemen and Jews around the Middle East ate hummus (probably really good hummus).
I should pay some respect to my own family roots in Eastern Europe where Eastern European Jews ate gefilte fish, though that one didn't quite make it into Israel's cuisine. I guess some things are best left in the past.
Like many immigrant populations, the returning Jews continued to cook and eat these same foods in Israel as well. And instead of disappearing over time, like sometimes happens, they became part and parcel of the mainstream food culture and Israelis of different geographic backgrounds became exposed to each other’s food traditions. And together, from the Yemenite to the Moroccan to the Ethiopian to the European to the Iraqi, these foods became the Israeli food culture, one of the world’s most unique and inspiring food cultures, the likes of which has never been seen in Jewish history.
There’s one more piece to this story, though, and it’s this piece that I think makes Israeli cuisine so Jewish.
The founder of the 18th century Hasidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov, taught that the reason the Jewish people went into exile from Israel in the first place was to collect positive aspects from all around the world and then bring them back to Israel.
Now, the Baal Shem Tov probably didn’t have in mind that this would happen in the form of food! But if we think about it, the foods of the world are some of the greatest things we could bring back to Israel with us. For food is so intertwined with our lives, our festivals, our celebrations, and our life cycle events. It’s through food that we come together and create stronger family bonds and communities. And, now, also nationhood, something the Jewish people lacked for 2000 years.
The foods that make up the Israeli cuisine tell the story of the Jewish people, of the places we’ve been and the lives we lived before having the great merit to return home. And in Israel these foods have combined to create a food culture that is part of a larger culture that is simultaneously a reflection of these experiences of the Jewish past and something that is entirely new, never seen before in Jewish history.
We especially see this in the way many Israeli chefs have taken the traditional foods and recipes of the Jewish Diaspora and have redefined them using local ingredients and creating new food combinations, taking the best of what was in the past with the best that we have today to create a food culture that is a mix of old and new, traditional and modern, east and west.
And, in that way, we can say that Israeli food is the most Jewish food of all.