In February, I watched from a distance as thousands of Israelis took to the streets protesting for democracy. I was reminded that at a simpler point in my life, the existence of a Jewish state meant eating burgers at a kosher McDonald’s. As a child, my operating assumption was that everything in the Land of Milk and Honey tasted better, and the world there was my kosher oyster. It thrilled me that Israelis dubbed pigs in a blanket Moshe Batevah (Moses in the basket) and that the name of the department store Mashbir evoked the biblical root shever (grain) that appears in the Genesis story of Joseph’s brothers’ journey to Egypt to buy food.
My trips to Israel have allowed me to expand my gastronomic horizons in a way that keeping kosher in the U.S. inhibits. I’ve nibbled halvah in the shuk, eaten shakshuka in Jaffa, and sampled cheeses that I hadn’t known existed. But it’s more than culinary curiosity. The history of my eclectic family background is represented all over Israel in both religious customs and culinary delights. When my spouse and I took our baby to the pulmonologist in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, we would visit the shop next door for Yerushalmi kugel, recalling my mother’s memories of eating it with her Hasidic grandmother on the Lower East Side. On a trip to the shuk one Friday, an appliance store owner gestured us to the back of his shop, where homemade kibbe soup simmered on a burner and tasted like the one my Syrian grandmother made back in Brooklyn. With this swirling array of flavors and textures, Israel offers me a version of myself, as cultures previously separated by regional boundaries are now side by side in market stalls.
As I have come to terms with the explosive tensions of the real Israel, I have discovered that food figures in major debates around identity and politics. The Rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut and the politics of shemitah (the biblical sabbatical year) illuminate the paradoxes of a Jewish democracy. I’ve tried to support food establishments with alternative kosher supervision, including a tiny Italian gem with polenta I still dream of. Treif food on Hebrew menus once shocked me, particularly that first time I noticed scallops on offer. Gradually, I came to appreciate these establishments and the people who patronize them as bulwarks against creeping theocratic tendencies. They led me to a (half serious) vow that if I were ever to relinquish kashrut, I would do so in Jerusalem as an instantiation of the rabbinic concept of an aveirah lishmah, a transgression committed for a higher purpose: the higher purpose of a robustly democratic Israel realized through the consumption of treif in the Holy City.
If the restaurants of West Jerusalem represent my hopes for separation between shul and state, a charming café-bookshop I know in East Jerusalem problematizes the Zionist adage that before 1948, Israel was a land without a people for a people without a land. Once, after coffee and knafeh with a friend, I browsed the shelves and noticed a familiar looking postcard: “Falafel: the National Food of Israel!” it proclaimed. Only the word Israel was crossed out, and Palestine inserted in its place. An English language Gazan cookbook that read like a political manifesto was prominently displayed nearby. Palestinian cookbooks, I have learned, vary in presentation. Some refer to ingredients Palestinians cannot procure because of the occupation, while others studiously avoid mentioning Israel, whether to sell more books by appearing non-political or to assert a fierce cultural independence. This land already had a people, with whom my people must learn to live and, one day, I hope, thrive.
A scholar friend once brought me to Hisham’s Palace in Jericho, a Palestinian heritage site that contains early Islamic archeological ruins with a massive, intact mosaic. I went to a little shop down the road for snacks and water and was struck by the difference in products from the typical Israeli makolet (corner store). There was bottled water from Turkey and fare I did not recognize. Both the palace and the shop demonstrated how this land, which usually feels like a second home, contains parts that are foreign and inaccessible to me.
Last summer, my family and I ate at a delightful food truck festival in the Valley of Hinnom, the ancient site of child sacrifice anathematized by the prophets. It reminded me of another food truck experience I had years ago. Then, for 25 shekels, I ate an iconic Palestinian meal prepared by the Arab chef of a gourmet, and decidedly non-kosher, Jerusalem restaurant that had obtained rabbinical supervision for the evening. With delicious, yet affordable food, Jews lining up to partake of Palestinian cuisine, and religious and secular Jerusalemites breaking bread together, the presence of that food truck felt like the arrival of messiah astride a donkey.
The Passover seder opens with an invitation, “whoever is hungry, come and eat.” Sometimes it is our family, sometimes our friends and neighbors, and sometimes virtual strangers who end up around our table. The Bible invokes the Israelite exodus from Egypt to justify compassion towards the stranger, and I imagine that the rabbis who wrote the Haggadah considered Passover as an opportunity to extend invitations to those living on the margins. At this moment I pray that the table of Israel extends in multiple directions to accommodate, feed, and nourish all the people of this land.
This essay is from a special Yom Ha’atzmaut edition of Tamuz, an online magazine of the The David H Sonabend Center for Israel at the Marlene Meyerson JCC, presented in partnership with the Shalom Hartman Institute.