Why Isn’t There More “Jewish Food” In Israel?

Early Zionists adopted Palestinian dishes such as falafel (Credit: Photostock Israel/Getty Images)

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?

It was mid-May in Tel Aviv and the afternoon heat was rising. Sitting in Eva’s, a small un-air conditioned restaurant, eating chicken soup with kreplach (small dumplings filled with ground meat), sweat formed quickly behind the knees.

Eva’s has been located on this dumpy stretch of Allenby Street for 48 years. The menu is classic Ashkenazi – or Eastern European Jewish – food, and the glass display case is full of prepared potato latkes (pancakes) and fried cauliflower. The matzoh balls (soup dumplings) here are ‘sinkers’, in the common parlance. That means that they’re dense and bready, sitting in the bottom of the bowl of chicken soup. (‘Swimmers’ are lighter and spongier, and they float on the surface. The difference is a question of both skill and personal preference.)

There were three separate tables of single men in their 70s, one of whom was completing a crossword while working away at a large chicken schnitzel. Business was otherwise quiet. “This is not food for young people,” said proprietor Eva Schachter, whose family is originally German. “It’s grandma food. I’m old enough to remember the taste of the food my mother and grandmother used to make.” Eva smiled, her freckled and deeply wrinkled face framed by a gamine haircut.

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.

Unlike the relative prosperity of the US, where the deli – which specialises in preserved meats – flourished with the arrival of Jewish immigrants from Europe, the early years of Jewish statehood were marked by austerity. For the first decade following the formation of the state in 1948, the Israeli government imposed rationing on its rapidly growing population. Dwindling foreign currency made imported staples like oil, sugar and meat scarce. Fuel, such as natural gas and electricity, was also in short supply; bagels, which require an extra step of boiling before being baked, were too energy-intensive. The population instead made due with extra helpings of aubergine, which grew in abundance, and spawned such dishes as sabich, a pita sandwich overstuffed with the meaty vegetable.

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Sarah Treleaven and Jamie Levin

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