In his article entitled “Jewish food tells the story of immigrants, not of Israeli nationalism,” visual artist and food researcher, Rafram Chaddad offers his take on Tablet Magazine’s list of the 100 Most Jewish Foods. Included in the list were staples like Challah and brisket as well as a few cheeky nods to dishes like Chinese food and bacon, which have long occupied a distinct corner in the Jewish culinary psyche. In general, the paragraphs which accompanied each food were witty, well-written summaries of the unique Jewish relationship to the particular dish.
Unfortunately, Chaddad chose to look past the humor of the list, and instead focus his energy on explaining the “enduring issues of erasure and cultural appropriation” which have prevented the Jewish world from exploring “the complexities around the term “Jewish food,”” and more specifically Jewish food from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In particular, Chaddad seemed fixed on a senior writer at Tablet, (and also the person to whom I owe my name, although I’ve yet to have the opportunity to share that story with him) Liel Leibovitz. Of all the authors and all of the MENA dishes which the list included, Chaddad chose two of Leibovitz’s paragraphs; Hummus and Shakshuka.
I would like to state clearly that I have no intention of denying the existence of cultural appropriation. I just don’t believe the term applies to Israeli cuisine, as I hope to explain below.
Strong and weak culinary contexts
If sushi and pasta are from strong culinary contexts, then hummus and shakshuka are from weak ones, at least according to Chaddad’s conception of “the perspective of the American Jewish liberal imagination.” What the author neglects in his haste to connect Tablet Magazine to the Israeli government; however, is that Jews have been making and eating hummus for as long as hummus has been popular in the region. Chaddad’s entire argument ironically rests on the notion that Middle Eastern Jews were passive recipients of a superior Arab culinary tradition rather than active participants with unique contributions to make.
The fact that today, Israelis claim hummus as a staple of Israeli cuisine does not negate its origins in Arab countries. Rather, it suggests that in 70 years, Israelis have made a few unique contributions to the dish, be it preparation, the foods it is served with, or even the centrality it plays in Israeli diets. Chaddad’s attempt to politicize a recipe that has been shared and altered for more than a millennium is pedantic.
If there is one thing a region as tumultuous as the Middle East can agree on, its that Hummus is really good.
Hummus. Photographed by Marco Verch.
Shakshuka is Israeli now. There is no irony.
Chaddad manages to find humor in what he misunderstands as an attempt to make an already Jewish food Jewish by “its connection to Israel.” It seems Chaddad’s assumptions serve as the foundation of his arguments. Once more, I do not believe the Leibovitz is making the case that shakshuka has been Israeli since 1948.
Rather, shakshuka is another example of things taking on new identities when they come to new places. Shakshuka, much like Chaddad, may not have been born in Israel, but Israel is where it came of age. Food reflects history, and shakshuka’s prominence in Israel today is emblematic of the decimation of ancient Jewish communities throughout the Arab world. Today, nearly all of Tunisia’s Jews live in Israel as a result of both Jewish choices to return to their ancient homeland and Arab persecution. If, as Chaddad makes clear, shakshuka is a Jewish-Tunisian dish and the overwhelming majority of Tunisian-Jews and their descendants live in Israel, then, by my estimation, shakshuka is an Israeli dish, or at the very least, it has dual citizenship.
The Ultimate Jewish Spice
In one final jab at Leibovitz, Chaddad takes up the cause of Jews overusing our long history of persecution. Leibovitz says, “As Jews huddled for safety in their biblical homeland, fleeing violence in Rabat or Tunis or Algiers, they could take comfort in one thing: simmering onions, peppers, and tomatoes, topped with a couple of eggs, cooked on a skillet and consumed with a fresh loaf of white bread.” Is Leibovitz’s language a little flowery? Maybe. No, definitely, but that shouldn’t obscure the truth in his statement.
The reality of Jewish persecution has been seasoned throughout human history and sadly, in some places, it is still palatable. Chaddad’s criticism of this historical conclusion, as well as his later attempt to deny that many Arab countries are still dangerous places to be Jewish or Israeli, is a stunning oversight considering the author himself spent five months in a Libyan jail for the crime of being Israeli. I am elated that Chaddad and his aunt, along with less than 2,000 other Jews, can live today in Tunisia in relative peace and preserve a beautiful community. However, Chaddad should be mindful not to deny the reality of persecution of other Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, like my own great-grandfather who was lynched in a small Moroccan town in the Atlas mountains years before the state of Israel existed.
The Family Reunion
To think of food as a static recipe is to do it a great disservice. Indeed, preference is the stuff of variety, and, as Cowper wrote, variety is the spice of life. Chaddad concludes his article by testifying correctly to food’s role as one way to measure the “powerful” effects of immigration. He says of human movement, “that’s how most Jewish food was created,” and surely that is how most Jewish foods will continue to be created. It’s the reason my Moroccan Abba knows how to make schnitzel and my Ashkenazi mom knows her way around couscous.
When Jews from around the world immigrated to Israel, they brought with them the unique culinary catalogs of the lands they had called home for thousands of years. As with any family reunion, things were a little awkward at first, and maybe even a little tense, but eventually, the family got hungry, so Safta and Bubbe started to cook together. They exchanged recipes, introduced each other to new spices and they made something that was simultaneously old and new. That belonged to the lands from which they came, but also to this old and new land they had always called home. They created, and continue to create Israeli cuisine by the same process that all the world’s cuisines were and continue to be created. It takes a whole lot of chutzpah to claim otherwise.
Liel Asulin is a Campus Coordinator at CAMERA and, in his free time, an avid amateur cook.