Food. Beyond providing physical sustenance, the food we eat tells a story of who we are, from where we came, and how we relate to the community in which we live. As author Yael Raviv explains in her book Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel, “food is central to our perception of ‘home’ and identity.” In that way, Raviv argues that it is through the history of Israeli cuisine that one can come to better understand the ways early Zionist leadership carefully crafted an “Israeli” identity, separate and distinct from that of Diasporic Jewry and the local populations already living in the land.
Raviv focuses on the origins and development of food in Israel from the time of the Second Aliyah (1904−1914) through the first few decades of the young state. She seeks not to define or assess Israeli food — which ethnic community made the first falafel, whose hummus is the most divine — but rather to use food as a vehicle for a broader historical inquiry. Raviv is not a food critic, nor is Falafel Nation a cookbook: it is a detailed, meticulously researched, academic assessment of the ways in which Zionist political goals, local demographics and economics, Labor Zionism’s emphasis on the revival of Jewish agriculture on biblical soil, and more all combined to create modern Israeli identity on both national and individual levels. It is the story of totzeret haaretz—products of the land — and the ways in which yishuv leadership used intense marketing and a bit of old-fashioned Jewish guilt to teach its constituents that even an act as simple as buying a banana was a statement about one’s politics and identity, and should be seen in that way.
Falafel Nation encompasses a wide range of topics, including but not limited to controversy regarding kashrut in the twentieth century, the education of home cooks, the history of Israeli cookbooks and cooking shows, and Israeli food in the public image. Organized thematically, aspects of the story could become confusing for someone not familiar with the general history of modern Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel. Those looking for a more succinct, chronologically-based analysis of the history of Israeli cuisine may most enjoy Raviv’s detailed appendix, which provides just that.
Raviv’s analysis of the development of a distinct “Israeli” national identity through a study of the history of Israeli cuisine adds a unique voice to the existing literature on the creation of the Jewish nation-state. Her atypical approach, undoubtedly influenced by her background in performance studies and her interest in how ethnic identity is “processual and performative rather than fixed,” provides a thought-provoking read for someone interested in a detailed, intellectual exploration of the origins of Israeli identity from a new perspective.
- Visiting Scribe Essays on Israel
- Asaf Gavron: Jerusalem, 1995 – 1996: Eating Standing Up
- Mati Friedman: A Hidden History
Read Yael Raviv’s Visiting Scribe Posts
Joy Getnick, PhD, is the Executive Director of Hillel at the University of Rochester. She is the author of the Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning Beyond Borders: The History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, has taught history at area colleges, and previously worked in the JCC world and as the director of a teen Israel travel summer program.