Falafel Nation: Cui­sine and the Mak­ing of Nation­al Iden­ti­ty in Israel

  • Review
By – October 15, 2015

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 (19041914) 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.

Relat­ed Content:

Read Yael Raviv’s Vis­it­ing Scribe Posts

Can Peace Real­ly Be Achieved Through a Shared Cuisine?

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.

Discussion Questions