Israeli Food After 1948

Once Israel was established in 1948, it had a daunting task on its hands: feeding hundreds of new citizens, many of whom were refugees.

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This article is reprinted from The Foods of Israel Today, a wonderful cookbook that can almost double as a history book and a tour book of the State of Israel. In this article, Nathan discusses the beginnings of Israeli cuisine.

After the Second World War, the British government, worn down by daily tensions and increas­ing pressure from abroad, decided to abandon its Palestine mandate, leaving the task of deciding its fate to the newly emerged United Nations. In the United States, wide sympathy was generated for the idea of a Jewish homeland as an answer to the plight of displaced Jewish persons, victims of the Holocaust who were stranded throughout Europe. When in May 1948 David Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish Agency, declared Israel's independence, American president Harry S Truman, and shortly thereafter the Soviet Union, enthusiastically recognized the new state. 

A New Culinary Picture Emerges

The face of the new nation changed, and gradually a new culinary picture emerged. But first the infant state found itself surrounded by enemies, and absorb­ing 100,000 immigrants a year. This time the wave was comprised not only of displaced survivors of the Holocaust, but of Jews from all over the Middle East. With each ethnic group came different styles of eating and cooking.

couscousThe massive immigration was a strain on the economy, so the period from 1948 to 1958 was a time of government-regulated zena (food rationing) and ma'abarot (makeshift dwellings). Women cooked with khubeiza (wild greens) from the fields; new foods, like Ben-Gurion's "Israeli couscous," were intro­duced to satisfy the needs of the multicultural population; and surplus vegetables, like eggplant, were ingeniously used to simulate meat. Israel's canning industry increased production, supplying canned tomato paste and puree, hummus, tahina, and mayonnaise in tubes.

One of the many issues to be resolved in this new Jewish country was the official position on the dietary laws [kashrut]. Ben-Gurion decided to remain with the "status quo" agreement, maintaining rabbinical supervision of kashrutin all government organizations, military service, schools, and hospitals.

Even the rabbis, however, had to compromise. The U.S. government, through the Agency for International Development, sent millions of pounds of preserved foods, such as dried eggs, dried skim milk, butter, dried codfish, and cheddar cheese. Maury Atkin, who worked at the newly created Israeli embassy in Washington at the time, recalled how the rabbis in Israel asked if the cheese was kosher. "We told them that cheddar cheese was the most wholesome cheese sold in America, even if it includes a small amount of nonkosher animal rennet. Because there were so many starving children, the Chief Rabbi of Israel issued an edict that the cheddar cheese sent over would be kosher for children up to the age of 14."

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Joan Nathan

Joan Nathan is the author of several cookbooks, contributes articles on international ethnic food and special holiday features to The New York Times, Food Arts, Gourmet, and the B'nai B'rith International Jewish Monthly. Visit her website here.