Multicultural Israel: An Examination in Seven Vignettes
by Royee Zvi Atedgi
AN EXAMINATION IN SEVEN VIGNETTES
In the middle of the Seder, I get up from the table to retrieve the complimentary earplugs wedged inside the pocket of a pair of pants worn on the El Al flight a month prior. I tear the packaging and plug my ears, muffling the sound filling the raucous room. I return to the table just as my aunt, adorned in gold bangles and earrings, is circling the Seder plate above the children’s heads for the Bibhilu. She pauses and turns to me, laughing.
“What’s with the earplugs?”
“Twenty screaming Moroccans,” I say. “No one’s ears are built for these decibels.”
It’s an inside joke between my father’s family and I. My father puts it most succinctly: “You have a Moroccan stomach, but a Polish soul.”
It’s true that I take after my Polish mother’s introversion, and truer still that I find her family’s cuisine bland in contrast to my father’s garlicky, spice-heavy indulgences. Calf’s brain simmered in red sauce or spicy Moroccan fish or harira soup. For dessert: mint tea, pistachios, and––on special occasion––sfenj, those fried, fritter-like doughnuts that I dust with surplus sugar. Compare that to my cousin on my mother’s side , who finds even black pepper too piquant for her taste. “Wow,” she’ll say from across the table. “That’s a little too hot for me.”
We all have our genetic drawbacks.
But at the end of the day, I know where to go for quiet without being interrupted every five minutes by relatives badgering me to eat or otherwise yelling on speaker phone.
Floating between these spheres amounts to all the multiculturalism I can muster in my personal life. And that is quite enough for someone split along various fault-lines of identity: American/Israeli, Polish/Moroccan, Ashkenazi/Sephardic, Hebrew/English. My father feels for me. I must be questioning myself all the time, he says.
THE HUMMUS WARS
Looking outward, the one area that undoubtedly thrives in the multicultural sense here is the cuisine. Just now gaining traction in the States (one shudders at the sight of Trader Joe’s boxed falafel) Israeli cuisine is having its moment. Zahav, a Philadelphia restaurant helmed by Michael Solomonov won Best Restaurant In America in 2019. But to define Israeli cuisine––or, more specifically, where it comes from––is hard to pin down. Many lay claim to staples like hummus. There is even an ongoing conflict (albeit with much less at stake than the usual ones) dubbed The Hummus Wars––whose belligerents, Israel and Lebanon, vie to make official their rightful place as creators of the tasty chickpea blend.
In 2009, Lebanon set a Guinness Book of World Records for the largest bowl of hummus, coming in at a hefty two tons. Not to be outdone, Israel managed a four-ton dish a few months later. Outraged, Lebanese authorities went back to work in 2010, besting the Israelis with a whopping eleven-and-a-half ton plate of hummus. A 2015 venture by the Israelis to make a fifteen-ton plate succeeded, but Guinness representatives refused to travel there for the official weigh-in due to a security warning. One only wonders if–– like pulling the fire alarm before an exam––the threat of defeat led the Lebanese to extreme measures to keep the reps from certifying a decisive Israeli win in The Hummus Wars. Next time, we’ll cover The Quarter-Mile Shish Kebab.
THE REAL MULTICULTURAL MCCOY
Israel is a prime candidate for melding cultures, found everywhere from its shvakim to its offspring. Indeed, in the way that the piled-high pyramids of Turkish delights, baklava, and grain sacks of bright spices are parts of an intricate Diasporic dance, so too are the children of blonde, blue-eyed Russians and dark-skinned Yemenites, punctual Yekkes and worldly Frenchmen. Or, like me, a boisterous Moroccan and a reserved Pole. Stripped of the loaded political baggage the term “multiculturalism” carries (at least to an American like me haunted by Coexist bumper stickers) one can actually appreciate the term in its real and intended meaning here––one underpinned by a truer coexistence, however tenuous and liable, like a powder keg, to ignite every few years.
If in America multiculturalism is an aspiration rather than a practice, fraught by the pressure borne upon immigrant groups to ultimately assimilate, in Israel it’s a realized way of life. People bring their traditions, they enrich the cramped country with them, sharing food and slang that bleed over into foreign kitchens and conversations. Different as these subcultures are, there’s a central Israeli ethos to which all of them cohere: the prodding, the yelling, the lack of personal space, the heat, the wars, high taxes, dysfunctional government. It’s crowded, it’s hot, and patience is in short supply. Amending the list of official languages, we have: Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English, and Car Honks––the last of which is vitally and freely dispensed as naturally at six in the morning as during rush hour. Stress accumulates in checkout lines where cashiers are keen to remind shoppers of deals unfulfilled. “Did you know that these are three for 10 shekels today?” This prompts the person in line to leave his groceries, along with the ten people waiting behind him, to retrieve the third bag of Bamba, lest he fall prey to being a freier––a sucker.
The national obsession with not being a freier seeps into every corner of Israeli life. Though after being here for some time, it’s become clear that Israelis are among the biggest freiers in the world in what they’re willing to shell out for nearly everything. But, convinced of the merits of their own wheeling and dealing––what they call combinot––they are able to maintain the freier-free illusion they have of themselves. The malls are packed during hours which, ordinarily, I’d think people would be at work, proving the term “secondhand” is not in avid use here as much as the term “sale” is. When IKEA arrived in Kiryat Ata, my uncle told me they sold out of almost everything in under two weeks. Talk about a clash of cultures. Entire extended families obstructing the aisles trying to make heads and tails of Swedish names.
When my father visits from America, we head to Nazareth for knafeh and drive up the winding road to Daliyat al-Karmel for the weekend market. For Kosher meat, we go to Biton in Kiryat Yam. For trayf, there’s the Russian supermarket in Motzkin, blessedly open on Shabbat. We head up north to taste Circassian cheese. We head down south to stay with Bedouins.
Back from our travels and in the mood for falafel, we go to a Yemenite place that’s been in business since my father and his brothers were kids running around barefoot in the streets luring stray cats with sardines.
My eyes scan the varieties of zhug there. I ask my father which is spiciest. He points to a brown mixture with seeds floating on the surface oil, and says, “That one, but don’t do it.” The owner looks me up and down, assessing my Ashkenazi features, and agrees with my father. “That one, very hot. You’re American? I don’t think you could handle it.” I walk over and fill a small, plastic ramekin in total silence. Both are stunned when I begin to heap it on the crispy, parsley-rich falafel. Even though I’m soon dripping sweat, clear mucus running freely from my nose, it’s the most flavorful zhug I’ve ever had. “Are you okay?” my dad asks, looking concerned. “Never better,” I say, crying, giving him a thumbs up.
My grandfather’s live-in aide is a guy from India about my age. His ringtone is “Sweet Home Alabama” and when he’s not shuttling my grandfather from wheelchair to recliner to the rolling commode, he’s watching YouTube and playing guitar. He has a family back home. Why here? I wonder.
The market for aides to help elderly Jews is vast. Mostly populated by folks from Thailand, the Philippines, and India, I can’t help but admire their ability to not only take up the task of wiping tushies and pushing around these cranky geriatrics, but to learn enough of the language to communicate effectively. Part of it is ulpan, a necessity, but another is the daily accumulation of words unique to your senior.
One morning I hear my grandfather grunting at Rai, the aide, as he’s preparing my grandfather to get out of bed. Rai is saying ma atta rotzeh? (What do you want?) in broken Hebrew over and over, laughing while my grandfather repeats his series of growls and grunts and a muffled ma atta rotzeh? of his own––a playful mock. It’s an odd combination of sounds for 9 a.m., but as soon as Rai wheels him out into the living room, I see what’s been going on. My grandfather has pushed his dentures to the edge of his mouth with his tongue, growling to amuse Rai, whose warmth toward my grandfather is a welcome sight after a rotation of three aides, all women, who couldn’t put up with him.
My grandfather refuses to eat unless Rai does first, constantly worries about his well-being, and, during the usual Friday evening call from my uncle in New York, my grandfather outlines his plan to have Rai circumcised. In short, he sees him as family.
Visiting a friend in Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter, I notice a photo of St. George slaying the dragon tacked outside his door. On the rusty nail fixing the photo to the sun-bleached board hangs a small black bracelet with a silver cross. His apartment is owned by Copts, an ancient Christian community from Egypt. We see one out in the main alley, decked in an all-black galabeya with a large cross dangling from his neck. To get to the apartment, we open an inconspicuous steel door that feels like a portal to another world. The slippery, pockmarked stone presses in on a narrow, steep flight of stairs with old iron rails ascending to a square-foot courtyard whose the only burst of color is a young lime tree protecting the clay-potted plants underneath it.
The neighbor hears us out there and brings out cups of Sprite and lemon wafers. He is an eccentric fellow, with slicked black hair that ends in ringlets at the nape of his neck. His gestures are flamboyant. Minus the hairdo, he is the exact doppelgänger of Cosmo Kramer. Even the erratic hand movements are perfectly Cosmo’s, though I doubt the neighbor has ever watched an episode of Seinfeld. There is no question he could have a lucrative future as Kramer’s look-alike the same way Elvis impersonators still seem to make a living. I want to bridge this opportunity with him, but I don’t. And anyway, he has far more to offer. He is Greek Orthodox, but admits he is rather secular.
When I ask what he does all day, he delivers a halting monologue in English: “We wake up…we go walk…we eat…we sleep…tomorrow, again.” I’m arrested by the simplicity, and even more by his universalizing to a “we”.
For dinner, we go to the American Colony Hotel. Much like restaurants in America, the cocktails are expertly done, while the food fails to be something to write home about. Outside after dinner, my friend points in the direction of a sign beside a gas station just beyond the roundabout which reads: SHEIKH JARRAH.
Israeli folk singer Meir Ariel’s track “Etzel Tzion” puts to song the reality of a multicultural Israel through the metaphor of a hummusiya. The restaurant is real, a block off Trumpeldor Beach, and nearly a quarter century after he released the track in 1997, it’s still in operation right next to the post office as he describes in the first line. The story is like many of Ariel’s tracks: the lyrics belying a surface simplicity are embedded with deeply layered commentary on Israeli society employing double meanings, ironies, and biting satire.
The idea behind the song is that at Etzel Tzion––a place where they put “a lot of love on the plate for a little bit of money”, a place where “before you order, the owner offers and does not let you wait”––everybody is an equal, no matter your political leanings, ideologies, backgrounds, or biases. You come to fill up on hummus and malted beer, then go back to your life. He compiles a list of those who come together for the hummus there including: leftys, rightys, Romanians, Bosnian-Serbs, terrorists, retirees, and the neighborhood-identified Bograshovists, Ben-Yehudaim, and Ness Zionaim. No one at Etzel Tzion dries up. No one at Etzel Tzion is embarrassed. These are my rough translations.
And shouldn’t that be the message advertised about Israel? A country constantly translating itself. A country brimming with everyone’s up-to-11 feedback. A country where we all feel the same plug of hummus in our digestive systems, and we put aside differences––not naively, but in hedging hope––to wipe clean our plates.