Word of the Day Shalva: Serenity Is Best Served Sweet

What do the Hebrew word for serenity and puffed wheat have in common?

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

"Better is a dry morsel and quietness therewith, than a house full of feasting with strife," Proverbs tells us (17:1). In other words, take poor and happy if you can get it, for serenity – or "quietness," as per this 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation of shalva – trumps an untranquil wealth.

Just don't be too relaxed when articulating this word, since pronunciation does matter. While the intangible shal-VA is all about being zen, SHAL-va is not a state of mind but a kind of food: puffed wheat, to be precise.

Though Americans know puffed wheat mostly as a breakfast cereal, like the ultra-sweet Honey Smacks, for Israelis it's more of an old-school snack. I have yet to see it in preschools nowadays, but decades ago preschool teachers used to hand out miniature bags of the stuff, which at the time came in colors like green, red and yellow.

Today you can still find big (well, big for Israel) bags of uncolored Shalva in the supermarkets. But while its manufacturer, Eshbol, managed to get Israelis to equate its Shalva brand with the food itself, it hasn't been able to persuade them to eat it. Puffed wheat never did become a popular food here.

When Israelis write about Shalva, they often refer to it as "shalva the snack" – a meaning of the word that the Academy of the Hebrew Language says has no known roots apart from the brand name – to avoid confusion with the enviable quality of imperturbability. Maybe that will keep recipe hunters from clicking on articles like the one that advises readers to create shalva by stilling their minds, an ingredient that I'm pretty sure does not appear on the package.

A Hebrew guide to the snack food of yore describes Shalva as "a hit for 8-year-old children and for 80-year-olds" but says that despite its many years on the Israeli food scene, "there's a feeling that parents aren't taking advantage of the full potential of Shalva – it's an excellent source of protein, iron and dietary fiber, but because its packaging isn't sparkly and sexy like the other snacks on the shelf, children don't get too excited about it today." That might have to do with the fact that Shalva isn't actually one of "the other snacks on the shelf," since it's generally stocked with the cereals these days.

But whichever shelf the puffed wheat is sold from, Israel's supermarket aisles indicate that Proverbs may have been mistaken. Israelis can, after all, buy serenity – or at least shalva, however you choose to pronounce it.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

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