Opinion |

From Gal Gadot to Eyal Shani, Perception of Israel Is Changing. But Looks Can Be Deceiving

Israeli cuisine has succeeded where Israeli literature and cinema have failed

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Chef Eyal Shani in his Miznon branch in New York.
Chef Eyal Shani in his Miznon branch in New York. Credit: STEPHEN SPERANZA / NYT
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

On Rue des Ecouffes in Paris, a bunch of people are waiting in line to eat pita. The branch of Miznon there is packed. The restaurant, which opened five years ago, has earned a high rating of 4.5 stars on TripAdvisor. Two fashionably dressed young men are talking; one appears to be Israeli. “It’s just great,” says one as he takes a big bite of his cauliflower. “It’s good, but not like in Israel,” says the other. “There they do it a little differently.”

This sounds odd to me. I remember the restaurant reviews the late Daniel Rogov used to write for this paper. He would heroically sample all kinds of awkward culinary enterprises across central Israel, and then poignantly write something like: “On the table are simple green checkered napkins, just like in Périgord.” Or, wistfully: “In places of this type in Gascogne, they serve the scallops in a simple lemon sauce, without soy sauce and teriyaki sauce.”

Rogov is gone now, but in the years since his death, Israeli food has achieved a certain level of self-confidence. The chefs in Tel Aviv are no longer trying to emulate Gascogne. Who is Gascogne to tell us how to make the cauliflower, they say defiantly, as they stuff their pitas and char their cauliflower using methods invented in Israel – maybe in the RAFAEL laboratories or on the deck of navy ships.

Now Israeli food is exported to the world’s great culinary cities, and some even say that it is one of the top national cuisines currently experiencing an awakening. Restaurants in California serve “Israeli couscous” – i.e., “Ben-Gurion rice,” i.e., petitim, and German cooking magazines are teaching readers how to make shakshuka like you find in Givatayim. It must be the End of Days: The world has learned to eat shakshuka.

Meanwhile, an Israeli national identity is coming into being through food. Much has been said about the intensity of the foodism of recent years. At present, one could say that, thanks to the exporting of Israeli cuisine, Israelis are seeing themselves for the first time as a nation. For this sense of nationhood is always created by a mirror effect, through the eyes of other nations. So it is often based on clichés – American cowboys, French baguettes, Scottish kilts.

For the first time, Israeli cuisine is producing such things, which Israeli literature and cinema has never been able to produce (for one thing, because they only interested a narrow sector of the population in Israel). For the first time, we have something that signifies an Israeli cultural identity that is separate from Jewish identity. Israel – the land where the petitim are baked and the cauliflowers are roasted. This cuisine, which is largely based on a Palestinian infrastructure, has become nearly synonymous with Israeli existence itself.

In the 19th century Spring of Nations, poets encapsulated and expressed the spirit of their nation in a few lines. In the 21st century, chefs are the national poets. Adam Mickiewicz wrote the epic poem “Pan Tadeusz” and shaped the Polish nation; Eyal Shani seared cauliflower.

The Israelization process

But the change in the status of Israeli cuisine is also indicative of another trend that goes beyond the culinary. To a greater extent than ever before, the world is undergoing “Israelization.” Americans, Indians and French are starting to think and act like Israelis. Hit by terror attacks, Paris now has security guards and metal detectors, like any Israeli shopping mall. But not only are arms systems, security technology and profiling methods being exported by Israel, so are television formats, culture and celebrities. Netta Barzilai is a favorite to win the Eurovision song contest. The Tel Aviv gay pride parade attracts tens of thousands from around the world. Zuckerberg and Obama are reading Yuval Noah Harari. Gal Gadot graces the cover of Vanity Fair. And don’t forget Eyal Shani’s cauliflower.

Netanyahu’s speech at the Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony, and countless other speeches of his from recent months, fit in with this, too. As Netanyahu sees it, “a quarter-million Indians” who waved little flags during his visit to their country can’t be wrong. The nations of the world are seeing that Israel has been right all along. The Americans are already convinced, the Romanians too, and before long even the Arabs will be singing “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem.” Whoever is making a face is just so stuck in the Nineties and not getting with the times. Now we can relax and loosen our belts, and not worry about having to look some wimpy Frenchman or naïve Swede in the eye. Now Israel is the standard – We invented the USB flash drive, after all; we’ll show them how you do things.

So what’s next? What does the future hold for us? Will Wissotzky tea be poured in Viennese cafes? Will Adir Miller be crowned the heir to Ingmar Bergman? Will Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of Laws” be replaced on university syllabi by Gadi Taub’s “A Dispirited Rebellion”? Will teenage girls who talk like infantry instructors become the next feminine ideal? Anything is possible. The day may not be far off when hipsters in Bushwick will be arguing the merits of rare recordings of the Hopa Hey band.

But anyone who lives in Israel and was raised on Israeli culture may feel a bit uncomfortable with this new state of things. We who know Israel from the inside have a hard time convincing ourselves that we’re worthy of so much admiration. In our hearts we know we’re not all that wonderful, and we wouldn’t really want the whole world to be a copy of Rishon Letzion.

Tastes and values tend to change, and sometimes the vulgar and ugly are feted. The American ambassador tells us that the IDF is a moral army, and international prizes are given to mediocre Israeli writers who forged their paths by means of shameless groveling. But even if Claude Lanzmann, Roseanne Barr and Stéphane Froidevaux tell us that Paz brand juice is more delicious than champagne, somewhere, deep down, we’ll always know it’s not true.

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