Curds and (Israeli) Ways

These days everyone has become obsessed with the economy and convinced that the cartels are cooking up all sorts of intrigues that will hurt them - so who am I to express my opinion about the experts who have been driving us crazy for the past month about the price of cottage cheese, and dairy products in general, and even meat? And those experts have been joined by the cultural experts, who with signs and wonders have proved just how integral cottage cheese is to Israeli culture and to the country's imaginary collective.

One can certainly characterize nations according to their favorite food or drink. The French, of course, are identified with wine, the Belgians with chocolate, the Swiss with cheese, etc., etc. And we have falafel, as the song goes. But if there is anything that typifies our taste, or lack thereof, it's cottage cheese, whose essence is undefined and ranges from sweet to sour, and whose consistency ranges from solid to liquid. In fact, it's not at all clear what you're eating when you eat it: the cottage cheese itself or the image conveyed by its packaging.

Cottage cheese - Eran Wolkowski - July 2011
Eran Wolkowski

You should be aware that cottage cheese originated in England; because it is one of blandest and most inferior of cheeses, no other nation was in a rush to claim the copyright on it. French culinary dictionaries will always refer to it by the English term "cottage cheese," rather than as fromage, heaven forfend, in order to intimate that, with all due respect, this concoction does not have permission to enter the famed hall of genuine cheese. Israel seems to be the only place on earth where people are naive enough to buy this English nonsense and to raise it to the level of a national food, of all things.

All this indicates that, like the Sabbath - which has preserved the Jewish people more than they have preserved it - when it comes to cottage cheese, it has preserved the Jewish people as a tasteless nation that can be fed any loksh [literally, "noodle," but in slang, a lie], if the advertising is sufficiently aggressive. The nation then eats it willingly and licks its lips: "Mmm ... this loksh is so delicious, so much a part of the landscape of my homeland. I remember the loksh they fed me in my childhood ... mmm ... And the lokshim they fed me are actually continuing to nourish me all my life."

And among all these lokshim, which have risen to a level of ritual totems no less than cottage cheese itself, we should mention the totem of consumerism that has slowly but surely introduced into people's minds - with the help of the consumer columns in the print and electronic media - the belief that every product must have a price, and that the price should be fixed and reasonable, and not dependent on anyone's whims. Neither on the greed of the seller or the bargaining ability of the buyer.

Consumerism, with its mechanically determined prices is, in that sense, one of the more exalted incarnations of the Western way of thinking. It is the total opposite of the method of the Eastern bazaar, where the seller often sets the price according to the color of the buyer's eyes, the price of the product at the start of the day bears no resemblance to its price at the end of the day, and it changes according to the rhetorical success of the buyer and seller to convince each other that, "Believe me, it costs me more."

According to the bazaar way of thinking, there is not, nor can there be, any connection between the product and its price, and the belief in any such connection is in a sense an insult to a person's dignity.

Anyone who has personally undergone the experience of taking a taxi ride in Cairo, for example, knows that the price of the trip is in no way connected to the official price on the meter, but rather depends on the vibes between the passenger and the driver during the ride. But not only in Cairo. Last week, in Israel, I bought a few meters of fabric in a shop in Jerusalem's Old City. Of course, the price I paid was related not to the size and quality of the fabric, but to the fact that as a Jew I felt uncomfortable about bargaining with a Palestinian who is under my occupation.

All these human nuances, which are meant to remind us that goods and services are not, in the final analysis, an end in themselves but excuses for bringing people together - all these nuances get lost in the world of fundamentalist consumerism as preached in the fundamentalist business columns. In the cruel world that they have created, human beings who go shopping are nothing but consumers, and they don't deal with merchants, but with their abstract incarnations, in the form of supermarkets and food chains. And there are no more farmers wearing the traditional Israeli headgear called a kova tembel or holding a hoe, but rather "food producers." The dairy shelf in a supermarket will never tell you, "Believe me, bro, it costs me more."

The reason for the monstrous growth of commercialism is that people don't have time to go to small shops and to buy from sellers with a human face. And why don't they have time? Because they have to work in order to earn a living, so that after work they will be able to allow themselves the pleasure of attacking the marketing chains with consumer savvy and to leave them with a sense of victory after not being screwed by the price. And here, dear cottage cheese, is the real reason for the mess surrounding you: When we look at you, you remind us too much of how inhuman we have become.