Letters From Tel Aviv

Charley Friedman, Cow Staring at You, 2007. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Diet, Miami, Fla.

Herbivore, Carnivore, Omnivore

A grocery visit or dinner out in Israel can sometimes leave your stomach churning, but not for the reasons you might think.

There are many places to take a pregnancy test. Popular choices include the privacy of your own bathroom, the privacy of a workplace bathroom, or a doctor’s office. Why the girl behind the deli counter at my local grocery store would choose to wait out the two minutes between pee and results in the middle of the store, I do not know. All I know is that the checkout counter was a flurry of activity as I showed up with my eggs, bread, and milk. At least four women had gathered in the small space near the cash register with the plastic stick, a cellphone set on timer mode, and foldout instructions. Everyone was talking at once in a combination of Hebrew and Russian.

“I’ll… wait,” I said.

The phone buzzed, and the stick and instructions were quickly consulted. After much deliberation about one line, two lines, and the chance of false negatives and positives, the group disbanded, the deli clerk returned to her post, and the cashier began to calmly ring up my purchases.

“Good news?” I asked.

“Yep… Interested in a three-for-one offer on granola bars?”


I mainly shop at my local Tiv Tam, one in a chain of non-kosher grocery stores whose popularity soared when large numbers of Soviet Jews immigrated to Israel in the 1990s. These new arrivals were less concerned with observing traditional Jewish dietary law than they were with eating lots of tasty pork.

While immigrants arriving in Tel Aviv from Minsk or Tbilisi or Moscow in 1992 would have been disappointed by the lack of shrimp sandwiches, they would have been overwhelmed by most everything else food-wise. To go from Soviet bread lines to streets lined with Jaffa oranges in one plane ride would have been a cultural and dietary shock.

For an American arriving in Israel in 2012, the food is less of a shock and more of a nice surprise. There’s nothing particularly foreign about Israeli cuisine to the American palate. In many ways, European food—with weird additions of mayonnaise, occasional raw meat, and ketchup on pasta—can be more off-putting.

Israelis live closely to Michael Pollan’s mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” A location smack-dab in the middle of the Middle East guarantees food will be hard to grow, but that hasn’t stopped anyone. Founding father David Ben-Gurion wanted to see the desert bloom, so Israel has applied the type of resources and brainpower usually reserved for a nation’s nuclear weapons program to solving the problems of desert agriculture. (Which isn’t to imply that Israel has neglected to develop what is probably a most impressive—if nominally secret—nuclear arsenal.)

Blatantly non-kosher food still represents a minority of what’s consumed in Israel, even in Tel Aviv, the country’s modern-day Sodom.

For most of its history, Israel’s produce was watered, weeded, and picked by Palestinian workers who crossed over each day from the West Bank or Gaza. Since the start of the Second Intifada in 2000, however, Israeli has closed its borders to most of these workers. And since few or no Israelis are willing to work in the hot sun for minimum wage, Israel now imports workers from Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. There are hundreds of thousands of these foreigners in Israel; in 2010, the first victim of a Hamas rocket attack after the previous year’s Gaza War was a man named Manee Singueanphon, not Moshe Cohen.

The influx of foreign workers has done a few things to the Israeli diet, not the least of which is adding to the number of people demanding pork. The consumption of pork has never been banned in Israel, but, much like the 18th Amendment’s approach to alcohol, its production and trafficking have. A 1956 law gave municipalities the option of banning pork sales—and option that some took and some didn’t—while a 1962 law outlawed pig breeding except in majority-Christian areas. Finally, a 1994 law banned the import of all non-kosher and “ritually prohibited” meat—i.e., pork. In more religious neighborhoods, it is discretely labeled in butcher shops as “White Meat” and kept in the back of the store. In less religious areas, all bets are off.

Most of Tel Aviv’s foreign workers live, shop, and congregate near the central bus station. The neighborhood’s most prominent landmark, at least for camera-happy tourists, is “The Kingdom of Pork,” a butcher shop open to the street on two sides and featuring signs in Romanian, English, Hebrew, Russian, and Chinese. The neighborhood features more ethnic markets and restaurants than Jackson Heights on a good day and probably more non-kosher items than a Hooters in Muncie with a half-priced bacon cheeseburger special. It’s not just the immigrant areas, though; across town a few months before the pregnancy scare, I walked up to Tiv Tam’s deli case to be met with the sight of a roast suckling pig, apple in mouth, lying on a bed of greens. None of the customers were batting an eye—it was I, the American, acting like I had seen the ghost of pork cracklins past.

Blatantly non-kosher food still represents a minority of what’s consumed in Israel, even in Tel Aviv, the country’s modern-day Sodom (conveniently located only an hour’s drive from what is believed to be the Biblical Sodom). Most restaurants steer clear of obviously non-kosher meat—pork and shrimp and eel—and kosher-certified restaurants have to make the choice between meat or dairy and then stick with it. My favorite sandwich spot settles on the side of meat: Cheese with your roast beef is an impossibility, but so is a little dab of butter with your turkey sub. Margarine, long out of favor among Western gourmands, is still holding out strong in Israel.

Modern Israeli food is a kissing cousin of Arab food, but when you live in a country that makes Northern Ireland look like a bastion of religious tolerance, clear lines must be drawn.

One of the joys of travel is when stereotypes are defeated and deflated. Sorry to say, Israel fails here: The citizens really do inhale hummus, falafel, Israeli salad, and shwarma. I’ve made a few culinary discoveries, but they still fall within the “food stuffed in pita” spectrum. Schnitzel is reborn not as Austrian veal but as fried chicken breast, served in a pita with vegetables and pickles. Sabich replaces the chicken with fried eggplant and sliced boiled egg. Both can be found at fast food shop on nearly every corner; 20 shekels, or $5, is a good price. Any cheaper than that, and you risk a day or two of stomach cramps.

Modern Israeli food is a kissing cousin of Arab food, but when you live in a country that makes Northern Ireland look like a bastion of religious tolerance, clear lines must be drawn. So when my friends and I want “real” Arab food, we leave Tel Aviv (four percent Arab population) and head to Jaffa (33 percent). We discovered our favorite place—Abu al Abed (100 percent)—only after it made headlines when a group of Jewish extremists set fire to the kitchen, spray-painting “Price Tag” in Hebrew on the building’s façade. (For more than two years now, West Bank settlers and their supporters have been launching random, small-scale attacks on Palestinians, Arab Israelis, and Israeli security forces. They claim their targets will “pay the price” for every action taken against a settlement.)

Abu al Abed serves the best thing I’ve eaten in Israel so far: roasted cauliflower served in a lemon sauce so tart it has to be spiked with a dose of pure citric acid. The larger cauliflower pieces get a solid touch of brown from the oven, but the smaller ones are completely cremated, leaving you with nothing but crunch and lemon in your mouth.

We always start our meal with the cauliflower, then proceed through eight different kinds of salad and on to entrees. The owner physically will not let anyone leave until after tea and baklava have been served.

I always leave feeling a little sick, not just from sheer gluttony, but also from the fact I find the restaurant’s back-story hard to digest. There are still smoke marks on the wall and the graffiti is sloppily painted over with white paint. No one—not my Jewish or Arab friends and not the owners—seems particularly impressed by what happened. It’s me, again the wide-eyed American, gawking at evidence of hate crimes, while everyone else gets on with the business of eating.


It’s not a lack of options that makes me shop at Tiv Tam—public pregnancy tests and all. There’s an AM:PM across the street, open 24 hours a day and with slightly cheaper prices. The only downside is that it’s the grocery of choice for the neighborhood alcoholics trading in empty bottles for more booze. At times, the quantity of bodily fluids in and around the store’s entrance calls for a full HAZMAT team. There’s the Carmel Market, blocks-long rows of open-air stalls offering produce, meat, dairy, souvenirs, off-brand sex toys, and other miscellany. There’s even the possibility of eating out for every meal, an option whose popularity waxes and wanes with changing dollar-shekel conversion rates.

Israel isn’t a hard place to feed yourself, but whatever you choose to eat and however you obtain it, there’s always going to be something challenging about the experience. In America, the grocery store didn’t present me with questions of maternity, or whether to buy cucumbers grown in the Occupied Territories, or whether the bread I buy will be kosher enough for my kosher friends. It’s not easy, but then again no one ever said living in the Middle East would be a piece of margarine-based cake.