Culinary therapy: tabbouleh wars offer a taste of normalcy

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-19-09


The great Israeli disconnect is the chasm between what you experience living in Israel day to day and what you read about Israel in headlines day after day. Life in Israel is far calmer, safer, smoother and lovelier than the media coverage – pro or con – suggests.

The constant bleating about peace or war, Palestinians and Israelis, legitimacy or illegitimacy, religious and non-religious, fails to convey the realities most Israelis experience while living their lives. Even pro-Israel activists must be wary not to succumb to journalists’ and diplomats’ pathologization of Israel. It is far too easy to see Israel as a case to be defended, a society embattled by cruel Palestinian terror, biased UN reports, and absurd Shabbat riots. In fact, 68% of 500 adult Israelis surveyed last week by Sderot’s Sapir College deemed Israel the best place in the world to live.

For those from abroad who cannot hop on a plane and see, hear, taste, feel and smell Israel, in normal repose at work and play, try watching Israeli television via the Internet. But do it right. Resist the lure of the hypnotizing, “beep, beep, beep” that has conditioned Israelis and their supporters to turn on the radio or watch the news at the top of the hour. Instead, watch the second half of news shows, the lighter-than-air morning shows, and the sitcoms, reality shows and dramas cluttering the airwaves.

If, because of many Diaspora communities’ stunning failure to teach Hebrew, language is a problem, it is never too late to learn. Moreover, television is a visual medium usually programmed for easy viewing, transcending language.

Anyone watching Channel 10’s morning show this Sunday would have experienced an Israel unfamiliar even to many Israel jocks in the Israel advocacy community. The day’s big story was the wave of motorcyclists jamming the highways to protest the Finance Ministry’s license fee boost. I remember during the days of Arafat’s wave of terror how Israelis yearned for a time when traffic jams – or weather – would dominate their headlines.

One story, called “love without borders,” showed Israel has entered the Age of Oprah along with its sister democracies. It featured a wife 19 years older than her husband. She said they met when he was 17 and a half. He felt compelled to note he was only 17 and a month, but had already experienced three “very serious” relationships. As we would witness anywhere else today on Western TV-land, the pretty-boy-and-girl anchor duo mastered that Oprah-esque earnestness necessary to facilitate viewers’ voyeurism. The interviewers appeared sympathetic, even fawning, while leering at the spectacle and clearly hoping their empathetic postures would coax hotter revelations from the renegade lovers.

Another story covered the auction of some of Bernard Madoff’s possessions. Here, the anchors offered that characteristic media mix of apparent social criticism leavened by envy, greed and materialism. Cluck-clucking at each Rolex on display, at every indulgence now for sale, it was clear that they – and the viewers back home – understood their script. Social conventions demanded they disdain Madoff’s materialism, while secretly craving such luxuries. From a Zionist perspective, it was striking that the story did not mention that Madoff was Jewish. This was a deliciously non-neurotic moment, focusing on Madoff the amoral money-maker without feeling compelled to distance this crook defensively from the Jewish community.

My favorite story that day, however, covered the Israeli town of Shfaram’s effort to make the world’s largest tabbouleh salad. Tabbouleh is a wheat-and-herb salad of Lebanese origin. Treated on Channel 10 as simply a typical Israeli town, Shfaram consists of approximately 10% Druse residents, 35% Christians, and 55% Muslims.

Recently, rumors about a video disparaging a Druse leader triggered Christian-Druse violence. Two community leaders, seeking to heal, indulged in a form of culinary therapy. Hoping to get everyone working together, they decided to outdo the Lebanese, who recently made a three and a half ton tabbouleh salad. The result was a record-breaking tabbouleh of more than 4 tons – with 700 kilograms of cucumbers, 700 kilograms of tomatoes and vast quantities of bulgur wheat, parsley and olive oil.

The hundreds of residents who participated took this very seriously. The process was documented to the Guinness Book of World Records’ specifications – a decision is pending. All cooks wore gloves and face masks. Once they finished the salad, the residents ate about 3 tons of it – before donating most of what remained to charities.

This kind of conflict promised a taste of normalcy with just the right Middle East flavor. The town residents saw themselves as competing with the Lebanese on this – and on other, recent competitions – regarding the world’s biggest hummus and the world’s biggest kebbe (a mix of minced meat and cracked meat). The anchors expressed Israelis’ “national pride” in these citizens’ triumph – without ever calling these non-Jewish Israelis anything but Israelis.

True, the story of the more than 4-ton tabbouleh, like the other morning show segments, walked that fine line between depressing idiocy and charming normalcy. But this daily carnival of the offbeat was so refreshingly benign, so wonderfully non-political, it was downright therapeutic.

Despite the world’s obsession with the Middle East, few journalists reported this scoop of the great tabbouleh showdown. A Google search of the terms tabbouleh, tons and Shfaram yielded 25 hits; searching the terms weapons, tons, Israel and Iran yielded 1,610,000 hits – most referring to the Israeli navy’s recent seizure of 500 tons of Iranian weapons being smuggled to Hizbullah.

Journalists and citizens must monitor stories about serious threats like the arms shipments. But these stories must be put in context. The media is a great validator, not just a great magnifier. We should hear more about efforts at gastronomic diplomacy – and culinary showdowns – remembering that Israel is a normal, functioning state, not a state of siege.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.