How the Holy Land got a pork habit

By Jeff Yoskowitz, August 15, 2008

‘White meat' is widely sold in Israel. We report on a controversial industry

Israel is known for its culinary diversity, but one item now being stocked in trendy Tel Aviv cafés is an indicator of how far secular Israel has separated from its religious traditions. A new culinary gourmet symbol of the country's cultural capital is prosciutto - the type of air cured ham associated with Parma in Italy.

While pork is certainly not new to Israel - in fact, the industry pre-dates the state - the pork on Tel Aviv menus and in nationwide supermarkets is still worthy of a double take.

There are two pork industries in Israel: the large one that provides steady meat supplies to a population of Russian immigrants and foreign workers, and a second for secular Israelis for whom sausages and pork ribs have become part of daily eating.

These two industries are intertwined, and the latter owes its growth and development to the former.

The rise of pork in Israel is a direct result of the Russian aliyah of the 1990s. David Marom, owner of Marsel Five Brothers Plus pork processing factory, gleefully remembers the pork boom of the mid-'90s. As hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union entered Israel, a somewhat stagnant industry was reinvigorated. Demand has since plateaued, according to Marom, but he does not deny that "business is still good".

In fact, due to a law that bans the import of non-kosher meat, all of the pork sold in Israel is raised and processed in the Holy Land. Of the 30 operational pig-breeding farms in Israel which, according to the ministry of agriculture, breed around 150,000 new pigs each year, almost all are located in the Arab region of Iblin. These farms produce and sell pork to supermarkets and independent shops catering to non-kosher tastes.

Avraham Azulus, a pork purveyor in Ashdod who himself does not eat pork, explains the situation to me very simply: "[Pork] is more popular because there are just more stores." Whereas 15 years ago there was one shop in every region that sold pork, now chain supermarkets like Tiv Tam and Mania-two burgeoning supermarket chains catering to Russian immigrants and international tastes - have sprouted. While shops still euphemistically call pork "white meat", there is lots of pork to go around.

"Russians came with demands, requesting foods that are not kosher," explained Azulus on a bench in Ashdod outside of his own shop, Five Brothers Plus, one of six that he opened in 2002. "It doesn't matter to them how an animal was slaughtered," or indeed which animal was slaughtered.

Meanwhile, many Israelis who have travelled widely throughout the world after their army service have begun to see the traditional Jewish food taboo as an out-of-date tradition.

At a chic Spanish Champagne bar on Nachalat Binyamin in Tel Aviv, homemade chorizo and sausage is proudly served for a clientele of predominantly young Israelis. One patron, Rory, lauds Tel Aviv for fostering a cosmopolitanism not found in the rest of Israel.

Danna, a young Israeli who has just returned from Thailand, does not eat pork. She does, however, feel that it "symbolises a new tradition" in Israel.

That is not to say that the taboo no longer persists. It does; quite strongly. Azulus mentions that many of his Jewish-Israeli friends eat pork outside of Israel, but will not buy from him for fear of being seen in the act. "We don't advertise in the newspaper at all," he explains. "We just have a small sign." Azulus has had few problems with the strictly-Orthodox, and hopes to avoid problems like the arson attacks against shops selling "white meat" earlier this year in Netanya and Tzfat.

Similarly, a few young Israelis and pork eaters at La Champa did not want to be mentioned by name, for fear of losing the respect of their peers and fellow employees, or worse, being branded a "pork eater". And there are still fines and laws on the books, which require Azulus to pay an annual tax for the right to sell the controversial meat; a tax which he factors into the cost of doing such business.

Iconic shawarma and shnitzel shops remain kosher, and the Israeli breakfasts of salads, spreads, cheeses seem immutable, but it could be that, in some parts of Israel at least, pork will eventually become an established part of culinary culture.

Last updated: 9:18pm, August 26 2008