At first glance, Yom Ha’atzmaut is the worst celebration of the Jewish year for foodies. It is just about the only one without its own special dish. But is it possible that it is actually the ultimate foodie festival? Every year as Israel’s anniversary approaches, the great and the good feel an urge to assess the achievements of Zionism and the state of Israel. This year, as we mark the big 60, the commentators are working overtime. Some stress the way Israel has revolutionised the status of the Jew — no longer vulnerable, now always with a homeland to turn to.
Many talk of a religious revolution, yet others to a cultural advance: Jewish art and literature having been given a new lease of life because of Israel’s achievements. Maybe, though, the greatest transformation in world Jewry as a result of the state of Israel has been gastronomic. If you want to see the achievement of the Jewish state that affects the greatest number of people daily, head for your local kosher store.
Once stocked with a few basic provisions, today you will see hundreds of lines of rabbinically certified ingredients, fully prepared products and wines. There is hardly a food that it is possible to make within the limitations of kashrut laws that you cannot get. And you only need to look at the “produce of” labels to see that it is a market driven by the breeding ground of kosher enterprise that is Israel. It is true that the existence of the state has coincided with the growth of food ranges worldwide, but kosher food would not be what it is today without the concentrated customer base in Israel that welcomes innovation and sustains production.
“Because kosher is the only market we have, Israel creates a situation where an entire country’s innovation in food is channelled into the kosher sector,” says Zvi Goldstein, head of the manufactured food department at the Manufacturers’ Association of Israel. According to the organisation’s figures, Israel produces £7 billion worth of rabbinically supervised food a year.
Over £450 million-worth is exported. But with kosher production thriving elsewhere, especially in the United States, how much credit can you really give to Israel? Perhaps this worldwide success story is, at least in part, a matter of Israeli firms creating a market that is so lively that diaspora firms pulling raising their performance to stay in the game.
The litmus test for this notion must be America, which has the most self-sufficient kosher market of any diaspora country, with huge domestic production operations. But even there, “the challenge in kosher wine is to produce wines that live up to Israeli standards”, says Menachem Lubinsky, head of the Lubicom kosher food marketing consultancy in Brooklyn, New York and editor of koshertoday.com.
“The Israeli food industry has significantly raised the bar on kosher wine,” he adds. Ask most diaspora Zionists why they love to visit Israel and they will give you all sorts of responses. But press them on how they really know they are “home” when they arrive and they will invariably give a food-related answer. For one it will be that they can walk along Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem with a supervised ice-cream, for another it will be the availability of a kosher McDonald’s at Ben Gurion. What is more, people return from Israel with an enthusiasm for eating out, a major factor in the growth in the number of kosher restaurants in London.
There you can sit, invariably in a restaurant owned by an Israeli, eating Israeli ingredients cooked by an Israeli chef and served by an Israeli waiter or waitress… while musing over what the great contribution of the Jewish state might be.