Thursday, July 05, 2012

Euphemistic Mediterranean couscous

If you're a food writer, especially one with a Jewish name, and you want to write about Israel, be sure to provide a thorough disclaimer about what it all means.

In all seriousness, while I'd prefer no disclaimer being necessary,* I think David Lebovitz's is pretty spot-on, this especially: "The situation in the Middle East is challenging and one that’s not going to be resolved on a food blog. And most likely not by someone who bakes cookies for a living."

I'm not sure a disclaimer will shield him from criticism, though - any acknowledgment of Israel as an actual place people live/are from, as opposed to a faceless-oppressor-of-Palestinians, will be interpreted as an endorsement of Israel's right to exist (which it effectively is - same as he endorsed the right of Ireland, Tunisia, etc., to exist when visiting those countries**), which, in turn, will be equated with an embrace of far-right Zionism (which it most definitely is not). What might shield him from criticism is that food-blog commenters - like fashion-blog commenters - tend toward the sycophantic.

*Everything to do with Israel, and Jews more generally, somehow lends itself to disclaimers. Yes, the food that we know as "Jewish" sure resembles that of whichever countries of origin, and yes, Israeli food is an amalgam of all of those, plus regional influence tilting things more in a Mediterranean direction. But must we harp on how whichever food our grandmothers made wasn't Jewish but Polish? When it was in fact Polish-Jewish, influenced by Polish cuisine, as well as previous stops in that diaspora, as well as Jewish dietary restrictions, ones that would make a great many Polish-full-stop dishes impossible?

This isn't, of course, just about cuisine - witness the American Jews who, if pressed on their heritage, will announce that their great-grandparents were "Polish," and you, if you are me, will find yourself wondering whether either those great-grandparents or their Polish neighbors would have agreed with that assessment. Then again, we don't all have clearly in our minds when each diaspora community settled on the notion of Judaism-as-religion-only, which is to say, on the idea that a Jew could be Polish, Russian, etc., and it's only natural to project from our own understandings, as in, it would be offensive today to refer to 'a Jew residing in the United States and with U.S. citizenship' rather than 'an American Jew.' I don't know, off the top of my head, when that would have switched over in Poland. But I think the broader point holds - it's not so much about Jews being ashamed to admit to being Jewish, as it is about Jews trying to preempt accusations of Judeocentrism, of thinking everything of any interest on this planet came from Jews. We want to assure our interlocutors that we don't claim to have invented the idea of, for example, frying potatoes, or chopping up cucumbers and tomatoes, or otherwise applying simple food preparations to readily available ingredients.

**Thus why countries with bad PR - Greece comes to mind - keep flying out popular food-and-fashion bloggers. It's more difficult to hate a place if it seems real; if it's flatteringly photographed, all the more so.


Moebius Stripper said...

witness the American Jews who, if pressed on their heritage, will announce that their great-grandparents were "Polish," and you, if you are me, will find yourself wondering whether either those great-grandparents or their Polish neighbors would have agreed with that assessment.

Oh, ha: swap "American" for "Canadian" and the above refers perfectly to me, even though I know full well that my great-grandparents didn't consider themselves Polish (I don't know if they even spoke the language; they spoke Yiddish at home after immigrating to Canada), and I doubt their neighbours did either.

The reason I choose to name countries of origin (plural) and omit the particulars when pressed by strangers about my background is *precisely because* I understand all too well why Lebovitz posted his disclaimer. I am visibly part Middle Eastern, and it's been my experience that around 25% of strangers, upon discovering which mideastern country has contributed to my bloodline, think that I am interested in discussing, at length and in detail, the Israel/Palestine issue. They are, alas, wrong.

Phoebe said...

Moebius Stripper (!),

I think, when it comes to interacting with perfect strangers, you're allowed to limit information without having to field accusations of self-hatred. That's the "privilege" of being an only quasi-visible minority: you can lie-by-omission about being Jewish or gay, but not about being female or black. Sometimes you're not in the mood for being someone's Learning Experience of the day.

That said, there is something to be gained by showing people that "Jewish"=/="prepared to hold forth about the Middle East." For me, it's a bit different, b/c I have "Zionist" on the blog, and so I might have to explain that "Zionist"=/="Likud," and that I do think there should be a Palestinian state, etc., but people would be correct in assuming I have opinions on this. (My opinions are more about the initial founding and validity of the state continuing than about specifics having to do with exactly where which border should lie, which comes as a disappointment for those looking to argue those points.)

However, I've met people utterly off-blog who've learned I'm Jewish and more or less assumed that this means I have a lecture in Israel Studies at the ready at all times. (French-Jewish Studies, sure. Israel, no.) So I do know the phenomenon you're talking about, and can imagine Middle-Eastern-ness would only further complicate matters.

But what's the harm, assuming this wouldn't majorly complicate your life, in occasionally telling people the truth about your family's "national" origin (which is effectively what this is), and following that up with a definitive refusal to be a walking Jerusalem Post? Just like the more people who come out as gay, the less likely it is for coming-out to be seen as an invitation to discuss bedroom specifics, the more who are open but no-big-deal-ish about being of Jewish ancestry, the less likely it is that each time this happens, an I-P Debate 101 lecture will be expected.

Moebius Stripper said...

Oh, I do on occasion talk openly about my ethnicity, just not as often as I used to and never with people whom I suspect would be inclined to drag politics into, say, a story about a visit to a hummus factory. I live on the west coast of Canada, where these types abound, and it's not so much that people assume that Jews have lectures on Israel Studies at the ready - that, I can handle - but more that all too many people see my ethnicity as an invitation to deliver those lectures to *me*, generally taking for granted that I agree with them. (And this occasionally happens even before the topic of ethnicity comes up, just based on what I look like.) And while I am far, far from being an expert on Israel, I do know more than roughly everyone who, uninvited, has decided to share with me their expertise on the matter. Which is merely to say that I know *something* about the country, rather than nothing.

Case in point: a few years ago, a classmate announced to me that he'd heard that 20-something Jewish men from the diaspora shouldn't go to Israel, or they'd be drafted to the military. Where he got this idea, I have no clue. Even when I told him that my 20-something Jewish brother was actually living in Israel and to the best of anyone's knowledge had not been drafted, my classmate wouldn't accept the possibility that he'd been wrong, insisting instead that this was either an oversight on the part of the IDF, or that my family had "connections".

So, yeah. I've had some surprisingly productive conversations with people who are genuinely open-minded about Israel, but too many times, being totally open about my background has been stressful and not terribly beneficial in any sense that I can measure. I can't always (ever?) tell when revealing my family tree is going to lead to a productive discussion versus when it's going to lead to a sermon, so I base my decision on a combination of intuition, and an assessment of how much I'm willing to deal with at the moment.

i said...

Oh, I'm having some feelings of recognition here. I'm not actually Jewish, but my grandfather was, his sister moved to Israel in the 50s, and my own family made aliyah in the 80s. We wound up in Canada. ;) I also limit what information I offer about myself, especially since I have some extracurricular interests that are, well, Middle Eastern in focus. (But I do so in academe as well.) But I feel a little differently about it than Phoebe suggests.

Once upon a time, in a grad school far far away, I read Nella Larsen's Passing and realised I had been passing too. I may not be Jewish myself, but my grandfather's heritage is important to me, as is the fact that Israel gave my family a fast track to emigration out of a bad place at a bad time. Every time someone asks me where I'm from, and I mention two countries but not the third, I feel like I'm telling a little lie. Why? Because I know I'll have to deal with "it" -- people making assumptions about my politics, highly educated Americans with no heritage ties to the Middle East telling me that they'd like to strap bombs to themselves and walk into an Israeli marketplace, or a lecture on how awful Israel is. And Israeli policy can be awful, but for some reason these folks don't have an angry lecture at the ready for how awful human rights in China, or, say, Texas are.

All that said, the discussion of Israel and hummus makes me think of "You Don't Mess with the Zohan." Am I the only person who think that movie is brilliant?

Phoebe said...


The reasons you give for not delving into your identity are understandable, especially given that you're not Jewish yourself. At a certain point, we're not responsible for guessing that someone we're meeting might be homophobic, say, and taking the opportunity to disclose that we have a gay uncle. There isn't always time or inclination for providing an autobiography.

That said, I think what makes the Jewish-disclosure issue complicated is that when in this situation, what we (that is, anyone of partial or entire Jewish origin) confront is wanting on the one hand to remind others that not everyone of Jewish ancestry can or cares to do community service as a lecturer in Israel Studies, but on the other hand having any Jewish identity does make a person sensitive to, as you say, the arguments about how bad Israeli policy is, from those who aren't too worked-up about human rights issues that don't pertain to Jews. (After this, back to making sure my work itself doesn't have sentences that long...) By disclosing re: Jewish ancestry, you can go one of these ways or the other, both of which are necessary, but which are basically mutually exclusive. You might say, 'Yep, Jewish/Jewish grandparent, but no, not an expert on Middle Eastern border disputes,' and refuse to engage. Or you might offer a window into why even Jews critical of various Israeli policies may also be wary of the motives of self-proclaimed Critics Of Israel. The latter approach invites a debate, which can be unpleasant/a waste of time, whereas the former involves missing an opportunity to offer a Jewish perspective that genuinely might not have occurred to whoever's asking.

All of that said, as worked-up as people get about Israel, I tend to find that when people learn I'm Jewish, I then have to spend however long trying to convince them that I'm not Orthodox, or indeed observant in the least. This continues to come up even when people meet me and know my husband is not Jewish. They somehow imagine that I'm an out-married Hasid. In jeans. I have no idea.