Hummus is a spread made from mashed chickpeas, lemon juice, olive oil, tahini, and garlic. It is a food that is rich in protein and fairly inexpensive to make. Originally popularized in the Middle-East and Mediterranean, Hummus has gained widespread popularity around the globe, particularly in North America and Europe. Most often, it is served as a dip with pita or is spread on sandwiches of falafel (fried spiced balls of chickpea mix) or shawarma (spiced roasted meat). This food is simple in its preparation, but has a complex role in the lives of the societies in which it is eaten.
Hummus has become especially important in the formation of the national identity of Israel, a country of immigrants from around the world, who, in the midst of a violent conflict, sought to create a distinct culture of their own. Although hummus is considered Israel’s national food, most Israeli’s believe that “authentic” hummus is made by their Arab neighbors. However, in the United States, food enthusiasts have begun to praise Israeli-owned hummus restaurants as serving the most “authentic” version of the dish. Through an analysis of existing literature on hummus in the formation of Israeli cuisine, and from my own research on its popularization in the United States, I plan to reveal how the social meaning of a particular food is transformed as it enters a new cultural, economic, and political context.
The Social Life of Food
Eating is an essential component of life, providing people with the energy that they need to grow and survive. Throughout history, societies have manipulated food, developing cooking techniques, experimenting with ingredients, striving to maximize the experience of pleasure when food hits the palate. In this process, foods have become saturated with social meanings and values. These social meanings and values constitute a narrative, which acts as a mediator in the experience of eating a particular food.
Consumption of a particular food is a way of communicating to the world and to oneself information about the eater. In fact E.N. Anderson contends that “Indeed, (food) may be second only to language as a social communication system (124).” Food becomes a part of one’s identity through processes of social solidification and processes of social boundary-making. We can understand food as a way of bringing people together through the social experience of eating with others, and eating the same food as others. The collective experience of eating is so deeply embedded in social institutions (family, politics, business), that there seems to be a ‘natural’ connection between food and feelings of inclusion of belonging. Indeed, the word “companion” comes from the Latin word, Cum Panis, meaning “bread sharer (Anderson 125).”
However, with social inclusion necessarily comes social exclusion. As certain foods become associated with a particular identity (ethnic, social class, political etc.), it becomes a way by which groups of individuals may distinguish themselves from others (Anderson 125). For example, in Turkey, hummus is made primarily with yogurt rather than tahini (sesame paste). This difference in the preparation of hummus serves to mark Turkish hummus-eaters as a distinct group from hummus-eaters of other Arab countries.
In this paper, I argue that food is an essential element in the construction of ethnic identities. Identities should be understood not as sets of inherent traits that define and distinguish groups of individuals, but instead as fluid categories, molded by the social context in which they develop (Hall 4). As Hall argues, “Though (identities) seem to invoke an origin in a historical past with which they continue to correspond, actually identities are about questions of using the resources of history, language and culture in the process of becoming rather than being: not ‘who we are’ or ‘where we came from,’ so much as what we might become, how we have been represented and how that bears on how we might represent ourselves (4).”
Food’s role in the construction of identity is important in the study of Diasporas because people tend to identify themselves based on a place that they consider to be home (Anderson 130). There are two concepts that must be understood in order to explain the connection between individual identity and food: First is the perceived connection that a food has to a particular place, and second is the way in which people associate food with a certain time.
In their book “Consuming Geographies,” David Bell and Gill Valentine explore the role of food in constituting place identities. They explain that ‘regions’ only come into being because of the social process of naming and claiming them (153). Surely, differences in the physical landscape will stimulate certain social responses, but “ similar physical environments can be associated with very different human responses (130).” Bell and Valentine provide the example of “wine country” as demonstrating the way in which a physical landscape (place where environmental conditions allowed for production of wine) becomes entangled with a human landscape (place where people make a particular wine), in order to create a specific region that is defined by the production of a unique-tasting wine, and a unique wine that is defined by the region in which it was made (153).
Consider the saying, “you are what you eat.” This well-known phrase takes on an entirely new meaning when we understand that in human society, food has come to embody place. One aspect of the perceived authenticity of a food item is thus, a measure of the degree to which the food is seen as connected to its location of source. For example, a Thai curry in a Toronto restaurant will be deemed “more authentic” if it is prepared by a Thai immigrant than a Chinese immigrant, since the Thai person seems to be more strongly connected to the food’s perceived location of source.
Foods are also meaningful to people because of their association with a particular time. For an individual, certain foods can be linked to the memory of lived experience of that food (Lee, Appadurai). David Sutton explains that the memory power of food derives from the synthesis of experiences from two or more different senses. This process is known as synaesthesia. The sensory experience of tasting and smelling a particular food can trigger memories of a time in the past when that same food was eaten. This facilitates the re-imagining of the past world that has been lost in time (162), which is also referred to as the experience of nostalgia. For an immigrant, the imagining of his or her own past homeland can be a source of comfort in an unfamiliar country.
Some authors suggest that certain foods can induce the feeling of nostalgia for an imagined past that has not been experienced by the individual him or herself, but that has been cultivated through identification with an imagined community (Holtzman 368). Benedict Anderson’s conception of the imagined community, characterizes nations as “imagined” because most of its constituents will never meet each other, yet in their minds, they are connected as a community (Anderson 10). Individuals who see themselves as parts of an imagined community see the community as an extension of the self. Therefore, the history of the group is embedded in the individual’s conceptualization of his or her own past, contributing to what some scholars refer to as a “collective consciousness (Lee 198).” According to Lee, it is this “collective consciousness” of a group that is central to diasporic identity (Lee 198). “Through the cultivation and generation of memory, (Diasporas) maintain social, cultural, economic, and/or psychological ties to their places of origin (198).” Foods become situated in the collective memory of a group. Therefore, the child of an immigrant in the United States may associate a particular food with the memory of the imagined “homeland” from which his or her parents came, even though the child has never visited the “homeland” his or herself.
Food in a Transnational Context
The transformation of Hummus in North American society is a product of the negotiation between the local and the global (Bell and Valentine 18). Globalization has led to the simultaneous progression toward universalism (merging of cultures) and particularism (emphasis of the ‘authentic’) (Bell and Valentine 19). In North America, a multitude of ‘ethnic’ foods are available because of migrants who market their foods to the host community as well as to their own diasporic community (Kershen 10). Increasing availability of food alternatives, and a variety of cuisines leads to an increased consciousness of one’s own personal preference. For this reason, I argue that regional differences gain a new type of importance in spaces where there is a mixing of cultures. An example that diverges from the ethnic component of identity is that of fair-trade goods (goods that are marketed as being produced under socially just conditions). The ability to choose between consuming fair-trade coffee and non-fair-trade coffee presents us with the opportunity to perform a certain identity. By consuming fair-trade coffee, one may communicate to the world that he or she is a type of person that cares about social justice. This aspect of the identity is then reinforced, as that person may also say “I am a person that cares about social justice because I buy fair-trade-coffee.”
Immigrants often find themselves having to reconcile the tension between holding onto their old lifestyles from their homeland and conforming to the unfamiliar culture of the mainstream host society (Mintz 519). Kalcik points out that “foodways seem particularly resistant to change (39),” but immigrants and their offspring do tend to alter their culinary life upon entering a new host society to some degree (Kalcik 40). The way in which immigrants change their foodways (patterns of food consumption) is dependant upon a variety of factors including the availability of ingredients, the time required to prepare a dish, and the way in which the food is received by the host society (Kalcik 40). My research examines hummus and its meaning in Jewish Israeli society, which was made up of diasporas from around the world, and the young diaspora of Israeli immigrants in the United States.
Hummus in The Construction of Jewish-Israeli Identity
The establishment of Israel as a state in 1948 marked a profound shift within Jewish identity. Prior to this, Jews, whose ancestors had been forced into exile in countries around the globe, considered themselves to be a stateless diaspora. Their identity, like most other diasporas, was rooted in the feeling of a collective consciousness, a shared past, and an orientation toward a perceived ancient homeland (Sheffer 334). By the late 1800’s, the Zionist movement had gained popularity. Zionists believed that the land of Israel (then Palestine) was the ultimate homeland of the Jewish Diaspora and sought to create a Jewish state, which would put an end to their status as a “stateless diaspora (Gold 335).” According to the Jewish faith, Israel has been granted to the Jews by God, and this belief was strengthened in the early 1900’s, as anti-Semitic sentiments were increasing throughout Europe (Bar On 3).
Most of the Jews in Israel in the first few decades of the 20th century were from Eastern European countries, but the end of the Holocaust brought waves of immigrants from Middle Eastern countries, Eastern Europe, and Western Europe. With the creation of Israel as a state in 1948, those living in Israel faced the task of creating a distinct Israeli national identity that united people who has come from a diverse set of cultural backgrounds. The main components of Israeli identity in its early stages was their belief in Israel as the ancient homeland of the Jews and their negation of Palestinian identity, which also claimed the same land as their authentic homeland.
Much of the Palestinian community that already inhabited the land saw Jewish immigration as the invasion of an alien group, similar to colonial powers that had come in the past (Bar On 2). In order to legitimate the “goodness” of their own identity, Israeli Jews then relied on the negation of Palestinian identity. Kelman explains, “Assertion of the group’s own identity requires the negation of the other group’s identities; each group’s success in identity building depends on the other’s failure in that task (589).” The codependent relationship between Jewish and Palestinian identities in the context of a protracted ethnic conflict is what shaped the social significance of Hummus in Israel.
Dana Hirsch examines the “cultural biography” of Hummus in Israel, and highlights the way in which the social significance of Hummus to Israeli Jews is embedded in their complicated relationship with Arabs. The popularity of Hummus among Jewish immigrants in Israel in the first few decades of its statehood can be attributed in part to the availability of its ingredients and low cost of production. The 1948 War of Independence, solidified Israel’s sovereignty in the international community, but left the country on the brink of bankruptcy (Donati 86). The Israeli government began a system of rationing food. Donati explains that even after the rationing program ended in the late 1950s, Israeli continued to eat modestly, living according to the belief that money should not be spent on gourmet meals, but instead on investing in the future of their children, in housing and education (88).Hummus, which was filling, cheap, and flavorful, found its way into the homes of many Jewish Israeli families. But, as Hirsch explains, to Israeli Jews, eating Hummus was also a powerful symbol of personal connection to the land of Israel, a connection whose perceived legitimacy has been the basis upon which Jewish Israeli identity was formed.
As immigrants from Eastern Europe and Middle Eastern countries came to Israel, they were urged to shed the cultures of the Diaspora in favor of a new “Israeli” culture.. One example of this is the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language (not only as the ancient language of the Holy Scripture) (Bar On 3). In the late 1950’s, hummus became a vehicle through which Jewish Israelis were able to assert their own identity through the negation of the Arab identity. Hirsch explains, “in the context of its industrial production and of attempts to forge and “Israeli cuisine,” hummus was gradually “nationalized” and its Arab identity suppressed, with Jewish immigrants from Middle Eastern countries acting as intermediaries (618).” State institutions such as the Israeli Defense Force and the school system began to incorporate hummus and tahini into their menus (Raviv 185). During this time, hummus emerged in the collective memory of Jewish Israelis, with writers, religious scholars, political figures, and historians taking an active role in the process of “memorialization.” An example of this is Molly Bar-David’s cookbook (1964), in which she provides a recipe for hummus as well as other dishes with Arab origin like falafel and shish kebob. In the introductory notes to these dishes, Bar-David attributes the source of these dishes to Jewish immigrants from Middle-Eastern countries and also to biblical times (Raviv 241).
An important mediator in the nationalization of hummus in Israel was its industrial producer. Israeli-owned, Telma food company mass-produced hummus beginning in 1958 under the campaign slogan, “Knish or verenikas. Not all your guests are familiar with these European dishes. But everybody eats hummus enthusiastically—hummus, the Israeli national dish (Hirsch 622).” The Israeli narrative surrounding hummus at this time, which negated the Arab roots of the food by connecting it with the Mizrahi Jews (Jews from Middle-Eastern countries) and stories of the bible, legitimized Jewish ties to the land of Israel.
Political Shifts and the “Arab-ization” of Hummus in Israel
Hummus has gradually reacquired its Arab identity in culinary discourse (Hirsch 618). This is reflected in the marketing strategy of Israel’s leading industrial hummus brand, Tzabar. In the late 80’s and 90’s, Tzabar hired Arab chefs to promote and sponsor its new hummus line, “The hummus of Nehad the Jordanian.” This marketing technique capitalized on what has become a widespread belief amongst Israelis: that hummus made by Arabs is more “authentic” and therefore, better than hummus made by Jews (Hirsch 623). Hirsch attributes this shift in Israeli perceptions of hummus to shifts in the culinary world, as well as shifts in the world of politics.
First and Avraham argue that the end of the Cold War and the rise of the U.S. as the dominant world power ushered in a new era of neoliberal economic policies in Israel. Israel became increasing integrated in the global economy, and since the late 1980’s, has nearly doubled industrial production (First and Avraham xiii). The shift from a central socialist-oriented state to a capitalist society was not only seen through changes economic policies, but also in social transformations. “the sense of communal purpose that was dominant in the 1950s (gave) way in recent years to individualistic notions of a person’s relationship to his or her social order (First and Avraham 11).” Ethnic pluralism (within the Jewish community) was gradually replacing the ideology of Israel as a “melting pot” for all Jews. This phenomenon could be seen as Mizrahi Jewish (Jews from Middle Eastern countries) culture began to be expressed, and the Ashkenazi culture that had dominated gave way to imposed “multiculturalism (First and Avraham 11).”
Food was one way in which newly emerging Jewish ethnic groups were able to perform their diasporic identities that had been suppressed in earlier years. Furthermore, the rise of a wealthy middle class facilitated a new culinary discourse. “Following similar trends in Europe and North America, this model emphasized refinement, professionalism, and cosmopolitan authenticity (Hirsch 623).” The peace process in the 1990’s resulted in increased travel by Israeli Jews to Arabs towns and more Jews began to eat hummus made by Arabs. Because of the new culinary consciousness emerging in Israel, discourse on “authenticity,” or its closeness to its “original” source, emerged with regard to hummus. Arab Hummusiot (hummus joints) became increasingly popular, and food writers in Israel all tended to agree that Arabs were inherently better at making hummus than Israelis (Hirsch 625).
Israeli consumption of Arab hummus facilitated the construction of two identities. As Hirsch points out, the preference of Arab hummus over Jewish-made hummus constructed the Arab as less developed that Israelis and in need of modernization. The ability to make hummus was seen as rooted in traditions of the past, and this narrative (624), served to legitimize the Jewish presence in Israel not as “colonizers,” but as “liberators.” Furthermore, the Israeli Jew who took a trip to an Arab town just to find hummus, allows the Israeli Jew to perform the identity of someone who really loves hummus. Being Israeli is no longer tied to making hummus, a food with deep roots in the land of the Middle East. Rather, being Israeli is about enjoying and being able to distinguish “authentic” hummus over “non-authentic” hummus.
Hummus in Mainstream American Cuisine
Today, hummus has gained widespread popularity in the United States. A New York Times article in 2010 reported that it had gone from a $5 million-a-year US market in 1995 to one worth $325 million (BBC 2011). What is interesting about the hummus industry in the United States is that its industrial production is primarily dominated by Israeli-owned companies (BBC 2011). Also, the most widely praised “gourmet” hummus restaurants in American cities seem to be owned by Israeli immigrants. What explains this boom in the American hummus market and how has hummus in the United States come to be associated with Israel, even though “authentic” hummus in Israel is becoming increasingly associated with Arab countries?
The first mention of hummus in American media seems to be a 1964 New York Times articles, which praises the food at a Lebanese pavilion at a New York food fair, one of these foods being hummus (New York Times 1964). A food review in 1966 also mentions hummus at a Lebanese restaurant (New York Times 1966). Although the restaurants are identified as Lebanese, the food itself is labelles “Middle Eastern.”
Randa Kayyali explains that a large number of immigrants from Syria and Lebanon came to the United States in the early 1900s, when many fled during the Ottoman conscription of Arab men into the armed forced prior to WW1. These immigrants, unable to import certain goods from home, created food products that mimicked the versions that they were used to in their homeland. The sale of these products began as a small industry, catering only to Arab American families in the United States. As recipes from Lebanon and Syria were passed down among families, demand “in the Arab community alone led to the establishment of Arabic grocery stores (Kayyali 85).” These stores provided hummus and other Lebanese dishes, like tabbouli and shawarma, and were made available to a wider audience of Americans. In the late 60’s, Americans became increasingly interested in “ethnic” cuisine, spawning the creation of restaurants owned by Arab-Americans.
Depictions of hummus in the media between 1960 and 1980 tend to see hummus as part of a larger “Middle Eastern” cuisine, emphasizing its regional origin as opposed to its national origin. This can be explained in part by the history of Arab diasporas in the United States, which is characterized by discrimination and unification under a panethnic identity. In the same way that Jews from diverse ethnic backgrounds constructed a unified Israeli identity in a new and hostile country, Arab immigrants to the U.S. developed a shared “Middle-Eastern” identity. Rowan and Littlefield argue that although Middle Eastern Americans come from a wide range of racial, linguistic, religious, and geographical backgrounds, they have been viewed by the white American mainstream as a homogenous group of alien “others (xxi).” They trace the transformation of Arab American identities over 100 years. The first wave of immigration, which was mainly Christians (escaping religious persecution under Ottoman empire) was discriminated against because of their race, due to theories of “racial inferiority,” which were prevalent in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century (Rowan and Littlefield 11).
The second wave of immigration, which was much larger than the first (half-million immigrants arrived from 1970 to 2004), was made up of both Muslims and Christians, but as Rowman and Littlefield explain, “from an external view, the Middle Eastern American identity since the 1960s, to a large extent has been based on religious difference (13).” Arab Americans were united because of their shared experience of discrimination (racial and religious), and their identity has been increasingly solidified due to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the common experience of what was perceived as a “one-sided U.S. media response” to the events that occurred (Rowman and Littlefield 12). “New immigrants, along with third-generation descendents of the early immigrants, who had begun to think of themselves as “Arabs” rather than “Syrians” came together to form an ethnic community (12).” The homogenization of Middle Eastern identity in the United States can help to explain why national characterizations did not emerge in discourse on Middle Eastern hummus in the United States. Hummus became relatively popular amongst the counterculture in the 1960’s and 1970’s (New York Times 2010), but it did not enjoy widespread popularity in the American mainstream until it became industrialized, mass produced, and mass marketed.
By 1994, the Israeli company, Strauss Group was producing prepackaged refrigerated salads, including hummus, which was sold under the brand name Achla, which in Arabic meant “awesome.” Sabra Blue & White Foods was founded in 1986 by a group of Israeli immigrants in New York (Sabra.com). The immigrants that started this company immigrated to the U.S. before Arab-made hummus became overwhelmingly more popular than Jewish-made hummus. In 2006, the Israeli company, Strauss Group bought Sabra, and in 2008, entered a joint partnership with PepsiCo. What is interesting to note is that “Sabra” is the Hebrew word for a native-born Israeli (The Jewish Week 2012). Here, we see that the same company (Strauss Group) strategically constructs two different identities for hummus in order to appeal to two different national constituencies. In Israel, where “good” hummus has become associated with its Arab roots, hummus is sold under an Arabic name. However, in the United States, the name, Sabra, creates a connection between authentic Israeli-ness and hummus.
Sabra holds 48% of the hummus market and is continuing to grow. Much of its success can be attributed to marketing campaigns including television advertisements that urge Americans to “Taste the Mediterranean! (sabra.com)” Their slogan represents a shift from the previous American discourse on hummus, which associated the food with the Middle East. Another reason for the boom in the hummus industry in the United States was the proliferation of media coverage of the “hummus war.” Strauss Group was responsible for creating the world’s largest plate of hummus in 2006, the same year that they purchased Sabra hummus. Chefs in Lebanon responded by creating an even larger plate of hummus weighing 10,452 kilograms. The “hummus war” sparked a heated debate about the origins of hummus, which was underscored by the Association of Lebanese Industrialists’ (ALI) desire to enter the Israeli-dominated hummus market in the United States (Ariel 1). Newspapers like the New York Times, USA Today and the New York Post all published articles about the hummus war, leading to increased American familiarity with and curiosity about hummus. In spite of the widely publicized claim by the ALI that Israel “stole” hummus from Middle Eastern countries (USA Today 2008), Sabra and other industrial hummus producers’ sales in the U.S. skyrocketed in following years.
The “Americanization” of hummus is similar to the history of the bagel in the United States. In the 1890’s only Jews from Eastern Europe ate bagels, yet it was not considered a cultural icon. Thousands of Jewish bakeries sold bagels to Jewish customers. However, immigrants from countries like Italy, Ireland, and Russia came to American cities in the first half of the 20th century, and their taste for the bagel led to increasing demand. Eventually, Americans developed the practice of slathering cream cheese on the bagel, and production of the bagel was industrialized. Mintz explains, “Harry and Lender’s Sons (America’s largest bagel producer) purchased new machines that could roll out 400 bagels an hour. The machines eliminated hand-rolling and substituted steaming for boiling. Flash freezing and packaging in plastic bags for distribution to supermarkets around the country soon followed (37).” This new softer bagel was also made in a variety of flavors like cinnamon raisin and blueberry. Although Lender’s and Sons was one of the first Jewish bagel bakeries in the United States, its bagels (soon owned by Kraft foods) were no longer considered “authentic.” Jewish Americans and “a multiethnic crowd fascinated with traditional ethnic foods, searched elsewhere for their culinary roots and a chewier bagel (37),” which they found in businesses that revived old techniques of hand-rolling and boiling bagels.
Like bagels, hummus has gone from being an “ethnic novelty” to an American staple. Companies that mass-produce hummus have appealed to American tastes by offering endless flavor varieties, like roasted red pepper, green chili and cilantro, chocolate, and sun-dried tomato (New York Times 2010). The Americanization of hummus has come full circle, creating a desire for the return to “authentic” hummus. What is interesting about this phenomenon in America is that, unlike in Israel, it is Jewish Israeli immigrants who are satisfying the demand for “real” hummus.
On March 21, 2012, CBS New York listed its picks for “5 Best Plates of Hummus” in New York City. Four out of five of these restaurants were Israeli-owned (This was determined by Hebrew restaurant names, Hebrew names for items on the menu, or identification of the hummus as “Israeli-style” on the restaurant website) (CBS New York 2012). Another article in the New York Times, published in April 2009, is titled “$25 and Under—New York Dips Into Israeli-Style Hummus Houses.” Underlying the descriptions of hummus at New York’s new Hummusiot (hummus joints) is the association of Israel with authentic hummus. In a description of Mimi’s Hummus in Brooklyn, the journalist writes, “The menu notes “All dishes are homemade,” and that’s evident in the vibrancy of the flavors. Ms. Kitani’s aunt grinds the za’atar spice mix by hand in Israel. Crimson-stained turnips are fished out of a pickling jar brimming with garlic cloves (New York Times 2009).” The perceived authenticity of “Israeli-style” hummus in New York restaurants suggests that perhaps it is not merely Israeli-owned industrial Hummus producers like Strauss group that are reproducing the link between Israeli identity and hummus in the United States.
What seems to explain the perceived authenticity of Israeli hummus restaurants in New York is that Israeli restaurant entrepreneurs were the first to introduce menus devoted to hummus as a main dish. A venture like this relied on widespread popularity of the dish, which was achieved by the industrial production and widespread availability of hummus in mainstream American society. The owner of New York’s first Hummusiot, Ori Apple told the New York Times, “Restaurants that only do hummus are common in Israel. We knew for Israelis, (Hummus Place, his restaurant) would become a second home (New York Times 2006).” In fact, many more Hummusiot have sprung up in New York since the success of the Hummus Place, which opened in 2004. The same New York Times article writes, “a growing Little Israel, in pockets throughout the East and West Village, offers the flavors of home to the estimated half-million Israelis in the New York metropolitan area (New York Times 2006).” What this suggests is that once Israelis left their homeland and their hummus and relocated in New York, they developed an acute awareness of hummus as a comfort from their past in Israel. The lack of “home-style” hummus in New York made them crave it, long for it, and eventually reproduce it.
Therefore, when a people and their food relocate in a new context, the elements of national identity embedded within the food become more visible. The unique menus of Israeli-style New York Hummusiot embody what constitutes “Israeli national cuisine.” Although these menus center around hummus, another essential element is a fluffy pita (not the flat and dry kind), and most New York Hummusiot serve Limonata (mint lemonade) (New York Times 2006). Here, we see that a new layer of authenticity has been added to hummus. Whereas in Israel, the ‘authenticity’ of hummus has come to by symbolized by its “Arab-ness,” to American Israelis and American ‘foodies,’ the ‘authenticity’ of hummus is a measure of how similar it is to the Israeli version of the dish.
The American Israeli Diaspora
In observing the immigration of Israeli Jews to North America, we can observe the malleability of identity and the way in which the foods they bring with them gain new meanings. As Israeli immigrants settled in the United States, the consumption of hummus facilitated the performance of an Israeli self, defined against American mainstream culture. The Israeli American diaspora is a very young one, since the country itself has only been in existence for 64 years. Their emigration is described by Rebhun and Lev Ari as “voluntary migration, motivated by economic desiderata and cultural preferences, and more generally, by the desire of attaining a higher standard of living (1).” Emigration from Israel, however, is complicated by the Jewish ideology of Zionism, which sees Jewish immigration to Israel as spiritual ascension (olim). Some Israeli émigrés are regarded as “descenders” (yordim). According to this ideology, Jewish immigration to Israel is seen as a matter of national security, as Jewish population growth will help sustain the country’s ability to “defend itself (Rebhun and Lev Ari 1).” However, as noted earlier, the transition in Israel from a socialist to individualist society led to an increasing number of young Israelis immigrating to the United States in search of a better life. However, the Zionist ideology embedded in Jewish Israeli identity ensured that many Israeli immigrants to America remained closely tied to their communities back home in Israel.
Hummus is more important to Israeli Americans in recent years because an increasing number of Israeli immigrants are Israel-born (as opposed to Jews who migrated to Israel, then to the U.S.). In 1980, 58.8% of Israelis in the U.S. were native-born Israelis (the majority of foreign-born Israelis coming from East/Central Europe) and in 2000, the number rose to 72.3% (Rebhum and Lev Ari 33). Israelis born in Israel will identify more strongly with the foods popular in Israel than Israelis who immigrated from another country first. Rebhum and Lev Ari point out that Israeli Americans share similar elements of ideology with American Jews, of which 90% were born in the United States. American Jews, most of whom are third- and fourth-generation Americans “cannot share with Israeli emigrants the experiences and challenges of moving to a new country (34).”
Israeli-style Hummusiot in Israeli ethnic enclaves serve as a way for Israeli Americans to assert an identity distinct from American Jews, with whom they share religion and certain aspects of ideology. Israeli’s, united in their affinity for the fresh, non-packaged hummus that they ate in Israel rejected the industrial brand named after them, and constructed their own version of the “authentic” hummus. Unlike immigrants from Middle Eastern countries, who had come to the U.S. earlier, before there was a prosperous American hummus market, Israelis were able to succeed in restaurants that specialized in hummus.
Cuisines are commonly understood to be deeply rooted in the history of the people that produce them. But, hummus in Israel tells a different story. In an effort to strengthen national identity, Israeli nationalists popularized hummus, claiming it as Israel’s national food, and constructing a culinary narrative that connected Jewish Israeli immigrants to the land. The land that they occupied and their identification with it was of extreme importance in Israel’s formative years, since the land was perceived by Israeli Jews as constantly in danger of being taken away from them, yet it was all that they had binding them together as a group. This story is evidence of the power that food has in the creation of a national identity, by strengthening belief in a collective past and uniting people through the experience of sharing food.
The early repression of the Arab roots of hummus, and subsequent re-emergence of Arab identity in hummus, demonstrates that food in society is capable of constructing boundaries around a group, creating and reinforcing structures of power and inter-group violence. The experience of eating hummus has been mediated by a wide spectrum of political, economic, and social forces. As Israel became increasingly incorporated into the Western capitalist society, many Jewish Israelis, by locating the authenticity of hummus in Arab regions, sought to construct themselves as modern and cosmopolitan subjects against the dark shadow of the “backwards” Arab, whose “traditional” ways made him or her inherently better at making hummus.
Ironically, in the United States, Israeli hummus is seen as the “authentic” hummus. Here, we see that the meaning of “authenticity” with regard to food in a global capitalist society is driven by a number of forces, having less to do with the history of the food itself, and more to do with the specific way in which it was incorporated into American society. Hummus was introduced to Americans by Arab immigrants under the wider category of “Middle Eastern cuisine,” but it was not until Israeli entrepreneurs successfully marketed hummus through advertising in the media that hummus gained widespread popularity in the U.S. The appropriation of hummus to fit the tastes of American consumers created a subgroup of ethnic food enthusiasts seeking “real” hummus. Israeli entrepreneurs, who both longed for the hummus that they had eaten in their home country, and also saw an opportunity to capitalize on this new market of American consumers, began to open specialty hummus restaurants in major cities like New York. These humusiot were praised as serving the “most authentic” hummus in the city. Jewish Israelis, who for decades did not see themselves as capable of making “the most authentic” hummus, defined what is “authentic” hummus upon coming to America, where Arabs had been cooking it for over 100 years.
People perceive food as being grounded in identity—of a region, a history, a people, a nation, a family—which is remembered in the sensation of taste and the physical act of eating. It is this connection to something stable across space and time that we latch onto as our “identity.” People see “authentic” food as being constant and unchanging across space and time – qualities that are conducive to forming stable identity. However, as we have seen with hummus, a food cannot retain its stability across space and time, even if the exact ingredients remain unchanging. The way that food makes us feel is mediated by the narratives that surround it, which are constantly being constructed and reconstructed in a changing society. This reveals the paradox inherent in using objects in the construction of identity: We attach ourselves to objects in order to feel rooted in something permanent, but the meanings of these objects are constantly being reconstructed as a result of the ways in which people relate to them.
The Jewish Israelis attached themselves to hummus because they perceived it as being rooted in their land. In bringing “Israeli” hummus to America, the Jewish Israeli diaspora tried to preserve their connection to their community in the homeland. What they did instead, through their interaction with a new society, was reconstruct the identity of hummus. As information and people continue to flow between Israel and the United States, the cultural importance of hummus in America will undoubtedly have an effect on Israeli identity back in Israel, demonstrating that diasporic communities play an active role in shaping the identity of the nation that they leave behind.
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