The bagel and falafel, an edible Jewish identity
Street foodStreet food

The bagel and falafel, an edible Jewish identity

New research from a Hebrew University professor sheds light on the similarities between these two iconic foods

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

A falafel sandwich ready to be eaten, part of the pantheon of Israeli food. (Orel Cohen/Flash90)
A falafel sandwich ready to be eaten, part of the pantheon of Israeli food. (Orel Cohen/Flash90)

Bagels and falafel? They have more in common than you’d think.

Recent research by Professor Shaul Stampfer — who teaches Soviet and East European Jewry at Hebrew University’s Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies — published in “Jews and Their Foodways — Studies in Contemporary Jewry” (Oxford University Press), shows that the histories of the two foods are surprisingly similar.

On the most basic level, said Stampfer, both are based on a trio of elements (bagels, lox and cream cheese; falafel, pita and salad), they all began as street foods and are ‘Jewish’ but not religious in nature.

Moreover, said Stampfer, the bagel’s identification with American Jewry and the falafel’s similar status among Israeli Jews — albeit the ongoing battle as to whether it’s a Jewish or Arab creation — teaches about the dynamics of migration and self-identification.

“In both cases,” said Stampfer, “these foods attest to a community’s desire to integrate into the surrounding society, while at the same time maintaining a distinct cultural or ethnic identity.”

Sunday mornings just aren't the same without a bagel, a shmear of cream cheese and some lox (Mendy Hechtman/Flash 90)
Sunday mornings just aren’t the same without a bagel, a shmear of cream cheese and some lox (Mendy Hechtman/Flash 90)

Stampfer first takes a close look at the bagel, that round, chewy roll with a hole that began as a type of pretzel in Eastern Europe, before morphing into a sandwich bread in New York. The bagel with a shmear of cream cheese and lox would go eventually become a Sunday morning staple among American Jews.

Immigrants need their own distinct common identifiers, particularly once they abandon their original language. Food, said Stampfer, such as the bagel, offers that ability.

It’s a similar story for the falafel, the fried chickpea ball that became the adopted ethnic food of Jewish immigrants in pre-state Palestine. But first it needed the pocket pita and chopped cucumber-tomato salad.

It was European baking technology that helped develop the existing pita bread into a pocket bread, which was previously used as a wrap or method to swipe up spreads, said Stampfer.

Around the same time, the fried chick pea ball, a favorite from India, was brought to the Middle East — perhaps by the British Mandate — and named falafel. In one of those timing-is-everything moments, tomatoes were introduced to the Middle East, and chopped into salad with cucumbers, both becoming staples of Israel’s early agriculture.

Aside from the historical perspective, said Stampfer, there was the introduction of falafel as a street food. This was a clear rejection of the Eastern European value of eating at home, in favor of a new national identity.

The bagel and the falafel ended up epitomizing the modern Jewish experience, he said, indicating the turn toward secular life, but with a common desire to maintain identity.

“The story of these two foods demonstrates the complex and often contradictory ways in which ‘ordinary’ people tried to come to grips with very new circumstances,” said Stampfer.

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