By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org
It was a fusion of food and fashion this month at the IsraelMuseum in Jerusalem, when renowned Israeli chef Assaf Granit joined with curators of the museum’s “Fashion Statements” exhibition for “70 Years ofIsraeli Food and Fashion.” The event used color and cuisine to tell the story of seven decades of Israeli culture.
The evening was part of the urban culinary festival “OpenRestaurants,” which ran in Jerusalem from Nov.13 to 18, 2018. OpenRestaurants combines the cities best aromas, sounds, tastes and colors, and tries to reveal its various cultures and diversity through local and leading cultural institutions, famous chefs, raw material manufacturers, first-class restaurants and local culinary celebrities.
Granit, who was born and raised in Jerusalem, said he was not sure what food and fashion had in common when he started this project, but it quickly became apparent to him that not only are they connected on the basic level— “these are simple, basic things that people need” — but on a deeper level, as well.
“Almost the same motions and processes were happening at the same time in the culinary world of the country as in the fashion world,” said Granit. “Whether it was a time of depression or a time of building the country, and everyone working together toward the same goals, you see it in our food and our dress.”
“Food and fashion talk to culture,”said Fashion Statements curator Noga Eliash-Zalminovich. She collaborated with curatorsDaisy Raccah-Djivre and Efrat Assaf-Shapira. The exhibition was initiated by Tamara Yovel-Jones.
The Story of Israeli Immigration
Flashback to the first decade of the Jewish state. Then, most of the population wore a sort of “dress code,” according to Eliash-Zalminovich. She was referring to the iconic khaki shorts, “tembel” hat and biblical sandals of Israel in the 1950s.
“The clothes were made for labor and industry,” she said. “This frugal fashion was both a necessity and a way of thinking.”
At the same time, there was an embargo on the country, so few foods were being imported. As such, David Ben-Gurion, Israeli founding father and first prime minister, asked the Osem company to manufacture something like rice, which was a staple of so many people’s diets but non-existent in the fledgling Jewish state. The company created small grains of pasta that looked like rice, and was cheap and easy to make. They called it ptitim.
“Osem brought this new product to life, and from that day on, every Israeli child eats ptitim — whether he is Kurdish,Russian, Ethiopian or Moroccan,” said Granit.
Of course, the tastes and textiles of the holy land started even before the country’s official founding, said Eliash-Zalminovich, who spent two years with a team of other fashionistas and researchers working onFashion Statements.
Fashion Statements explores the late19th-century indigenous pre-Zionist fashion, the opposing forces of Europeanism and Orientalism that converged in the early decades of the state, and, finally the place that Israeli creativity holds on the global fashion scene today.
Eliash-Zalminovich said the first time anyone wrote about Israeli fashion was in 1904. Then, Chemda Ben-Yehuda, the wife of the man who resurrected the Hebrew language — Eliezer Ben-Yehuda — became the country’s first fashion critic. Ben-Yehuda had a column that appeared in the newspaper Hashkafa under the pen name Shoshana Levana. The Hebrew word for fashion, ofna, is a linguistic innovation of hers.
An excerpt from Ben-Yehuda’s first column begins: “Fashion. For the first time in its life fashion will enter the gates of the Hebrew press. It is with fear and genuine anxiety that I write these lines. Who will not mock? Who will not laugh at me? Who will not judge meharshly? And who knows whether I shall not be banned as well?”
Food and fashion likewise tell the story of Israeli immigration.
In 1937, Dr. Erna Meyer, a German immigrant, published the first Israeli cookbook, How to Cook in Palestine. According to Eliash-Zalminovich, in the book, Meyer asks how she can cook in Israel the same way she cooked in Europe. She concludes that she can’t.
“It will be pointless, almost futile to take the same recipes and make them in Israel,” Eliash-Zalminovich said. “Rather, she concludes, she will have to reinvent herself and her food in Israel.”
Concurrently, designers were grappling with similar challenges, trying to work with new materials in a new place with a new culture and climate.
“In Israel, it is summer eight months of the year. There is a desert climate, and European designers found that the sheep had different colors; there was no pristine black or white, just off-white and off-black,” described Eliash-Zalminovich.
Granit said his own grandmother’s story is this story. She moved to Israel from Poland. The food she cooked came from the Eastern European shtetl. When she arrived in Jerusalem, she found herself in an entirely new world. Her neighbors came from all over, and like herself, received all their early culinary education from their grandmothers.
“This is what is so special about the city of Jerusalem,” he said. “It is the center of the world, and it draws people from all backgrounds and walks of life. While my grandmother was cooking, she was also constantly talking with her neighbors through the windows.The woman next door was born in Morocco and taught her how to use saffron. A woman down the street came from Yemen, and she taught her how to make malawah.”
Some Amazing, Cutting-Edge Things
Granit said that in the last two decades, Israelis have taken their history and culture outside of the Jewish state and are succeeding in the world marketplace, using traditional tastes and textiles with modern interpretations.
“Take the keffiyeh, the Arabic fabric used to wrap your head,” he said. “Fashion designers today use that pattern to make dresses and scarves. These modern designs sell in super high-end places outside the country.
“They are using our local heritage and telling our story, but creating their version or interpretation,” he said.
Similarly, Israeli chefs, including Granit, are using the same techniques.
“What we do in India or Parisis we take our old heritage, usually brought to Israel by immigrants, and we elevate it to chef level,” he said. “We use local ingredients and ancient cooking methods in a modern way, and it is not only accepted but well-loved all over the world.”
For example, Granit makes a fish kubaneh.
Kubaneh has its roots in Syria andLebanon. In its original form, it’s made of meat or lamb. Granit leverages the techniques and spices of that staple to create his own interpretation.
“The kubaneh is our keffiyeh,”Granit said, noting he learned to cook from his Polish-immigrant grandmother, and by exploring the different tastes and aromas of the Jerusalem’s streets — from the stalls in the markets to his grandma’s frying pan.
“Whether in Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda [open-air] market or London’s Palomar or Paris’s Balagan, each and every of my 11 restaurants have their own personality and story, yet they share this amazing encounter between the streets of Jerusalem, and of the experiences and lessons learned from European culture and fine dining,” he explained.
Granit said fashion and food are great ways to show off the rich and varied culture that is Israel.
“From outside, you don’t understand how far and advanced our culture is,” he said. “Mostly, you hear about the conflict. You don’t know we are creating some amazing, cutting-edge things inIsrael.”