By Deborah Malheiro, Yahel Social Change Program
The first time I came to Israel was almost four years ago. I arrived in the house of an Israeli guy that I had met in Argentina who would eventually become my boyfriend. I remember it as if it were yesterday: after two days, he asked me, “Do you like hummus?”
I said, “You know, I think we have this thing in Brazil but I have never tasted it.”
He replied, “It’s the national food of Israel, you must like it.” I tried a small bite, really skeptical, because at that time I was really picky with food, and I saw no purpose at all to like the “Israeli national food” I didn’t like it and my opinion wouldn’t change for three more years.
At the beginning of this year, I found myself living in a kibbutz in the southern Israel. It was my fourth time b’aretz (lit. “in the land,” but, it actually means “in Israel,” as they say in Hebrew). I was only supposed to be there for four months but that turned into six. I am not sure how or when exactly it happened, but I started tasting hummus again and eventually grew to like it. I know I did this more to prove to my boyfriend that I could like hummus, because he would pick on me all the time and say: “YOU MUST EAT HUMMUS, IT IS THE ISRAELI NATIONAL FOOD.” I was proud of myself for being able to eat hummus, but a little disappointed: I would never feel Israeli without finishing a full bowl of hummus.
So what does all my hummus drama have to do with identity?
It is simple: I am from Brazil. The typical food in Brazil is black beans, preferably with meat. I love this dish and, as one can presume, it is very hard to find it in Israel. But I am living in Israel now for 10 months.
So what should I do? What type of behavior should I adopt? I can be sad every day because I don’t have beans with meat or make an effort to like the “Israeli national food”? Well, four years ago, I made no effort, since I saw no point in forcing myself to eat something if I would only be here for 15 days. But everything changes a lot once you are living in a foreign country; either you try to adapt to the culture or your life is going to be a Mexican soap opera forever. I mean, a huge drama.
I have been able to choose to like hummus, and this little thing makes me feel like I belong in Israel. If only it were that simple. But culture involves many aspects, of which food is just a single one. However, I think this situation is representative of the identity conflict that many people experience when they move to a foreign country: Should you stick to your own culture or open yourself to a new culture? Personally, I believe that sometimes in life it is better to make the smarter choice, not the most comfortable one. I mean, I would love to wake up and have fruits and cookies for breakfast, black beans for lunch and pepperoni pizza at dinner. But, instead, as long as I am in Israel that is not how it is going to be, at least not on a regular basis. I could cook these dishes every day for myself, and this would be nice, but I don`t think it is most feasible thing to do. If I keep all my Brazilians food habits, I will wake up every single day feeling awful because I am not in Brazil.
So…I choose hummus.
I am currently on the Yahel Social Change Program where I live and work in an Ethiopian community in Gedera. We often discuss the integration process for Ethiopian Israelis into greater Israeli society. I believe an important part of the integration process is to remember your roots while being open to your new home country and its traditions. So for Ethiopians, it may be that they eat injera and dabo, the traditional bread, but they also eat hummus and pita. I believe that acceptance and successful integration into Israeli society is a two way street. Greater Israeli society should accept and welcome them and respect the culture from their home country, just as the Ethiopian community can learn about and embrace new traditions in Israel.
The integration of the Ethiopian Jews is a complicated issue, and it has not been an easy process. Of course, the blame cannot be put on how often someone eats injera. It was, and still is, difficult for me to adapt to a new culture. For me, it meant to try to like something that I ate one, two, three, four times and it tasted bad. But now hummus tastes good. Nothing in life represents a permanent status, not even cultural gaps. Adaptation and identity can walk together.
But, anyway, I can love hummus, Shawarma, Pita, Jarnu, speak Hebrew and know all Egged bus lines, but I don’t think I will ever feel l like I am truly an Israeli, so I have found a way to balance sticking to my roots even while also adapting to life here in Israel. While I still can say that I much prefer black beans with meat to hummus, somehow, eating hummus helps me feel a little bit more integrated here in Israel. Hummus may not be my favorite food, but I think I would be worse off without it.