The Maiden’s Farm, with Hana Meisel at center

Courtesy of Bitmuna; historian Lee Rotbart assisted Erela Taharlev Ben-Shachar in unearthing historical visuals

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The Evolution of the Israeli Kitchen

How—and why—a generation of women got everyone to eat their fruits and vegetables

Dana Kessler
June 06, 2024
The Maiden's Farm, with Hana Meisel at center

Courtesy of Bitmuna; historian Lee Rotbart assisted Erela Taharlev Ben-Shachar in unearthing historical visuals

Nowadays, the orange is a well-known symbol of Israel. But in the 1920s oranges were curiously absent from local Jewish recipe books, even though the orange groves planted in Palestine a few years earlier flooded the market with oranges. Apparently, oranges were considered anti-Zionist: Gardeners were entrepreneurs at a time when private enterprise was considered an anti-national act. This began to change in the mid-1930s. With the Great Revolt of local Arabs, and the Arab general strike in Mandatory Palestine on one side, and the winds of war in Europe significantly reducing the export of citrus fruits on the other, someone had to eat all those oranges! With this increased pressure to buy local produce, scientists got involved in propaganda and the Jewish settlement started to eat oranges. The image of the orange soon changed; it no longer represented luxury, snobbery, and capitalism (which was considered a dirty word), but rather came to symbolize health and Zionist initiative.

Erela Taharlev Ben-Shachar, a historian of science, devotes an entire chapter to the orange as an embodiment of the changes that took place within the Jewish settlement in pre-state Palestine—which advocated socialism but needed a national economy—in her new book, The Magic Ladle: Women, Science, and Nutrition in the History of Israel. Taharlev Ben-Shachar is a historian of science and the daughter of two of Israel’s most revered poets, lyricists, and writers: Yoram Taharlev, who passed away a couple of years ago, and Nurit Zarchi. The Magic Ladle, recently published (in Hebrew only) by Afik Books, was born out of her doctoral dissertation, but thanks to her background in journalism, it’s not only insightful and illuminating, but also funny, surprising, and extremely enjoyable. In it, she explores the role of history, sociology, nutrition, science, politics, gender, economics, consumerism, advertising, and culture in creating the changes that took place in Israeli society, from pre-state Israel to 1980.

Erela Taharlev Ben-Shachar
Erela Taharlev Ben-Shachar

Yonatan Blum

Taharlev Ben-Shachar doesn’t only analyze how and why different foods became commonplace in the Israeli kitchen; she also explains what women had to do with it. The Magic Ladle aims to rewrite the history of Israeli nutrition and include some of the important women who may have been forgotten. She mentions women like agriculture expert Hanna Chizhik, nutrition and cooking teacher Milka Saphir, home economy expert Erna Meyer, nutritionist Ziona Katinski, and others who, despite the harsh conditions and the limitations set by the male Zionist establishment, managed to make an impact.

One of the women the book elaborates on is leading nutritionist Sarah Bavly, who emigrated from the Netherlands to British Mandatory Palestine and became the chief dietitian for Hadassah hospitals. Bavly’s 1939 book Tezunatenu (“Our Nutrition”) was a standard elementary-school textbook for decades, and she went on to found quite a few nutrition education institutes. “Nutrition is a national problem,” wrote Bavly in the early 1940s. “Healthy, strong and happy families serve as the foundation for a strong and healthy nation.”

All these women believed in the utmost importance of their mission to teach Jewish housewives in Palestine to feed their families in a way that served the socioeconomic and political vision of the Zionist project. This is evident in the many publications and initiatives they took to promote and spread the knowledge. Women’s Zionist organizations of the time had “an army of nutrition instructors,” as Taharlev Ben-Shachar calls them. They created nutrition studies, surveys, guides, recipes and cookbooks, food exhibitions and cooking demonstrations, for kibbutz kitchens and institutional kitchens as well as housewives.

One of the things these women did was to get people to eat raw vegetables. Nowadays Israelis have salad at every meal, but for European immigrants decades ago, this was unheard of. They vehemently refused to eat “cold” salads, on the grounds that uncooked vegetables are animal food. Taharlev Ben-Shachar offers a social and political explanation for the rise of the Israeli salad. According to her, vegetables were seen as an unprofitable agricultural crop and as food for cattle, and the women of the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) were considered a marginal and unprofitable workforce. But there was a way to improve both reputations: Whereas growing wheat was physically difficult for women, they could grow vegetables, which would enable them to integrate into agriculture—a valued field in Zionist society. But first they had to get people to want to eat vegetables, so they started propagating new dishes like mock chopped liver made out of eggplant, zucchini goulash, and most of all, vegetable salad.

The No. 1 name in the Zionist vegetable revolution was Hana Meisel. Meisel immigrated to Palestine from the Russian Empire after studying agriculture and natural science in Odessa, Switzerland, and France and getting a doctorate of science degree. In 1911, she founded Havat HaAlamot (“the Maiden’s Farm”)—an agricultural school for girls on the shore of the Sea of ​​Galilee.

How much were Meisel, and the other women mentioned in the book, aware of the feminist agenda of their actions? “The Zionist ethos very much captured the private consciousness of these people, and their diaries, memoirs, and letters are a reflection of this,” said Taharlev Ben-Shachar, admitting that it’s difficult to tell. “There wasn’t much of what we’d call ‘authentic writing’ back then, so it’s hard to know what Meisel’s real motives and thoughts were. Did she consciously plan that by popularizing vegetables she would turn women into professional farmers and agriculturists? I don’t know. But there are moments in her writing and especially in her activity that it seems that she really did plan it.”

A 1935 photo of the vegetable garden
A 1935 photo of the vegetable garden

Courtesy Kibbutz Afikim archive

After the Maiden’s Farm closed in 1916, Meisel went back to Europe for a few years to raise funds for a new farm she wanted to open. When she returned to Palestine, she reluctantly agreed to run the workers’ kitchen in Tel Aviv, which was established to feed the many immigrants who came after the Balfour Declaration. Her condition was that it would also serve as a training institution. Meisel wanted to turn women into educated cooks who knew nutrition and home economics. She wanted to turn kitchen management into a profession, and end the exploitation of women in the kitchen. She also wanted women to produce the ingredients themselves and be self-sufficient, so she contacted the municipality of Tel Aviv about setting up a chicken coop, a beehive, and a vegetable garden in the city. Meisel turned her job of running a public kitchen into an educational and agricultural enterprise. She did all of this on the sly, while telling the male establishment what they wanted to hear: that it’s cheaper this way. “You can see how cunning she was,” said Taharlev Ben-Shachar with a sense of pride, “so it’s safe to assume she was very goal-oriented.”

Dafna Hirsch, an expert in culture of everyday life in Mandatory Palestine, and Israeli food history, agrees. “The concept of feminism already existed in the 19th century, although as far as I remember from sources from the time, it was not very prevalent in the Yishuv,” she told me. “But it seems to me that the concept of feminism doesn’t matter here as much as the idea of ​​equality for women. In this respect, many women acted out of a conscious and declared agenda of achieving equality for women. Others may not have spoken in terms of equality, but they did work openly for the advancement of women in the public sphere.”

One of the things that is evident is the deep disappointment and disillusionment young pioneer women felt once they reached Eretz Yisrael. In Russia they were taught that socialism means equality—including gender equality—but when they reached Palestine, the men initially excluded them from agriculture and limited them to cooking and washing.

Taharlev Ben-Shachar explained why the socialist-Zionist men suddenly changed their tune. “This was due to enormous financial difficulties. In order to receive funding from the Zionist enterprise, the kvutzot had to prove themselves,” she said, using a term that literally means “groups” in Hebrew—the plural of kvutzah, or “group”—but here specifically refers to communal settlements in pre-state Israel. “Most of the farming was dryland farming—mostly wheat—and this required a lot of physical strength. Bringing women to do this job was considered shooting yourself in the foot. Plus, all those pioneers were kids; the average age was about 20. There are funny stories about how they didn’t know what to eat, but the women knew, so they accepted something like one woman per kvutzah, and she was thrown into the kitchen or laundry room. The rest of the young women found themselves alone and lost, not knowing how to make a living. They felt hurt and betrayed and had nowhere to go.”

One of the solutions was opening kvutzot for women—agricultural communes for women only, which were dubbed “vegetable groups.” “Meisel’s first graduating class left the Maiden’s Farm in 1913-14. WWI had started and these graduates looked for ways to integrate their knowledge in this new situation,” said Taharlev Ben-Shachar. “Yael Gordon, the daughter of A.D. Gordon [the great Labor Zionist thinker], led the first group. After that, about eight more women’s groups arose, each of approximately 10 women, some up to 20. They grew produce and helped feed the hungry. the Turks expelled many Jews from Tel Aviv because they thought they were engaged in espionage, so they roamed the country. There was hunger in Tiberias, Petah Tikva, and other places, and these women helped feed the hungry with the vegetables they grew. This is how they started to be welcomed in this society that had previously shunned them and looked down on them.”

Evidently, vegetables infiltrated the menu of the Yishuv long before they became a worldwide trend, and for completely different reasons. “We started eating vegetables here during WWI, before the knowledge about vitamins starts to spread in the world,” Taharlev Ben-Shachar explained. “Apart from the feminist aspect, I believe that there was a desire to connect the people with the land, with the soil. To make people rooted, sort of like an acquired indigenousness or nativeness, if that makes sense. In this context, eating locally grown vegetables received an additional justification.”

From farm-to-table, the Israeli menu leaped into industrial food. Processed food offered the Israeli government a solution in the difficult years right after the establishment of the state. In 1949, David Ben-Gurion’s government imposed a policy of austerity on its citizens, which officially lasted throughout the 1950s. Naturally, one of the chapters in The Magic Ladle is all about egg powder and milk powder—the pillars of the austerity menu.

Zionism and advanced technology have gone hand in hand since the days of Herzl and his book Altneuland—a utopian science fiction novel that imagined Israel as the most technologically advanced country in the world. “Ben-Gurion was also a great believer in science,” said Taharlev Ben-Shachar, “and according to science, food is not taste, smell, texture, and culture, but only biochemical components. Food is carbohydrates, proteins, fat, and vitamins. Food is calories. Everything else is not important. That’s why the government had no problem substituting meat, eggs, and milk with disgusting powders.”

Later, in the early 1960s, the entrance of artificial sweeteners went hand in hand with the rise of the bourgeoisie, and during the 1970s, Israeli women got into dieting. Each new food trend that entered Israel, mirrored transformations in its society. Food was never—and never will be—just food.

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.