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Habaneros and shwarma: Jewish Mexicans in Israel as a transnational community

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Abstract

Food is the cultural expression of society food as a marker of class, ethnic, and religious identity. What happens when the location changes? Does food continue to play such an important role or do other cultural nodes take over? Do layers of traditions, adaptation and cultural blends emerge? This seems to be the case with third and fourth generation Mexican Jews who have moved to Israel. Not only have they brought their spiritual and cultural connections from Mexico, their birth country; they have also brought the food experiences of their great-grandparents and grandparents who were they themselves immigrants. Jewish Mexicans have transplanted their sense of community to Israel and in doing so they have also brought overlooked cultural interactions and unique food experiences. Are these simply by-products of religious and migration patterns? Or are there other elements that have affected this cultural hybridity?
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Religion and Food, Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis, 26 (2015), pp. 281–302
Habaneros
and
shwarma
Jewish Mexicans in Israel as a transnational community
PAULETTE KERSHENOVICH SCHUSTER
Food is the cultural expression of society as a marker of class, ethnic, and religious identity. What
happens when the location changes? Does food continue to play such an important role or do
other cultural nodes take over? Do layers of traditions, adaptation and cultural blends emerge?
This seems to be the case with third and fourth generation Mexican Jews who have moved to
Israel. Not only have they brought their spiritual and cultural connections from Mexico, their birth
country; they have also brought the food experiences of their great-grandparents and grandparents
who were themselves immigrants. Jewish Mexicans have transplanted their sense of community
to Israel and in doing so they have also brought overlooked cultural interactions and unique food
experiences. Are these simply by-products of religious and migration patterns? Or are there other
elements that have aected this cultural hybridity?
Introduction
Food is the cultural expression of society and a marker of class, ethnic, and
religious identity.1 What happens when the location changes? Does food con-
tinue to play such an important role or do other cultural nodes take over? Do
layers of traditions, adaptation and cultural blends emerge? is seems to be
the case with third and fourth generation Mexican Jews who have moved to
Israel. Not only have they brought their spiritual and cultural connections from
Mexico, their birth country; they have also brought the food experiences of
their great-grandparents and grandparents who were themselves immigrants.
Jewish Mexicans have transplanted their sense of community to Israel and in
doing so they have also brought overlooked cultural interactions and unique
food experiences. Are these simply by-products of religious and migration pat-
terns? Or are there other elements that have aected this cultural hybridity?
1 On food and class see Bourdieu : –; Goody : –. On food
and identity see Anderson : –, –, –; Fischler : –;
Montanari : –.
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Jews in Mexico infused the traditional Jewish dishes of their ancestors with
typical Mexican ingredients such as: chiles, lime, banana and corn leaves, and
local herbs and spices like epazote, cilantro and achiote. How do they recreate
these avours in Israel? Israeli cuisine encompasses dishes from a variety of
Jewish ethnic cuisines such as North Africa, Spain and Syria (Sephardic trad-
ition) and Eastern Europe (Ashkenazic tradition) reecting patterns of immi-
gration and acculturation (Rozin : –). e end result is shwarma (an
Israeli/Middle Eastern shredded lamb meat dish) topped with spicy habanero
salsa (a Mexican ingredient), shakshuka (Israeli poached eggs cooked in a spicy
tomato and hot pepper sauce) with jalapeños (Mexican chile) and matzo balls (a
traditional Ashkenazi Jewish food) in pozole (a spicy Mexican soup) eaten on
Friday nights for Shabbat (the Jewish day of rest). ese culinary concoctions
and combinations are just some examples of the food fusion between Israeli
local cuisine and the Mexican fare mixed in with Jewish religious traditions,
or what I call the ‘Mexicanization of Israeli foodways’. In other instances the
sacredness of food lters in with Jewish and Mexican folk remedies such as hot
chicken soup (Jewish comfort food) with cilantro and lime (Mexican ingredi-
ents), washed down with a shot of tequila (Mexican hard liquor) and lemon as
a cure for the common cold. is religious relationship functions both as an
expression of belief and a religious value, forming a symbolic connection to
the ancestral past and modern religious cooking and transnational practices.
Graham Harvey () contends that religion is not about belief but about
practices, which I will discuss at more length later.
is article explores how Jewish Mexicans have recreated their sense of
self in Israel by using food as a bastion of their religious, spiritual and cultural
identity. Specically, this article explores the cooking and consumption pat-
terns of Mexican Jews prior to and post immigration to Israel; the shared food
experi ences of these immigrants; Mexican, Israeli and Jewish cuisines as separ-
ate gastronomic diets; the intersections of Mexican-Jewish and Israeli cuisines
and traditions; and the nostalgia and memories evoked by these experiences.
Lastly, Jewish Mexicans as a transnational community are briey discussed in
relation to food practices.
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Methodology
is article draws on qualitative and ethnographic research conducted inside
Israel. It is based on participant observation, individual in-depth interviews,
a review of the existing literature and eld research using charlas culiniarias
(culin ary chats).2
A total of fty interviews have been conducted as part of a larger research
project that was begun in December . Interviews were conducted with
Jewish Mexican women of dierent generations, religious and socio-economic
backgrounds and in various cities throughout Israel. I have included myself in
this study as a participant and as a participant observer. As a participant and as
a fellow Jewish immigrant from Mexico, I have also shared some of the same
life experiences. As a participant observer, I enjoy a vantage point from which I
can gauge multiple cooking practices.
For this specic paper, follow-up interviews and casual conversations were
conducted with both Israeli and Jewish Mexican men in order to evaluate other
narratives of cooking and consumption patterns. Gauging these narratives
from a time perspective (years in Israel), places of residency, ethnic/religious
backgrounds (among other factors) provided a poignant insight into individual
immigrant stories and a greater historical and contemporary understanding of
food fusion and adaptation. Interviews conducted were semi-structured with
open-ended questions in Spanish and/or Hebrew.
Background of the Jewish Community in Mexico
As of , the Mexican Jewish community numbered approximately
, (out of a total Mexican population of  million) and thus represents
a very small minority in the country (INEGI). e contemporary formation
of the Mexican Jewish community began to coalesce in the late nineteenth
century and the rst half of the twentieth century, although its historical roots
can be traced to the rediscovery of the Americas (Gojman de Backal ,
Krause , Sourasky ). Most Jews entered Mexico between the s
and s, although immigration ows began earlier in the Porriato.3 ree
2 I have borrowed the phrase charlas culiniarias, coined by Meredith E. Abarca
(: ). Although Abarca’s research centres on the life experiences and cooking
practices of working-class Mexican women, I think these culinary chats are a useful
tool for our own purposes.
3 e era of Porrio Díaz’s government from – is known as the Porriato.
Aside from a brief interregnum from  to  when Díaz personally appointed
284
PAULETTE KERSHENOVICH SCHUSTER
migratory periods with two major waves can be identied: –, –
, and – (Kershenovich Schuster ).
In Mexico City, there are four main sub-groups (ethno-religious and cultural
groups) in the Jewish community, divided according to their ancestral places
of national origin: Ashkenazim (Eastern European Jews), Sephardim (from the
Iberian Peninsula, Turkey and the Balkans), and two distinct Syrian Jewish sub-
groups (one Damascene known as Shamis and the other Aleppan known as
Halebis). ese sub-groups are divided even further into ten community sec-
tors to which the majority of the Judeo-Mexican population is aliated.4 e
Jewish Mexican community is highly organized and centralized. Each commu-
nity sector provides its members a whole array of services. Generally speaking,
the Jewish community in Mexico City is considered traditional.5
Israel and the Jewish community
Israel’s current population stands at ,, (as of January , Israel
Central Bureau of Statistics). In , Israel welcomed approximately ,
new immigrants. During the period –, Israel absorbed , Latin
American immigrants. e newcomers were largely from Argentina (,),
Brazil (,), Uruguay (,), Chile (,) and Venezuela (,) (Israel
Central Bureaus of Statistics).
Directly related to this case study, there were , immigrants from Mexico.
Certainly, it is not a high number but it does oer a modest contribution to the
overall picture of Latin American immigration. e migratory ows between
Manuel Gonzálex as his temporary successor. Some scholars put the end of Díaz’s re-
gime in  with the start of the Mexican Revolution (–).
4 ) Beth Israel Community Center (an English speaking institution, which practices
Conservative Judaism); ) the CDI – Jewish Sport Center (sports, cultural, and social
institution, which integrates members from all the other sectors); ) Monterrey’s
Community Center (the representative institution of Monterrey’s Jewish Community);
() North Baja California’s Community Center (the representative institution of
Tijuana’s Jewish Community); ) Ashkenazi Community (formed by descendants of
Eastern Europe immigrants.); ) Bet El Community (an institution which practices
Conservative Judaism); ) Guadalajara’s Community Center (the representative insti-
tution of Guadalajara’s Jewish Community); ) Maguén David Community (formed
by descendants of immigrants from Aleppo); ) Alianza Monte Sinaí (formed by
descendants of immigrants from Damascus) and ) Sephardic Community (formed
by descendants of immigrants from the Iberian Peninsula, Turkey and the Balkans)
(Seligson : ; Tribuna Israelita’s website).
5 For more on the religious spectrum and divisions, see DellaPergola and Lerner ,
Alduncin and Asociados .
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Habaneros and shwarma
 and  from Mexico were constantly maintained. e rst major rise
occurred in . I have identied ve important peaks: –, –,
–, –, and – (based on information tabulated from the Israel
Central Bureau of Statistics). Each of these groupings had dierent push and
pull factors, but the majority were tied to patterns of socio-economic instability
and general feelings of insecurity.
e s ushered in a large inux of Jews from Mexico to Israel, due to
economic changes known collectively as the Tequila Crisis. In the s alone,
, people entered the country;  immigrants arrived in the s and
between  and ,  people immigrated. Since ,  Mexican
immigrants have made Israel their home (Israel Central Bureau of Statistics).
Discussion
What is Jewish cooking? Do we infuse it with certain Jewish elements such
as Kashrut?6 Is it the simple act of digesting traditional Jewish dishes?7 Does
it involve a spiritual connection or a greater Jewish nation/peoplehood?8 What
does it mean to eat Jewishly? Does what we eat make a dierence?
Jewish cooking is a daily expression of religious beliefs, ethnic identication,
cultural or family history, or a combination of these components (Kraut :
–; Marks ; Spieler ; Roden ; Montanari and Sabban ).9
Transcending social upheavals and countries, it nonetheless encompasses a
plethora of ingredients and tastes that reect the cultural forms and practices,
ethnic markers, and religious elements of many Jewish communities worldwide.
is combination of global and local is mirrored in the complex constructions
of identity among Jews who embrace local cuisine while preserving traditional
foods.
Eating Jewishly in this article is dened as consuming food that has been
cultivated and harvested using Jewish ethical values. ese values are not only
tied to Kashrut but to other factors as well. In her presentation ‘ere’s Kashrut,
and then there’s “eating Jewishly” ’ Alden Mulhern () implies that eating
6 Kashrut is a term used to refer to the Jewish dietary laws.
7 e act of eating is dened here as the act of converting food into nutrients that supply
the body’s organs and cells.
8 Jewish peoplehood was rst termed in November  (to my knowledge) by the
Diaspora Museum when it established the International School for Jewish Peoplehood
Studies.
9 On ethnic cuisines and foodways see Buckser , Fischler , Anderson ,
Bahloul .
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PAULETTE KERSHENOVICH SCHUSTER
Jewishly occupies a higher spiritual plane than Kashrut. By making this con-
nection, Mulhern has brought to the fore an interesting conundrum: that of
whether eating Jewishly is more important than Kashrut, and vice versa. She
further explains that Jewish eating explores the intersection of Jewish trad-
ing and contemporary food issues as embodied in the organization Shoresh.10
Many of the followers of this Jewish food movement, propose that having a
vegetarian and vegan lifestyle is a good place to start. For most of my inform-
ants, eating kosher (or ‘keeping kosher’) was more important. However, many
also stated that kashrut was not a factor in their diet. Although none of my
informants followed the principles of eating Jewishly, some of the Israelis I
spoke with did follow a vegetarian and vegan diet, reecting a nationwide trend.
For those of my informants that ate according to kashrut, kashrut was held in
high spiritual/religious regard. ey elevated their diet, cooking practices, life-
styles and beliefs to a level of sacredness (Sered : –). us, creating
a religious relationship between their beliefs, cooking and eating practices. For
example, by keeping kosher, everyday mundane food was elevated to something
special. Moreover, when traditional holiday dishes were prepared, due to their
laborious nature and higher spiritual/religious and symbolic connection to the
ancestral past, women often cited feeling more attuned and aware of larger
forces that united them to a greater Jewishness and Jewish nation/peoplehood.
In Mexico and Israel, the national diets have taken on a dominant role in
the everyday food choices and cooking practices of my informants. e culinary
inuence of both countries is clear and is manifested in the combination of
styles, practices and diets involved. Jewish cooking is well integrated into this
scenario.
e traditional and modern Mexican diets are and were based on corn.
Prehistoric Indians domesticated corn (Quintana : ) and used it as a
component in ritual, as is evidenced in ancient archaeological and pictographic
records (Mazzetto and Moragas Segura ). e emphasis on this invalu-
able foodstu reects the Mayan belief that humans were moulded and created
from corn.11 Corn is used as an ingredient in cooking savoury dishes as well as
desserts and in a vast amount of products such as syrups, oil, grits, colourings,
glucose, our, animal feed, and starch.
10 As further elaborated in its food conference of  January . Shoresh is a not-for-
prot Jewish Environmental organization. Founded in Toronto in . Among its
programmes, it includes a food conference, the Kavanagh garden, Bela Farm, Kollels,
CSA, kids’, adults’ and seniors’ programmes and workshops. For more on Shoresh and
its founding principles and programmes, see its website.
11 Prehistoric Indians called corn toconayoour meat’ (Quintana : ).
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Habaneros and shwarma
e most important use of corn is in the form of masa, the dough for mak-
ing tortillas and their variations, as well as for tamales.12 According to ancient
techniques, dried corn kernels are cooked with water and limestone or quick-
lime until the corn kernels are soft. After soaking for one day, the kernels are
then skinned and ground (Quintana : ). is ancient cooking practice or
process is known as nixtamalización or nixtamalization and is now mechanized,
as is the production of tortillas,13 except for in remote villages. It is a process
that is almost unknown outside of Mesoamerica (Mexico Sabroso’s website).
In addition to corn, other important staples include a variety of chiles, toma-
toes (green and red), beans, squash and squash blossoms, and avocados, along
with cacao and vanilla. Chiles are an integral part of everyday food and are eaten
often in the form of salsas, or else sprinkled over fruit, popcorn, corn or pop-
sicles in the form of a powder known as chile piquin; or they are eaten in the
form of candy (or as candy) together with tamarind (sweet and spicy). Mexican
cuisine is not uniform and varies according to each state and region.
e modern weekday Israeli diet is based largely on fresh vegetables, fruits,
and dairy products (Gur ; Ziv ; Golden : –; Sirkis ).
Israeli cuisine also incorporates many foods traditionally eaten in other Middle
Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines, such as falafel, hummus, shakshouka, and
couscous (steamed semolina served with cooked vegetables and broth) (Raviv
; Gvion , ).14 ere is currently a debate on the appropriation
over ownership of Israeli/Middle Eastern regional dishes, such as hummus and
falafel and who was has the right to claim them as their own (Broussard :
–; Abu-Fadil ; Ariel : –; Ranta and Mendel : –).
e main debaters in this contested culinary issue are Israelis, Lebanese, and
Palestinians. All assert that the origins of these foodstus are rightfully theirs.
Food fusion, a process characteristic of the immigrant experience, refers to
the trend of combining foods from more than one culture in the same dish.
Some examples of food fusion in Mexico include stued zucchinis with tamar-
ind sauce; stued vine leaves with lemon sauce; artichoke with kipe (a Syrian
12 A tortilla is a foodstu generally made with dough from nixtamalized maize. It is at
and circular in shape. Tortillas vary in size and colour. ey can also be made from
white, yellow, blue or violet and/or red corn. ey may be small ( inches in diameter)
or large (as wide as  inches). e former are more popular and are known as tortillas
taqueras (for tacos). ey can also be made with nopales (cacti), and avocados.
13 A mechanized tortilla factory is called a tortillería.
14 On food in the Middle East, see Heine , Zubaida and Rapper , Roden .
For general background on the Middles East and its Jews, see Cleveland , Simon
et al. .
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PAULETTE KERSHENOVICH SCHUSTER
dish) and lamb, combined with various types of chiles and spices (such as cin-
namon) and served with our tortillas; meat rolls with ancho chile sauce; and kipe
stued with beef, serrano chiles and chile piquin.
Israeli cuisine, like other Middle Eastern cuisines, is based on a few key
ingredients such as lamb, chicken, dried beans, aubergine, rice and bulgur wheat,
olives, yogurt and salty cheese (South and Jermyn : ). us, Jewish
dishes, which largely follow the Middle Eastern cuisine except for the strict
separation between dishes containing meat and those containing dairy ingre-
dients (according to kashrut), are alive with avour and healthful ingredients,
emphasizing wholegrains, vegetables, legumes, and olive oil (Dweck and Cohen
). e Mizrahi cuisine in Israel reects the convergence of Jews from
Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Afghanistan, Bukhara
(Uzbekistan), Egypt, the Berber communities, Kurdistan, Eastern Caucasus,
and Georgia (Bahloul : –; Leichtman : –). It also shares
a number of culinary practices with those of Palestinian Arabs (Shihab ;
Dabbdoub Nasser ; Ranta and Mendel : –). Mizrahi food is often
light and fresh, concentrating on salads, stued vegetables and vine leaves,
olive oil, lentils, fresh and dried fruits, herbs and nuts, and chickpeas. Lamb or
ground beef are widely used for Shabbat, holiday, and celebratory meals. Rice
is a staple of the Mizrahi diet, as are many varieties of atbread such as lafah,
pita and malawach. ere are many intra-group variations and modications. In
addition to the inuence of Mizrahi and Middle Eastern cuisines, Israeli food-
ways also integrate the Ashkenazi Jewish diet largely based on potatoes, beets,
brisket, chicken and cabbage in various formats (Bernstein and Carmeli ).
Initially, during the period of acculturation, Jewish immigrants continued to
eat traditional Jewish food after their arrival in Mexico, but gradually Mexican
dishes and foodstus entered their cuisine. Over time, members of the sec-
ond and third generations adopted modern Mexican patterns of eating as well
as Mexican foods. Jews now enjoy the culinary diversity of Mexican dishes,
adapting them at home to meet the requirements of kosher cooking. us, for
ex ample, chiles en nogada,15 traditionally made with poblano chiles lled with
picadillo (a mixture usually containing fried ground beef, herbs, fruits and spices
or diced potatoes and carrots) topped with a walnut-based cream sauce, called
nogada, and pomegranate seeds, giving it the three colours of the Mexican ag:
green from the chile, white from the nut sauce and red from the pomegranate.
15 e name comes from the Spanish word for the walnut tree, nogal (Diccionario de la
Lengua Española). e walnut variety used to prepare nogada is called nogal de Castilla
or Castillan walnut.
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Habaneros and shwarma
Jews adapt this dish by either substituting a cheese lling instead of the pica-
dillo, by omitting the nogada white sauce or by preparing an alternative white
sauce made with coconut cream/milk.
Another example includes tostadas (deep-fried tortillas topped with beans,
shredded lettuce, some kind of meat, salsa and grated cotija cheese).16 Due to
kashrut, Jews either omit the cheese or omit the meat and add the cheese. ere
are many other popular Mexican foods enjoyed by Jews which include tacos,
tamales, quesadillas, chilaquiles, enchiladas, enfrijoladas, entomatadas, sopa de tor-
tilla, autas and corn-on-the cob with various toppings (Quintana ).
In Israel, Middle Eastern Jews continued to use food as a symbol of identity,
at rst signifying regional ethnicity such as Yemenite, Moroccan, Iraqi and later
as part of the formation of Mizrahi identity. Middle Eastern Jews also con-
tributed to the formation of a new national Israeli cuisine which incorporated
European and Palestinian foods with the various dishes that non-European
immigrants brought with them.
For many years, food preferences among Israelis mirrored political and eth-
nic separations by adopting the Mizrahi/Ashkenazi divide (Dahan Kalev ,
Smooha , Khazzoom ). However, today, the growing acceptance of
culinary diversity means that Israeli Jews are more willing to embrace not only
their ancestral ethnic cuisines of origin, but other, newer culinary traditions.
In Mexico, eating patterns vary in each Jewish community. e community
of Jews from Syria tends to consume its own ethnic cuisine. For example, it
is rare that Syrian Jews will eat Ashkenazi food, citing that is disgusting and
tasteless; conversely comida árabe (Arabic food, the food of the Syrian Jews) is
often eaten by Ashkenazim or Sephardim. Adding this culinary value judgment
is indicative not of the dierent palates, but of cultural distinctions and levels
of religiosity. Israelis, by contrast, incorporate various forms of ethnic cuisines
and make them their own. All of the Israeli informants described their diet as
Israeli, although some of the women reported that they ate only traditional
Jewish food on a daily basis.
Weekday food in Israel also consists of a mix of styles; mostly Israeli and
traditional Jewish dishes mixed with some international dishes (for instance,
sushi, pizza, or dim sum). As in Mexico, traditional family meals are eaten on
Shabbat, and are often served in a special dining area used only for Shabbat,
holidays, and other festive occasions. In Mexico, typically Jewish food is cooked
16 Tostadas are considered antojitos mexicanos (Mexican appetizers).
290
PAULETTE KERSHENOVICH SCHUSTER
by the respondents with the aid of domestic help.17 In contrast to the situ-
ation in Mexico, food in the Israeli households was not normally prepared by
domestic help. Instead, it was prepared by the female members of the household
(mothers, mothers-in-law and daughters).
Food fusion does not occur in Israel as widely as it does in Mexico but this
trend seems to be changing. Rather than combine various elements into a new
dish, Jewish dishes are often served together with other Middle Eastern foods
such as szug (a Yemenite chili pepper sauce or spread), which is often added to
falafel, tehina, cut vegetable salad, or hummus and is also spread over sh and
eggs or chraime (a spicy Moroccan sh with tomatoes). is type of what I call
‘parallel’ eating and/or cuisine is common and can be seen in other instances as
well.18
Boundaries, identity, and control: Mexicans in Israel as transnational community
Jewish Mexicans in Israel function as a transnational community. Trans-
nationalism refers here to those multiple ties and the interactions linked to
people or institutions through frontiers and nation-states (Vertovec :
–). e wider meaning of transnationalism, within the rubric of globaliza-
tion, includes certain actions or transnational or transcultural practices. Michael
Kearney points out that ‘transnationalism implies a diusion or better said a
reordering of distinction of binary cultural, social and epistemology of the
modern period’ (Kearney : ).
e transnationalism of Jewish Mexicans assumes diverse expressions.
ey participated actively in the construction of connections and transcul-
tural practices in order to develop and re-create dierent ethnic, aective
and transcultural ties within globalization.19 Social networks on the internet
play a fundamental role. is has created a virtual imagined community that
has transplanted a little bit of Mexico into Israel. In a way, Mexican soil, plus
Jewish roots and then in the new context Israeli soil, have combined to form
17 Although they reported receiving some help from their mothers or mothers-in-law on
special occasions.
18 I dene ‘parallel eating’ as eating types of foodstus in parallel form such as meat,
tortillas and chicken, but not together on the same plate. I dene ‘parallel cuisine’ as
serving various types of national cuisines side-by-side but again not on the same plate.
For example, serving an Asian noodle salad as an appetizer, Indian curried chicken
with white rice, and halva (Israeli sesame seed candy) as dessert.
19 On globalization and food culture, see Watson and Caldwell , Fischler ,
and Chase .
291
Habaneros and shwarma
Jewish-Mexican roots.20 On these online forums, Mexican Jews of various reli-
gious, socio-economic backgrounds and ages, share everything from political
views, the best and worst Mexican restaurants in Israel, which stores are selling
Mexican products or Israeli version of products, and who has the best recipe
for mole (a thick sauce made with cacao, peanut butter and chiles, and other
ingredients) among other things.21 e fact that these spaces devote any time to
food suggests that this online community serves as a strengthening element of
memory, and identity and connection to transnational and transcultural prac-
tices.22 Another transnational practice demonstrated by my interviewees were
their trips to Mexico, typically, every two years. Each time they y to Mexico,
they do so with empty suitcases, which come back full of Mexican foods and
sweets not available in Israel.
Another term that goes hand in hand with transnationalism is bifocality.
Bifocality here refers to those dual practices in which immigrants constantly
compare their places of origin with their adoptive homeland. Many immigrants
are involved daily in activities and relations that tie them to the experiences of
the nearby or the ‘here’ and to the distant or the ‘there’ (Geertz : –).
Examples of some cultural manifestations surrounding food that combine
a diasporic identity and transculturalism include: monthly social meetings by
Jewish Mexican women in the north and centre of the country; annual celebra-
tions commemorating Mexican Independence, either at Mexican restaurants,
barbecues in parks or at various residences of Mexicans and coee and cake
time in the homes of Jewish Mexican women on an ad hoc basis. Any excuse
to eat and congregate is greatly valued. Food constitutes the bonding element
in these gatherings surpassing dierences in their generational, religious and
socio-economic backgrounds. e sharing of food acts as a congruent element
of personal and collective identity and as an expressive activity (Searles ).
is network of exchange aids in the incorporation and assimilation of new-
comers ‘making kinship,’ which is central to the social reproduction (Carsten
). us, food serves as an important vehicle in the production of meaning
and identity (Searles ) and of making a home. As one Orthodox Jewish
20 It is a twist on Shoresh’s Jewish environmental programme entitled ‘Canadian soil,
Jewish roots.’ For more on this, see its website.
21 e word mole comes from the Nahuatl word mulli, which means ‘sauce or stew’
(Diccionario de la Lengua Española). e dish has its origins in the prehispanic period,
when elaborate and various ground sauces that with the passage of time were modied
and redened into the modern version.
22 For more on food and memory, see Holtzman : –; Bardenstein : –
; Naguib : –.
292
PAULETTE KERSHENOVICH SCHUSTER
woman in her forties told me: ‘food and the whole idea of making food together,
not just eating it together, has been a tradition in my family and in many others,
I believe food is about taking care, sharing and an important part of making
a home’. Some of the younger women I interviewed generally share the view
of food as an important aspect of family gatherings and festivities but do not
necessarily welcome the idea of cooking with other female members, expeci-
ally their mothers-in-law. Some expressed the bond that they share with their
grandmothers and mothers in making traditional Jewish food for their own
families, despite the fact that they are in dierent countires. However, there is
sometimes discord in the types of food being served on these occasions and in
everyday fare.
ese acts transplant the Mexican context into an Israeli one, forming a
conjuncture between Jewish identity and the Mexican one. is Mexicanidad
or ‘Mexican-ness’ acts as an identitarian space that develops and acquires a new
form that extends to a cultural Israeli framework.23 In Mexico, the immigrants’
hybrid identity as Jews was highlighted but in Israel their Mexican identity takes
on a central role. In the end, a new hybrid identity of Mexican-Israeli-Jewish
and/or Zionist or Mexican Israelis, Israeli Mexicans, Zionists or any combin-
ation thereof is created. On the one hand, participants confront the tripartite
condition of having inherited their identity by being born in Mexico but lacking
full ancestral Mexicanidad and at the same time, remaining Jewish and carry ing
on their parents’ traditions. is group must constantly prove to outsiders that
they are indeed worthy of their ethnic and nationalistic characterizations.
As Jorge Duany () pointed out, the re-creation of companies/busi-
nesses is a transnational practice and also a form of cultural production. An
important example of this is the opening of restaurants representing the owners’
place of origin. In the last decade, there has been a proliferation of restaurants
that claim to serve Mexican food. According to an internet-based Israeli res-
taurant guide (Zaprest), there are  Mexican restaurants, but a close examin-
ation reveals that the majority are not authentic Mexican venues and only oer
a semblance of these avours. e online restaurant list also included catering
businesses or businesses oering prepared food for home delivery. Some were
kosher; most were not.
23 Mexicanidad here is used to refer to a socially constructed term for describing not just
an adherence to Mexico in national terms but a deep connection to and pride in the
land as part of an identity and not as a as a proto-nationalistic ‘indianist’ movement as
described by Susanna Rostas ().
293
Habaneros and shwarma
On its window-front, one restaurant in English stated: ‘Fresh Mexican
food’, while in Hebrew it read ‘Mexican-American food’. To add insult to injury,
inside the establishment there were posters advertising specials with misspelled
words in Spanish, as well as American inspired themes and decorations.
e majority of these restaurants oer Tex-Mex food; they are followed
by restaurants that serve Latin, South American fare or meat accompanied by
tortillas. According to some of my Israeli participants, the fact that these res-
taurants serve tortillas or tortiot as they are known in Hebrew, magically con-
verts them into Mexican. Even though the so-called ‘Tortilla Bars’ are popular
in Israel, the concept does not exist in Mexico. ese establishments typically
oer a variety of toppings which are then spooned on top of tortillas. However,
as one twenty-something Mexican woman told me: ‘I went; it was good that
you could build your plate of tacos for only  shekels, and get your choice of
chicken, beef or vegetables. It wasn’t bad in order to get rid of the craving a bit,
but it is not authentic Mexican. e tortilla was cold and hard.’ By contrast, in
Mexico tortillas are soft and are served warm in a tortillero.24 In Israel, imported
wholewheat and plain our tortillas can be readily found in local supermarkets
and various healthfood stores. Corn tortillas can be purchased through catering
services or in speciality stores. Tortillas and Mexican food in general are mar-
keted as a healthy, exotic and vegan alternative.
In Israel, the greatest concentration of these restaurants is located in the
centre of the country, reecting settlement patterns of most of the Jewish
Mexican immigrants. Currently there are approximately , registered
Mexican families.25 Even though there are clusters of Mexicans in various
medium-sized cities throughout Israel such as Herzliyah, Tel Aviv, Karmiel,
and Kfar Saba, they do not live in enclaves as they occur in Mexico as denomin-
ated by Alejandro Portes (). Moreover, the patterns of settlement are tied
to economic activity.
On its website, one of these restaurants lists its purpose: ‘to serve ethnic
Mexican food in which you can taste a variety of dishes from an authentic
Mexican kitchen’. In reality, this is not the case. Only a handful of places serve
‘truly authentic’ Mexican food. Claiming authenticity in food production is a
tricky issue. As noted by Abarca, ‘the concept of authenticity marks its presence
24 A tortillero can be a plain basket covered with a cloth, an insular pouch made from
cloth or a type of basket manufactured from dried bres from the maize plant known
as chiquihuite which is covered with a small embroidered cloth. When not fried or
cooked, tortillas are always served warm or hot.
25 According to information obtained from the Mexican Embassy in Israel.
294
PAULETTE KERSHENOVICH SCHUSTER
in multiple settings: media, cookbooks, literature, classrooms discussion, and
casual conversations with friends and colleagues.’ (Abarca : ).
One restaurant stood out as the best among the restaurants according to the
Jewish Mexicans I spoke with. is establishment was frequented by many of
my respondents and used as a meeting place. However, people still complained
that it was not too spicy (i.e. not hot enough), that it was expensive and that
they do not serve the tortillas warm.
Other restaurants oered parallel cuisines in the same establishment for
example: Italian, Spanish and Mexican food; Spanish, American, Mexican
and Latin; Cuban, Argentinian, Spanish and Mexican; Italian, American,
French and Mexican; Mexican, Japanese and Italian; and Italian, Mexican and
Indonesian. ese symbolize the many misconceptions Israelis have about what
constitutes authentic Mexican food. What they know has been gathered from
popular media, travels or from watching the local Israeli soap opera TV chan-
nel that features shows mostly from Latin America. As one second-generation
Israeli told me: ’I know there are tortiot and that it is very hot street food.’ e
fact that she thought of it as only street food already points to misinformation
and misconstrued perceptions. Israeli fusion culinary inventions include a fast-
food place that features a tortilla schnitzel26 bar, where chicken breast, entrecote,
and homemade kebabs (skewers) are all served together with tortillas. Another
oered parallel eating by serving meat, tortillas and ‘indulgent’ foods (dessert).
A burger place served ‘original churros (a Mexican fried pastry dessert) lled
with Halva (an Israeli sesame seed sweet paste/dessert), nougat and caramel.
Again there is misleading information here, since halva and nougat are not
used in Mexico. is can be classied as fusion but it is not presented that way.
One Mexican restaurant served ‘Mexican brunch’ from :–: every
Friday and Saturday. is is an interesting occurrence, since the concept of
brunch is not really practised in Mexico. What is practised in Mexico is an
extended form of breakfast. In other words, people meet for a late breakfast
which ends up carrying on into lunch. is is typical among men conducting
business meetings or among female socialites gathering with their friends for
their weekly meet-up. However, it is not called brunch and it is not an organ-
ized event or served in a buet-style manner as proposed by the label ‘brunch’
or as practised in the United States.
Not all Mexican restaurants succeed in Israel. One Mexican restaurant
in Rishon Lezion (a city in the centre of Israel) closed due to poor service
26 Schnitzel is breaded chicken, veal or sh eaten in Israel. It was brought over by
Ashkenazi German immigrants.
295
Habaneros and shwarma
and as one Jewish Mexican woman experienced, exceptionally bad food. Not
only did the food lack authenticity, but it was also bland. In another instance a
Jewish Mexican woman told me: ‘ere was one near where I lived in Rehovot
(another city in cenral Israel). But I didn’t go in. It was always empty. Not even
ies would stand there, so it didn’t appeal to me.’
In lieu of proper Mexican restaurants, many people have opted for grow-
ing their own crops (of various chiles such as jalapeños, poblanos and habaneros,
green tomatoes or tomatillos and cacti or nopales), and/or cooking and adapting
Mexican recipes to local ingredients. As one secular Jewish Mexican thirty-
two-year-old woman, told me: ‘I grow real poblano chiles. Made in Israel. I guar-
antee you that they are great. Not cloned.’ is woman grew these chiles for
commercial purposes. Over the last ve years, many Mexican products have
become available in speciality stores, such as mole (red and green), dierent
types of salsas (ranging from mild Tex-Mex style, sweet-spicy mango to hot
chipotle salsas), our for making tortillas, hominy corn, dried chiles (guajillo, cas-
cabel, ancho and pasilla), fresh chiles (poblano, habanero) and pickled nopales to
name a few items. Mexican products can also be found in local supermarkets,
although the variety is not extensive, such as Mexican-imported juices, tortillas
and salsas. In these supermarkets, Israeli-made ‘Mexican products are also avail-
able. Such products include Mexican pastrami, organic spicy Mexican peanut
butter , Mexican crushed chile and Mexican shata crushed chile, potato chips with
‘Mexican’ avour and pita chips with ‘spicy Mexican avouring. ese products
to most Mexicans are demeaning and oensive since they constitute stereotypes
and misinformation as to what Mexican food is really all about. In the preced-
ing lists there are two interesting examples: Mexican shata crushed chile and the
pita chips. e Mexican shata in this case is a misnomer since the shata pepper
is an Israeli indigenously-grown pepper unknown in Mexico and the pita chips
oer a classic example of food fusion, where a local snack is combined with a
foreign product. In this case, the pita snack is the local product and the spicy
Mexican component is the foreign element. What is also interesting is the way
the words are used: spicy Mexican as in a spicy Mexican person as opposed to
using a more appropriate label or presenting them as a Mexican snack instead
of fusion. When I asked what made a product ‘Mexican’, most Israeli people
told me that it was ‘Mexican’ because it was spicy, even though this was not
always the case. is lack of awareness leads to cultural and culinary misconcep-
tions. Moreover, in a local supermarket, I found two types of fresh chiles that
were labelled as being the same product. ey were both labelled as being spicy
poblano peppers. One was indeed poblano chiles which are mild to medium-hot,
the other was habanero chiles, which are quite hot. is mislabelling shows a lack
of knowledge of the product at hand.
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PAULETTE KERSHENOVICH SCHUSTER
Many Jewish Mexicans have ddled with and honed their recipes. Some
have turned out well, others not so well. For example, one person was able to
re-create pozole perfectly by buying hominy corn and boiling it all night and
then making the broth with a mixture of dried chiles purchased locally. She then
added the accompaniments of shredded lettuce, radishes, diced onions, cubed
avocados, wedges of lime and strips of fried tortillas. Traditionally the hominy
is boiled with quicklime. Again due to a lack of Mexican products, ingredients
or tools, people adapt the recipes and cooking methods. Others were not as
successful, as was the case of a person who tried to make barbacoa. Barbacoa in
Mexico City is traditionally made from goat meat (cabrito) and is often pre-
pared with parts from the goat’s head, such as the cheeks.27 Due to kashrut and
the lack of available goat meat, this Jewish Ashkenazi male adapted the dish by
cutting up beef thinly and frying it, then using store-bought barbecue sauce to
simulate the richness of the barbacoa pit. Although quite tasty by his account,
it was not authentic. Barbacoa is often served on the banana leaves in which it
was cooked, often eaten with onions, diced cilantro and a squeeze of lime juice.
Another element that was often substituted by my informants as a side dish was
the totopo, which is made of deep-fried, cut up tortillas. e totopos are used as an
accompaniment to many dishes or as a tool for dipping. Some informants tried
to buy ready-made corn chips or attempted to fry locally bought tortillas. Again,
the issue of authenticity came up.
Other informants tried to make elote preparado or prepared corn. e corn
cobs are often spread with mayonnaise and sprinkled with lime juice, cotija
cheese and chile powder. O the cob the corn, known as esquites, is sometimes
served plain but usually with the same toppings.28 Esquites are generally made
from fresh corn. ey can also be fried and then seasoned with salt. Or they
can be sautéed in butter with onions, sprinkled with chile piquin, epazote and
salt. Esquites are served hot, in small cups. Since cotija cheese and white corn
cannot be found in Israel, yellow sweet corn and parmesan cheese or another
hard white cheese have been substituted. In one case, a secular, Jewish Mexican
thirty-something man told me he made his own version and called it ‘my Israeli
corn in the purest Mexican style’. He used mayonnaise, local powdered red
pepper akes and grated tzat kasha (a hard local Israeli cheese) in his cre-
ation. Again, this is an example of immigrants adapting the local ingredients to
27 In northern Mexico, it is sometimes made from the head of a cow and in central
Mexico, it is also made with lamb.
28 e word esquites comes from the Nahuatl word ízquitl, which means ‘toasted corn
(Diccionario de la Lengua Española).
297
Habaneros and shwarma
re-create a comfort food, which reminds them of home. Julie L. Locher et al.
() examines the social construction of some food objects as ‘comfort foods’,
highlighting how cultural studies of food should take into account its social
and physiological dimensions. Comfort foods are classied into four categor-
ies: nostalgic foods, indulgence foods, convenience foods, and physical com-
fort foods (ibid.). In our case, Jewish Mexicans use three categories of comfort
foods: those consumed when feeling nostalgic; as a form of indulgence (when
celebrating an event); or for physical reasons (for example when they are sick).
In recreating these dishes, they are trying to symbolize identity within food
practices and through the act of consumption. By recreating dishes with local
ingredients and within the constraints of kashrut, Jewish Mexicans are actively
engaging in a reconstruction of an ideal and identity, a home in limbo. is
home is transplanted into the Israeli context. e location and the relation-
ship of foods become key. In doing so, Jewish Mexicans have created a new
imagined community (Anderson ) and a community of practice (Wenger
) in Israel, one that is infused with the exquisite aromas, tastes, traditions,
with nostalgia and memories of home. In her study of Ecuadorian migrants liv-
ing in New York, Emma-Jayne Abbots () contends that food from home
tastes better than that which they purchase and prepare themselves. As such,
the value judgments which are made through this statement, embed taste as
culturally and socially inuenced. Similarly, in Israel, the shared food experi-
ences of Jewish Mexican immigrants are paramount and serve as catalysts of
food practices and human relationships. is culinary exchange between immi-
grants allows them to proclaim and dene their identity through the act of
consumption of symbolic food items. As one Mexican Catholic man asked me:
‘How do you do it? [How do you] nd good Mexican food here?’ I answered
that I cooked it at home. e he asked me where I bought Mexican products.
We discussed and compared opinions regarding the products being oered.
And when all else fails in choosing symbolic foods, one can always forego those
options as one of my informants eloquently stated: ‘I can’t stand hummus for
lunch. Since I can’t eat frijoles [beans] and tortillas, I go get a schnitzel ’.
Conclusion
is article presented an interesting case study of Jewish foodways and the
signicance of food for Jewish Mexican immigrants in Israel. Food plays a cen-
tral part in their construction of religious, spiritual and cultural identity, which
was constructed in a multiethnic and transnational context through every day
social interactions, cooking and eating practices. ese immigrants shared
298
PAULETTE KERSHENOVICH SCHUSTER
experiences and attributes that provided a meaningful social structure and rela-
tional narratives.
Specically, this article explored the cooking and consumption patterns of
Mexican Jews before and after immigration to Israel; the shared food experi-
ences of these immigrants; Mexican, Israeli, and Jewish cuisines as separate
gastronomic diets; the intersections of Mexican-Jewish and Israeli cuisines and
traditions; and the nostalgia and memories they evoke.
It seems that religious, socio-economic backgrounds and generational dif-
ferences did not aect which type of traditional Jewish food was served in
Mexico or in Israel. However, the generation gap was evident in the quantity
and frequency of when these dishes were prepared and the style of cooking
implemented. e older generation preferred conventional ways of cooking,
whereas the younger generation opted for food fusions and parallel eating.
Lastly, the concept of Jewish Mexicans as a transnational community was also
discussed as it relates to food practices.
Paulette Kershenovich Schuster is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the
author of a book about women in the Syrian Jewish community in Mexico City. Her work has appeared in numer-
ous publications. A native of Mexico, she was raised both in Mexico City and the United States. She lives in Israel
with her husband and four children.
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