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Steven Weinberg
PhD Student at Rutgers University

Haftarah Devarim: Why the cucumber belongs in the Israeli salad

Learning a foreign language can make human existence feel both invigoratingly sacred and devastatingly artificial. The history of language is like an ellipse. Let us compare Hebrew and English as an example. English and Hebrew are not the same language. They evolved and came of age in disparate parts of the world separated by thousands of kilometers of land and sea. For this reason, they use different-sounding words for just about everything. In English we say “war,” in Hebrew—Milchama; in English we say “sky”, in Hebrew it’s Shamayim; in English, we say “blood,” whereas in Hebrew it’s Dam. These three words—war, sky, and blood—are unquestionably ancient words. Nevertheless, there are words which are even more ancient—father, mother, love. With these three words, if one listens softly, one hears the primordial camaraderie of the two tongues. Papa (English), Aba (Hebrew); Mama (English), Ema (Hebrew); Love (English), Ahava (Hebrew). If we compare the two alphabets—English and Hebrew—we find that they go back to the same, original source. Aleph, Bet—A, B. Lamed, Mem, Nun—L, M, N. Shin, Taf—S, T. In short, ancient, truly ancient words which have some specificity to them—words like sky and blood—are wholly disparate between the two languages. But the, perhaps, really ancient words, the pre-ancient words—Mama, AB, LMN—are linked. There is something profoundly moving about the idea that even after millennia have passed, children in the British Isles and in the Middle East are basically using the same word which some distant ancestor between both groups used to address their mom and dad.

However, neologisms from the last several centuries are also largely the same across vastly different cultures and regions. This likeness between modern words is the “evil twin” of the pre-ancient phenomenon. Across tongues, we all say the following words largely the same: Jeans, T-shirt, Pizza, Computer, Internet, E-mail, Banana, Selfie, and oh so many more. In short, hyper-modern words and hyper-ancient words are uncannily the same across nations whose languages are impossibly different. Why should this be? The answer is that, at the dawn of humanity, much of the human population was concentrated in the same place—probably in Africa—and therefore spoke the same language. Now, in 2022, we have once more found ourselves in the same place through globalization and the virtual universe.

Globalization is older than we might think, at least from a linguistic perspective. Many words which are the same in every language have been around for many centuries. These old-new words generally describe food—chocolate, coffee, pepper, tomato, potato, sugar, tobacco, cinnamon. Why do English and French have basically the same word for tomato and chocolate and bananatomate and chocolat and banane—but totally different words for mushroom and bread and applechampignon and pain and pomme? It is because apples had been found in England and France for thousands if not millions of years in which the English called their apples apples and the French called their apples pommes. But when explorers like Magellan and Columbus set out on the high seas, their discoveries flowed into all European ports at once. Until the sixteenth century, no European had ever heard of chocolate. Columbus encountered the cacao bean on his fourth journey to the Americas. Chocolate was chocolate for everybody at the same time. It was the iPhone of its day. The same story can be applied to the dozens of other foodstuffs which explorers brought back to Europe from abroad—coffee, tobacco, cashews, pecans, and so forth.

Until Columbus, nobody in Europe had heard of a tomato or a potato. We think of tomato sauce as quintessential Italian cuisine, but really is it (Native) American. Potato soup was, at one point, an exotic delicacy in Ireland. These countries have expropriated these Native American foods as their own. But language will always expose the imposter. Indeed, how Russian can tea be if every country besides for Poland uses more or less the same word for it? (In a rare exception, the Poles call tea herbata.)

The more savvy one gets with language, the more quickly one can go to a supermarket and size up which foods are in their “hometown” and which are either imported or New World transplants. I do most of my grocery shopping these days in Germany, specifically in Brandenburg, and the following foods, which at times seem to be so German, give themselves away as imposters: Avocado (Avocado), Paprika (Pepper), Mango (Mango), Mais (Corn), Kartoffel(Potato), Tomate (Tomato), Basil (Basil) The foods which have names which sound distinctly German, that is, Teutonic, and which would be unrecognizable to approximately 99% of the world’s population under these names are the real Germans. These are foods like Zwiebel (onion), Knoblauch (garlic), Möhre (carrot), Rettich (radish), and Grünkohl(kale). Notice how German these words sound, specifically Zwiebel. An onion is literally called a Zwiebel in German—could there be a more German-sounding word? Now, even some of these plants were not “native” to Germany but perhaps came from the Levant millennia ago. But in relative terms, they are far, far more intrinsic to German agriculture than the New World crops—and language evidences this.

In fact, if we really want to discuss German foods, we should focus on animals and animal products. There was no almond butter or coconut oil back then, and so the only foods with concentrated amounts of calories were milk, cheese, and meat. Julius Caesar himself observed the prevalence of these foods when he led his Roman army to fight against the Germanic peoples on the other side of the Rhine circa 58 to 53 B.C.E. Caesar wrote: “They do not pay much attention to agriculture, and a large portion of their food consists in milk, cheese, and flesh.” Notice these three words: milk, cheese, and flesh, or as we would say in English, “meat.” In German, these three words translate to Milch, Käse, and Fleisch. In French, they are Lait, Fromage, and Viande. In Hebrew, they are chalav, gevinah, and basar. With the truly ancient foods, the names have no overlap among different peoples. For by the time a German ate Brie, thousands of generations of his ancestors had been calling it Käse; Käse was too ingrained in the language to be altered by imported fromage and seer and formaggio and gevinah. And therefore, to this day, Germans continue to call “cheese” Käse.

As much as I love Israeli cuisine, it is full of imposters, if not entirely so. Hummus, Falafel, Tahini, and my personal favorite, Shakshuka, are all Arabic foods. Also guilty is the Israeli salad, consisting of tomatoes, red bell peppers, and cucumbers, perhaps with some avocado thrown in. As we now know, tomatoes, peppers, and avocados are all unabashedly New World plants. No one in Biblical Israel, or even in Templar Israel, would have ever heard of these foods.

Things are different, however, when it comes to the cucumber. This star of the Israeli salad is, at least in relative chronological terms, Israeli. In the Haftarah for Devarim, we open up the very beginning of the Book of Isaiah. In chapter one, verse eight, Isaiah describes a destroyed Israel in which a remnant of hope remains. He states: “Fair Zion is left / Like a hut in a vineyard, / Like a lodge in a cucumber field, / Like a city beleaguered.” Like a lodge in a cucumber field. Now, to be fair, Isaiah does not use the modern Hebrew word for cucumbermelafafon. Instead, he uses the word miksheh. Miksheh. A miksheh is a field in which pumpkin-like plants are grown, such as pumpkins, squash, watermelons, and cucumbers. Yet, I did not find any commentary or any translations which would suggest that Isaiah’s miksheh was not a field in which actual cucumbers were growing. Regardless, cucumbers are certainly far more of an “Israeli” ingredient to the Israeli salad than are tomatoes and peppers; Isaiah almost certainly knew what a cucumber was, and a Templar Knight definitely did. The same cannot be said for tomatoes and peppers.

Because of globalization on a scale which even Columbus could not have foreseen, our supermarkets are privy to foods from every corner of the world. In Germany, one can buy blueberries from Peru, dates from Morocco, and coffee from Ethiopia—year-round. Brandenburg farmers now grow tomatoes and peppers and eggplant with the same zeal as they once cultivated kefir and cabbage. In the world of nutrition, there is much debate on to what extent it is important to first, eat local, and second, to eat based on one’s genetic makeup. I am not going to get into the seaweeds of this debate; I’m not a nutritionist, I don’t even have my PhD yet. However, in my case, if we take this logic to the extreme, I would be well-advised to move back to Poland and get most of my calories from Borscht and small oily fish like mackerel and sardines. Fruit would be eaten exclusively in the summer and the harvest time. A Native American, by contrast, could guiltlessly eat tomatoes, potatoes, and corn, and enjoy a cornucopia of apples in the fall. To be sure, even in the middle of February, when the Prussian soil is as unforgiving and icy as Frederick the Great’s glare, I would not be surprised if occasionally an avocado or a chickpea crosses my lips. But I have a hunch—and admittedly, it is only and cannot be more than a hunch—that my body would be more welcoming of a little anchovy than an oversized mango—especially this time of year.

Another rendition of this article can be heard on my podcast The Schrift: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for Modern Times, available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

About the Author
Steven Weinberg is a PhD student at Rutgers University in the German Department. His dissertation is on Franz Kafka and the Kabbalah. He grew up in Philadelphia, but moved to Israel in his late twenties, where he studied literature at Ben-Gurion University. Currently, Steven lives in Berlin, but travels to Israel and America as often as he can. His blog is based off his podcast, The Schrift, a weekly lecture series on Torah, German literature, and meditation. The Schrift is available on Apple and Spotify platforms.
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