In Praise of the Mangal
Look at him in the sweaty undershirt that barely covers his bulging belly. He crouches, his pants slipping down in back. He flaps a piece of cardboard back and forth with the speed and precision of a hawk taking flight. From time to time his cheeks puff out like a bellows as he lowers his head to blow on the rectangular metal container on the ground in front of him.
He is the quintessential Israeli male, performing the quintessential Israeli ritual: the Independence Day mangal. Some Americans might call it a barbecue; others might call it a picnic. In Argentina, they call it asado. But most Israelis know this ritual grilling of meat by its Turkish name: mangal.
Gone are the days when Independence Day celebrants broke into an ecstatic hora, dancing in swirling circles. Gone are the days when folk-dance troupes and singers toured the country, bringing the newly minted culture to the masses.
In Israel, Independence Day means meat. Not just your wimpy July 4th hot dogs and hamburgers in even wimpier buns, but real meat and lots of it, plus some items that would never grace an American barbecue—spicy kebabs, turkey testicles, chicken hearts and bits of cow udder—much of it on skewers and grilled only by men. It is dining at its most informal, with grease splattering and sauces dripping, echoing the gastronomic experience of Israel Defense Forces reservists in the field.
I eat, therefore I am.
The term for the ritual comes from the Turkish name for that small metal container on squat legs—the cheapest, most portable grill available in Israel. And the Turkish comes, via Persian, from the Arabic mankal, the root of which refers to portability.
As we know from 19th-century Jewish guidebooks to the Land of Israel, the mankal was a copper vessel filled with charcoal that could be moved from room to room for heating and could also be used for cooking and warming food. Along came stoves and central heating and the name was forgotten until some time after independence, when the culture of grilling meat took root in south Tel Aviv restaurants. And more time would pass before everyone wanted a mangal for Independence Day.
I eat meat, therefore I am.
Songwriter and comic Yair Nitzani takes credit for popularizing the term mangal—in the sense of barbecue—with his “Mangal Song” in 1986. Its lyrics (in free translation) both mock and celebrate themangal experience:
Yes, we’ve gone out to the wide-open spaces
And we’ve loaded up the cars…
[For a] picnic at Mesubbim Junction….
Give me a steak, but I’ll settle for a skewer…,
I want a skewer in a pita, Rita.
So mangal came to mean both the utensil and the ritual.
In advance of Independence Day, newspapers and magazines overflow with recipes for marinades and salads (the women’s province) to accompany the meat as well as recommendations for picnic sites. In 2006, the Israeli news portal Nana10 ran a list of all the parks, from the north of the country to the south, worthy of amangal, telling its readers, “All you have to do now is choose.”
Of course, Israelis will be happy to talk about Independence Day celebrations in the country’s Age of Innocence.
“We would go out to the streets and dance [and] the celebrations had a totally different meaning,” says Amnon Horesh, 72, a boat builder in the southern port city of Eilat. As a member of a folk-dance troupe, he would travel from one town to another, starting on the eve of Independence Day and performing throughout the holiday. “It was part of the entertainment,” adds Horesh, who was born in the northern Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar.
I dance, therefore I am.
The closest he and his pals came to anything remotely related to the mangal was the kumsitz, a get-together around a campfire in which they sang and told tall tales. The kumsitz (from the Yiddish for “come, sit”), perhaps a pale Ashkenazic imitation of the Easternmangal, is a focal ritual of every Israeli youth movement.
“When I was in the youth movement, we started celebrating [Independence Day] with a kumsitz,” Horesh recalls. “We all came from farming communities. So we would steal a chicken, put it on coals along with whole potatoes, cover it with earth and wait for it to cook.”
I kumsitz, therefore I am.
Ma’ayan Ben-Hagay, 38, a social worker turned bookseller who grew up in Kibbutz Afik in the southern Golan Heights, remembers traveling in the 1970s to nearby Kibbutz Degania Bet, which set up an amusement park for the holiday complete with a Ferris wheel and shooting galleries.
In the 1980s, Ben-Hagay’s whole kibbutz would go to the shores of Lake Kinneret for a picnic. In the 1990s, when she was in the IDF, she recalls that restaurants were filled to overflowing and the streets crowded with people spraying each other with foam and bopping each other with plastic hammers.
I bop, therefore I am.
“What a dumb way to celebrate!” Ben-Hagay recalls her friends saying to each other. But at the same time, they thought a mangalwas also silly and told jokes at the expense of Mizrahim, Jews from Middle Eastern countries, who ostensibly “had a mangal on every traffic island.”
So how did the mangal come to be the accepted way to party?
Janna Gur, editor of Al Hashulhan, a Hebrew-language food magazine, and author of The Book of New Israeli Food: A Culinary Journey (Schocken), speaks generally of the adoption of a favored way of preparing food in the East, particularly in the Balkans, and its growing popularity in Israel.
But Oz Almog, University of Haifa sociologist and author of The Sabra: The Creation of the New Jew (University of California Press), has quite a different explanation that starts with the availability of red meat.
Until the 1980s, he says, there was relatively little red meat in Israel, which was not a cattle-raising country. What little meat there was came frozen, mostly from abroad, and was expensive. The poultry industry, on the other hand, was well developed.
“That is why Israelis are mainly chicken eaters,” Almog says.
I eat chicken, therefore I am.
But in the 1980s, the local meat market started growing, and by the 1990s, the abundance of meat legitimized the profligate mangal.
Now add the ethnic factor. In the 1950s, Jews came to Israel from Middle Eastern countries where sheep and goats are herded, bringing with them the tradition of grilling meat. Also, Almog says, Mizrahim brought with them a tradition of fiestas, celebrations that bring together the hamula, or extended family.
“Food is important for family bonding,” Almog says. “And when Mizrahim celebrate, they do it big. So when a Mizrahi guy has amangal, he brings a lot of meat, even if it’s expensive. It’s a matter of priorities.”
I feed the family grandly, therefore I am.
And now add the popularization of the car in Israel. “A mangal is a picnic, not something you do in your backyard,” Almog says.
In any case, Mizrahim lived in housing projects and did not have real backyards. In the beginning, people did not go far, giving rise to the joke about the mangal on the traffic island. “The idea was just to get out and celebrate,” Almog explains.
For a long time, Ashkenazim turned up their noses at the mangalbecause they saw it as a strictly Mizrahic affair. According to Almog, “It appeared wasteful and it seemed vulgar,” partly because it offended the Ashkenazic sense of space.
“Ashkenazim like private space, but Mizrahim would be on top of each other,” he says.
I’m surrounded by people like me, therefore I am.
So while the old, mainly Ashkenazic, pioneering establishment was encouraging people to celebrate the holiday by coming out to nature to hike and see the wildflowers, Mizrahim came out to eat and have fun.
The change in the attitude of Ashkenazim came with greater acceptance of Mizrahim, a trend toward greater hedonism and less overt Zionism, but mainly with the legitimation of celebrating, Almog says.
“Ashkenazim know how to mourn and Mizrahim know how to celebrate,” goes the adage. When Ashkenazim finally allowed themselves to celebrate in the unfettered manner of Mizrahim, themangal’s place as a national ritual was secured, making it, as one pundit wrote on the Israeli Web portal Ynet, “a fundamental tenet of the Israeli religion.”
I enjoy, therefore I am.
Ben-Hagay says that her crowd, too, which had been so dismissive of Mizrahim and their ways, eventually discovered the joys of themangal. “It became cool,” she says. “It was cool to be doing what everyone else was doing. [We] adopted what was actually a fun experience.”
So central has the mangal become as a social ritual and a symbol of everything Israeli that in 1996 the art school Ascola Design, Tel Aviv, held an exhibition of photographs and grills titled “Mangal,” curated by Iris Paz and Shmuel Kaplan. Accompanying the exhibition was a book of the same name containing images and essays touching on esoteric mythological, archaeological, historical, literary and sociological aspects of the practice.
Food writer Dalia Lamdani, for example, mentions the assumption in cookbooks that only men grill, a stereotype that has roots in the Bible. After all, Abraham sent Sarah to make cakes while he prepared meat for the angels who came to tell him that Sarah will give birth to a son.
I have roots, therefore I am.
Ha’aretz restaurant critic Daniel Rogov tells of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs from which we learn that the pharaohs ate grilled meat at every meal. Workers and slaves ate grilled meat, too, but not as often, and because they couldn’t afford younger, tender animals, they discovered the art of marinading.
Rogov adds the belief of some archaeologists that during the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert, subsisting on manna and quail, they developed a portable grill.
I wander, therefore I am.
And Kaplan, today a professor of industrial design at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, traces the history of the grilling vessel itself back to similar vessels in the past—including the Canaanite and Israelite stone altar with four horns on which burnt sacrifices were offered. He goes even further back, to three-legged round vessels from the Stone Age found in the region that were probably used in rituals but were originally developed for everyday use.
According to Kaplan, though there have been some changes, “The true mangal remains a low, ritual vessel over which the Israeli man can fan the coals and grill the meat while ordering the women to prepare hummus and pitot…and can revert to being a hunter, grilling meat in a patriarchal society.”
I cling to tradition, therefore I am.
The practice may be older than even Kaplan imagined. The more we dig, the more roots we find. The earliest source, as reported recently, may have been uncovered by University of Haifa researchers, who say that more than 200,000 years ago people living in the Misliya Cave in Mount Carmel brought home and barbecued the choicest cuts from the large mammals they hunted. This behavior identified them as modern humans—Homo sapiens—and distinguished them from earlier species.
As the mangal exhibition curators write in their introduction to the book, “eating grilled meat…helped increase brain size.”
I think, therefore I am.
Debbie Hershman, curator of prehistoric cultures at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, points out that human beings are the only creatures on earth who regularly share their food, and that “the ability to feed others with generous portions of meat increases a man’s status in prehistoric societies.”
Sacrifices, like those in the Temple, Hershman writes in an article in the “Mangal” exhibition book, derive from this prehistoric distribution of meat using a kind of barter: Man gives the gods meat and the gods give man what he wants.
The Talmudic tractate on sacrifices reminds us of the goings-on in the days of the Second Temple. During that time, people would come to Jerusalem to bring a Pascal sacrifice. Three shifts of priests worked around the clock slaughtering the animals and organizing the “divine” mangal. Groups of holidaymakers, with up to 10 people in each group, would take part in the ritual slaughter, grilling the meat and eating it with bitter herbs.
So, Hershman concludes, “on holidays and at festivities we still distribute meat dishes, a reminder of the ancient culinary covenant, for the love of the gods.”
I mangal, therefore I am.