Who Ya Gotta See to Get a Bagel Around Here?

You can’t buy a bagel in Beersheva.

It’s a shandah, too — with oceans of the best cream cheese in the world being sold in dairy stores, the lack of bagels in Israel’s south becomes downright painful.

It’s not just bagels that are AWOL down here, either: Kugels appear only in the homemade version, on someone’s Shabbat table. Ask for a knish and people shake their heads. Stuffed cabbage? Forget it.

The blame can probably be laid at the feet of the “Old Man” himself, David Ben-Gurion. In 1948, when he set out to settle the Negev, he and Levi Eshkol, head of the Jewish Agency at the time, faced the almost unimaginable task of finding homes for the flood of immigrants who poured in from all over the world.

The Negev was almost completely empty at the time. Under the British Mandate, Jews had been forbidden to live south of Beersheva. So during the first 30 months of Israel’s existence — when 684,201 desperately poor immigrant Jews arrived — a high percentage of them were funneled into the Negev through Beersheva.

Roughly three-quarters of the newcomers were from Arab and North African countries — Jews who’d never heard of Ashkenazi food, let alone a bagel.

For the most part, Eshkol’s early farming camps did not succeed, and the residents dispersed. Yet Beersheva’s reputation as an immigrant-intake center had taken hold. Massive groups of immigrants from all over the world came first to Beersheva to begin their lives in Israel.

Not Exactly the Riviera …
Not that the city was popular — the legend is, even up to the mid-’60s, immigrants were brought in at night, so they couldn’t see where they were. Officials thought that they’d be better equipped to face their new surroundings if they had a good night’s sleep first.

Beersheva wasn’t the most beautiful spot in Israel, but because of its culture of openness and secularity, it remained an immigrant intake center. Wave after wave of immigrants came, some staying, others moving on.

In the 1980s, Operation Moses brought in thousands of Ethiopians. In the 1990s, tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union came. In 2002, it was Argentineans and South Americans from many countries. Today, it’s all of those, plus the French and the Indians.

In one of the more fascinating quirks of history, non-Jewish refugees from Darfur and other African countries are also pouring into Beersheva. Why? Because the millions who fled their African homelands made their way north, eventually arriving in Egypt. But most found that life in Egypt wasn’t that much better than it had been in their old country, so they began crossing the border into Israel.

And because Beersheva is the closest city to the crossing point, they, too, arrive in Beersheva.

Today, Beersheva is a modern city of some 200,000 people. Of those, about 15,000 are of Ethiopian descent. Well over 55,000 came from countries associated with the former Soviet Union. There’s also 120,000 Bedouin living in the immediate vicinity, plus a large population of Indian Jews, and the world’s largest community of Karaites.

Even a few Black Hebrews live here, so the sound of English spoken on the streets of Chicago is frequently heard as well. All that’s in addition to the city’s base Mizrachi population.

What you have is Israel’s most diverse city; in Beersheva’s school system, children from 180 different countries, speaking 160 different mother tongues, are enrolled.

Which ethnic group is the most underrepresented? Anglos, immigrants from English-speaking countries, North America, England, South Africa and Australia. The best guess of city officials, extrapolating from school enrollment, is that Anglo immigrants constitute a little more than 1 percent of the population, somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 people.

Now we know why there are no bagels in Beersheva: There aren’t nearly enough Anglos — let alone East Coast immigrants — to make baking them realistic venture.

Though there may be no bagels, Beersheva’s cultural hodge-podge makes it one of the best places for people-watching in the world. Israel has three official languages — Hebrew, English and Arabic — but in Beersheva, most store signage is in Hebrew and Russian.

In government offices, Russian is heard as often as Hebrew. New immigrants from FSU countries were quick to assess the potential of government jobs, so even today, virtually all government offices are staffed by people of Russian extraction. Another Russian enclave is the local Sinfonietta; most of the professional musicians hail from the FSU.

Mmm, Mmm Good …
Small Russian stores abound. The best are the dairy stores, where the range of products is awesome. Fresh cream cheese — tub after tub, in a half-dozen fat levels — is available anywhere. Sour cream is the same, as is that mysterious local product called skee, something like curd-free cottage cheese, popular as a bread spread.

Then there are the squares, rectangles and molded rounds of other soft white cheeses, some from goat milk, but cheeses with their ethnic roots in cultures all over the Middle East. There’s no cheddar, or indeed, any of the deep yellow cheeses. Whether that’s due to issues of kashrut or a lack of demand remains an open question.

Nor are there any camel-milk cheeses. In spite of the popularity of the camel in these parts, camel milk is consumed as a drink, and not considered suitable for cheese.

Bakeries are another ethnic delight. Every commercial street seems to have at least two bakeries, most of them displaying fresh hot breads right out in the street. Odd to find no bagels in all of that, but there are standard loaves and ethnic varieties beyond listing.

The assortment of pitot — pita pockets — is most tempting; each bakery seems to specialize in one ethnic variety or another. There’s the paper-thin Druze version, filled with soft cheese or hummus. There’s also the slightly smaller and thicker lavosh, bread used as a wrap for various fillings. And, of course, the more common, thicker, salad-plate-size pita sits on shelves, tempting all.


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