Life on the Other Side: Independence Day = Picnic

Independence Day in Israel, April 16 this year, means the usual parties, fireworks, traffic jams and community festivals, but more than anything else … the heralding of “barbecue season!” If you think you know what a barbecue is, think again!

Here in Israel, it’s not the beloved BBQ I knew from back home in New York – the way my Aunt Gert and Uncle Sid had them in Bayside with all their friends. Everyone would contribute salads and side dishes and the grilling involved hot dogs and hamburgers. Man is it different here! The Israeli BBQ, mangal, is a sociological phenomenon. If books have not been written on this very unique Middle Eastern style of picnic, they should be!

Let’s see – my vision of the perfect picnic involves linen (on the women and in the napkins), checkered tablecloths, and wicker baskets overflowing with bottles of Chianti, loaves of bread and delicious meats and cheeses. Throw in some fresh vegetables, sun-dried tomatoes, spicy olives, maybe some brownies or a fruit tart, and voila – the perfect picnic. But here in Israel? Oy gevalt!

I’ll start with location. You’d think that a lovely, secluded spot, under a pretty tree preferably, with comfortable benches and picnic tables would be ideal, right? Noooooooo! Forget that – Israelis are whipping out their hibachis on the main roads! Well, service roads, anyway, and parking lots and on the beach practically on top of others who just want to enjoy a quiet afternoon.

Dress code? Hairy-chested men, no shirts or perhaps sleeveless T-shirts, with big gold necklaces and big gold ID bracelets and cigarettes shelved over their ears. There they are waving their hands, papers or whatever over the charcoal briquettes trying to get these fires going. It’s a rite of passage here. Encouraging the fire of portable grills even has a name – lenafnef – to fan the flames. You can expect to find these al ha-esh (on the fire) types everywhere, and you’ll no doubt hear them before you see them. They have booming voices. And they arrive at their designed picnic spots with tons of gear. You’ll see the women with their myriad containers loaded with food. The raw meat on skewers, the salads, the chips and dips, the drinks and bamba to pacify the toddlers. What a production! One guy gets the flame going, another comes over to check on him and offer his opinion (un- asked for, of course). Then the topic changes from fan flaming to politics, and now they’re really stoking the fires. Then the drinks are passed around, then the food, and, well, before you know it, it’s a major happening of epic proportions. And this is all by the side of the road, don’t forget. You just gotta love it.

There is definitely something appealing about an outdoor barbecue. It involves communing with nature, hanging with family and friends, enjoying good food (which always tastes better outside). You never see anyone making a barbecue begrudgingly. No one says, “Come over for a barbecue and we’ll have a serious discussion about the difficult economic situation we’re in.” No sir, barbecue means party time! And it doesn’t necessarily have to involve the burning of food. In my book a barbecue can be just a nice, simple picnic – sandwiches are fine as far as I’m concerned – as long as they’re eaten outdoors and in good company.

You know what? I kind of love it, the whole BBQ frenzy here. I got over my shock as soon as I realized that I was the newcomer here, and when in Rome … OK, so I may not be ready to roll up my shirtsleeves and start playing with hibachis on the beach. I’ll always search out a nice quiet, pretty spot (of which there are plenty in Israel) rather than some concrete, treeless area. But if it involves good friends and yummy food – count me in!

Happy 65th Israel Independence Day to one and all!

Anne Kleinberg, author of Menopause in Manhattan and several cookbooks, left a cushy life in Manhattan to begin a new one in Israel. Now she’s opened a boutique bed and breakfast in her home on the golf course in Caesarea. For details, visit annekleinberg.com and casacaesarea.com.

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