July 18, 2024
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July 18, 2024
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Sarah and I started off woefully unprepared to deal with the Israeli cultural phenomenon known as aruhat eser (the 10 a.m. meal). After all, we already had our own American morning-meal tradition—a quaint cultural phenomenon known as “breakfast.”

It took us about seven years until we realized that aruhat eser and breakfast are not supplementary but competing traditions. Coming from families where a good breakfast was strongly emphasized, we made sure that each of our kids had a bowl of cereal before leaving the house (and sometimes French Toast or even home-made waffles). As a result, we thought of aruhat eser as a snack and so we would give our children fruit and pretzels, which would hold them until they arrived home (back then from elementary school) at 1 or 1:45 p.m. for lunch.

One day we were called in by Elie’s kindergarten teacher for a serious discussion. Dvora was absolutely aghast that Elie was not bringing in what she considered to be a proper aruhat eser. She would have none of our explanations about our so-called breakfast meal. The boy needed to eat and the absolute minimum requirement of aruhat eser is some kind of a sandwich, preferably on a lahmaniya (roll). I guess Sarah and I were slow learners because Dvora had to send home repeated notes over the next few months, until she practically threatened to go to Israel’s Children’s Services if we didn’t give Elie a sandwich for aruhat eser.

It’s not that I had anything against making my child a sandwich every day. And it’s not like a growing child will not have any appetite for a sandwich at 10 a.m. just because they had a bowl of cereal early in the morning. The problem is that aruhat eser comes at the same time as hafsakat eser (recess). I ask you: if a kid has 20 minutes to play ball in the schoolyard, are they going to devote 5-10 of them to eating their sandwich? So on any given day there is an astronomical number of sandwiches that go to waste in Israeli schools at aruhat eser.

There is a story in a contemporary Hebrew novel of a boy whose mother would lovingly prepare him a delicious sandwich every day, wrapping it carefully in wax paper. After receiving his sandwich from his mom, the boy would leave his house and walk to school. On his way, the boy would pass an abandoned house, at which point he would toss his sandwich over the fence. This went on for several years. But then one day a family bought the house and started to renovate it. The family also hired someone to mow the lawn. To the child’s horror there lay revealed for all to see a veritable graveyard of aruhat eser sandwiches, as evidenced by the tell-tale signs of all those (non-degradable) scraps of wax paper.

When our children were in junior high and high school and came home late-afternoon, the food that they consumed was more ample. We insisted on calling it “lunch” rather than aruhat eser; this despite the fact that self-respecting Israelis cannot bring themselves to call anything other than a hot meat meal “lunch,” and also despite the fact that our kids would sometimes eat most of their food at 9 a.m. I guess the 6:30 bowl of cereal wore off by then.

Certain places of work (especially banks) still have official aruhat eser times, with people wheeling around carts laden with sandwiches and sweet rolls. I have to admit that even for breakfast eaters such as ourselves, there’s some good nutritional sense in a morning snack. I have realized that if I don’t eat something midway through the morning (especially on warm days) my head starts to pound by noon. So the bottom line on this topic in Israel is: Eat your breakfast and eat your aruhat eser.

 

Aruhat Tsaharayim

Sometimes you can tell a lot about a cultural phenomenon simply by referring to its name. The noontime meal in Israel is called “aruhat tsaharayim”; in America, it’s called “lunch.”

Officially, the definition of aruhat tsaharayim is a hot meat meal. It used to be a lot easier to fulfill this cultural obligation in Israel: the school day ended by 1 p.m. (now schools often go to mid-afternoon), shops closed at 1 p.m. and re-opened at 4 p.m. (not a common practice today) and people lived closer to their workplace. Much of the population was thus able to eat a hot meat meal at home by 2 p.m.–not so late if you remember that many Israelis skip breakfast in favor of “aruhat eser” (a 10 a.m. mid-morning meal). Yet while it is more difficult to eat aruhat tsaharayim today, Israelis are not yet ready to go the route of lunch, that is, of taking a light midday meal with the day’s main meal coming at supper. Indeed, during a PTA meeting that I once attended at my kids’ primary school, when parents were informed that the school was moving toward a longer day, where the upper grades would get out at 2:30 p.m. four days a week, one parent asked in dismay: “But what will they eat?” Obviously the notion of brown-bagging it was not on her radar screen.

The smells and sounds of tsaharayim begin as early as 6 a.m. and continue until very late in the afternoon, since many Israelis hold by the following rule: if you’re going to be able to make it home at any point during the afternoon, it’s better to wait until then to eat aruhat tsaharayim—whether this meal takes place at 1, 3, 4 or even at 5 p.m.

For those families where a parent cannot be home to cook and serve aruhat tsaharayim, a popular alternative is a “manah hamah.” There are several different brands of these instant “warm meals” and several dozen flavors to choose from. Each meal is based on a starch, the most popular being noodles, with options of couscous, potatoes, and rice. Though it’s true that these are meatless meals, because they are made through the addition of a cup of boiling water, they qualify as a hot meal and so fulfill a basic aruhat tsaharayim requirement.

When we first moved here, I had my family on a strict American regimen: the noon meal was cold and light, and supper was hot and heavy. It didn’t take long, however, before my kids began to demand typical aruhat tsaharayim fare for lunch. The trouble started when they began going over to friends’ houses after school. Out came the chicken schnitzel, the rice, the green beans, the cake. I could no longer get away with serving them a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. The compromise that we reached was that while the main meal of the day was still at night, my children usually got something hot for lunch: eggs, grilled cheese, baked potatoes, and yes, “manah hamah.” (Kids love the whole ritual process of these instant meals: boiling the water, opening the container, removing the plastic collapsible fork, opening and pouring out the contents of the secret “flavor packet” on the noodles, pouring on the hot water, re-covering the lid and then waiting prayerfully for three minutes—after which I had to then cool the darned thing in the freezer because it was too hot for the kids to eat).

Occasionally I pulled out the leftovers from the night before and gave the family real tsaharayim food: a hot meal. (On those days we ate a lighter supper). Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind going to a big lunch schedule—it feels better for my digestion. Of course, then I would have to commit myself to another classic though endangered cultural institution: the afternoon shluf.

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