In the U.S., the Fourth of July signals the start of grilling season and means beer, barbecue, and fireworks. Although it’s celebrated two months earlier and halfway around the world, Israeli Independence Day, or Yom Ha’atzmaut, which starts tonight at sunset, is commemorated in much the same way but with its own Israeli spin. In Israel, summer begins in May, and barbecue, or mangal, is the national culinary and even cultural obsession.
The word mangal derives from Arabic slang meaning ‘grill,’ and the concept was probably brought to Israel by the Turks during the Ottoman Empire. Israeli food writer and editor Janna Gur notes that grilled meat, kebabs, and fish were popular in Arab restaurants in the 1960s, and soon Israel’s earliest five-star hotels were opening grillrooms to serve the country’s elite.
Since then, the idea of mangal has become democratized, and practically every Israeli irrespective of cultural background, religion, or ethnicity loves a good barbecue. “What Israelis love most is to make their own barbecues… they have become the country’s leading participant sport, taking place in the backyard, on the balcony, on the beach or on a picnic,” writes Gur in her seminal “The Book of New Israeli Food”.
It’s not uncommon, while hanging out by the food table at a synagogue Kiddush, to overhear one member boasting to another about the superiority of a particular family recipe — brisket, apple cake, or other. But at some congregations, this culinary kvelling is taken to a whole other level in the form of competitive cook-offs and bake-offs, in which shul-goers cum amateur chefs vie for the top prize (and recipe bragging rights).
In the case of Manhattan’s The New Shul, that prize is the Golden Schmaltz Award. The independent congregation held the fourth round of its annual cook-off this past weekend. This year’s theme, “Sweets to the Sweetest,” focused on desserts, but the cook-off tradition began with the “Battle of the Briskets” in 2007, after one member got tired of hearing another constantly lauding his brisket recipe and was confident that his own was tastier. “Basically, he told him — in a good natured way — to ‘put your money where your mouth is,’” executive director Amy Eichenwald Golding recounted humorously.