Lavender and brown illustration of chefs and foods with the text Book of Pleasures
illustration: Rotem Biksenspaner

‘The UFO of Israeli Cooking’

Diving Into the ‘Book of Pleasures’

By Team Asif |

Understanding what made this book so unusual, even innovative, takes understanding the zeitgeist in Israel a decade after the period of austerity and three years after the Six-Day War. “Until then, cookbooks took a completely different approach,” explains chef Israel Aharoni. They were written explicitly for women, while this book is written in a neutral plural, addressing everyone. “Their purpose was nutritional and economical: how to save, how to feed your family, how to use leftovers, how to survive and how to make ‘chopped liver’ from eggplants. Nothing suggested that food should be enjoyed.”

Aharoni was only 19-years-old when the book first appeared, much to his surprise. “Here is a book of complete hedonism, about wine, about seafood — I remember thinking, ‘wow, where did this alien spaceship land from?’ I admit I didn’t understand half of it. It was like science fiction; we had never even heard about the things he was describing.”

“This book turns everything upside down, it is the complete opposite of everything we were accustomed to and lived by, of our entire education.”

— Israel Aharoni

Amos Kenan was an Israeli writer, satirist, publicist, playwright, poet, translator, painter and sculptor. “He was quite a character,” Aharoni says. “This book turns everything upside down, it is the complete opposite of everything we were accustomed to and lived by, of our entire education. This is the book’s strength.” 

Yet, at the time of its publication, “The Book of Pleasures” wasn’t a bestseller — perhaps except among Tel Aviv bohemians. This is understandable for a book that didn’t address the general public, certainly not in those days. “It’s not a book to cook from, but it doesn’t even matter. Its essence doesn’t lie in the recipes, but in its documentary value,” says Aharoni.  

It offered, he adds, “a glimpse into the wider world, of the world we did not know and could only dream of. Today people go and travel and know so much more, but at the time we did not even know what beef bourguignon was, not to mention the extravagant idea of cooking beef in red wine.”

This book would seem exceptional to many readers even if it were published today, perhaps even more so, if only for its non-kosher ingredients. We have made great culinary progress, but in that sense, Israel has become even more conservative.

Aharoni agrees: “Today it is impossible to publish a non-kosher cookbook with commercial success. It used to be different, better tolerated. Israel is clearly becoming more orthodox. In our butcher shop on Sheinkin street in Tel Aviv, for example, we do not sell pork. It used to be the best-selling meat in my restaurants.”

Culinary specialist Hila Alpert agrees: “In the 1930s there was pork everywhere, and German immigrants were selling hotdogs on the streets. But today, political arm twisting and the defensive approach of the Rabbinical institution, which feels persecuted and intimidated by the free media and the very existence of a non-religious lifestyle, made pork almost disappear from the public sphere.”

“Kenan insisted on Hebrew,” she adds. “Even when writing about explicitly non-kosher food. He gave seafood and other ingredients Hebrew names, and for some unfortunate reason, these were all replaced in the second edition of the book [with transliterated English words].”

“As a girl growing up in the Kibbutz, it legitimized my desire for this sort of thing, pleasure. The desire to live differently from what was the norm”

— Hila Alpert

We sat down with Alpert to dive deeper into the “Book of Pleasures” and its place in Israeli culinary culture. 

The book’s topics and writing style were an oddity at the time, but the book didn’t emerge out of a complete void.

Hila Aplert: Culturally, many things were changing in the early 1970s. In popular songs, too. It is no longer ‘my beloved homeland’ but ‘you and I will change the world.’ The focus of the discussion moves from the collective to the individual. In addition, there is a more serious journalistic attention to ethnic cuisines — out of a genuine wish to learn to cook them — not just as a melting-pot postcard for tourists. Many artists in different fields went through the same process Kenan experienced — the agenda was changing. Today it seems obvious, but he was simply the first.

How do you think a book like this one would be received today?

Amos Kenan would not write it today, with the constant discussion of food. What was once subversive or groundbreaking is now mainstream. The subjects of Kenan’s writing are being discussed ad nauseam on social and traditional media. I am sure he would be upset that so many people like this book. He was someone who liked to ask unconventional questions. “The Book of Pleasures” was unique, but today he would not write about food. Maybe he would write a book about the pleasures of fasting.

What do you think made this book revolutionary?

To me it was not a revolutionary book in any way. There is a certain wish to make it powerful in retrospect, but at the time, it wasn’t a hit like Ruth Sirkis’s “Cooking with Love.” It’s a book which affected certain people and legitimized things that were far less legitimate before.

Like what?

[It presented] an alternative female model. There were women like that in my family, and suddenly they received legitimacy. As a girl growing up in the kibbutz, it legitimized my desire for this sort of thing, pleasure. The desire to live differently from what was the norm. The book’s approach to women is insane for its time. Until then, a good woman was a hard-working, frugal woman. And here? He says the complete opposite! Enjoy life, and maybe you are not even the one who cooks — somebody is cooking for you.

Actually, this book is not about food, I really think it’s a Zen book. Imagine the atmosphere in Israel after the Six-Day War. People died and you come and say, “Let’s eat good food, because this is their legacy?” It is truly a suggestion for life or a guide to life. I first came across it in 1974, and I would lie on my bed and go through it like a boy secretly examining a Playboy magazine.

An Homage to the ‘Book of Pleasures’ at Asif

In one of the first events at Asif, Hila Alpert and singer-songwriter Rona Kenan, Amos Kenan’s daughter, will discuss “The Book of Pleasures.” It was one of the first ideas to come to Michal Levit’s mind, Asif’s manager of public programs, when the center was first conceived about a year ago. “First of all, it seemed fun to have an event dedicated to a book titled “The Book of Pleasures.” I’m sure it sounds tempting, even to people who don’t know it,” she says. “The cultural importance of ‘The Book of Pleasures’ is not only derived from the book itself, but also from Kenan’s persona. On the one hand, it represents a point of crisis and conflict in Israeli identity, but on the other, this conflict can be viewed as something beautiful and honest, a good starting point for asking questions about Israeli identity in general and Israeli food in particular.”

The two main questions hovering above the formation of Israeli identity are a chronological question (past and present) and a territorial question (here and there). “The Book of Pleasures” includes many recipes from cuisines considered foreign and distant at the time; yet by translating the ingredients’ names, and by exposing them to the Israeli public, the book plays on the range or tension between local and global. “The idea that local food expresses our identity seems obvious to us today, but what we now take for granted as ‘Israeli’ or ‘local’ wasn’t all that clear at the time.

“This event brings together two women I love: Hila Alpert, who, to me, is the official spokesperson of the pleasures of life, and Rona Kenan, the author’s daughter and a talented artist with a substantial influence on Israeli culture,” says Levit. “It is a tribute to the book and to its writer, to the question this book continues to raise even today, and to questions about Israeli cuisine in general. It will be very romantic, but in a sober sort of way. The two of them will talk. Hila will cook words, as well as tasty food which will be served at the end of the event, and Rona will play and sing.”

In addition to Alpert, we invited four leading chefs — Haim Cohen, Yisrael Aharoni, Asaf Doktor and Yehi Zino — to create recipes inspired by “The Book of Pleasures,” Haim Cohen will be making a local version for beef bourguignon replacing red wine with Muscat grapes and Israel Aharoni will reinvent the notorious boiled chicken, using French and Chinese techniques.

Explore a recipe collection inspired by the “Book of Pleasures.”