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 1:00 p.m. (now schools often go to mid-afternoon), shops closed at 1:00 p.m. and re-opened at 4:00 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 2:00 p.m.—not so late if you remember that many Israelis skip breakfast in favor of “aruhat eser” (a 10:00 a.m. mid-morning meal). Yet while it is more difficult to eat 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.
On my block in Givat Ze’ev the smells and sounds of tsaharayim begin as early as 6:00 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 tsaharayim—whether this meal takes place at 1:00, 3:00, 4:00, or even at 5:00 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. 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 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 a “tsaharayim” 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, backed 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 a real tsaharayim: a hot meal (on these 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 shloof
TEDDY WEINBERGER Is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from miami, where he was an assistant professor of religous studies. Teddy and his wife, sarah jane ross, have five children