HomeJune 2012The Smell of Cucumbers

The Smell of Cucumbers

It takes something mighty big in order to get Americans to uproot themselves from their native land and immigrate to a foreign country with a different language and culture.  For a small number of Jews from America, that something big is the positive attraction of living in a Jewish state with a Jewish-majority culture.  (Thankfully, anti-Semitism is not a factor in aliyah from the U.S.)
But along with the benefit of living in the only country in the world where, for example, Rosh Hashanah is a national holiday, there are fringe benefits.  One of these is the smell of cucumbers.
I should point out that there is a difference between smelling a cucumber and the smell of cucumbers.  Cucumbers are, of course, readily available in the States in a number of different varieties, and if you go ahead and put your nose right up to a cut cucumber you will be able to detect a certain smell that you have come to associate with said vegetable.  This is what is known as smelling a cucumber.  Most Americans don’t often go around smelling their cucumbers, but occasionally curiosity gets the best of some people and they cannot resist trying to olfactorily identify just what it is they are eating.
It wasn’t until I moved to Israel that I learned that cucumbers on their own accord will voluntarily give off a fresh cucumbery smell as soon as they are cut or peeled (though most Israelis skip the peeling).  The process works like this: you take a cucumber and a peeler and you start peeling.  After a few strokes, something marvelous happens, because without intending to, you have provoked the cucumber into releasing its fragrance.
The first few times this occurs, you will be prone to look around you for the origins of this wonderful smell.  And then you realize: the cucumber in your hands has come vibrantly to life.
In an interview in the January-February 2004 Harvard Magazine, noted biblical scholar James Kugel spoke about why he was making aliyah.   (He had been at Harvard for more than two decades.)  The article also quoted from Kugel’s On Being a Jew, where Kugel said “in my experience, it is the Zionists who return to America and only the tomato lovers who stay.”  Though Kugel’s salad ingredient of choice is the tomato rather than the cucumber, he too recognizes the Jewish importance of excellent produce in the Holy Land.
It is true that no one makes aliyah because of fragrant cucumbers or delicious tomatoes, but Kugel is saying that unless a person enjoys the basic ingredients of life in Israel, the ever-present pull of life in America becomes harder and harder to refuse.  You would think that after 10 years in Israel, and certainly after 20, people would be immune to America’s attractiveness.  But reverse migration happens all the time, especially with people who made aliyah shortly after college.  In fact, the longer you live in Israel, the easier it is to take the trappings of the Jewish State for granted, and the harder it is to imagine what it means to live as a Jew in a culture dominated by another religion.
This is where Israel’s produce comes into play.  Our extraordinary fruits and vegetables help make life in Israel pleasurable in a very tangible way.  Accumulate enough of these tangible Israeli pleasures, and this country might start really and truly to feel like home.


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