The Many Euphemisms for 'Pork' in Israel
At a Tel Aviv branch of Tiv Taam, a high-end Israeli grocery chain, a refrigerated shelf brims with packaged deli meats to satisfy the global pork lover: Russian-style servelat, Italian pepperoni, Hungarian salami, and špekáčeky, the stout Ukrainian sausage for summertime grilling. But flip the packages over, and the word “pork” is nowhere to be found on the Hebrew ingredient list. In its place is a curious euphemism: “basar aher,” or simply “other meat.”
In Judaism, which outlaws the consumption of pork, pigs and their flesh have been referred to in coded language for millennia. It’s a reflection of the ancient taboo surrounding the animal: as Jews set themselves apart by refusing to eat pork, it became a tool of their persecution, gaining a stigma far beyond any other animal forbidden in Jewish dietary rules.
“The sages would not even call a pig by its name, but used the euphemism ‘davar aher,’ [“other thing”] comparing it to feces and to ‘a walking toilet,’” wrote Yoel Shilo, a lecturer in Judaism at Israel’s Ashkelon Academic College in a 2008 article on the biblical prohibition of pork.
Today, that taboo persists in the modern state of Israel, and along with it, the euphemisms. Devout Jews continue to use the term “other thing” for pigs. In one case that made headlines in Israel’s mainstream press in 2012, an ultra-Orthodox newspaper reported on a fatal collision between wild boars and a car but refused to call the animals by name, instead referring to them as “wild other-things.”
Even those who manufacture and eat pork continue to use coded language, hence the phrase “other meat” on the deli packages at Tiv Taam. It’s a phrase that confuses some customers, admits Anita Budinov, who was working behind the deli counter on a recent Sunday. But most Israelis understand what’s being sold. And, she said people come to Tiv Taam—one of a small number of outlets that sell pork in Israel—especially for the forbidden meat.
“All day, people come asking for it,” she said.
“Other meat” and “other thing” aren’t the only euphemisms used to describe pork and pigs in Israel today. It’s also common to see “white meat” or “white steak” on product labels. The White Book was the name of the first pork cookbook in Israel, published in 2010 by Eli Landau, a retired cardiologist who died in 2012. Some Israelis even refer to the pig as the “short cow.”
To Ronit Vered, a food journalist at the Israeli daily Haaretz, these euphemisms signify a desire on the part of pork-eating Israelis to “make peace with their conscience” even as they break the ultimate dietary taboo. “If you refer to it as the ‘other meat,’ or as the ‘short cow meat,’ it’s not as bad,” she said. “It doesn’t violate the laws directly.”
The euphemisms also fill a gap in the Hebrew language. As Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a New York-based Jewish food expert points out, there’s actually no word for “pork” in Hebrew, only a word for “pig,” which is “hazir.” For meat eaters, using separate words for the animal and its meat—think “cow” versus “beef”—creates a psychological distance that is crucial to being able to consume what was once a sentient being.
In that vein, the Hebrew terms “other meat,” “white meat,” and “short cow” all play the role of “differentiating the animal from the meat itself,” said Yoskowitz.
Contrary to popular perception, the availability of pork in Israel isn’t new. Pork actually predates the founding of the state in 1948, said Yoskowitz, who spent five years researching pork in Israel. It was an important source of protein for residents of kibbutzim, who would buy pork from Palestinian Christian farmers.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Israelis went crazy for “white steak,” which, plopped into a pita, was readily available at roadside grills throughout the country. But that era also saw the first crackdown on pork at the national level due to pressure from the Orthodox establishment. In 1962, Israel passed a law that limited pork production to Christian areas. However, Israeli Jews could raise pork for scientific research and slaughter the surplus, a loophole that allowed the Jewish pork industry to continue. In 1994, another law passed banning the import of non-kosher meat. (According to Vered, chefs still have it smuggled in.)
In the 1990s, pork consumption received a boost in Israel with the influx of Russian immigrants, who brought their taste for pig meat with them. Today in the Mania grocery store in Bat Yam, the heavily Russian suburb of Tel Aviv, pork products are labeled without euphemism, an indication that Russian immigrants don’t share the traditional Israeli hang-ups around pork.
Surprisingly, the word “bacon” doesn’t arouse the same sensitivities as the word “pig” in Israel. In Tel Aviv, the heart of secular Israel, bacon is featured on several menus, such as the one at Benedict, a well-known American-style breakfast restaurant.
According to Vered, Israelis tend to put bacon in a different category: “A lot of people in Israel eat bacon even though they declare themselves as people that don’t eat pork.”
Some Jews believe that the word “pig” in Hebrew contains in it a promise for a pork-filled future. “Hazir” is close to the Hebrew infinitive “lehahazir,” or “to restore.”
According to the website of Chabad, the major Orthodox movement, the similarity between the words could be proof that when the Messiah comes, god will return the pig, divinely made kosher, to the Jewish people.
Until then, pork in Israel will remain the “other meat.”