An African immigrant pulls a trolley of vegetables in Tel Aviv. Amir Cohen

A tasting tour aims to bridge community connections between Israelis and immigrants in Neve Shaanan.

At a small Asian grocery store, right next to Tel Aviv’s brutalist Central Bus Station, I munched on salted sheets of seaweed while Dani, the Israeli proprietor, explained how he would carve up Jerusalem under a peace agreement. The shop specializes in Asian products scarce in Israel, and the shelves were lined with tamarind paste and fish sauce intended to ease the homesickness of a largely invisible clientele.

Tel Aviv’s Neve Shaanan neighborhood is a magnet for temporary foreign workers from China, India, and the Philippines, as well as non-Jewish asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan. The area is home to a permanent underclass many Israelis prefer not to see firsthand. It’s typically associated with crime and poverty. But a new food tour—Taster’s Tour of Foreign Workers’ Kitchens—hopes to expose both Israelis and foreigners to the bittersweet realities of life in the shadow of Tel Aviv’s better-known beaches and Bauhaus architecture.

The Taster’s Tour isn’t a comprehensive study in migrant life, nor does it offer any particular historical or political expertise. What it does offer is conversation with often-marginalized groups typically ignored by locals and tourists alike. Founder Roni Lederman promotes the tour as a way to encourage openness and integration. But it’s also raising questions about gentrification and the exclusions of Israeli identity.

In many places, a community like Neve Shaanan might be seen as a problem of integration. But in Israel’s ethno-national state, there is no melting pot or mosaic into which the children of Eritrean asylum seekers and Filipino caregivers will be easily absorbed. “They’re not given any chance to become permanent members of society, and that’s reflected in legal status and public rhetoric,” says Angie Hsu, who has worked with Kav LaOved, a non-profit group that advocates on behalf of disadvantaged workers. “They’re spoken about as very temporary and to fill a specific need, like caretaker or dishwasher.”

Hsu is Taiwanese-American and she lives in Neve Shaanan. Despite fluent Hebrew and marriage to an Israeli, Hsu says she continues to be perceived as an outsider. “I’m still given English menus when I walk into restaurants,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how much I want to integrate. Because of the way I look, it will never be an assumption that I’m a permanent member of this community.”

To explore some of these themes of alienation and integration— and to share her love of Neve Shaanan’s culinary mix—Lederman started the tours in April. Every Friday, she assembles a group of about 10 people on Rosh Pina Street, an area lined with modest restaurants, cell phone shops, sneaker stores, immigration lawyers, and thinly disguised brothels. (In one highly local touch, a handmade sign taped to a lamppost advertised an “expert mohel”—or ritual circumcision practitioner—at “reasonable prices.”) Lederman, a tour guide by trade, came up with the idea for a Neve Shaanan tour after thinking about how “you only hear bad things about the neighborhood,” she says.

The tour includes injera bread with vegetables. (SarahTz/Flickr)

The weekly tour is in Hebrew, but English tours can be arranged by appointment. I tagged along with three tourists—we paid a premium for a smaller group; tours are typically NIS130 ($34 USD) per person, but we paid more than double. After Dragon grocery, we moved onto a small Eritrean restaurant, where we munched on sour injera bread with lentils, stewed cabbage, and buttery pureed beans, and Lederman offered an overview of why these particular migrant groups have ended up in Tel Aviv, and what happens to them when they get here, including grim tales of human trafficking and organ sales. Next, we headed to a tarp-covered Ethiopian coffee house, where we discussed Israel’s refugee and immigration policies over small cups of bitter coffee and bowls of popcorn. We parted over laddu, a spherical Indian sweet made with chickpea flour.

Lederman’s Tasters Tour offers the promise of breaking bread to increase familiarity, tolerance, and empathy. But as Neve Shaanan becomes more desirable, the bars and restaurants that serve as community spaces for many of Tel Aviv’s most vulnerable populations will likely come under threat. A massive redevelopment project of the city’s old bus station—complete with gleaming new condominium buildings and office towers—is already nipping at the neighborhood’s heels, threatening to price out (if not outright demolish) existing homes.

While Hsu welcomes community development, she’s wary about an influx of new residents tipping the balance in Neve Shaanan. “It could be incredible and we could build a more tolerant society,” she says. “But it could also end up alienating the people who already live there and who really struggle to find a space where they feel accepted and safe.”

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