Celebrating with Falafel

Kay Wilson - 6 April 2021

With all the hundreds of dishes available in a culture with so much Jewish diversity, it is no small feat that the humble falafel has never waned in popularity. In fact, such is its reputation, that there is a saying among Israelis that, a tourist hasn’t really experienced Israel, until they have eaten falafel.

On the 18th January every year, more falafel is eaten in Israel than on any other day. The admiration that the little chickpea sesame ball is awarded on this date, is due to David Leitner, more fondly known as Dugo.

“On the 18th January every year, more falafel is eaten in Israel than on any other day”

The date is the anniversary of the beginning of the 1944 death march from Auschwitz, of which Dugo is a survivor. As a 14-year old, emaciated and on the brink of collapse, he could not even open his eyes because the snow was so heavy. Dugo marched through the freezing cold thinking of his mothers bilkelach, tiny Hungarian challah bread rolls. To avoid freezing to death, he thought about how she promised that one day they would both go and live in Israel where bilkelach grew on the trees. Tragically his mother did not survive, but incredibly, Dugo’s thoughts about her bilkelach were just enough to sustain him.

When Dugo came home to Israel after the war, he encountered the falafel in Jerusalem’s famous Machane Yehudah market. It immediately reminded him of his mother’s bilkelach, and thus his own survival.

Hence, this year, Israeli embassies in Poland and the United Kingdom also marked the date as “Operation Dugo,” in honour of Dugo and to raise awareness for International Holocaust Day. The Israeli embassy in Warsaw even handed out falafel to passersby, and in the United Kingdom, the Israeli embassy donated portions of falafel to a homeless shelter.

“Dugo has been very active in the museum (called Testimony House) of the moshav of Nir Galim, established by Holocaust survivors in 1949”

Since 2016, a little village south of Tel Aviv has also been taking Dugo’s message to Facebook in order to reach a younger audience. The moshav of Nir Galim was established by Holocaust survivors in 1949, immediately after Israel’s War of Independence. It has extensive archives, an educational centre and diverse programs. Throughout the years, Dugo has been very active in the museum, called Testimony House. This year, the moshav decided to invite people to take a selfie eating a falafel and post it on the museum’s Facebook.

Throughout the years Dugo has enjoyed eating falafel on this day with presidents and prime ministers alike. This year, the 90-year old munched on the delicacy with Avi Kochavi, the Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Among his other achievements, Kochavi, who is a very popular General in Israel, developed the use of a 5 kg hammer to break down walls and cross through Palestinian buildings to prevent his soldiers from being shot by snipers. This tactical device has been copied by other armies throughout the world, including the United States military.

Kochavi said he was inspired by Dugo. His invitation to the Holocaust survivor reached the Israeli national news. In these uncertain days of the Corona virus and with another week with Israel under lockdown, the meeting between these two great men brought a much needed smile and a craving for falafel to all who watched.

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