McVitie’s has launched a range of pineapple flavoured Jaffa Cakes.
Jewish reactions have been mixed. ‘OH NO — as if 2020 couldn’t get worse!’ said one poster on my Facebook page.
To be fair, other than the name, there is nothing Jewish about Jaffa Cakes.
The food takes its name from the Jaffa varietal of orange, which was first produced in the city of Jaffa.
Jaffa is mentioned four times in the Bible. It’s the city opposite the territory given to the Tribe of Dan (Joshua 19:46). It is port-of-entry for the cedars of Lebanon for Solomon’s Temple (2 Chronicles 2:16) and again, for the Second Temple of Jerusalem (Ezra 3:7). Most famously it is the place from where the prophet Jonah departed for Tarshish (Jonah 1:3) before being swallowed by a whale.
Developed by Arab farmers in the mid-19th century, the orange soon became its primary export. Once the State of Israel was established, they were considered its most famous export.
The origins of the Jaffa Cake lie with its Scottish biscuit maker, McVitie & Price, Ltd., which was established in 1839 on Rose Street in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Jaffa orange has few seeds leading to a classic joke on the British sitcom Only Fools and Horses.
Yet, because its tough skin makes it particularly suitable for export it can also stand as an apt metaphor for the Israeli.
Whether it is a cake or a biscuit has been the source of a fruitful (see what I did there) Talmudic style debate. It is called a cake but is found in the biscuit aisle. The reason for this might be pragmatic. In the UK, value added tax is payable on chocolate covered biscuits but not chocolate covered cakes. By classifying Jaffa Cakes as cakes, McVitie’s avoids VAT (one might see this creative approach as a form of Jewish accounting).
They are not even kosher in the UK but the Jewish Chronicle did give us a kosher recipe.
With the replacement of the orange by the pineapple, however, the Jaffa Cake is divorced from any Jewish signification whatsoever.
The pineapple is not native to Israel and is imported. I do not believe that anyone has associated the pineapple with the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden (despite its name). In fact, in Hebrew, it is called ananas.
Unlike Israel, it was originally associated with prestige and luxury in the Old World. Its exotic appearance, according to this BBC article, ‘gave it a mythical quality, which was “enhanced by its golden crown, viewed as the symbolic manifestation of the divine right of king”.’
If, as Dr Lauren O’Hagan from Cardiff University’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy, has said, ‘the pineapple was previously unknown in the Old World, so it was free of the cultural resonances of other fruits, which enabled people to create new meanings from it’, then maybe we can recover some Jewish meaning from it.
Its spiky exterior masking a sweet interior certainly could be a good metaphor for the Israeli, replacing the sabra fruit.
Maybe sabra-flavoured Jaffa cakes should be next.
STOP PRESS. I have just learned that there are also strawberry and cherry flavoured Jaffa Cakes.
Like the pineapple, there is seemingly nothing Jewish about the strawberry or chery. Neither are mentioned in the Bible and the cultivated variety of strawberry was first grown over 250 years ago in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles during the 18th-century. Today, both are heavily associated with English summers and Wimbledon where strawberries are eaten with cream. In fact, rabbinic authorities have proscribed them because even heavy washing does not get rid of all of the insects hiding in them. Despite being grown in Israel since the 1960s, I doubt many people associate strawberries or cherries with Jews.