Falafel, Shawarma and Pitas, Oh My! A Celiac Fights to Find Food in Israel
February 15, 2010
By Jordan Silverman

I recently returned from a two week adventure in Israel with the Birthright program from the University of Delaware.

Prior to leaving we were told we could bring a maximum of two bags each. Because I have a tendency to over-pack, this caused me some stress. I managed, even though I had to dedicate one full bag to gluten-free foods. I have celiac disease which means that many of the foods some people would grab for a quick snack are off limits to me. Unless you have read as many food labels as I have, you probably can’t appreciate how many foods have wheat, rye or barley – ingredients that can trigger a revolt in your stomach and can cause long term damage to your intestines if you have celiac disease.

As I was preparing for my trip, I began reading up on the popular foods in Israel — falafel, shawarma, pitas – and realized they are all made with bread! This could be an “oh-no” place for a celiac! I packed gluten-free cereal, gluten-free trail mix, gluten-free granola bars, fruit snacks, and a lot more. I knew I would have trouble finding things to eat.

The biggest problem was that I didn’t speak Hebrew and the locals didn’t speak English very well. It would have been so much easier in restaurants if I could have clearly communicated my food restrictions. Also, cross-contamination was a huge issue because foods are not always cooked by themselves or kept separate from others. One night, while staying in a Bedouin encampment in the middle of the desert, we were served rice and meat inside a pita. After explaining my dietary restrictions to the staff there, they told me they could get me the rice and meat without the pita. GREAT! Except, not really, because the rice was mixed with orzo, another huge no-no for celiacs. That was a bad night.

The trip was amazing, and I am sure that other celiacs have traveled to Israel and have not had such a hard time. If you are going to a foreign country, bring someone who knows the language or a list of translations (companies like Select Wisely offer translation cards to help with this) regarding your food restrictions. It will be so much easier to communicate your needs without confusion. Also, even if you speak the language, it is smart to bring extra snacks to have with you in case you can’t find something to eat. But most importantly, have fun!

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Jordan Silverman