Cucumbers: The Early Roots of Israel’s ‘Start-up Nation’

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An aerial view of the ancient mountaintop fortress of Masada. Photo: GPO via Wikimedia Commons.

Are cucumbers an Israeli invention? No, of course not. Many varieties of cucumbers have been cultivated around the world for more than 3,000 years. They originated in India, and were known to the ancient Greeks and the Romans.

It is true that cucumbers, along with tomatoes, are a staple food in Israel; in many cases, an Israeli breakfast without cucumbers is inconceivable. But what I did not know until recently, is that the variety of cucumber that is cultivated in Israel, and in many other locations, is the Beit Alpha cucumber. (It is also known as the Middle Eastern, Persian, or Lebanese cucumber.)

Beit Alfa, a kibbutz in northern Israel located at the eastern edge of the Harod Valley, was founded in 1922 by Jews from Poland. Hefzibah — the adjoining kibbutz, founded the same year by Jews from Germany and Czechoslovakia — is the location of one of the most important archeological sites in Israel: the Beit Alpha synagogue floor.

The Beit Alpha synagogue, constructed in the sixth century CE, was one of more than 80 synagogues built throughout the Land of Israel after the destruction of the Temple. The floor, a large and elaborate mosaic depicting, among other things, the zodiac and the Akedah (the binding of Isaac), is a reminder that substantial numbers of Jews continued to inhabit the country for several centuries after the fall of Masada.

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November 11, 2022 3:10 pm

The synagogue continued to function after the Arab conquest in 637, but was destroyed by an earthquake, which leveled many of the towns in the region, in 749. The remains of the synagogue were discovered in 1928 during the digging of drainage ditches.

It was while reading about the Beit Alpha synagogue that I became aware of the cucumber of the same name. Whatever the type, cucumbers contain cucurbitacins — biochemical compounds found in plants such as cucumbers and zucchinis. This causes a bitter taste, especially to the skin of the cucumber, a protection from plant-eating animals. The taste is also associated with a digestive condition known as a “burping.” In the mid- to late 1950s, cucumbers that are long, narrow and thin-skinned were bred in England. They are known as English or “burpless” cucumbers, and are common to the produce aisles of North American supermarkets.

The Beit Alpha cucumber is smaller than the English cucumber, but shares many of the same attributes. It is narrow and thin-skinned and “burpless,” and was bred by Hanka Lazerson, a member of Beit Alpha kibbutz, beginning in 1931 — well before the development of the English cucumber.

The goal was to develop “disease resistant vegetables of consistent size, with a juicy flavor, fine texture and a high yield appropriate for the climate of the Middle East.” The first seeds were distributed to farmers in the area of the kibbutz in 1936, but efforts to improve the cucumber by selective breeding continued for the next 30 years.

Israel’s prowess in agricultural science is widely recognized and the cherry tomato is often cited as an example of an important Israeli discovery. But Ronit Vered points out that the cherry tomato was known to Western culture as early as the 17th century. It was Israeli scientists who turned it into a commercially viable product with a long shelf life. In this context, the development of the Beit Apha cucumber, is no less an achievement.




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