Short on recipes or cookbooks Israeli stamps fix a culinary bind

JERUSALEM — People who want to prepare traditional Jewish dishes from various parts of the world will no longer have to buy a cookbook; all they'll require are some new Israeli stamps. These feature mouthwatering portrayals of falafel, couscous and gefilte fish, as well as a list of the ingredients required for making them.

Also included on the stamps are the utensils used in preparing these dishes: a special pot for making couscous, a grinder for the gefilte fish and an instrument for fashioning falafel balls.

These food stamps are a first for Israel's Philatelic Service, but not for its counterparts elsewhere. Many years ago the British brought out a virtual cookbook of stamps, on each one of which, of course, the Queen appeared as well. And at the other end of the world, the Japanese produced a series of postcards with their own selection of ethnic delicacies.

Any Israeli can suggest a theme for a stamp, and each year many thousands of individuals and organizations do so. These suggestions are considered by a broad-based committee which then sends its recommendations to the government. It has the final say in this sphere.

Seldom do Israeli stamps elicit a chuckle, but the one issued in connection with the Sydney Olympics certainly does. It shows a koala riding a bicycle.

But the leaflet accompanying the stamp strikes a somber note, recalling the fact that 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

The themes are seldom very original. Almost every country, after all, has stamps featuring flowers, animals and famous personalities. But some series relate to Israel's special character. For example, there were a number of synagogue stamps showing places of Jewish worship around the world, and every Rosh Hashanah holiday stamps are put on sale. Other cultures and religions are also honored, but to a much smaller extent.

Foreign dignitaries make their appearance on Israeli stamps from time to time. The most recent person so honored was the late King Hassan of Morocco.

An accompanying leaflet explained why he was singled out: "Hassan invested great efforts in promoting interreligious dialogue, showing respect for the Jewish community in Morocco and its leaders. Moreover, he firmly believed in the importance of peace for the flourishing of the Middle East."

Israel's first stamps were brought out when there was no peace in this part of the world. Indeed, there was no Israel. Those stamps were prepared in great secrecy during the last months of the British Mandate and before the name of the future Jewish state had been decided upon. So instead of bearing the name Israel, they read "Doar Ivri" (Hebrew mail). They weren't used for very long and a full set of such stamps is now worth a great deal of money.

Today the approximately 40 stamps issued each year bear the name of Israel in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English. And they are extremely popular among collectors, tens of thousands of whom receive every new series directly from the Philatelic Service.