Thursday, January 24, 2008

Rugellach to Die For

September 2004

I was injured at Shuk Machane Yehuda, the Machane Yehuda open market. If I had been hurt at a coffee shop, I might have chosen to avoid that shop afterwards. But the shuk is different. For a woman raised in the sterile suburbs of Washington DC, the shuk is an exotic paradise.

Even its admirers have to admit that the shuk ain’t pretty. It is dirty, crazed and crowded-a full-sized shopping mall on speed and crammed into a cramped rabbit warren. In the center of the main strip is the legless man in the wheelchair with an impressive display of sponges, scrub pads, shoelaces and other small wares somehow attached to the chair. He sort of sets the theme for the rest of the place. Forget about mannequins or window displays; the technique here is to stuff racks and shelves with all sorts of things and then sit back and wait for buyers. The stores selling housewares tend to have particularly eclectic combinations. In addition to the standard piles of cheap glass, plastic and metal goods, one finds odds and ends which appear to have come from out of nowhere: a lone set of knives in a box covered with thick dust, a couple sets of American measuring cups and random quirky appliances in new, if battered boxes cheerfully decorated with the “As Seen on TV” logo. To all of these are attached the question: where did this come from? You can almost imagine the shop owner finding the abandoned knife set along the side of the road, and bringing it to his shop to await the day its destined owner would come to claim it.

But the best thing about the shuk is the food. Ask any Israeli, and he will tell you that the best vegetables in the world are in Israel. Ask me, and I will tell you that the best vegetables in Israel are in the shuk. Fruits and vegetables appear in season, and are presented ripe and table-ready (no green tomatoes here). Bakeries, butchers and fishmongers abound. Glass-faced deli counters offer the best of local cheeses and the ultimate Israeli standard: fresh, homemade salatim (salads). My favorite of all are the spice stores. Unlike the conventional rows of odorless plastic containers one finds at the supermarket, the spice stores at the shuk are fragrant and crowded with countless sacks full of fresh spices from around the world. Sweet and spicy paprika is displayed on the counter in moist, towering, blood-red mounds next to large metal bowls full of combinations of nuts, herbs and spices one can add to plain rice-Israel’s version of Rice a’Roni. Here one also finds the huge burlap sacks full of dried beans, rice and pasta which can be such a godsend to students and broke immigrants.


The shoppers are as quirky and varied as the merchandise. Every age, every class, every religion and (seemingly) every language is represented. The vendors have learned to be quite flexible in their ability to communicate and you can ask them for virtually anything you want in any language you want, including hand gestures. If the vendor does not know, he will ask his neighbor. Someone will figure you out. One thing the shoppers have in common is good old-fashioned Israeli aggressiveness. There is no room at the shuk for good manners, and even the most well-mannered Westerner will find himself elbowing little old ladies as he tries to push his way through a densely packed little alley. There is no reason to feel bad; they will elbow him right back, and run over his feet with their heavily laden, two-wheeled shopping carts.
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Shabbat-Friday at sundown through Saturday nightfall-is mandated by law in Israel and most businesses and services, including public transportation, close up shop late in the afternoon on Friday. I probably should have done my shopping earlier, but had to go into work. So it was that I found myself at the shuk, long shopping list in hand, a mere three hours before Shabbat. I would have to move smartly if I wanted to catch the last bus home.

My shopping list was nothing unusual. Edith and I had planned to make up a mini-smorgasbord of salads for Shabbat lunch and it was my job to pick up the ingredients: an assortment of fresh vegetables, Golan cheese and eggplant salad. Once that was out of the way the next stop was to buy my weekly spice. When I moved into my first apartment in Israel after making aliyah, I lacked two things I had in the States: a spice collection and a respectable income. So long as my salary was very low, I treated myself by buying a new spice every week at the shuk: oregano, cinnamon, zahatar, bay leaves, chili flakes and on-a taste of luxury at the bargain price of three to four shekels a pop.

Poor or no, I have to admit to a being a bit of a snob; I will not buy my clothes at the shuk. On the day of the bombing I made an exception and bought a pair of slippers. Unlike the United States, where wall-to-wall carpets are ubiquitous, in Israel bare floors are the norm, and Israelis react to people walking around the house in bare feet with the type of reaction that we Americans normally reserve for someone walking around in a string bikini in Buffalo, NY, in January. After months of suffering expressions of shock and dismay on the part of my roommate at my bare feet inside the house, I broke down and bought slippers.

My last stop was the bakery where I bought a selection of cinnamon rolls, apple pastries and chocolate rugellach (chocolate pastries) for that night's Shabbat dinner. Not only is the bakery is one of the best in Jerusalem, with particularly good chocolate rugellach, it also has the advantage of being located a few short steps from the bus stop-no small matter late in the afternoon on a Friday. My shopping complete, I hopped over to the bus stop where I anxiously awaited the bus, hoping I had not missed the last one. Unfortunately for me, my groceries, my spice collection and my roommate's sense of propriety, my shuk and my bus stop had somehow been added to a terrorist organization's list of key military targets. Some unknown quantity of minutes later, the world exploded around me.

A week or so after the bombing, former President Katzav came to the hospital to visit terror victims. When he got to me, he said: “I heard that you were injured at the bakery”. My response: “They have rugellach to die for”.

17 comments:

Katherine said...

oh ho ho :)

Yehudit said...

Fond memories of the shuk from April, and you described it excellently. But it wasn't a culture shock for me because I had lived a few blocks from the 9th Street market in Philadelphia, which has the same mixture of astoundingly fresh produce and 99¢ store quality apparel. The 9th St market also has carcasses of large animals hanging from hooks in windows, I don't remember seeing butcher shops in the shuk.

Anyway, love the blog. I sent the link to everyone I know on Facebook.

Gila said...

Katherine--thank you, thank you, we aim to please.

Yehudit--Will have to check out the 9th Street market the next time I am in Philly (my parents live in the area). In respect to the carcasses, saw that in Cairo. Yuck....

Anonymous said...

About walking barefoot around the house: The horrified reaction of some people to it stems (even when they don't know it) from a superstition connected with mourning customs among some jews, whereby the people sitting shiv'a walk around the house in bare feet. So if, when someone dies you walk around barefoot, then if no one had yet died and you're walking around barefoot you're clearly asking for trouble... :)

Lesson: when your roommates are being silly, ignore them.

Esther
barefoot-in-the-house
without any noticable ill effects (except blackened soles when the floor ain't clean)

seebee said...

Great blog. Yasher koach! I will keep on reading.

Jack said...

I included this post in the next edition of Haveil Havalim. It will go up sometime between Saturday night and Sunday morning.

tafka pp said...

Love your remark to Katsav :)

Batya said...

Well you have a sense of humor.

You should know that there are some great boutiques now in the shuk.

But the warmest sweater I have was bought in a regular shuk store... a long time ago.

Yehudit said...

It's also called the Italian Market. It's been there for generations. Yes, you can pick out a chicken and they will take it in the back and kill it for you.....

My food memories of Israel are how fresh the produce is. I thought I knew fresh but I got a major education in fresh from two places: Israel, and Chez Panisse in Berkeley. I wasn't there long enough to get sick of the cucumbers. :-)

My other fond food memory is the fresh squeezed oranges and pomegranate juice stands everywhere. I made up a new name for Israel: Land of the Fresh-Squeezed Juice.

WashingtonGardener said...

When you come back to DC I invite you to spend more time at our non-sterile markets - Eastern, Dupont Circle, Takoma Park, Waterfront Fish, etc. - to get a real feel for the home-grown flavors of the city and its suburbs. Maybe a stop at Ben's Chili Bowl on U St with dessert at CakeLove after to top it off.
I did not know of the bare-feet aversion! Feet (in general) are not pretty, I'll agree with that, if that is some folks problem with it. But bare is so healthy and freeing for you - unless it is cold, bare-footing is the way to go!

Gila said...

Wash Gard--you are so on!

Speaking of going places...isn't it time you and the gang visited me already?

:)

Gila

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

What was Katzav's reply to your comment?

Gila said...

He and his entire entourage burst out laughing. I actually had not realized what I had said. I was thinking "I am crazy about their rugellach" and said "ani metah al harugalach shelehem". Only after they were all doubled over, laughing their heads off, did I realize what I had actually said.

It was quite funny....

Gila

WashingtonGardener said...

He should have offered you a speech writing job right than andthere. And yes, I DO need to plan a trip out your way soon - trying to scour my calendar for even 7 days in a row (though I'd like longer) that I'm now booked up for this year.

Anonymous said...

You are the best! I haven't had such a great, absorbing read in ages!

Danny Brothers said...

What quick wit!

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