Shopping at the Shuk

The profusion of vegetables for sale at a Mahane Yehuda stand makes a colorful display

The Mahane Yehuda market, the shuk, this week is particularly appealing to a produce-lover like me. Huge perfectly white cauliflowers sit atop displays of rough dark green broccoli, shiny dark green cucumbers, dark red beets, black radishes and white ones, creamy white parsnips, orange carrots, pale green cabbages and purple ones, orangey red tomatoes, and eggplants such a shiny dark purple they look almost black. Next to the vegetable booth is a fruit seller who has on display baskets of pink strawberries, bright yellow lemons, pale yellow grapefruit, and orange oranges. Until the recent cold weather caused the skin of the citrus fruits to turn color, they were all Kelly-green.

On my way home from classes twice a week in Talpiyot, I have to change buses. I’ve developed the habit of doing so at the shuk. It’s so much fun to walk through and observe the changes through the seasons. Most produce here is grown within the country and the market is seasonal, the way it was when I was growing up. Strawberries in January? Well, if you were willing to fly to Florida, maybe. Asparagus in November? Don’t be ridiculous.

The pomegranates are big, the melons small, and they’re both delicious

I’m become accustomed to this seasonal cycle of produce. I no longer plan menus based on what I feel like cooking, but do so based on what is available. Three weeks ago I made an orange and olive salad for the first time in months, two weeks ago I served cauliflower, and last week I served strawberries. I’ll serve them frequently for the next few weeks, because their season is fairly short, although not as short as cherry season.

The Mahane Yehuda market is such an integral part of Jerusalem, it’s hard to remember that it is less than 150 years old. When Jerusalem started expanding beyond its walls in the late 1800s, people did not want to go all the way back to the city to shop. The Arab farmers in nearby villages realized it would be easy to bring their produce closer to these new customers. They came from Sheikh Bader, Deir Yassin, and Lifta to an open area between the Jewish settlements of Mahane Yehuda and Mazkeret Moshe. They spread blankets on the ground and displayed their wares.

That was fine in the dry season, but not in the four to six month season of cold wind and rain. The farmers started to build themselves stalls and shacks, rickety shelters with tin roofs. There was no plan.

This lack of organization disturbed the British when they took over administration of the area during the Mandate. They knew the market was vital to the character and well-being of the city. Charles Robert Ashby, the city planner, developed a design for the market with the help of an architect. Their design included sanitation, streets, running water, and a central square with a fountain, bordered by a row of trees. The British plan never came to fruition, probably because of budgetary issues.

Several shops sell their own mixtures of herbs and spices for tea

In the 1930s the British took responsibility for sanitation and street cleaning in the market. By this time the Etz Chaim Yeshiva had bought land extending south from Jaffa Road. The founders of the Yeshiva built a row of shops along its wall whose rent helped sustain the school.

The character of the market changed during the 1920s and 1930s, as Jewish merchants began to open shops. Some rented from Arabs and some bought land outright. A group of merchants convinced a local bank to extend six-year loans to those who wanted to establish permanent shops in the area. Today, if you look above the store sign at the corner of Hashaked and Mahane Yehuda Streets, you can see the plaque designating the area of 81 shops as Shuk Halva’ah V’Chisachon—Loan and Savings Market. Another permanent area of the shuk built around the same time was closer to Jaffa Road. Most of the shop owners were Iraqi Jews. Today, it is still known as Shuk HaIraqi, the Iraqi Market.

After Israeli independence, Jerusalem continued to grow, and so did the shuk. Today its two main streets extend from Jaffa Road south to Agrippas street, connected by smaller streets named for fruit and nut trees. Shops extend for two blocks on Jaffa Road as well as several blocks along Agrippas street. To the newcomer, it is a confusing mass of shops and alleys, which is no doubt why so many people offer walking tours. My friend Renee, who has been in Israel for almost twenty years, walked me up Mahane Yehuda street a few months after our aliyah. She told me about things to look for, pointing out valid kashrut certificates and certifications that appropriate tithes had been taken. Allen and I also took a tour that went through almost all the streets, while the guide explained both the history of the shuk and why she preferred certain olive, meat, spice, and produce shops. On one corner an olive merchant would sell as little as 50 grams of olives. A certain spice merchant knew the English names of spices, a skill I am still grateful for.

In the 1970s the city paved the streets and improved sanitation in the area. Additionally, it installed the first permanent roof over Mahane Yehuda street, leading people to start calling that area the “covered shuk,” as opposed to the “open shuk on the parallel Etz HaChaim street. This was later replaced by a translucent curved roof that covered many of the side streets as well. That roof, in its turn, was recently replaced by a better one.

Did I mention they sell a several varieties of nuts and seeds?

In some ways the shuk is what it always was. The clerks in food shops loudly try to attract customers. “Watermelons for Shabbat!” yells one, while across the narrow street, another screams out “Sweet red watermelons.” The halvah man, wearing a gilded paper crown, stands in the middle of the street in front of “The Halvah Kingdom” offering passersby a taste of coffee bean halvah. The spice shop clerks routinely give  tastes of their unique mixtures for rice and salads to anyone who stops. Shoppers pick up an olive to eat without breaking stride as they walk by. Women push baby buggies overflowing with groceries, the baby now being at school; men wear bulging backpacks with long skinny celery stalks peaking out the top. Soldiers walk through nibbling on a bourekas, a cup of coffee in one hand and a rifle on their back. Yeshiva students, in their black suits and white shirts hurry through, talking about their latest lesson as they go. And the beggars still sit at the entrances, asking for a coin or two to help pay for food for Shabbat, a kidney transplant, or to support a poor widow with eight children.

But nothing in the world remains static. Every week it seems like there is something different. The olive merchant on a corner is gone, replaced by a coffee bar. A fruit and nut stand near the entrance has replaced the spice seller who has moved halfway down the street. What the spice seller replaced is a mystery to me. Several clothing stores have opened in the covered shuk, as have two high end jewelry artisans. A new pottery cooperative sells lovely handmade dishes, cups and trays on one of the tiny short streets near Agrippas street. A couple of nice bars seem to be doing a brisk business. And now several

The Fish and Chips stand offers diners a place to sit outside

sit-down restaurants have opened. I hesitate to give a number, because every time I check my count, I find another one. These are in addition to the falafel stands, juice bars, and fish and chips place (yes, its sign written in Hebrew letters reads “Feesh and Cheeps”).

The shuk has a weekly rhythm. Sunday and Monday it is almost empty of shoppers but by Friday it is so crowded, you can barely squeeze through. Many tours bring visitors on Friday afternoon to get a feel for the “real Israel.” But harried storekeepers moving as fast as they can to weigh bags and make change for three different customers at the same time, no matter how fascinating to watch, are not the whole picture. Nor are the shoppers, pushing, cutting in line, and elbowing their way through to the last ripe avocado or nice melon. Friday’s pre-Shabbat frenzy of last minute shopping is only a small slice of the life of the shuk and of Israeli life. I much prefer the picture of Israel presented on Tuesday or Wednesday: the sheer variety of produce, the bright colors, the beggars who give you a blessing for health, long life, and learned children, and the storekeepers who let you taste their wares and will tell you why theis are the best.

            In the end it doesn’t really matter when you visit—the shuk is always fascinating. And stimulating to the appetite.

Map of Mahane Yehuda