Entering the Mahane Yehuda market of Jerusalem is an immediate assault on the senses. Men scream about their fresh fruit, a guitarist plays an old Bon Jovi song, a child laughs, and a few different languages are heard within earshot. Olives glisten, dried apricots tempt, cakes of halvah beckon, and red peppers are jumbled pleasantly against green and yellow ones. Best of all, the smell of fresh pita is everywhere.
Simply known as “the shuk”, Mahane Yehuda market is a haphazard collection of cobblestone streets, with most of it covered, but other parts left to the open air. The fruit, vegetables, meat, and nut stalls there are crowded comfortably against each other. There are newer cafés nestled in the heart of the market, bars dotted here and there. It’s a place where you can get 4 tomatoes for 2 shekels, a whole bag of green beans for 6 shekels, and warm pita for 10. It’s foodie heaven.
For a city and a country fraught with ethnic, social and religious differences that often result in high levels of tension between various groups, the shuk is a unifying area. Loud tourists mingle into the crowd; Ethiopians sell vegetables next to their Jewish counterparts, and Arabs inspect the quality of tomatoes alongside Orthodox Jews. The shuk has been called a “national treasure” for this quality, for the fact that regardless of the noise and insanity of the market on a regular basis, it is one of the sanest places in the whole city as people find common ground over coffee, sweets and a million types of cheese.
The other day, as I was strolling through the market with fingers oily from too many olive samples, I saw a covered Muslim woman accidentally drop her groceries. Like jewels, shining bell peppers rolled out of her bags and onto dirty cobblestone. Potatoes escaped, and string beans fell all around her. With a horrified expression, she quickly dropped to her knees and scrambled for her groceries before they could be trampled. A Jewish man in a yarmulke passing by joined her, helping to gather up the rogue potatoes and peppers. Together, they finished the job twice as fast. Regardless of religious differences that may have mattered elsewhere in the city, food was unifying for that man and woman on that day. Standing, the woman smiled thankfully and the man answered with a nod of recognition as they went their separate ways.
James Beard, an American chef and food writer, once said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” On a daily basis, the shuk provides this “universal experience” that beckons not only tourists from every corner of the world but also people from every corner of Jerusalem. No one thinks about differences because everyone is too busy looking for the best deal or the perfect loaf of bread for dinner.
Jerelyn Luther ’16 is blogging this summer from Jerusalem, Israel.