Whole Lotta Shuk-ing Going On
Wed, 02/27/2008
Israel Correspondent

Jerusalem — Jerusalem has changed dramatically in the past couple of decades. Entirely new neighborhoods have been built, upscale shopping malls now dot the landscape, and the percentage of green space has dwindled proportionately to the booming construction.

That’s one of the many reasons to savor Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s sprawling open-air market, which, despite its cleaner, more polished appearance in recent years, remains the most lively and authentically Israeli place in an ever-changing city.

The “shuk,” as it is called, traces its roots to the early 19th century, when local farmers would hawk their produce to the city’s varied residents. The first stone shops were erected in the 1920s. Today, some 500 businesses operate in the market.

Though the vast majority of the shops sell food, “there’s a growing trend to open boutique shops,” says Netanel Mazeh, director of the Wiener Heritage Center at Lev Ha’ir, the inner-city community administration.

“In the past few years a number of people have opened coffee houses, upscale clothing stores and even a photo gallery. This is proof Mahane Yehuda is in a good place, literally and figuratively.”

While it’s possible to get a feel for the market just about any time of the week (except Sundays, when many places are shuttered), Fridays are by far the best time for a visit. That’s when the city’s residents shop for Shabbat dinner fixings and the rest of the week’s groceries.

Fridays in the shuk are crowded and frenetic, noisy and “tumultdik” — a lot, they say, like the Lower East Side in its heyday. The scents of sacks full of spices, sold by the spoonful, compete with the aroma of freshly baked bread at the bakery next door. You can smell simmering kuba soup and raw fish (some still flopping around) five shops away.

Located between Rehov Jaffa and Rehov Agrippas, Mahane Yehuda has two parallel pedestrian walkways, one covered overhead (Rehov Etz Haim), the other open to the sky (Rehov Mahane Yehuda). Both branch off into little tributaries, each with its own unique ambiance.

Start your visit either on Jaffa Road, the city’s main thoroughfare, which is reachable by most buses, or on Agrippas, which is home to several health food stores, which carry, among other things, vitamins that adhere to the highest standards of kashrut.

If you’re a bit wary of crowds, head first to the open-air marketplace via Jaffa Road, where vendors sell straight-from-the-farm fruits and vegetables, fresh meat and baked goods. Keep some small change handy to purchase a half kilo of rugelah (sweet pastries) or a sweet raisin challah.

Once you’ve gotten your bearings, make a left turn to enter the enclosed part of the market and simply go with the flow. The main market is a riot of sound and color, where hundreds of tightly packed stalls sell fruits and vegetables, nuts, spices, baked goods, candy, dairy and fish products, Judaica and housewares. Things are sold either by the kilo (even the quarter kilo) or the gram. Unlike the Old City’s Arab market, haggling isn’t allowed here.

About half-way down Etz Haim is the Pe’er bakery, where health-conscious Jerusalemites purchase whole wheat and surprisingly delicious sugar-free challot. A few kiosks down, the Teller Bakery sells health breads full of sun-dried tomatoes or olives.  Ma’adaniyat Bashir (Etz Haim 53) is the closest thing Jerusalem has to Zabar’s. The store sells the finest kosher wines, some topping $150 per bottle, designer chocolates, olive-oil-based salads (sautéed eggplant, marinated mushrooms) and 800 local and imported kosher cheeses, some bearing the strict “badatz,” certification, some not.

At the corner of Etz Haim and Agrippas, the famous Tzidkiyahu sells more than a dozen types of Israeli salads, mouth-watering Sephardic specialties and vegetarian chopped liver so rich and creamy you’ll swear it’s the real thing.

While the produce stands are more or less interchangeable, the new boutiques have their own special style.  Opened three years ago, HaEgoz shop (Rehov HaEgoz 30) sells floaty women’s clothing hand-made by the proprietors, Limor Tov and Rachel Shmuel. The store, which could just as easily be found in Soho, also sells funky handbags, pottery and linens.

Efrat Ben-Arza, the owner of Boredau, another women’s clothing boutique in the shuk, has a fascination with Yiddish words. He peppers shirts and aprons with words like “Vilde Chaya” (wild thing), Gevalt and Balabusta – the last one on aprons.  The boutique owners admit that launching a trendy clothing store in Mahane Yehuda was a gamble, but insist the gamble has paid off.

“The shuk is the warmest, liveliest place anywhere. It’s one big home,” says Limor Tov. “We’ve been embraced with love. True, some of the old-timers thought we were crazy, but we’ve shown we can do it.”

“For sure, there are old-timers who don’t want the shuk to change, but they’ve always been kind to me,” says Ben-Azra. “If anything, the new shops and the coffee houses are attracting people to the market, and that’s good for everyone.”

One veteran of the shuk who has been around, seemingly forever, is Uzi Eli, “The Etrog Man.”

In his late 60s, Eli concocts one-of-a-kind drinks, health elixirs and body creams from etrogs and other plants he grows on his moshav outside Jerusalem. The drinks start at 50 cents for thimble-sized cups that are remarkably filling to 32 shekels for a liter.  Seated in the back of his tiny shop, Eli points to one of the family pictures gracing the wall.

“My mother brought the seeds from Yemen, we planted them in a small nursery, collected the seeds and planted them,” Eli says of the organic produce. “In Yemen my family were healers and I am continuing the tradition.”

The Etrog Man makes an anti-aging cream from Kampuchea mushrooms — “the enzymes are the key” — and a cough suppressant from black radish, honey and cayenne pepper.

As religious and secular, young and old line up outside the store for velvety concoctions in a glass, Eli examines the faces of his visitors and asks a couple to draw a picture, first with their eyes open, a second with their eyes closed.

“You will have a good life,” he declares.

They drink to that.