At the Market
"You want to try?" the man behind the table asks, thrusting a plump date into your hand. "Yes, you try."
You thank him and pop the whole fruit into your mouth, running your tongue over its skin and biting into its sweet flesh until your teeth rest on the almond-sized pit. You pull it from between your teeth, scraping it for the last possible gooey remains. You want more.
You will learn later just how important dates are here in Israel. That they are the resulting fruit of most sprawling palm trees that dot so much of this country. That when the Bible narrates about this "land of milk and honey," it is not referring to the honey of bees we know back in the States, but the syrup extracted from dates.
Fumbling with the pit, a bottle of water, and your wallet in now-sticky hands, you dig a 20-shekel bill from your stack of fresh currency. Forgetting to haggle as you've been instructed to do under all circumstances, you pay what he asks for a small container of the addictive brown fruit and return several silver coins—warm from the vendor's hand—to your purse, too overwhelmed by your surroundings to count your change.
This is just one grain of sand in the beach of sensory stimulation that is the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, known locally as "the Shuk." Although you disembarked from your transcontinental flight here less than three hours ago, you were immediately determined to see this place, to intertwine yourself with the market and the many bodies moving within it, to become part of it for even a short time and beat with its pulse.
Viewing the tables packed inch to inch with vibrant foods, you wish you were hungry enough to sample everything. You probably shouldn't have partaken of the sadistic, high-sodium airplane food that squatted on your gray plastic tray table hours ago. Faced with all this freshness and color, it seems unimaginable that you ate something that congealed right in front of you—and probably continues to do so now in your stomach—even if it was free.
The Shuk is more than this sheltered building under which people congregate. It encompasses a large surrounding area where other vendors outside sell clothing, jewelry, knick-knacks, and souvenirs, including religious paraphernalia: mezuzahs, menorahs, and dreidels of all designs, and the omnipresent yarmulkes knit to feature cartoon characters and the colors and logos of American sports teams. It's all connected, all of these shops and wares and locals and tourists and salespersons, but here under the arched awning is the heart.
You had read before coming to Israel that this market was the site of several terrorist attacks in times past, though the last was a decade ago. But you don't think about that here. There is no sense of danger in the air, just the smell of fresh fish and powdery, rich emerald-and-chocolate-colored spices that fill burlap sacks. In fact, it's odd—as soon as you began walking through this center of Jerusalem commerce and culture, you forgot the Israel that's shown in the U.S. news, where every public location is a perpetual target for suicide bombings, ripe for absorbing political and religious ire. This can't be the same place they're always, always talking about.
"There's something about a tiny country with no natural resources that the world just can't leave alone," your tour guide will tell you the next day as you wander through the Old City.
But for now, you relish this place. You're thrilled by the people and the foods so much that you see yourself as the quintessential tourist, clicking your intrusive camera in rapid succession, and don't mind. You want to linger awhile at every stand, talk with each vendor proffering tastes and trading sustenance for money, but you know you're in the way of those who live here. This is not an attraction or photo opportunity for them—they're here to buy their food for the day or week and are blocked by foreigners like you. You're torn between a desire to be polite and a need to absorb all you see.
You're afraid of missing something. If you look down, you could miss the two old women haggling with a young man over eggplant shiny and smooth as patent leather. Turn around and you could miss the cart of fish guts being wheeled down the path, people instinctively moving their bodies away from it.
You draw toward the displays of nuts and fruits, hovering over the tables to smell the aromas of spices, breads, and baked goods. Huge silver bowls hold heaps of leafy and soft brown and green herbs. You lament that you don't know the names of everything laid out so invitingly before you, like the tall, creamy cake-like structures that could be either pastry or cheese. You allow yourself to buy one more item besides the dates. The dried fruits look tempting—bright slices of dried kiwi and papaya in bold candy-like shades—but you decide on the large green olives instead.
The size of most fruits here surprises you, especially the peaches, pears, and nectarines; they're much smaller than those in the supermarkets at home, where you try not to think about how most produce there is dyed, genetically altered, and laden with chemicals. A nectarine purchased here, in this warm and mystifying country with which the world is obsessed, is closer to the size of a golf ball than a tennis ball. The colors of the fruits here are much deeper and robust-looking, too. The red and orange bell peppers wear such vivid, appetizing hues. The ones in the U.S. seem washed-out and anemic by comparison.
You drift toward the live fish, displayed in low tubs of water. It's a rarity that you see live fish back home anywhere but in aquariums.
"Come, come!" says the man selling them, even though he knows you're a tourist and are unlikely to buy fresh fish during your travels.
He smiles big, excited for what he's about to show you. He lifts out of the tub one of largest fish you've ever seen. You gasp as he brings it close to you. It wriggles in his arms with such strength that you worry it will break free and fall to the ground, but he keeps a capable grip on it, as one would hold a dog. The fish's thick tail beats beneath his arms as he brings its face closer to yours, as though trying to let it kiss you. He laughs at your shock as its mouth gulps just inches in front of your lips, and then he pulls it away at the last second, loops his free arm over your shoulder, and encourages your friends to take a picture.
Once the moment is captured on camera, you all insist that he return the fish to the water. He chuckles at your concern and obliges. The fish drops with a deep plunk, and water sloshes over the sides. You exhale to see the fish back where it can breathe again, even though you know it will likely be sliced in to sections and eaten within a few days. Pity to think something with such a presence, such mobility, will be laid out in inanimate pink slabs in little time.
You see another creature near the fish stalls, one much smaller. It's a wisp of a kitten with smoky gray fur, toddling near the tables, searching for scraps. She is so sweet and dainty in her movements that you bend down to snap her picture as well. It's only then that you realize she is missing an eye.
Mangled fur and skin cover the area in a bulge, as though she were winking at you. She flicks her tail in a languid side-to-side motion, and you wonder if she is so small because she is a newborn or because she is malnourished. Likely both. You wonder where her mother and littermates are, if they are elsewhere in the market, hoping for fallen bits of meat, or if they're all scattered around Jerusalem. She looks at you—your shoes and then at your face—through her remaining eye that seems to take up most of her face. In the few weeks she's been on this earth, mites have already robbed her of some of the fur around her ears.
You wander back to the main path through the market. The bustle of people and the transportation of heavy boxes and carts only exacerbate your concerns for the future of the vulnerable kitten. You think about the irony of cats' taste for fish and how the last fish you saw could easily consume this miniscule feline in one swallow. The role reversal of it all makes you feel like Alice in Wonderland. Jetlag is surely a contributing factor too, you figure.
You're surprised that, given your sleepless state, you are not more jarred by the noise, the heat, and the crowds. Those things seem to be invigorating here, though. Perhaps if you had slept on the plane, the Shuk would not seem so otherworldly to you, so electrifying to every single one of your senses. Maybe it would seem like any other market in the world.
But you doubt it.
About the Author
Caroline Horwitz has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Chatham University. Her work has appeared in Forge, The Summerset Review, The Los Angeles Review and The Fourth River. She lives in Las Vegas.