WORSHIPERS PRAY at the Western Wall in the capital during Hanukka last year..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
You can already feel it in the air: the festive spirit, anticipation and happy plans being made for Hanukka. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you haven’t been to a mall lately.
The kenyon (mall) is a microcosm of Israeli society, showcasing the best (and sometimes worst) of what makes this country special. That’s why, as an immigrant, it’s one of the places I find most gratifying – so different is the experience from mall-shopping in the states.
In New York, going to the mall was strictly a retail activity. The food court was off-limits, save for frozen yogurt or a packaged snack. The decorations and major sales throughout the year were tied in either with the Christian holidays or with generic official holidays whose meaning often got lost in the merchandising frenzy.
This time of year, the Christmas theme would be in full swing, red and green everywhere you look. Sure, shopping the sales was fun, but the experience was only skin-deep.
Here, going to the mall makes my Jewish pride swell. The holiday sales celebrate our holidays. “Happy New Year” signs go up in September, not the end of December. You can find honey dishes for Rosh Hashana, decorations for Sukkot, and now, menorahs and gifts galore for Hanukka. Before each holiday, there is a table set up taking donations for the needy. There’s a booth selling T-shirts to benefit IDF soldiers.
Judaica stores display their wares side by side with cell-phone kiosks and clothing chains. And just about all the food is kosher.
Once a week, I attend a fantastic Torah class. The venue? You guessed it: a cafe at the mall. It’s a group of women of all ages coming together, unobtrusively, to learn, while sipping drinks and having a light brunch.
On Fridays, the mall takes on a whole added flavor. That’s when it’s the most crowded, of course. Some people enjoying a leisurely breakfast with their spouse on their day off, others running around doing their pre-Shabbat shopping, scooping up the freshly prepared challah and take-home food that have sprung up overnight like a magic garden. The frenetic pace of the foreshortened day only serves to sharpen the contrast with the quiet that descends when the mall closes its doors early for Shabbat.
Notwithstanding such proud displays of our faith and culture, the mall is still a place where everyone is welcome. To work, to shop, to meet a friend for coffee.
The security guards do not check anyone’s religion at the door. In that sense, too, the Israeli kenyon is a microcosm of the country as a whole. It showcases unequivocally the openness of Israeli society, a reality that so vastly differs from the vile picture painted by Israel’s detractors.
Israel’s malls, like the rest of the country, are not perfect. Many retailers haven’t mastered the finer points of customer service. Return policies are punishing.
Checkout counters are frequently understaffed and slow-moving. Some products that seem basic to transplants like myself are nowhere to be found. (And can someone please explain the thinking behind installing an escalator only in one direction?) Yet these minor frustrations are a small price to pay for the delight of drinking in the aroma of luscious sufganiyot which have already begun making their appearance.
I love that my children are surrounded by symbols of their own heritage, even as we walk through the mall. The consumerist culture that pervades American youth – unfortunately not excepting the Jewish community – hasn’t exactly passed Israel by. But the mixed blessing of affluence is not as abundant here. At the same time, national-minded, service-driven youth groups and activities give kids more to focus on than just scoring the latest iGadget. And it doesn’t hurt that even a shopping trip reminds them that they’re part of something greater.
The author moved to Jerusalem from New York with her family in 2015. She is a busy mom, a freelance writer and editor, and previously worked as a court attorney and magazine editor.