Visiting the shuk can be a breath of fresh air from the world's news

With the news full of antisemitic attacks, Jews murdered, headstones in cemeteries overturned, a visit to the shuk in Petah Tikva provides a welcome reminder of Israel's uniqueness.

Color, sights and enticing aromas at the Petah Tikva shuk (photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Color, sights and enticing aromas at the Petah Tikva shuk
(photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
When I turn my computer on and masochistically go to the news, it swamps me with reports about antisemitic attacks around the world. I read of murders in synagogues and in American streets. Jews assaulted and harassed in London, in Paris, in Belgium and Berlin. Headstones overturned in Jewish cemeteries. Swastikas sprayed on school doors, on campuses. Jews afraid to wear a kippah or a Star of David in public. Politicians blandly explaining that they don’t hate Jews, they just hate the oppressive Zionist state.
Who do they think they’re kidding? My late father used to remark that the one reason anti-Zionists hate Israel is because it’s full of Jews. I’ve come around to his way of thinking.
Oy vey, it’s all too dark and frightening. One day last week I decided I’d had enough of being hated and blamed for being a Jew. I turned the computer off.
I live in Petah Tikva, a medium-sized town in the center of Israel. People like to make fun of Petah Tikva for its traffic jams, its staid character and general unhipness. All too true. But I like living here. It’s a family-centered community with excellent schools and important hospitals, and several industrial zones, both traditional and hi-tech. And, happily for my mental health, Petah Tikva has a permanent shuk – a bustling open-air market open six days a week, where I love to shop and people-watch.
I took my plaid-covered market cart and headed out for fresh air, cheap produce, and contact with my fellow citizens, to clear my head at the shuk.
AS I schlepped my cart onto the bus, I noticed that the Ethiopian driver wore a kippah. No fear of wearing a religious symbol here. I sat down next to an elderly lady who insisted on talking to me in Russian. It wasn’t the first time I’d been taken for a Russian immigrant. My Ukrainian great-grandparents fled the pogroms and immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s. I take after them in looks, but no one has spoken Ukrainian or Russian in my family for the past 120 years. My elderly seatmate then tried Yiddish. My father spoke fluent Yiddish, but as my mother is Sephardi and Latina, I grew up speaking Spanish. I couldn’t help the lady, but we did smile at each other.
The bus rolled down Haim Ozer Street, past the statue of Yoel Moshe Salomon, one of the city’s founding fathers. In 1878, Petah Tikva became the first village of modern Israel, later an important agricultural settlement.
Legend says that the first founders came on horseback to survey the land, but saw only a silent, dry waste. The silence spooked them.
“No good can come from land where birds don’t sing,” they said.
All but one of them turned their horses back. Salomon stayed behind and spent the night alone on the ground. And what woke him at first light was the noise of a thousand birds in full song.
Nowadays, in his statue form, wings have sprouted from his back, and he sits on a Harley Davidson in mid-street, taking off toward the future with a look of earnest endeavor on his stony face.
I mentally saluted Salomon on his motorcycle as the bus rolled by, and got ready to step off at the shuk. Not an easy thing, lurching off the bus with my cart, but what can I say about Israeli bus drivers? Somebody’s gotta love ’em.
The way to the shuk is along Baron Hirsch Street. I walked, peeking into the working-class hummus joints, where people – mostly men – sit elbow-to-elbow at common tables and tear chunks off warm pita to mop up the freshly made hummus, tehina and beans. There were dishes of small olives, chopped onions and hot sauce on the tables. I was getting hungry.
Further down the street, three women in Bedouin dresses were shopping at a spice store, apparently discussing turmeric roots. One of them was wearing a full black burka, with only a slit for her eyes to show that a real woman stands and breathes under the heavy drapes. They chose, paid, and went their way. I seemed to be the only person at all intrigued by them.
A tempting odor of coffee rose from another shop, where a tall, stooped man with a sad expression roasts and grinds the beans to order. I always wonder what his story is.
I stood aside for a harried young mother pushing a carriage with a wailing baby inside. Two other young mothers, Ethiopian women, walked past, carrying their babies on their backs in traditional cloth slings. The babies lay peacefully asleep in their snug cocoons, gently rocking to their mothers’ steps.
I stopped in at the Moroccan butcher and asked for a chicken. He knows I prefer them small and chose me a fine bird. At the liquor store, I picked up a couple of bottles of wine: Dalton Canaan red and a Riesling from the Tishbi winery. The owners asked me how my family is doing. They remembered that I’d bought Yarden Brut for my dad’s very last birthday party, and said a few kind words to show respect. There was a bottle of Tunisian fig liqueur on the counter. If I’m correct, it’s a drink traditionally made by Jewish Tunisian families. I’ll buy some next time.
My vendor buddies in the shuk grinned, waved me over, and shouted promises about their best, cheapest, most gorgeous wares. They know I’m a sucker for beautiful produce. Going from stall to stall, I bought eggplants, hothouse tomatoes, early artichokes, broccoli, hot green chilies and half a kilo of perfect strawberries.
A couple of vendors were joking with each other in Arabic, something bawdy, judging by their rough laughter. There are Arab vendors in the shuk, but unlike Moshe and Shmulik, they’re too discreet to indulge in horseplay. Well, everyone works hard, and some of those guys, like the fishmongers, get up at 3 every morning. I guess everyone de-stresses their own way. I sailed past the raucous ones and crossed the street, where a gardener sells herbs and flowers and seed packets. I bought a ruby-red cyclamen, placing it carefully inside my cart.
AT HOME, I put the winter-loving plant on my small balcony, next to the sage and rosemary. Then I set to work cooking.
The chicken marinated briefly in clementine juice, garlic, thyme, za’atar and a little paprika, with a dollop of olive oil to spread the goodness around. And how fragrant it was, roasted and peacefully reabsorbing its juices before I served it. The artichokes were steamed plain, to be dipped in garlicky, lemony olive oil. The rice sat murmuring to itself on the stove over low heat, while I decanted the light red wine and set it on the table to breathe. My son and I dined, finishing the sweet, juicy strawberries.
I thought of my afternoon in town, walking at my sweet will alongside people of every skin color, who spoke languages from everywhere. Not one antisemite in sight, the whole time. I hadn’t felt fear for one second, nor had I expected to.
This is Israel. Home.