The Kingdom of the Shuk

"Toto, I don't think we're in the shuk anymore," I think to myself. This chilly early summer evening in the Jerusalem's semi-outdoor Mahane Yehuda shuk (market), has transported me somewhere unexpected from a very familiar place. Since moving to Jerusalem three months ago, I have become a temporary member of the shuk community and it has become a nearly-daily part of my life. I have become accustomed to its music and rhythm, to the vendors hollering "tutim, tutim - shalosh shekel kilo" ("strawberries, strawberries three shekels a kilo"). Even the air has become familiar, that pungent, spicy and sour smell from the spice shops and the confectionery sugar that seems to dust me as if I were a cake as I walk by the bakers. By now, I say hello to my favorite stall owners, and fierce allegiances have been built over this short period of time. That is all during the day. Most evenings, the shuk seems to rest, gaining energy for the next day. But all that changes on summer Sunday nights. During the day, the semi-transparent white and green canvas ceiling shields the shoppers from the sun. But at night, it transforms into an intimate tent over two tiny alleyways, comfortably lit between the blackness of the rest of the market. On sultry summer evenings, the shuk becomes another place, transported by the winds of changing culture and entrepreneurship into Jerusalem's Kingdom of Oz. A three-person Greek-style band sets up on the stoop of a closed butcher shop across from a café. A large Greek-looking man, dressed simply in black, sits comfortably in the center, picking at the strings of his bouzouki (similar to a mandolin) and singing Greek-influenced songs in Hebrew. People arrive gradually, warmly greeting the waiters, the members of the band, and Eli Mizrachi, owner of the "Bar in the Alley," impresario of this event and a shuk legend. Mizrachi, a warm and jocular man, is a pioneer of the changing face of the shuk. He opened his café six years ago. At the time it stuck out as the lone upscale coffee shop among the fruit stalls, butcher shops, bakeries and workers' greasy spoons, but it soon became popular. Mizrachi, whose family owned a fruit and vegetable stand, says that the shuk must change to keep up with the new generation of shoppers, who expect to find everything they're looking for in one place. Despite the high volume of clientèle in his establishment, Mizrachi greets many of customers by name. In the evening, tables take the place of shoppers and their bags, filling up the alleyway that links the shuk's two main thoroughfares. Mizrachi says: "People know this alley but it's a different world at night. It's a mix of the market and something else." The crowd of about 80 dine on white tablecloth-covered mixed and matched tables in the center of the alleyway, or any crannies on stoops that they can find. Waiters carry Spanish-style tapas appetizers on small plates from the kitchen. The smell of food cooked from fresh produce bought earlier that day - smoky eggplant and rice stuffed onions with a sweet stewed fruit sauce - waft through the tent. As the food and wine slide down, the energy rises. Men and women raise their arms, swaying in their seats or dancing in the narrow aisles and cleared space between the café and the butcher's stage. I take in the combination of Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, English and more, and I wonder: What is Israeli culture in a country with so many immigrants and children of immigrants from nearly every corner of the earth? I realize that everyone here seems to know each other, and that the warmth, openness, and unabashed togetherness is the answer. The next afternoon, as I walk home from work, I hear a vendor call "cherry tomatoes only six shekels a kilo," as I turn down the alleyway, greeting my familiar friends and getting my daily dusting of sugar. "Toto, we're back in the shuk."