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Discovering Secular Jerusalem

The Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

Photo: Anders Overgaard

But perhaps the most sensuous experience to be had in Jerusalem is a most basic one, available every day except the Sabbath, requiring nothing more than energy for haggling and eyes for seeing. I’m referring, of course, to Jerusalem’s labyrinthine open-air market, Mahane Yehuda—also referred to as the “shuk”—which is located between Jaffa Road and Agrippas Street. It is the largest and busiest outdoor market in all of Israel and is always full, even the day after a terrorist attack. (During the period of the Second Intifada, between 2000 and 2005, the market was the scene of several bombings; today guards check everyone entering.) It gets more and more crowded toward the end of the week and by Friday afternoon, when the prices have been reduced, students and foreign workers come to stock up on bargains.

The market dates back to the 1920’s and is fast-paced, colorful, noisy, invigorating, and enervating all at once. It contains hundreds of stands and shops selling vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, baked goods, candy, eggs, household appliances, toiletries, and Judaica. Within the past decade Mahane Yehuda has been modernized and cleaned up: tiled floors have replaced the cobblestones, and there is an indoor area with small places to eat. Two Georgian brothers have opened a sparkling boutique, Babar, that carries cheese from all over the world as well as wines and olive oils from Israel—seven different types of olive oil from one kibbutz alone. There are competing spice dealers who will ladle out couscous to measure, the grapes look too plump to be true, and the fish are jumping. (All the meat and fish are kosher.) The smells are enticing, the characters are picturesque, and you come away with a sense that between the eagerness of the multiethnic vendors to cut a deal and the eagerness of the multiethnic shoppers to go home with the freshest wedge of halvah at the best price possible, peace in the Middle East might be forthcoming in the not-too-distant future.

If you hang around Jerusalem long enough and talk to the right people, layers will begin to unpeel and you’ll find out all sorts of intriguing tidbits. That the best view (as well as the best Sacher torte) in Jerusalem is to be found on top of the Austrian Hospice, tucked away in the Old City. That Israel’s best film school (it has more than 15, itself a surprising fact) is in Jerusalem—the Sam Spiegal Film & Television School. And that the city Jerusalem is compared with most often by its most sophisticated residents, such as Emmanuel Halperin, a well-known TV journalist who drives into Tel Aviv twice a week to teach literature courses at Tel Aviv University, is Paris. “I think someone who comes from Paris can’t live anywhere else in Israel,” Halperin said. “Tel Aviv tries to be a melting pot but it’s a syncretic culture. Cosmopolitan is not a mixture of different sources to create something new. It’s different people living side by side—that’s cosmopolitan. Jerusalem is truly cosmopolitan. You can be yourself among strangers.”

At the end of the day, Jerusalem is not a city like any other city. You can forget its history, what Halperin refers to as “the feeling of the weight of the ages” for a time, even for weeks at a go, but then all of a sudden, at certain places, at certain hours, it comes back to you. In between you can hear first-class string quartets at the YMCA; take in new plays at the Khan Theater; walk around in dusty quarters of the Old City watching neighborhood regulars drink tea, black coffee, or arak, a liquor made from anise, at little cafés as they play backgammon and cards all the livelong day; and shop for one-of-a-kind pieces by Israeli designers at the wonderful Sofia boutique. But at some point, perhaps when you look up at the sun setting over the hills, you will think you have come to a place that has managed to cast a mysterious spell over you, composed of equal parts history and immediacy, tension and lassitude, ferocity and calm.

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