Almost every town in Israel has a shuk – an open-air market, the heart of the town. Ignoring the neighborhood supermarket, I shop at the shuk to get the best and freshest produce at the lowest prices. I love to view the fruit and vegetables in every variety and color. Spices, cheeses, eggs, fish, and pickled things.
Breads and pastries wait for you there, laid out in attractive displays to make you hungry.
Some shuks offer clothes, trinkets and accessories, in a space apart from the food vendors.
Where there’s a permanent shuk, all kinds of shops and small eateries naturally establish themselves. Kitchen and hardware stores.
Butchers. Humus and falafel joints, little places where you can get coffee fresh roasted and ground, liquor stores and junk shops.
Every shuk has its own character, reflecting the populations that live nearby and stream through it. Jerusalem actually has several shuks, but its most famous one, Machaneh Yehudah, caters to home folks and tourists. There’s been a lot of upgrading and gentrification in Machaneh Yehudah, with cute little eateries,
boutique shops, wine bars and street art funded by the municipality.
The shuk in Ramleh caters to mostly to Christian and Muslim Arabs, Jews, Indians and Ethiopians. There’s an Indian restaurant nearby. A mosque, a synagogue and a church stand near each other on the outskirts. You’ll see ladies in saris shopping,
Arab vendors showing off wild vegetables and herbs you won’t find anywhere else,
a shop where the bourekas are hot, kosher and delicious.
The Carmel shuk in Tel Aviv sits in a long, narrow lane that runs from downtown Allenby Street to the Carmelit bus station.
It has the usual fresh produce, but also cheap clothing,
trinkets, and products for Asian and African workers. They say it’ll undergo expansion and a similar upgrade – but these things take forever in our Middle Eastern climate.
Parallel to the Carmel shuk is the small, informal Yemenite Quarter shuk with its many homey eateries
and a street full of butcher shops. I sometimes wander into one of those eateries for lunch. Here’s beef stew over couscous.
You’ll see trucks unloading sides of beef there sometimes. Just to remind you where your meal came from.
Some towns have a “shuk day” once a week, when a group of vendors sets up their stalls in a designated place – say, a large parking lot – the same day every week. The shuk in the Galillee town of Tsfat is a group of traveling vendors that set up in the same six northern towns every week. Wednesday is shuk day in Tsfat.
Some small towns have small, dusty shuks with just a few things on offer. Large towns have a permanent shuk that operates daily, on ground set aside for it by the municipality, or, as in the case of the famous Machaneh Yehudah shuk in Jerusalem, on ground where it simply evolved historically.
Shuks in predominantly Jewish towns have a small synagogue where the men gather for the mincha (afternoon) service. I’ve sometimes heard someone cough into a loudspeaker and start calling them in: “Mincha in 10 minutes! Moishe from the fish and Shimon from the coffee stand – get over here!”
What all shuks have in common is noise, bustle, shabbiness, odors that change as you walk past stands of spices, melons, fish. Cacophony of vendors with bullhorn voices shouting out their wares in competition with each other. Housewives critically inspecting the tomatoes and digging change out of their wallets, beggars with their hands out. Delivery men shlepping wagons full of produce, bawling for the crowd to get out of the way.
You can handle the produce if you don’t squeeze or abuse it. Fill your own bags and hand them to the vendor for weighing. Unless it’s something messy, like strawberries or olives; then you tell him how much you want and he (usually he, there aren’t many women vendors) scoops it up and weighs it for you.
The shuk – all shuks, I think – has a charitable side. Or maybe an indifferent side. Just after nightfall, when the stalls are closing up, the very poorest come to the shuk and glean leftover produce left on the ground in boxes, or left just lying on the ground. Half-spoiled or half-trampled stuff that you have to cook right away, stuff that’s not going to last until the next day. Friday at closing time especially is when you can see people sifting through the rejects. We don’t have a dumpster diving culture here; this is the closest thing to it. I have a friend who went through a bad time financially once. She’d take a few shekels to the shuk on Friday and buy bagfuls of rejects and stale bread, even picking up the half-spoiled vegetables on the ground. And that’s how she sustained herself until better times came (and they did).
I live in Petach Tikvah, a large town in central Israel that nobody has ever heard of. We have a great, permanent shuk, and I love shopping there.
Sometimes I take a bus into town and trawl the shuk just because I want to see what’s in season. Or so I tell myself. I always remember that I’m out of something or other, say raisins and walnuts. I’ll stop at the spice shop to get some. Or the artichokes look so wonderful, I just can’t resist taking some home.
Or the fresh green garlic – the fresh green garlic, oh, that’s wonderful, and it’s only around a few weeks. This season Levi, my son, brought me a gift of 30 kilos fresh green garlic. You’ll read a lot about garlic on this blog.
But I’m not all about garlic, I hope. I love sauntering through the alleys and side paths of the shuk, noting prices, enjoying the colors, stopping to exchange a few words with the vendors who have come to know me over the years. The juice stand tempts me to buy a glass of freshly-squeezed juice.
And walking past beautiful green beans, strawberries, fresh little red mullets, I start getting ideas for meals. By the time I’m on the bus home, my wheeled shopping cart is full, and my head is buzzing with plans for dinner.
As the earth swings around the sun, so the shuk swings with the seasons, and the city and I swing with the shuk.