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A Walk in the Shuk

It’s been a while since I’ve wandered through the Machane Yehuda shuk in downtown Jerusalem. The fast pace of our lives makes it difficult to find time to shop in a place with no underground parking and shopping carts. But today I happened to be in the neighborhood so I wandered in.

Well, wandered isn’t exactly the right word. Since the Intifada, when the shuk was a prime target of terrorists who attacked innocent shoppers and stall owners again and again, security has been tightened, and little wandering permitted.

Soldiers with Uzi machine guns guard the entrance.

Bomb-sniffing dogs patrol the bus stops.

But once inside, we Israelis tend to forget about all that.

What greets you in the shuk is the smell of fresh baked pita bread sprinkled with zatar. Fresh cheese Danishes hot from the oven. I wander through the aisles no longer worried about an attack, the payoff for all the security, and concentrate on the vegetables and fruits, the spices, the cheeses, the fish. I stop by the venders selling organic strawberries, a new product in Israel, and marvel. Here in the dead of winter, on a cold rainy January, are stalls overflowing with large, ripe, luscious strawberries that are sold not by the stingy little box, but by the pound. I marvel at the genius of my people who have figured out a way to grow strawberries without pesticide so successfully that even the poorest person in Israel can afford to buy strawberries by the pound, shoveled into large plastic bags, over two pounds of organic strawberries in winter costing ten shekel (two dollars? Less?)

I remembered that little fruit store I went to in Paris, with its snooty owner who wouldn’t let you choose your fruits, measuring them out like diamonds, and how they cost almost as much. And the pale expensive produce in Boston.

And I thought about the show I saw today about some obese British children, and how their diets were so lacking in fruits and vegetables.

And then I looked at the startling green lettuce, the wonderful tomatoes, still attached to the vine, dozens of them that cost me pennies, grown by nearby Jewish farmers in the soil of our country that once was a desert land.

I stopped by the fish store, and there was fresh Denise and salmon and carp and bass, all available in abundance. An oriental worker picked out three large fish and paid for them, and I thought of the feast he and his hardworking friends would have that night. It took me a while to get the attention of the fish man. He was in his mid-thirties, not a very handsome fellow, and he stood there mesmerized by two very, very pretty blond girls who had chosen to stand in front of his stall to have a cell phone conversation.

“Yoo hoo?” I finally said, waving to get his attention. “I know I’m not as pretty as they are, but I, after all, want to buy fish and they don’t.”

He smiled at me. “I want to get married,” he shrugged, his face suddenly going serious. “Maybe you have someone at home for me?”

I took that as a compliment, but had to confess all my daughters were married. He took it philosophically, shifting his gaze longingly back to the blondes, but not before he cut me four wonderful slices of fresh salmon.

My husband and I had two slices for dinner tonight, with warm pita bread and those lovely tomatoes, and fresh green lettuce, and couscous. I cut open a fragrant lemon and squeezed out the juice over it all. And for desert I had the freshest, sweetest strawberries in the world.

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