Saturday, December 3, 2005

Shabbos in a “Secular” City

Oh, you poor bastards. I have decided to try keeping a journal or, in the current vernacular and medium, a blog, of my Israel trip. The good news is that I am not particularly prolific so this will probably be an infrequent intrusion on your lives. Israel is a much more cosmopolitan, high tech, 24/7 place today than it was on my first visit in 1992. The speed of development is part of the subject matter of the first blog. Also, this is my first trip without the burden of having to amuse children and even getting time on my own as Liz has found some volunteer work to do. So call this “Dave’s I-get-to-do-what-I-want-to-do Winter Tour.

Yesterday (Friday 2 December) I went in search of bread, newspapers and real orange juice. The latter is not easy to come by. In a land where the produce is uniformly excellent, Israelis seem incapable of making and packing orange juice. The juices and drinks sold in the stores generally suck. But, if you walk the streets a bit, you’ll soon come to a stand or a hole-in-the-wall shop where you can get fresh squeezed fruit juices. Pick your fruit, or some combination of fruits, and your craving is cured.

Israel is, stereotypically, described as being divided into the religious and the secular. Well, this is sort of accurate but only if you look at the world through Jewish eyes. Secular Israel is not the assimilated, Protestant, McCulture of the US. For starters, the weekend here is Friday and Saturday. I walked out on the street Friday morning and immediately sensed the change in rhythm. Most residents have begun the weekend. Cafes that had been mostly empty on Wednesday and Thursday were full for brunch. The English-language version of the Jerusalem Post was thick with a magazine, entertainment guide for the next week and advertisements. The local bakery has 3 or 4 varieties of challah and fabulous four-grain bread. The little old man who squeezes my orange juice insists that I sit down at his one table and read my newspaper. Everyone and everything was slowing and relaxing. Everyone (neighbors, cabbies, newsies, everyone) says “Shabbat Shalom.” There are no “snowflakes” or other “generic, seasonal, constitutional” displays. Tel Aviv may be more “secular” than “religious” but it is unmistakably Jewish.

Becky came to spend her weekend off sleeping, eating and showering. Liz deliberately found a two-bedroom apartment for this purpose. She missed her baby. Becky is not homesick but does miss the comforts of home (more on that in another blog). On Friday, about mid-day, we head south to the Carmel Market and Sheinkin Street.

The Carmel Market is the largest shouk in Tel Aviv. There are local or neighborhood shouks in Jaffa and Hatikvah but this is the shouk for the central part of the city. A shouk is Ebay using virtual, old technology. If you need clothing, utensils, household supplies, food, drink, anything, its here. Friday is the shopping day. The shouk is wall-to-wall people. The narrow streets are almost impassable. One baby carriage and anyone stopping to go through a pile of tee shirts and traffic backs up for two blocks. Added to this are the merchants screaming out their latest closing-soon-for-Shabbos bargains and my illiteracy in Hebrew, Russian and Arabic and the scene gets really intense.

Liz, who can shop anywhere in a combination of Hebrew, French, English and pointing, gets us through. I don’t do too badly either as most sellers know enough English to tell me that that socks I am looking at will fit me and how much I need to hand over. The juice squeezing guys insisted that I have a mixture of orange and grapefruit when I thought I asked just for grapefruit. In a Jewish state you can’t tell if this is a language problem or they simply decided that they knew how I should drink my juice. We come out with bags of socks, spices (this is, after all, a major stop on the spice routes sold by a woman whose sales style was to scoop a handful and make us smell each type while saying it was for rice, pizza, kibbeh, soup), olives (you only think you know how many kinds of olives there are), chard, tomatoes, challah, cookies and chocolate. The chocolate is dark and from boxes marked parve, kosher but we have no idea what’s inside. Turns out the round ones have chocolate rum cake in the center. The additions to our coming Shabbos feast (and the haberdashery) cost about 150 shekels, all in, which these days is a little over $30. The shouk is still the center of the world’s best bargains. And if you don’t like the price try hondling (a Yiddush phrase for negotiating while gesturing with your hands).

We then go back to the shouk main entrance, a plaza where there is often a street musician. Today it’s a woman with a synthesizer doing Israeli songs. Last March it was Andean musicians who I am prepared to swear were the same guys who play in the subway at Times Square. Must have been their world tour.

We cross Ben Yehuda, which has become Allenby and head down Sheinken. Sheinken and its side streets are the Tel Aviv equivalent of the West Village. Clothing stores, cafes, head shops and all. A group of local rock/punk/alternative bands are playing in a park next to a school. We spend an hour or two drinking coffee and just watching the passing street scene. I love this town.

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