Machaneh Yehuda, Jerusalem’s central marketand the Middle East’s oldest continuously existing marketis our own private Peoria, the place everyone goes when the need to evaluate the nation’s emotional pulse arises. Conventional wisdom dictates that the place swings towards the Likud, but that was relevant only when the Likud still existed, and even then, mostly for the benefit of its campaign cameras.
Things are so confused these days that the Government Press Office, currently issuing about 20 times its usual number of daily press releases, has reverted to an old template: Amidst the announcements of military operations and deaths and regrets, we’ve started receiving updates from the long absent and deeply silenced Ariel Sharon. The last of these messages-from-beyond crossed my screen four days ago, on the 27th: “PM Sharon Speaks With World Leaders,” it informed me.
A stupor has befallen us. No one knows how to react. These past three weeks, the most common phrase heard among Jerusalem’s left-leaning bohemians is: “You’re not going to believe this, but I really miss Sharon.”
Today the market is empty. The place is almost airy, and by four pm some stall owners are slumped over in an improvised siesta, framed by their blood-red cherries and bursting figs. There are any number of possible reasons for the unnatural quietthese are the last few days leading up to Tisha B’Av, it is the searing heart of summer, it’s a Mondaybut eventually everyone falls back onto this perplexing, unnamed, and utterly predictable war.
In Jerusalem we are both part of this war and apart from it. We don’t sit around gazing out at missiles falling like rain; on the other hand, last night, Moran Mizrahi, the waif-like, Cordon Bleu-trained owner of the popular Machaneh Yehuda café, Hakol la’Ofeh ve Gam (Everything for the Baker Plus Coffee) donned surgical gloves, chopped fresh chilis for mullet kebabs, and named one after yet another of her absent waiters sent to the front.
Today’s patrons include couples sharing breakfast to mark the departures of their men to the north. “We’re the soft belly of the country here,” Moran says. “The artery. We feel things here more than you feel them elsewhere. Everything. You feel the holidays more. You feel the war more.”
At the café, the news is a constant murmur, even when all-music stations are on. There is, actually, no more all-music in Israel; there is only all-music interrupted by somber urgency. When the defense minister is quoted expressing his regrets for the numerous deaths yesterday in Kana, one young female patron arches an eyebrow and asks, “don’t you just love it when a guy says he didn’t really mean it?”
How to explain to a concerned friend calling from New York that I’ve just come in from a yoga lesson, that I met an editor this morning, that everything is normal, but that despondency is now lapping at the edges of my second-floor bedroom? The news is unremittingly cataclysmic, so much so that my usual refuge, the market with its glossy green peppers, its fragile Japanese peaches, feels somehow alien. Alien to itself.
I often repair to the market when called upon to explain Israel abroad. I hold on to the idea that a place that is fixed in people’s minds, a place of strife and horror (Machaneh Yehuda is infamous for the particular barbarity of the numerous terror attacks that have hit it; in its warren of narrow alleyways and overspilling stalls, untold carnage is caused by a single bomb) can be exposed, like a fig, with its toad-like exterior, to reveal sweet sensuality within.
Good food is always a balm. But food in Jerusalem is a hard-to-explain balm. If a single perfect morsel can come to define us, perhaps in defining us it can provide a small, soothing cure. The lychees burst open and drip over our hands. The muscat grapes have just come into season. How can I explain not just the remedy provided by fat black olives brined in red wine, but the blanketing sense of menacelessness I feel as I walk about the market?
Lunch today: a single, flawless, sweet-cream filled profiterole from the Duvshanit bakery, and lunch at Moran Mizrahi’s café: panko-drizzled gnocchi sautéed in olive oil and served under a gentle mound of sour cream and chives, soda with fresh passion fruit purée, cortado coffee, and take-home loot of fresh wild figs and three mangoes.