This unnamed war began with the kidnapping of three soldiers. For some reason, the very fact of kidnapping provoked a particularly wide-eyed horror among Israelis. Time stopped. Today we awaken to three dead soldiers, and incomprehensibly the day is utterly normal, even on the eve of Tisha B’Av, even in Jerusalem.
Machaneh Yehuda today seems to follow its own rules, to exist in its own world. The day unfolds bereft of any distinguishing attribute. At noon, I stand with a friend on Agrippas Street, across from Etz Haim, in the souk’s main artery. We peer in, through the blistering sun, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Nothing. It is almost bustling.
We are standing in front of a shop called Mania, and Camilla, who is visiting from Tel Aviv, steps in to check out the goods: vodka, scallops, crab, burgundy-tinted salami made of shredded pork and beef, studded with peppers. I ask Anton, the shop manager, whether Tisha B’Av is affecting business. He smiles, and shakes his head. “No, why?”
Talking with him, you’d think the market is a stolid thing, unmoving, untouched by the deaths of the three young menalmost boysby days of mourning, by anything at all. Of course, the opposite is true, and Mania is proof of it. Who thinks of pork sausage and fresh crab when they think of Machaneh Yehuda?
But the market, in order to remain itselfan artery, a palliativehas always had to stretch and adapt. Today, the Machaneh Yehuda contains Arcadia, the only restaurant in Israel that has won three toques from the premiere French gastronomic guide Gault-Millaut, as well as Shagar, an Ethiopian bistro, not to mention Indian, Turkish, Yemenite, and Moroccan restaurants, hamburger joints, coffee counters, a proper Italian gelateria, an establishment that serves only burekas, and boutiques selling designer clothing.
Camilla comes back out, examines our surroundings once again, and inhales the fine scents emanating from a spice shop’s wareshuge turrets of sweet and spicy paprika, garlic sproutingand says, “it looks like nothing at all has changed.”
Plus ça change, plus ç’est la même chose. Many of the most radical changes the market has managed to absorb were wrought by its own children. Mania is owned by Dudu Ohana, a third generation Machaneh Yehuda man, who thought it was silly that only Russians should benefit from the new-immigrant, non-kosher customer base. Eli Mizrahi, who owns and runs a restaurant, Tzakho, where you can eat a paté de foie gras that evokes Normandy, or a Buenos Aires-style veal schnitzel with purée that draws Argentines from far beyond Jerusalem’s borders, is second-generation. His brother Yossi still sells roasted nuts and grains at the old family stall.
The souk, like any other institution that wants to survive, must respond to new and different hungers. Camilla and I are starving, but it is not evident what for. We wander up and down the street; nothing calls out. We end up finally at Agrippas 6, the small café that is at the furthest border of what might still be called Machaneh Yehuda, so far out you can hear the noise from King George Street. Noach Chai, the owner, conjures everything there himself, and seems to know everyone walking in. His father and his grandfather ran the place for years and years, when it was still a candy shop. Noach scrunches up his face at the memory: “I gave fifteen years of my life to this place as a candy store,” he says. “Yuck.”
Usually he ends the week with informal jazz concerts for the diners eating pastries and sandwiches at his outdoor tables. But not this summer. No one is in the mood. “The refugees,” he says, meaning residents of the north who have fled to southern safety, “are all in Tel Aviv or are in a bad mood.” Camilla orders his Greek salad, which arrives studded with roasted peppers and walnuts; I take a slice of fresh, crumbly dried-fruit cake, and devour it. I’m wondering what the Lebanese refugees are in the mood for as they flee north, and what is being eaten this noontime in the central market of Beirut.