Imagine Cristiano Ronaldo, the famous Portuguese football player as an apple or as a juicy peach. Would you buy it? My guess is, you would.
The Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, Israel is well-known for its creative merchants. Each one of them has a shop, but not your usual shop. Each shop has a wooden stand out front, propped up on wooden legs or cartons, loaded with fruits, vegetables and spices like basil, saffron, ginger, thyme and more. The Hebrew word for this kind of stand is "basta".
Whenever you visit Jerusalem today and especially the Mahane Yehuda market, you’ll find yourself in an amazing journey through time. Old and new, ancient and modern are located side by side. Shopping in the market is a unique experience listening to the stall keepers hawk their wares to get the public to buy their merchandise by comparing their produce to a famous football player or a famous model. This market is no longer just a place to buy food. It has become a place of culture, literature and poetry and, if you ask me, even the very heart of today’s Jerusalem.
I discovered this three years ago, and I decided I needed to tell people about it. The result was a new book called "Stewed Poems" which I published three months ago. It’s a book about love: love of food, love of woman, love of children and mainly, love of Jerusalem and the Mahane Yehuda market. I wanted to convey these loves to the community of my readers, men and women, via photos, poems and recipes - all, the fruits of my efforts.
One of the traditional methods of cooking food in the authentic small restaurants in the Mahane Yehuda market is the process of slow cooking over an oil burner, called "ptilia" in Hebrew. You might say that I’ve created this book by this same slow process of preparation.
Bringing poetry to the attention of the public by the usual method of printing a traditional book of poetry is a challenging task. You need to entice the reader with something different. So I thought it would be an interesting enterprise to publish a book with photos, poems and recipes. Who doesn't like to look at pictures and eat?
So imagine Madonna, the famous singer, as a fish. Now imagine the fishmonger in the Mahane Yehuda market singing and offering his customers a fish and asking if they wanted to know all its secrets. Who wouldn't want to know all of Madonna's secrets, that is, how to filet a fish?
To Filet a Fish
When you come to filet a fish
remember that its scales are coarse
and its spine
holds its secrets,
when it dives ceaselessly
to the depths of the sea,
but my own secrets,
you'll never find out.
The Mahane Yehuda market of Jerusalem was built in the 19th century under Ottoman rule and developed further under the British mandate in Palestine. After the creation of the state of Israel the market kept on evolving. Jerusalemites made it a habit to buy at the market on a weekly basis. Wednesdays and Thursdays were usually the busiest days at the market because that’s when the freshest produce was delivered to market. My mother would always tell me that the reason she and my late father went to market on Wednesdays was that the fresh meat was brought to the market to be sold on that day. Sometimes, as a kid growing up in the sixties and early seventies, I would accompany my parents and insist on holding the small shopping cart, which was identical to all the other hundreds of carts, used by other shoppers, and I was so proud of it.
Today, Mahane Yehuda is the largest market in Jerusalem and a visitor can find almost everything in it from food to clothing to cafes, pubs and more. A visitor can spend the whole day in the market, from sunrise to the sunset, and finish his day while eating grilled meat, drinking good beer, and listening to oriental music.
Here you can find what has easily become the most popular food in Israel, especially in Jerusalem: hummus. One of the restaurants which prepares and serves its very popular hummus is called "Pinati" ("my corner" in Hebrew). This establishment is not actually located in the market. But it’s not far, and its owner considers himself and his restaurant a part of the Mahane Yehuda market, which is true. When you visit Jerusalem and get to "Pinati" you’ll understand why the owner chose this name. But trust me - when you eat his hummus you’ll want to order more…
Our hummus came from over the mountains, from Urfa
its chickpeas spread out along the long road
on donkey back and in heavy sacks
to where our fathers wanted to get to, turbans on heads.
Their never ending yearning was their guide,
to bringing them back to the land of their forefathers,
to settling the desert land,
to making its soul bloom.
In the holy city, on a street corner,
a modest restaurant opened,
to feed the masses,
to satisfy their hunger.
Chickpea after chickpea is mashed in a pot,
added to smooth tehina
and the harmonious puree
pours like velvet.
To those who’d like to experience the market with a local guide, this poet would be only too happy to show you around. Another possibility is a tour with Ben Schapiro, the translator of my book "Stewed Poems", from the Hebrew into English, who is a guide and poet in his own right.
While writing this article a heavy snow is falling on Jerusalem, cutting the city off from the rest of the country. People can’t get in or out. But the stall keepers of the market, especially the old ones, remember the heavy winters and snows of the past. They come to work under any conditions, to make a living for their families. For customers, it’s a great deal because prices tend to drop in these circumstances.
There is a saying in the Hebrew Talmud: "Ten measures of beauty came to the world, Jerusalem took nine of them". For me, Jerusalem has taken the leading place of inspiration for writing poetry.