I have this theory that the shuk (market) a few blocks away from my over-crowded, over-priced apartment is a microcosm of Tel Aviv, and maybe even a metaphor for Israel.
As you walk closer to the long strip of vendors selling everything from chicken liver to star fruit and the best falafel you’ve ever tasted, the chaos envelops you. It’s loud, crowded and filled to the brim with color.
The people that inhabit this strange land range from 70-year-old tourists barely managing to step two feet into the main strip and 80-year-old Israelis nearly pushing me to the ground with their food carts. You find hipster twenty-somethings searching through the organic beets, religious women getting challah for their Shabbat dinner, and Americans yelling “kama ze olay?” in the most ridiculous accent. You hear vendors screaming at the top of their lungs “5 shekel tomatoes, 5 shekel tomatoes!” thinking that their voice will somehow overpower their cucumber counterpoint standing across the narrow row. And the cutest of them all, a little girl with a baked treat in hand, smiling at the baker saying, “shabbat shalom” with a beaming chocolate smile.
You smell the tradition, the baked chicken, smoked salmon, and mounds of multi-colored olives. You are in pure foodie heaven when you see the laffa bread sizzling on the black stone top, spread with white cheese and sprinkled lovingly with za’atar and a healthy drizzle of olive oil. You sense the pride in the way the man stacks his bread and the urgency of the worker holding a tray full of hot out-of-the-oven pastries.
You feel the rudeness and irritancy of the produce guy who doesn’t understand why you can’t understand his indistinguishable Hebrew. You see arguments arise with pricing and quality, an eruption of intensity coming out of nowhere but somehow always ending with a smile and a pat on the back. You whole-heartedly feel a sense of family when the pita man stacks in an extra bag of baked goodies with a wink, smile. It’s home.
The interactions, people and scenery are priceless in the eyes of someone with newly acquired citizenship. You understand that there is a price to pay for the delicious fruits of your labor. You understand that patience and a bit of elbow strength will get you what you want. And you understand that food just tastes better in the holy land. If you understand the shuk, you understand Israel, chaotic beauty and all.