On a warm August day, my husband, Baruch, and I ventured down Beit Lehem Road in our Baka neighborhood and found ourselves drawn into a brightly painted yellow storefront, overflowing with character. The display windows were filled with artisan pottery and colorful glass mosaic lamps that reflected the sun’s rays. At the entrance there was an assortment of tall baskets stuffed with rolled up rugs and bunches of colorful fresh flowers beckoning us to step within.
Upon arriving in Israel a few short weeks prior, we had acquired the basics needed for our new apartment, thanks to IKEA, but we lacked the colorful artistic items of our personal eclectic style and Dan’s Gift Shop appeared to be just what we were looking for.
As we entered the little shop, owners David and Ashira greeted us warmly and within 5 minutes we felt like we had been lifelong neighbors. Their artist daughter, Hannah, was also working this day and was an explosion of genuine sweetness, later sharing with me some of her family’s history and her passionate love for animals.
Hanna’s family are Moroccan and Yemenite Jews. Her grandfather, Machluf, moved his family from Casablanca to Israel via France in 1951. An accomplished chef, specializing in Moroccan dishes, he established a restaurant just down the street from where their gift shop is today. She laughingly tells the story of how he would hover over each customer while eating; carefully studying their enjoyment of his special of the day. If for some reason, however, they acted finicky, or complained that the food was too spicy, he would swoop down and remove their plate abruptly exclaiming, “Go, and do not return! You do not know how to eat!” claiming that their unappreciative appetite was not suited for his establishment! Apparently he became quite well known for his demonstrative flair!
David and Ashira met on Jerusalem’s #7 bus and were immediately smitten with one another. Ashira tells of how she passed her stop that day so she could engage David in conversation. Like something from a storybook, conversation soon led to romance and an elaborate wedding was planned. Festivities included numerous family members and guests, delectable food and traditional music. Shortly before their wedding day, however, IDF soldiers suddenly appeared at David’s door, announcing that there was an emergency and all soldiers were immediately being called to appear for duty. Tensions had heightened with Israel’s enemies and a war was imminent. David pleaded with the soldiers to allow him to stay for just one more day, as he had plans to be married and the soldiers miraculously agreed to this! So, instead of their much bigger celebration, they were forced to rush and were quietly married; closing their shutters and turning the lights off as the 1973 war of Yom Kippur ensued.
Before Hanna’s family acquired the location of their current gift shop, it was owned by their neighbor Mr. Katz, the tailor. He was the only member of his family who had survived the holocaust. David and Ashira’s apartment and Mr. Katz’ business were only separated by one wall, so it was destined that David would befriend Mr. Katz over the years. David and Ashira would show him kindness, as he was unmarried, lonely and without any family. When Mr. Katz decided to retire, he offered his store property to David as a gesture of thankfulness for being his friend and good neighbor over many difficult years. David accepted and this is how Dan’s Gift Shop came to be.
As Baruch and I entered this intriguing little shop, I carefully placed each step so as not to accidentally collide with any merchandise. I couldn’t help but wonder how so many items could fit into such a small space. Every nook and cranny from floor to ceiling was filled with tantalizing items, from kitchen utensils, to decorative dishes, vases, and ceramics. It was difficult to focus on just one thing as my eyes scanned the shelves, yet when I spotted a tall row of stacked textiles, my heart beat a little faster and I instinctively reached out to touch the woven threads. As my hands sunk deeper into the assorted patterns, my fingers sailed across each folded piece as if reading braille.
Textiles have always been my weakness and before moving to Israel, I had given away all of our quilts and table coverings to afford the space of traveling with only a few duffle bags. I suddenly found myself excited to explore my addiction once again and knew that I would not leave empty handed! Textiles have a way of softening any space into a comfortable embrace, whether they be curtains, brocade pillows, patterned rugs, or scenic wall tapestries. Throwing a silk scarf over a lampshade makes for an instant ambiance that I still do today, as a remenint from my hippie days!
As I debated in my mind which particular tapestry would compliment our new apartment, Ashira sensed my excitement and came to my rescue, “Just take a few home with you! If they work, you can pay me later!” I was not used to this kind of merchant-customer behavior and thought I must have mistaken her words, but she repeated herself in all sincerity, insisting that I not worry about it! “Welcome to Israel” she said warmly.
Still perusing the assortment of items on display, Ashira’s eyes suddenly brightened and asked if I would like to see some additional inventory. My curiosity was sparked like a wildfire, as she whispered, “Come with me.” Leaving Baruch to continue his conversation with David, I tiptoed behind Ashira, and like something out of a mystery novel, a narrow section of wall creaked open, exposing a secret passageway. As my eyes adjusted to the dimly lit room, rays of light from the almond shaped windows lay before me like streams of white satin ribbons. The room, with high ceilings and large decorative beams, transported me to a time of strength and antiquity, lacking in today’s architecture. One hundred fifty year old faded ceramic tiles covering the floor greeted me with a caliopy of designs, inviting me to enter. I was mesmerized by ornately carved dark wood furniture, colorful glass chandeliers reflecting swirls of reds, greens and yellows dancing upon the ceiling, enormous ceramic bowls with intricate patterns, rows and rows of embroidered silken pillows, and endless stacks of hand woven tapestries. This was a collector’s paradise and my curiosity was unhinged. Every piece had it’s unique story and Ashira was a docent of her wares. Soon, I was transported, as if on a magic carpet, to distant places and times. I could have become lost for endless hours conversing with Ashira as she filled me with stories of her travels, but I knew Baruch was patiently waiting on the other side of this mysterious passageway.
Before saying goodbye we chose a few special items which now adorn our apartment, reminding us of our cherished friendships we made that day. As I reflected later upon the events of the day, I realized that I must have entered a special portal. Such serendipitous encounters can only be explained as magnificent divine moments, wooing the explorer within.
A few weeks later Hanna shared the story with me of how the secret passageway came about…..
Shortly after her parents acquired the shop, her mother was roasting an eggplant on the stove top in their adjacent apartment. She hurriedly walked outside to her shop next door, for what was intended to be only a minute. Suddenly, a burned aroma penetrated the store and remembering her eggplant, Ashira frantically ran back to a smoke-filled home! Fortunately, there was no fire, just some very thick burned eggplant smoke. Since this close to disastrous incident, David decided to create a secret passageway between their apartment and business, making the likelihood of such future incidents improbable.
Living in Israel a few more years now, I have discovered that such amazing, unplanned occurrences can be just a few steps away and although I expect such encounters, each time it happens, I am delightfully surprised. Divine meetings really do exist all around us, if we learn to anticipate them and are not afraid to walk through hidden passageways. My soul is constantly enriched by the history around every stone lined corner as I walk the curvy Jerusalem streets. I am thankful for the almond trees bursting with ivory blossoms each spring, lemons and pomegranates weighing down tree limbs and the delicate night blooming jasmine perfuming the evening air. Most of all, I am constantly impressed by the people that make up this Homeland of mine. They are beyond unique — pioneers and adventurers — vibrant in character and gentle in heart.
Thanks to David, Ashira and Hanna for showing us such a wonderful reception to Israel — welcoming us far beyond their shop’s colorful front window and into the secret passageway of their hearts.