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Brimming with enticing scents and sights, the marketplace's real treasure is its diverse weave of people

Last week, one of my husband’s twelve wonderful nieces came for Shabbat. Aviva grew up in Monsey, New York, and is spending this year at a seminary in Geula. We buy most of our food at the local supermarket, but when I’m cooking for members of the haredi branches of the family, which include Aviva, I go to a store in Mahane Yehuda where the vegetables answer to a higher authority.

I love having a reason to go to the shuk. That has a lot to do with what’s on sale — food, food, glorious food — but it has even more to do with the breathtaking variety of people who shop there. I can’t think of anywhere else in the world with so much human diversity in so small a space. And, if that’s not impressive enough, most of the people there are Jews.

The prophet Isaiah was speaking about “God’s holy mountain” when he said: “And out of all the nations…they shall bring all your brothers on horses, in chariots and drays, on mules and dromedaries to Jerusalem…” (Isaiah 66:20). But, to judge by the spectacular variety of faces in evidence on a typical morning at Mahane Yehuda, Isaiah’s horses, chariots, drays, mules and camels made an unscheduled stop to let some of our brothers (and sisters) disembark at the shuk. At any rate, there’s no way this exotic crowd arrived by a means of transport as prosaic as a bus.

The man who manages our preferred mehadrin vegetable outlet has a long beard and peyot and is very beautiful. I think he’s Moroccan. If you went to consult a mekubal (spiritual, mystical counsellor) in Tzfat and were greeted by the vegetable store manager, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

His workers look more of the world as we know it: short hair, muscular, black T-shirts and jeans. When my four boxes of vegetables (the food in seminaries is notoriously…not good) were almost full, the manager called out to one of them: “Ishmael, take her to Agrippas.” Since Ishmael isn’t a popular name among Jews, I assumed, without really thinking about it, that the worker was an Arab. But as we wove our way through the Thursday morning shoppers, I had reason to think again.

Ishmael told me that his Hebrew isn’t so good because his mother tongue is Spanish; he was born in Argentina and lived in Brazil and Bolivia before coming to Israel. He said that he loves South America and its people, and goes back to visit every year. I told him that my son Jonah, who lives in London, had visited Brazil and also loved it and its people, and especially its music. Since then, I said, Jonah has joined a Latin jazz and salsa band where he plays keyboard. We arrived at Agrippas, and Ishmael stacked my four boxes of vegetables next to a lamppost. As he was crossing the road back to the shuk, he turned around and shouted, “Send my regards to your son.”

On Friday afternoon, Jonah called me from New York, where he was visiting his grandmother — originally from Nuremberg. I told him about Ishmael and sent his greetings, as requested. I could tell that Jonah was moved, as I knew he would be, by what moved me: the intricate web, spanning continents and generations, that connected him to Ishmael, and all of us — in all our spectacular diversity — to each other.

About the Author
Before coming to Israel in 2011, Diana Lipton was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). Here in Israel, she's lectured on Bible at Hebrew University's Rothberg International School and, currently, in the Bible Department at Tel Aviv University. She's the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and lives in Jerusalem with her husband Chaim. Her latest book, 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah' (Urim Publications) is available on Amazon; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank.