In a small stall on HaEgoz Alley in the Machaneh Yehuda Market, is a unique shop called “Ish Ha’Etrogim” (The Etrog Man). It is an exotic juice bar, an apothecary, a journey into time, and a drinkable anthropological roller coaster. The proprietor, Ohr Hezi, served us up a sample of natural medicine and Yemenite Jewish history. First was a shot of ginger, turmeric and hot cayenne pepper, a spicy energy drink that woke me up like a strong espresso. Then came “Rambam’s Drink” made of almonds and date juice and dating back to the writings of the great medieval scholar and physician. This was followed by a delightful little cup of wild berry juice that tasted like liquid candy. Finally, the house specialty – Etrogat, a combination of the nectar of the etrog (or citron, the ceremonial fruit used on the Jewish Festival of Sukkot) and “gat”. Gat, the leafy Afro-Arabian narcotic, is illegal in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. In Israel it is legal but only in its unprocessed form, as a raw leaf, and that is how it is ground and mixed with the etrog in this delightful and stimulating potion.
The Etrog Man was the first stop on a tour of Machaneh Yehudah given by Harry Rubinstein, a high-tech programmer turned baker and expert in the culinary melting pots of Israel’s open-air food markets. Harry, an ebullient, friendly and knowledgeable guide, loves his work, loves the vendors, and loves food. He flitted between the stalls and through the alleyways as though he had been born there, and wove together history, cultural anthropology and sampling of the delicacies in a three-hour adventure that filled us with information and calories in equal measure.
As Harry explained it, Machaneh Yehuda began in the late 19th century as an empty lot where local Arab farmers would come every day with their fresh produce, lay down a blanket and sell directly to the residents of the new neighborhoods outside of the Old City. One might call it the original “farm-to-table” market. The “shuk” as it came to be known, was on land owned entirely by the Valero family, a wealthy Sephardic banking dynasty. By the time the British took over from the Ottomans in 1917 the market was crowded, dirty and plagued by hygiene problems. The British added pavement, store-fronts, plumbing, electricity and sewage, and by this time there were neighborhoods on all sides, one of which was called “Machaneh Yehudah” and thus the market got its name.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Jews from all corners of the Diaspora arrived, each with their specific taste in spices, confections, fruits, vegetables and baked goods, and whenever one of those was not readily available, a demand was created and filled. We visited, for example, the Persian Yazdi Family shop in which all of the fruits, vegetables and spices were considered medicinal, and almost none of them were familiar to me. We stopped by the Iraqi Haba Brother’s bakery, with its ancient open ovens and were served eshtanur pitot with zaatar by Tzion, a gruff old fixture of the market who seems older than the ovens themselves, and we enjoyed a delightful assortment of halva from the historic “Halva Kingdom” where three generations of a Moroccan family have been selling a hundred flavors of the sweet delicacy for 75 years.
The wave of immigrants that Israel absorbed during the 1950s and ’60s was unparalleled in history. As a result, Israel’s population doubled in its first three years, but that is not the most remarkable thing about this mass migration. What sets it apart from every other population shift was that it was intentional. Israel wanted this “kibbutz galuyot” (ingathering of the exiles), and often facilitated their escape. Most of those immigrants left communities where Jews had lived for centuries with little more than a suitcase, fleeing persecution and seeking the realization of an ancient dream. Too often when they arrived in Israel they were met with condescension, suspicion and outright discrimination, but they brought treasures with them. Some of these treasures are physical, and are on display in homes and museums. Some of these treasures are spiritual, and can be heard in the chanting of the dozens of different liturgical styles in the thousands of small synagogues of these communities. In recent decades there has been a renewal of the musical gems as well, from love songs to prayers. The oral traditions, folk-tales, and historical legacies are countless.
And of course, some of these treasures are edible. Machaneh Yehuda, this joyous culinary carnival, has been available to all, thrumming with business for over a century, always growing, always changing, but never compromising the wonderful traditions that it represents.
The newest generation is no exception. The original Etrog Man was the legendary Uzieli, born in Yemen and descended from a long line of Jewish healers who practiced Torah-based spiritual medicine. Today, his son Ohr doles out the same wonderful potions, with the same smile and the same jokes.
He just has a smart-phone and delivers.