“I want to go to the shuk (market) this Friday,” my husband insisted. This had been de rigueur in our lives in Netanya. But now, little remained of that normalcy. Instead, like so many others, we scurried to the nearest supermarket to plunder staples we thought necessary in the event of a barrage of missiles hitting us (heaven forfend). Some shelves were bare. No potatoes were to be had. Clearly our Russian-speaking neighbors knew the importance of kartoshka in times of war and strife, and were hoarding this valuable product. My husband looked askance at the quality of the fruit and vegetables. They seemed to have absorbed the stress that we all felt, and looked as droopy and dull as our souls.
“All right,” I responded cautiously. Truthfully, I was not concerned about venturing out to the shuk where there were no bomb shelters – or I wouldn’t have been had I even thought of that possibility. We were surrounded by people who had not left their apartments since that first bitter and horrific day, who kept their doors on double locks, and would not let their children venture even onto the balcony.
So off we went. And to our surprise, at first glance, the shuk appeared remarkably “normal.” For the uninitiated, the Netanya shuk has neither the panache and newly minted sophistication of Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem, nor the kitschy touristy flavor of Tel Aviv’s Shuk HaCarmel. The Netanya shuk is what it claims to be: stall after stall of vegetables, fruit, fresh meat, fresh fish, a couple of bakeries, and a few stalls offering cheap clothes and sundries. A shuk.
But that Friday, as we each pulled along our own “bubbie cart” – heaven knows, one would never suffice – it felt as though we were seeing the shuk for the first time. This was the shuk in wartime – less foot traffic than usual for a Friday morning, the busiest shopping day. The atmosphere was subdued. Usually, I cannot hear myself think. The fruit mongers would be trying to out-shout their competition, yelling that their peaches or nectarines or other fruit de jour were the best, their prices the cheapest. Today we heard none of that. Instead, they stood quietly behind their stalls, patiently waiting for customers. We passed a massive bright yellow container that must have contained mangoes from an entire grove. Each one enormous, forest green, just ripe to the touch, waiting to be taken home by a loving customer. Then there were the pomegranates, as shiny and ruby red as Dorothy’s magic shoes and too large to fit into a man’s hand. They were ready today for the blessing that had been joyfully made on Rosh Hashanah, and hoping that blessing might still hold through our difficult times. The plump and luscious grapes, green and purple, the same, the figs the same, the white red-streaked peaches the same, all of them just waiting to go to a home, as they are supposed to.
My vegetable man quickly weighed out a plastic container of miniature crimson gold lobes of tomatoes still on their fragile vine; red, orange, and yellow peppers; crisp hard green cucumbers and a massive white cauliflower. And then, for the first time, in a plaintive voice he asked me quietly, “Anything else?”
“No thank you,” I responded in the same voice, immediately hunching over my buggy, and stealing away, embarrassed to tell him that I don’t need any more.
On to the greens man, I asked for our usual – a celery, much too skinny for American taste, a bunch of delicate dill, and my husband’s favorite, a bunch of fresh mint tied with a small piece of twine. As I was about to pay, he gently thrust a huge bunch of fresh purplish black basil under my nose. This time I couldn’t resist. “Okay,” I agreed, as I packed it up, the fresh aroma wafting through the air, as we began to end our journey in the shuk.
Our final stop – a bakery, the type that used to exist everywhere in Israel. It doesn’t serve sophisticated coffees, and they don’t package cakes in boxes with golden handles. This is where I can get an old-fashioned plain and absolutely delicious sponge cake – like the kind my mother of blessed memory would make. Or, where the traditional Tunisian boulou can be purchased to be eaten as a Shabbat morning treat. The baker, a man in his sixties came out of the baking area in his white jacket and pants, stained with chocolate and other colors, looking about and wiping his brow – his eyes drooping, his head bent downward, and his voice wavering. His is a hard job. Up before dawn, working hard to prepare everything for Shabbat. His work is important, especially to his loyal customers who appreciate these traditional delicacies. He looked about, and then returned to the kitchen.
As we left, we looked around at this modest shuk and marveled. What a plethora of the most beautiful, luscious fruits and vegetables all grown in our blessed holy land! We wonder how it is that miles away, our blood, and the blood of innocents has flowed over those lands… And that mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children who should be pushing and jostling to get at those fruits and delicacies, instead must wait for the return of their heroes. And the fruit and vegetable men must wait, and say “Take, take, of the gifts of this land,” while miles away heroes stand proudly in olive green uniforms determined to protect this, our land.