Mahane Yehuda
The freshest fruits and vegetables. Photo by Jacob Solomon
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Locals elide the name of Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market to “Mahneyuda” or just "the shuk,” Hebrew for market. It's the live side of the capital, the place to experience the throb of the city and the cacophony of vociferous and sometimes endearingly eccentric market traders. It delights tourists, who find themselves part of Jerusalem, rather than just observers. As a newcomer, you participate on the same terms as residents. Same vibes. Same prices. Same delightful assault to all five senses. Indeed, it is one of Jerusalem’s great institutions.

All Jerusalem comes together at the shuk. Religious and secular, rich and financially-challenged, Jewish and not Jewish, resident and tourist: all need their tomatoes, and nobody wants them at less than their best. Indeed, tourists from outside Israel are immediately struck by the freshness of the fruit and vegetables. Chances are the onions you picked up at the shuk were still in the ground a few days ago, and spent not more than an hour or two in transit.

Local produce has been traded here ever since the neighborhood was founded in 1887 by Joseph Navon and two of his partners. The neighborhood became Mahaneh Yehuda as its main street was named in memory of Yehuda, Navon’s brother, who died early in life. In due course, the name became attached to the growing market, one of whose central arteries is that open-skies main street. The other parallel north-south thoroughfare is covered, known as Etz Chaim after an adjacent, now-defunct yeshiva.

Is it all kosher? As more than half of Jerusalem’s residents observe kashrut, the answer is yes – with a reservation or two. Some stalls lack rabbinical certification. (There's a reason. Many do not comply with the rabbinate’s meticulous interpretation of Jewish laws and practices.) But other than some imported cheeses made with nonkosher ingredients, that’s as far as the laws of Jewish dietary observance are stretched. Those seeking shrimp and lobster go elsewhere. The shuk has none.

The current trend in the face of the uncompromising rabbinate is for many stalls to declare themselves kosher, courtesy of the management. Self-certified kosher status by no means reassures all shoppers. I recall a black-hatted yeshiva man pointing out such a non-licensee whose stall was backed with a large portrait of the saintly kabbalist, the late Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira (1889-1984), aka the Baba Sali. The trader used the picture to attest to his observance of kashrut. The young man retorted that he got things the wrong way round. “I’ll buy from you if the Baba Sali is serving, and it’s your picture that’s behind. But not if it’s you that’s here, and the Baba Sali’s picture is behind.”

The shuk is simultaneously moving in several directions. The conservative element, some of whom have traded here for generations, provide increasingly wide ranges of housewares, pastries, locally-grown fruits and vegetables, pita baked in traditional taboun ovens and (kosher) meat and poultry.

Year after year, they hone their wares to the needs of the religious season. Pomegranates, dates and different types of honey before Rosh Hashanah, a "shuk kapparot" (where a live chicken is swung above a person's head as a symbolic transfer of their past year's sins) before Yom Kippur, Hanukkah sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), special displays of exotic fruits for Tu Bishvat, hamantaschen pastries for Purim and a huge range of kosher-for-Passover goods.

Challahs are long and plaited for Shabbat, round for Jewish holidays and on Rosh Hashanah rise in an ascending circuit to represent higher aspirations in religious observance and general behavior.

Some stalls are decidedly specialist. As you go through the covered market, you'll see someone from the Halva Kingdom offering samples of the shop's more than 100 varieties of the sesame-based sweet. Each one is attractively presented as a huge millstone.

The king himself, Eli Mamman, uses millstones to grind the Ethiopia-imported seeds and mixes them with sugar until saturation point.

Business has been so good that Mamman has opened a second outpost of Halva Kingdom (which first opened in the Old City in 1948) in the market to handle the overflow.

That doesn't mean that anyone can just open a stall in Mahneyuda on a whim. Regulated by the Jerusalem municipality, a prime stall near an entrance costs NIS 5 million, but typical monthly takings are around NIS 100,000. The trading style is decidedly brisk, sometimes brusque, and no-frills, especially when the crowds build up on Friday afternoons.

Among the relative newcomers are Ilanit, an upmarket jewelry and accessories shop whose success in the Haifa-area town of Zichron Yaakov led the owner to stake a claim in the Jerusalem market and expand her customer base.

The upscaling of the once quotidian shuk is also in evidence in a number of small, excellent eateries whose offerings include (kosher) Spanish tapas, Yemenite jahnoun (a steamed, rolled dough), Italian pasta, British fish and chips and more.

Traditionalists will delight in Tzofia, an Iraqi Kurdish restaurant where the cooking is done on old-fashioned kerosene stoves and kept warm on hot plates awaiting the customer.

In short, come hungry and eat your way through the shuk, as though you were in Singapore.

The market's infrastructure has greatly improved in recent years, with quality paving and excellent public bathrooms for both genders. Accessibility, especially for those with heavy shopping, needs improvement, as the connecting Jerusalem light rail is invariably crowded.

Two hours will do for the visit, including rounding it off with a leisurely meal at one of the excellent hole-in-the-wall eateries in which Mahaneh Yehuda specializes. The best times to visit are Monday through Wednesday, from the early afternoon to about an hour before sunset. Thursdays get crowded toward evening. Avoid the overcrowding on Fridays, when room to stand (let alone dine) is at a premium. Closed Saturday and on Jewish holiday. Best accessed by the Jerusalem light rail, linking directly to the Old City, the city center and the central bus station. Parking spots are few and difficult to reach.