Every late afternoon during the month of Ramadan, many of the main streets in East Jerusalem turn into huge, open-air food markets. Restaurants, which are closed for the fast during the day, open stalls selling prepared food; greengrocers display their wares in the streets and everywhere one sees people carrying baskets filled with food.
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The bakeries, which start their work day late because of the fast, work swiftly to meet the demand, with much of their output sold to the stall owners. Demand for special breads soars during Ramadan, the bakery owners say. Alongside the traditional flat pita bread and the “bagele” (a round bread with a hole in the middle that should not be confused with a Western bagel), two special types of holiday bread stand out: A sort of small French baguette and braided challahs called “mijdal.”
The word means a braid, or braided bread, in Arabic, but observers will find it very difficult to discern any difference between this bread and the traditional Jewish challah sold on Fridays in every supermarket and bakery in the western part of the city.
“During Ramadan, because people fast, they love all sorts of breads,” says Jerbas Na’aman, the owner of a bakery in the A-Tur neighborhood. “It is not a sweet challah like [the Jews eat], it is like the dough of sliced bread. Everyone makes it.” Na’aman estimates that every stall and bakery in the city sells hundreds of such “challahs” every day for the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast.
As far as is known, this phenomenon is unique to East Jerusalem and the nearby village of Abu Ghosh. Such challahs (which the Arabs in Israel and West Bank call “Jewish bread”) are not found in other Arab towns.
In Jerusalem, the challahs are not just for Ramadan; some East Jerusalem bakeries make such braided breads every Friday. But while it is not a common item for most of the year, over the past 10 to 15 years it has become one of the best-selling breads during Ramadan.
An attempt to find the roots of the custom leads us to the first intifada, which started in December 1987. Until then, Angel Bakery, the largest bakery in Jerusalem, had supplied bread to a large number of the stores in East Jerusalem, including challahs on Friday. It became quite popular among the Arab population.
Angel stopped supplying bread to Arab neighborhoods after a few of its trucks were attacked by rock-throwers at the start of the first intifada, though the demand for “Jewish” challah continued. So Arab bakeries started making the braided loaves. Since then, the challah has become so popular it now seems as if it was always a traditional Ramadan treat.
Ahmad, 22, who works in the Alamin bakery in the Musrara neighborhood of the capital, says they have made challahs during Ramadan for as long as he can remember, alongside the pitas and bagele. “I heard that in Ramallah too there is a little, but not like in Al-Quds.”
The challah is not the only Jewish baked good that is popular among the Palestinians in Jerusalem. On Passover, many Palestinian families buy matza, and around Hanukkah many Arab bakeries make traditional jelly donuts. But neither baked good has reached the status of the challah – a must for every Ramadan table to break the daily fast.