Gift-shopping in Israel can be an opportunity to show your friends and family back home how much you care, not to mention how cool and well-traveled you are. (“Oh, this old thing? I picked it up from some Bedouin I met while I was camping in this remote little desert oasis ... Whatev.”) But let’s be honest, if things go wrong, it’s also a chance to look like a jerk.
You’re talking to the former Birthrighter who thought it would be hilarious to stock up on kitschy packages of holy water, holy soil and glow-in-the-dark crucifixes for my more irreverent friends back home. Well, chalk it up to divine intervention - the joke was on me when I had to spend an hour at Customs in New York explaining why my suitcase was full of forbidden foreign soil. “You don’t understand,” I tried to explain. “It’s holy.” But the customs official was unconvinced. Nor was he persuaded by the argument “But it isn’t sincerely holy. It’s ironically holy.”With that in mind, here’s the dirt on gift-shopping in Israel.
Shuk it up
Sharpen your elbows, Birthrighters, because Israel’s frenetic open-air markets offer some of the most memorable shopping you’re likely to encounter during your travels. Pulsing with color and life, these "shuks," as these markets are called, are jam-packed with exotic foods, spices and glittering tchotchkes. The authentic Middle Eastern experience is reason enough to visit Israel’s famous shuks - among them, the Arab market in the Old City of Jerusalem; Shuk Hacarmel in Tel Aviv; Shuk Talpiot in Haifa; and the Bedouin market in Be’er Sheva and, if you’re willing to work, you can also score some tremendous finds. Think vibrant Bedouin tapestries, hand-painted ceramics, chess and backgammon sets, intricately carved pipes and charming leather bags. If space is an issue, peruse the endless collections of sparkly scarves and luxurious pashminas. They’re lightweight, easy to pack and won’t break the bank that is, assuming you brush up on your haggling skills. Keep in mind, as with all things shuk, bargaining is
a cornerstone of the experience, and rarely is a first quote a final quote. You’re likely to get a “discount” (“Just for you!”) if you buy more than one, so bring friends. Showing up early also gives you leverage, as many vendors, eager to make their first sale of the day (believed to carry good luck), are often willing to come down quite a bit in price to make that deal.
Make the most of your shuk-shopping experience, and be sure not to miss the celebrated Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem, where more than 250 vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables, baked goods, cheeses, nuts, olives and more. While you’re stocking your backpack with snacks for the long bus ride to Masada, consider also putting together a gastronomic gift basket from the Land of Milk and Honey.
Exotic spices are sure to wow your foodie friends, and they’re easy to travel with; cumin, coriander, saffron, ketzach (nigella), sumac and za’atar (a blend of thyme, sumac, salt and sesame seeds) are staples in Israel, and spice-sellers offer delectable blends that capture the flavor of Israel’s multicultural community. Consider trying such specialty blends as Ethiopian berbere, Yemeni hawaij, Moroccan and Tunisian harissa and Iraqi baharat.
Sample the local produce and stock up on halva, choice olive oil, boutique wines from small Israeli vineyards and delicious homemade liquors. Throw in a package of vacuum-packed olives, perfect for traveling, and a pomegranate- or kumquat-flavored dressing and ta-da! Mom and Dad will be so impressed with your thoughtfulness they’ll never suspect the shenanigans that went on while you were away.
Keep in mind that U.S. Customs prohibits you from bringing certain kinds of foods into the United States, including fruits, vegetables, meat, milk, eggs and poultry. Baked goods, candies and condiments such as olive oil, syrups, honey and jellies generally are okay, as are hard cheeses.
The craft of giving
Israel has no shortage of arts and crafts fairs, but one of the biggest and liveliest of all and no less importantly, the one you’re most likely to visit during your 10 days in Israel takes over Tel Aviv’s Nahalat Binyamin pedestrian mall on Tuesdays and Fridays from 10-5. Street performers come out in droves, hip young Tel Avivians chatter away at the cafes, and eager tourists rummage through endless booths for that perfect gift. From luscious scented soaps and jewelry to funky crocheted kippot, all products are handmade by Israeli artists happy to chat you up about their creations.
Personal favorites include quirky bowls constructed of recycled paper by Israeli artist Merav Danny, whose map of Tel Aviv is sure to remind you of your travels, and whose bowl inlaid with a silhouette of Herzl is perfect for the Zionist back home. Small pieces start at NIS 55, while larger bowls cost around NIS 220. Haven’t found anything for the grandparents? Check out the hand-painted silk challah and matzah covers for NIS 130-140, or stop by one of the many Judaica booths for a stylish glass mezuzah.
While you’re about town, duck into one of the many old print shops for a poster of Ben-Gurion doing a headstand on the beach or a vintage El Al ad. Popular spots include Robert’s (84 Ben Yehuda), dedicated to antique prints and lithographs; and, down the road a bit, in Old Jaffa, the Farkash Gallery (5 Mazal Dagim), founded in 1948, which offers an impressive collection of Israeli art of various media, including vintage Israel posters and religious prints.
If you strike out in the center, head up north to Safed Candles, next to the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue in the Old City. With everything from Shabbat, Hanukkah and havdallah candles to intricately carved Jewish stars, elaborate hamsas and Hasidic figurines, this popular shop proves Judaica can be created from anything even wax. Next stroll through Safed’s artist quarter and duck into one of the many striking galleries, or elbow your way through the lively shopping arcade for a unique Kabbalah-inspired piece. Sarah’s Tent (56 Alkabetz Street) offers a good selection of menorahs and seder plates, and the Canaan Gallery (47 Beit Yosef), a weaving workshop, sells beautiful prayer shawls. If you’re eager to see artists at work, stop in and visit silversmith Josh Burde (24 Ben Sira) or micro-calligrapher Moshe Yair (1 Beit Yosef).
Back in Jerusalem, the ever-popular Kakadu Art and Design (4 Rivlin and 36 Ben Yehuda) offers whimsical home furnishings created by husband-and-wife team Aharon and Reut Shahar. Check out their hand-painted wooden placemats for NIS 100, excellent gifts for both their durability and beauty.
Shopping in style
Don’t knock ‘em. The prices may be steep, but sometimes you’ve just got to take care of business, and museum gift shops have bailed out many a procrastinating tourist. Bestsellers at the Israel Museum gift shop (Ruppin Boulevard, Jerusalem) include a replica of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for about NIS 160, and, if you’re really in the mood for giving, a gold-plated silver and Roman glass pomegranate necklace for NIS 1,000. Resist the temptation to snatch up too many books - exquisite as they are; you’ll regret them when you’re getting your bag weighed in at check-in.
Also be sure to swing by the Tel Aviv Museum gift shop (27 Shaul Hamelech) for a chic collection of jewelry and artwork. If you don’t want to shell out bucketloads of shekels, opt for the sleek clocks, coasters and magnets designed by Israeli artist Ofek Wertman depicting national icons such as Herzl, Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. Magnets (co-worker gifts, anyone?) go for NIS 15 apiece; coasters are NIS 115 for sets of five; and clocks sell for NIS 140. The Bauhaus Center store in Tel Aviv (99 Dizengoff) is also a fantastic one-stop shop for the gift-giver without much time, as is SOHO, a large gallery in the Dizengoff Center mall with a collection of decorative and functional treasures by young Israeli designers.
A grain of salt
As sure as you are to buy one of those ridiculous T-shirts everyone in your group is wearing (personal favorite: Guns N Moses), so too are you almost morally bound to buy Dead Sea products while you’re in Israel. Sure, you can get them back home, but that isn’t really the point, is it? Besides, if you avoid the tourist shops and beach resorts, you can actually find some pretty good deals. Merchants and even drugstores offer mud masks for as little as NIS 5 a tube. And, if you truly wait until the last possible minute, the Ahava counter at Ben-Gurion Airport’s duty free shop is a serious godsend - but don’t forget, you can only carry on to the plane liquids or gels in containers smaller than 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters), so plan accordingly.
One last word of advice: Enjoy the unique shopping experience Israel has to offer, but don’t let it monopolize your trip. Before you know it, your 10 days will be up and you’ll be pining for more time in Israel. Or perhaps, if Birthright casts its spell, you’ll come back and then you’ll be making lists of all the things you want from back home.