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The Communal Table

The Communal Table

‘I’ll have a beer,” I told the young man behind the bar of the sweet little pub hidden like a jewel between a spice vendor and a Judaica stall in Jerusalem’s Machane Yehudah shuk (open air market).

Dropping my overflowing bags, I hunkered down at the bar and ordered whatever beer was on tap from one of the micro-breweries cropping up across the country.

Turning to the gentleman next to me, I warned him not to crush my tomatoes.

He responded by offering me a cigarette.

“I don’t smoke,” I said, accepting his cigarette with relish and letting him light me up. “But today was the worst day ever.”

I filled him in. That morning I found out that my job was about to go kaput. No sooner had I recovered but the fellow I was dating — who had disappeared for a few days — suddenly surfaced to let me know he wanted out. He was getting back together with an ex.

“Boo hoo,” I told my new best friend, between puffs.

“Don’t worry, hamuda (cutie),” he said to me. “Things will get better. You’re still young, you’re healthy, and not only a new job but a new man will come your way.”

As we drank and chatted I noticed that the bar served food, which is another way of saying: a full-on meal.

And why shouldn’t they? Food, it seems, is what makes Israel tick. Because everyone knows that neither a café nor a bar would survive in this country on a liquid diet alone.

Or as a visiting friend once observed, “Everyone here is eating all the time!”

It’s true. On the street, at outdoor cafés, even on the buses, no matter the time of day or night, people are constantly chowing down.

“B’te avon,” (Bon appetite), strangers call out when you try to sit quietly on a public bench, waiting for the bus and surreptitiously pop a piece of chocolate into your mouth.

At first I was taken a back by all the people horning in on my bid-ness when I tried to have myself a snack, but then I realized it was just part of the culture. Unlike in America, eating here is a communal event; it’s a way to celebrate being alive. Food is about sharing; it is not merely about fueling our bodies to keep on going.

And where else to think about food but in that cornucopia of earthly delights otherwise known as the shuk?

For there is something timeless about the shuk, something ineffably Middle Eastern, with its explosion of colors and smells and sounds: The piles of bright red strawberries (that go limp if you don’t eat them immediately); the mounds of golden yellow saffron and evergreen zaatar. The stalls overflowing with everything from olives to rugelach, from chicken necks to cucumbers.

And even though time marches on, the vendors don’t. They are still the same assortment of rough-around-the-edges fellas — with the lone woman thrown in for good measure — who still scream and yell and try to entice you to buy their wares, sometimes even with song.

But today’s shuk is no longer its former grubby self. Because now the shuk is also the place to go for its cute little cafés and bistros, posh designer clothing shops, and specialty stores offering everything from artisanal cheeses, handmade chocolates and pastas and fancy breads. There’s even a kubah soup bar, a restaurant where all you can get is variations on the same semolina dumpling soup.

And there are the pubs, too. Like the one that drew me in, my shopping completed, as a way to take a load off after a weary day.

While finishing up the rest of my beer, a forgotten memory reappeared. And there I was, a mere college girl again, living in Israel and wandering around shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv.

Suddenly, something caught my eye.

There, laid out upon a long, wooden table, a lone fish flipped and gasped and struggled to remain alive, eeking out its last few breaths on this earth.

“How sad!” I told one of the men gathered around the table.

“Sad? Why?” he snapped.

“Because that fish is slowly dying on that table and we’re all just standing around and watching,” I said, practically in tears.

“We’re all this fish — only our table is the earth,” he said, tapping his foot on the ground for emphasis.

How true, I thought, continuing the conversation from over 15 years earlier.

So what else is there to do but cook up something delicious and invite some friends over to enjoy? I thought, trotting home, already whipping up recipes in my mind.

Abigail Pickus’ column appears the first week of the month.

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