I’d never thought of Jerusalem as a fun place. Fascinating, yes. Worth a visit, absolutely. But with its tortured past, religious legacies, and central role in one of the world’s most heated conflicts, it was no Vegas of the Levant. People took their religion and politics seriously, both visitors and residents alike. Or so I was led to believe.
That changed after I visited the Mahane Yehuda Market (known as the shuk to locals). I’d never heard of the place and stumbled across it only because a friend recommended a nearby hotel. If I learned anything from my daily visits to the market it was this – Jerusalem can rock, and religion isn’t always playing center stage.
Day or night, the shuk is a hive of activity. Some come to sip, some to shop, some to savor. Others it appears come to marvel at how people in a city so divided by religion and politics seem to be able to put aside their differences and enjoy each other’s company. In one of the few parts of the city Jews, Muslims, and Christians mingle comfortably, searching for bargains, a night cap, or a choice concert seat (live evening concerts are a regular event as I learned sleeping not far from the venue).
Located about a mile west of the Old City’s Jaffa Gate, the shuk was created in the late 19th century to cater to residents of the newly formed West Jerusalem neighborhood of Mahane Yehuda. Beginning as a ramshackle open market for traders to sell their produce to local residents, now more than 200 hundred shops fill a partially enclosed site spanning several city blocks and catering to both a local and international clientele.
Eclectic doesn’t begin to describe the offerings at the shuk. Efforts by city planners to appeal to a larger customer base has meant that the market has moved beyond being strictly a purveyor of kosher meats, fruits, and vegetables. Shops offering exotic spice sit next to bustling espresso cafes. Falafels compete with fettucine at shuk restaurants. The Ethiopian Ethnic Center offers Ethiopian beer, injeera – and hair extensions. Gulab jamen, gelato, Georgian patries, take your pick. Spanish beer, Belgian waffles, fish and chips, they’re all there. Jerusalem draws people from all over the world and the market mirrors that diversity.
In a city that generally seems to eschew earthly pleasures this was one place where people genuinely embraced them. With its tantalizing sights and smells, and without any obvious religious affiliation the shuk seemed like a place to escape the serious business of worship. And with popular music being piped in from what appeared to be a centralized audio system there was even more reason to let your hair down and join the fun.
Well may be not entirely. Orthodox women of all religions remained modestly dressed, their hair covered and hemlines low. But while I was having a coffee my last morning and the upbeat rhythms of Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” began to resonate around the market stalls it almost felt like a flash mob dance was about the break out. Fingers started snapping, heads bobbed, a routine perusal of dried figs transformed into a spirited gait. The 80s dance hit was clearly irresistible to market goers, regardless of prescribed dress codes.
Yes, Jerusalem can be fun, thanks in no small part to the shuk.