Surviving Jerusalem (the Markets We Mean)

From left: With Shahar Schwartz of Perfuniq; FT&V’s custom scents; Playing frying-pan castanets with chefs in the kitchen of Machneyuda restaurant in Jerusalem.
I’ve spent the past few days crisscrossing the ancient labyrinth of the Jerusalem market to visit Fig Tree & Vine merchants. Like all Israelis, our suppliers are weathering the “Knife Intifada” , the wave of random stabbing and other terrorist attacks against Jews that began last October.
Because of the violence, the narrow limestone streets of the Old City are easier to navigate than on my last visit a year ago. Earnest tourists do not congregate and clog the passageways like a stuck drain. The only impediments in my way this time were the storekeepers, who seem even more aggressive than usual. There were no lines at the metal detectors that protect entry points to the Wall.  I was able to join a tour of the tunnels that run beneath the Wall at the very last minute — a sight I’d never before seen because the tours are usually booked up well in advance.

In other words: If you want to visit Israel without lines, this is the time to go.

I wish I could say that the nervousness deterring tourists is entirely groundless. I sincerely believe that the nervousness is mostly groundless – but there is no escaping that the nervousness is there all the same. When I first ventured out from my hotel on Sunday evening, I asked a clerk at the front desk if there were any areas to avoid.  He brought out a paper map and circled Damascus Gate, one of the grand historic entrances to the old Muslim Quarter.  The gate has been the site of many attacks.

So instead, I set out for the Jaffa Gate. I followed the now empty David Street to the Wall, always the first thing I like to visit because, well, it’s the Wall.  At night it’s even more beautiful: worn golden stones spectacularly lit, a bobbing pencil line shadow of people praying at its base.

David Street – so lively during the day, is exactly the opposite after seven in the evening. That’s normal.  What’s not normal is the discomfort I felt walking alone.  My mind kept reverting to the Jewish family that was murdered as they returned home from the Wall along Habad Street. I twitched at the sound of footsteps  approaching me from behind – only to be passed by a rushing, fur-hatted Haredi man. Stray cats sidled out of doorways. I hastened my own pace.

Nothing happened of course. Yet anxiety haunted me. Late one afternoon I became disoriented in a part of the market I don’t often enter. As I turned this way and then that, I gradually realized that I’d drifted into the Muslim Quarter in the direction of the Damascus Gate.  Suddenly there were soldiers at every corner. I asked one for directions. He gave me a scornful glance that seemed to say, “Do I look like a traffic cop?” Another lost American woman joined me. We instinctively walked together until we were re-oriented on David Street, headed towards the Jaffa Gate.  FWIW, I’ve never before felt ill-at-ease anywhere in the Old City. But it was growing dark …. A merchant with broken teeth called out to me. I kept walking, but he yelled again, in English, that I’d dropped my cell phone. I halted and whisked around. He laughed and said he was joking. Normally this would annoy me. But he looked so desperate that we ended up chatting. He complained about the collapse in business since the attacks began last October. “We are all the same,” he said beseechingly. “We should not be fighting like this.”  Well, yeah. Exactly…

The merchant’s complaint was echoed by my FT&V friends. My tallit weaver in the Jewish Quarter, my sukkah-maker in the Christian Quarter, all my other suppliers — they poured me strong coffee and we spoke about how terrible the situation was.  “Not as bad as it was in the fall,” they would add, with some relief. But still: Bad.

When I sat down for breakfast on Tuesday I read that there had been two attempted terrorist attacks at the Damascus Gate within the past 24 hours, one at almost exactly the time I’d been stumbling about. Fortunately, both attacks were thwarted by police. Just the day before, the Israeli Security Agency Shin Bet reported that there had been more than 228 terror attacks since October.

So … the situation’s not great. But Israel remains great. If you are fearful of coming, I’ll tell you that I saw a number of American kids running about, indifferent to whatever meta-danger they may have been under. A few were on my tunnel tour. They were loud and boisterous and … having a wonderful time.

And I did too. I’m writing this from Tel Aviv now, but I can’t wait to share with you the new artisans I met in Jerusalem and who will be joining Fig Tree & Vine.  Among them are Shahar Schwartz who runs the recently opened Perfuniq — a bespoke perfumerie where, like a pharmacist, Shahar mixes beautiful fragrances from natural sources. We will be launching a collection for FT&V that will include room diffusers and sprays, candles, gels and lotions, and of course, perfume – including a unique FT&V branded scent.

We’ll also be adding beautifully woven wraps for Bat Mitzvah girls from the famous tallitot shop in the Cardo, Bar-On.  We’ll have an Armenian ceramic Seder plate …  and just so much more. And while there, I visited what is considered not just the best restaurant in Jerusalem but in Israel: the market-based Machneyuda. I’ll be sharing a review and a recipe in the coming days. (And okay, we danced in the kitchen. See above.)