the 90th minute

Until September 2007, when my oldest daughter was born, this blog covered daily life and politics in Israel, as well as Hebrew-English linguistic issues, from the perspective of an American-raised journalist and translator living in Israel. Now it mostly serves as the SmunchMonk&Bear news agency, a portal into the bizarre universe of the little people. Read more at:

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Dreaming of strawberries

By all accounts, I have recently moved up in the world. In August, I left the poorest city in the country for a city considered to be fairly high up there on the socioeconomic scale, earning a Central Bureau of Statistics ranking of eight out of 10. Every Israeli who hears of my new hometown says, "Ohhhh, Givatayim!" – with much the same intonation a fashion aficionado might use in checking out your new sweater and exclaiming, "Ohhhh, Versace!"

And now that winter has arrived, I can take pleasure in leaving the house with no more than a light jacket, for even as residents of the Tel Aviv area complain about their low-key version of cold, I know that I have left behind some shivering friends huddled inside the stone buildings of the capital.

Why, then, do I miss Jerusalem so much?

Part of it has to do with the section of Jerusalem I used to inhabit: the colorful and constantly changing neighborhood of Nachlaot, whose narrow alleyways are populated by neo-hippies, art students and Mizrahi families who have lived there for decades. The neighborhood is enlivened, and perhaps even defined, by its proximity to the steaming-fresh pitas and pungent spices that form part of the intoxicating bustle of the Mahaneh Yehuda market, known as the shuk.

Back when I lived in Nachlaot, I had only to step five minutes away from my front door in order to scout out whichever fruit was in season, be it succulent green grapes or bright orange persimmons. Seduced by the heady aroma of blood-red strawberries as they lay heaped on their wooden beds in the vendors' stalls, we would feast on them for a scant NIS 5 a kilo, the cut-rate price they reached by the time the strawberry season was coming to a close. When the strawberries first hit my supermarket in Givatayim this year, I thought I would get two small containers – but when the price came to NIS 56, I left them at the cashier's counter.

Living so close to the shuk made me feel connected to the agrarian cycle in a way I never had when growing up amid the sterile supermarkets of New Jersey, where it seemed that almost any food item could be purchased at any time of year. When my husband and I were living near the shuk, our Shabbat meals often revolved around whatever was in season – making it hard to plan ahead, but easy to get inspired by particularly good-looking green beans or mango (or both, mixed together in a rice recipe conjured up on the spot).

As I did back then, now too I generally get my groceries at the closest available location; but now that means I have to step into the Givatayim Mall just to pick up some tomatoes, cucumbers and milk in the Mega Ba'ir supermarket, where everything seems orderly and plasticized. The rice and lentils come in standard plastic packaging instead of being shoveled out of burlap sacks; the mint leaves, sealed inside a plastic bag, don't threaten to inundate the other groceries with their scent. There are no vendors about to burst shoppers' eardrums with the sound of their price wars, and I have not yet had to swerve to avoid running into a man balancing a large tray of pita bread on his head. In short, doing the shopping has become a perennial disappointment, instead of an occasional revelation.

As I reluctantly make the shift from shuk culture to mall culture, I am regularly reminded of some of the other reasons I miss Jerusalem. The capital is much maligned for its failure to truly unite its eastern and western halves, despite insisting on pro forma unification - but for all that, there is a sense of heterogeneity in Jerusalem that is sorely lacking in the ostensibly more liberal center of the country. Walk through Sacher Park on a Saturday when it's not too cold or rainy, as I did so many times, and you will likely see several soccer games going on; if you go closer, you will hear that some are being conducted in Hebrew and others in Arabic. Keep an eye out for the Sri Lankan foreign workers playing cricket in the afternoon, and step between the secular families grilling kebabs and the religious ones out for a Shabbat stroll.

My all-too-frequent forays to the Givatayim Mall, by contrast, reveal a depressing sameness. It's not just that 97.3 percent of the city is Jewish, according to the statistics bureau. It is also that, unlike in Jerusalem, so many seem to fit the same mold. Well-groomed mothers in their 30s wheeling Bugaboos – in other words, upper-middle-class suburban Yuppies – proliferate, sipping café hafuch with a friend or browsing through expensive jewelry. And that's fine, for those who want it.

But went I left the stifling suburbia of my youth, I wanted to be in that Israel of old (or perhaps just of legend) where simplicity trumps materialism, where sun-bleached sandals are acceptable footwear for any occasion. And to some extent, that's what I found in Jerusalem, not because – as many Tel Avivians would like to believe – Jerusalemites are country bumpkins, but because the capital's population is so diverse that just about anyone can find a niche there.

For now, though, I'm making the best of my stay in Givatayim, and dreaming of strawberries.