She is coming and there is a palpable change in the air starting Thursday afternoon. I’m an outsider, but I can’t help getting swept up in the faster rhythm of the streets. I walk, I feel, I absorb, I get carried along… as I go about my errands to help my daughter prepare for the Sabbath. The Sabbath is compared to a “queen” who is ushered in each week. Religious homes prepare for her “arrival” by cleaning the house and cooking festive food in advance to last throughout the Sabbath, from Friday evening through Saturday night, since lighting a fire is forbidden.
The cacophony of honking drivers grows louder and more impatient; sporadic sirens pierce the air. People are rushing, pushing, scurrying. If you cross against the light you take your life in your hands. In my checkered Capris and black short sleeve tee-shirt I stand out in my daughter’s religious Jerusalem neighborhood as a secular American. My sporty straw cap does not quite fit in. Some young mothers pushing past me with their double strollers and gaggle of children have their hair covered with scarves twisted in a myriad of ways. Others are adorned with berets or cloches or wear long wigs so stylish, they look like real hair. They dress modestly, often layered with sheer tee shirts covered by blouses to the elbow and long skirts even in the relentless heat of summer.
I head to the market with a list. The parking lot is jammed and it’s not easy to navigate to the entrance. I dodge drivers jostling to find parking places. There are no courtesies in this country; fight for your parking space, be aggressive or you lose. My ingrained California-style courtesy does not do well here. Securing a shopping cart means putting a coin into a lock to release it, but I find I need help from the store security guard.
The aisles are crowded Thursday afternoons. Mothers load their shopping carts and their children know to stay close to them. They have to behave if they want to get their special treats tomorrow night, candy and chocolate. Religious men, often bearded, in black suits, big black hats and white shirts consult shopping lists, push their carts, and check in with their wives on their ubiquitous cell phones. Mostly they are impervious to the heat but you might find one or two who have slipped off their black jackets. Other men, religious but in modern dress, in their knit skullcaps, khakis and short sleeve shirts, load backpacks with groceries, diapers and wine bottles. I bag my own groceries like everyone and try to be quick about it but I’m slow. There is an impatient line behind me. Everyone is preparing… the queen is coming. By evening, delicious cooking smells waft out of open apartment windows mingling with aromas from nearby bakeries.
Friday morning it all ramps up. There is a line down the steps at one bakery to pick up challahs, rolls, and just baked pastries. If you don’t want to cook, take-out restaurants offer roast chicken prepared five different ways. You can purchase kugles, the substantial side dishes made either sweet with eggs and noodles or savory, with grated potato and onions. Do you want Yemenite breads or delectable Moroccan-style baked fish? The food is as varied as the melting pot of the population in this country. You only need to bring a pocketful of shekels or your credit card and you can buy whatever you desire fit for welcoming a queen.
I hop in a cab and head to the Shuk, the open air market. Khaki clad soldiers, cute teenage boys and ponytailed girls, stroll by lazily, their machine guns loosely strung on their shoulders. It is crowded and frenetic; yelling and shouting can be heard in different languages. Shoppers are arrayed as differently as the varieties of food. Men in frockcoats and knee socks in the style of nineteenth century Eastern European religious sects rush by young women in tight jeans and crop tops perusing fresh produce, and mingle with Arab residents shopping as well.
My first stop is to pick up containers of hand-made humus and Mediterranean salads loaded with garlic and fresh chopped vegetables. I choose from buckets of olives; black and green, with pits or not, stuffed and spicy. Then I’m tempted by the fragrant aroma of freshly roasted nuts. I see fish on ice so fresh it is practically wiggling and plucked chickens hanging from hooks. Rainbow-hued super-sized fruit does not look real; lush pomegranates, oranges, watermelons. I get in a line for the chocolate rugelach, a delectable pastry that is well worth the wait. I grab a fresh-squeezed orange juice from the fruit smoothie stand. Finally I give in and order falafel stuffed with French fries known as “chips” and pickle slices. The pita has just come out of the oven. I end up at the halvah stand boasting ten different types of the cloyingly sweet sesame candy and bring home a wedge of the pistachio filled variety. I pick up several bags of candy; gummy fish, lollipops and chocolate treats for the grandchildren.
My last stop is for flowers to surprise my daughter. I wait behind a religious man with a long bushy beard carefully picking a bouquet. I’m imagining he never forgets to bring his wife flowers every Friday. She has no doubt been cooking since yesterday, preparing the Sabbath delicacies, cleaning the house and doing the special tasks she does every week without fail. Friday night is their night to be together in every sense. A young dude on a motor scooter stops and pushes in front of me. Perhaps he is grabbing flowers for his girlfriend. Maybe they’ve just had a fight. I don’t say anything; I’m a Californian after all. I pick up vivid sunflowers to add to my purchases.
It is late afternoon and after a mad rush everything is done. Toys are picked up, the kitchen floor is swept and mopped. The grandchildren are out of the bath and dressed in their best clothes, hair still wet and fragrant. The ovens are shut off. The table is set. The siren sounds heralding the Sabbath. My son in law hurries off to the little synagogue a few blocks away. My daughter and I light the Sabbath candles, and we bless the children. I sneak them a few pieces of their candy. Everything quiets down. I sit on the balcony taking it all in. The city lets out its collective breath. Jerusalem welcomes the Sabbath Queen.
published 7 January 2012