At the Jerusalem Suq

It’s Friday here in Jerusalem, so the place to be is at the Suq.

It used to be that all you ever got in this big outdoors market place was fresh produce. If you were anyone who cared about food and cooking, you didn’t shop at the supermarket, but went to the Suq. Only now you can get everything there: meats, clothes, toys, household items; restaurants galore have opened up, catering especially to young customers on Thursday night, the biggest night of the week, where they crowd around tiny tables, Israeli rap competing with Sephardic music and absolutely no parking anywhere.

But it’s Friday morning, and my brother, Mordechai, and I go to the Suq to buy food for a Kiddush in the synagogue my mother has been attending for some 30 years. It is customary that when one celebrates a milestone, like a 90th birthday, to offer a Kiddush, which means Sanctification, in the synagogue after Shabbat prayers. In this case, Sanctification means a Jerusalem kugel (pasta dish), herring with crackers, vegetables, watermelon, cantaloupes and grapes, yeast cakes, cold drinks (we’ll be in the warm outdoors), and snacks for a million little children. I have twice worked with my mother on the talk she will give, but even after all the written notes, it’s clear she’ll say whatever she wants to say, not necessarily what we’ve written down.

“Come on,” Mordechai says, “I’ll buy you the best coffee in Jerusalem. It’s right below the Cursed House.” Later my sister will inform me that the Cursed House is where she studied Family Therapy.

We arrive at a small stand and jostle for place, trying to get the attention of Bernard, who tells us with a sweet smile that he’ll serve us right away even as he prepares a Cortado and an Americano, with two croissants, for the two women standing next to us. The sun already shines hot in the sky and everybody’s yelling out orders, which Bernard smiles sweetly at while ignoring completely.

“You’re the only one working today, the busiest morning of the week,” my brother wonders aloud.

“I told my wife to come at 9:30 but she thought I meant 11, what can you do?” explains Bernard, running back to fetch more 3% milk.

It’s Friday morning, a day off, so nobody gets irritated, just a few good-natured comments: At least bring us a couple of espressos while we’re waiting! Next time tell the wife to come on time! We’d leave if you weren’t smiling so sweetly, Bernard!

When Bernard finally gets to us he asks me if I we want the coffee with a fruitier or more bitter nuance, and I opt for the former, appreciating that neither in Starbucks or in Peet’s Coffee, or in no other coffeehouse for that matter, has anyone ever asked me that question.

Off into the Suq to get the fruits and cakes, and Mordechai points to a stand selling good-looking tomatoes and other vegetables. “See that stand? It’s specially priced for poor people. The way it happens is, you choose whatever you need for Shabbat, the shopkeeper looks at you and names a low price, and that’s what you pay. I didn’t know this, so one year I come here, choose some produce, and start asking him what the price is. Careful, says somebody behind me. I had no idea what he was talking about, so I ask again what’s the price, and why isn’t it written up like in all the other places, and the store owner starts cursing me out: You idiot, you son of a bitch, don’t you know anything? That’s how I learned the store sold fruits and vegetables to the poor at very low prices, which he designated, and you couldn’t mess around with the protocol.”

I love this place.