The Bread Maker of Jerusalem

On a visit with the proprietor of Russell’s Bakery and his multi-ethnic, multi-political, and multi-religious staff, the story of Israel unfolds in microcosm.

Russell, the proprietor of Russell’s Bakery in Jerusalem, at work. Flash90/Sophie Gordon.

Russell, the proprietor of Russell’s Bakery in Jerusalem, at work. Flash90/Sophie Gordon.

Observation
Nov. 14 2018
About the author

Edward Grossman’s journalism and fiction have been published in English, Hebrew, Arabic, French, Swedish, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian.


Quarter to four in the morning. There’s nobody in the shuk—the Mahaneh Yehudah market in Jerusalem—nobody, that is, except Russell, a Zionist who has his ovens up and running nice and hot.

Yes, if a Zionist is as a Zionist does, Russell’s indisputably a Zionist. Grabbing a handful of dough, he weighs it, trims it, puts it aside before shaping. Two baguette ovens by the Italian manufacturer Tiorini. Plus a German unit for country, walnut, spelt, sourdough, and other round or braided loaves, including, on Fridays, ḥallah. It’s a vintage Matador by Werner & Pfleiderer dating to when Angela Merkel geborene Kasner was a clergyman’s young daughter in the German Democratic Republic. Experts at ovens, the Germans are, the bald, bareheaded, gray-bearded Russell jokes.

The boss and co-owner of Russell’s Bakery is in his workshop-cum-retail space and has on a plain t-shirt. He’s an immigrant, an oleh (one who “comes up”) from South Africa. An officer in younger days in the Golani brigade, by reputation Israel’s equivalent of the U.S. Marines, and nowadays he’s unhappy with his adoptive country. Is this odd? Well, it may seem to be, given that the UN’s latest World Happiness Index ranks the Jewish state at number eleven among 156 countries, edging the U.S. in seventeenth place. The so-called Palestinian Authority, a hop and a skip from the bakery? Number 104. Syria, minutes by F-16 or F-35? Number 150.

Only ten countries trump Israel, happiness-wise, including Sweden where Russell studied breadmaking plus the other Nordic countries, plus Switzerland, Holland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. Ordinarily the UN doesn’t have much good to say about the Jewish state. But for years now its social scientists and statisticians have been placing Israel eleventh by a mixed function of GDP, life expectancy, diversity, general emotional well-being, education, environment, food and shelter, law and order.

Russell isn’t buying it. He’s a never-married, childless left-wing Zionist almost but not quite depressed by what he sees and feels is the rot, the vulgarity, the mediocrity, and the Grand Canyon between those who have and those who have not. He subscribes to the digital edition of Haaretz, the country’s one halfway-literate Hebrew newspaper, and according to a recent item there nearly one in four Israelis is poor. At the same time everything seems to have become money, money, money. B-G must be writhing in his grave.

David Ben-Gurion, that is, the stubby, bald, bareheaded late George Washington of Israel and its first prime minister. The man was born in tsarist Poland and defined a Zionist as any Jew who packs his—or, in the late Golda Meir’s case, her—bags and moves to the Land of Israel. Left-wing, right-wing, no-wing made no difference for B-G so long as he or she moved here and rode out the bumps, the knocks, the wounds of initiation—moved here and stayed.

Yes, a Zionist is as a Zionist does. If the Old Man knew whereof he spoke, then Russell and his fellow ex-South African left-winger and bookkeeper Alvin qualify as Zionists.

 

Alone for now, Russell scoops more dough from a bucket, weighs it, trims it, puts it aside for a while and then shapes it on a vast butcherblock dusted with flour. Scoop, weigh, trim, let rest, shape, bake, while outside a nearly full moon hangs over the shuk. When it’s full, Russell will be in London where he generally celebrates the holiday of unleavened bread. Londonistan or, if you like, Corbynburg. People forget Oswald Mosley was a Laborite until expelled as a Nazi wannabe.

Yes, in three days it’ll be Easter and in two days Passover 2018—or 5778 by the Jewish reckoning, i.e., since God created heaven, earth, and the hill in Jerusalem now defaced by the gargantuan Holyland project where apartments commanding no-doubt-breathtaking views go for millions of dollars, and half of which Russell understands are owned by people from abroad who use them for a week or two yearly or by speculators who flip them.

An almost full moon hangs over the increasingly-gentrified shuk here on the west side of Jerusalem, ranked by TripAdvisor.com at number eleven of no fewer than 312 must-do’s in the City-Holy-To-Three-Faiths. Enthusiastic testimonials by the hundreds. Russell, well-known in the shuk, respected and admired and well-liked, has as usual come in at 2 a.m. and keeps scooping, weighing, trimming, letting rest, shaping. He’s wearing an unembellished t-shirt without the emblematic owl print worn by most of the Russell’s Bakery crew.

Emblematic? “By the light of the moon,” you read on the bakery’s website, “the white owl . . . a stalk of wheat in its beak . . . lands just by the door.” Imagery he thought up himself.

It’s a literate website in both the English and Hebrew versions. And not only is the bakery website literate. So is Russell’s account on Facebook, enhanced as it is with quotations, nuggets of wisdom, all in the original English or translated into English, on life and bread—none in his own words, all in the words of famous or nameless people living or dead including those who wrote the so-called Old Testament.

For example, the anonymous writer telling the macabre story of the baker’s dream in Genesis 40:16-18, which Russell quotes in English and wrongly locates in the 50th chapter. Many of his Facebook friends post their greetings and accolades in Hebrew but he sticks with English. He thinks and counts in English, always will, as olim who grew up in Russia will always think and count in Russian, in Argentina in Spanish, in Ethiopia in Amharic, and so forth.

Working by himself—Nadav, Malcomo, Levi/Steve, Mordechai, Sergio, Tadese the refugee or if you will the “infiltrator” (mistanen) from Eritrea, and Hadar aren’t in yet—the boss shoves loaded racks into the Italian ovens, and as he works Joan Baez does “We Are the Warriors of the Sun” on a YouTube playlist.

Some night workers around the world keep a radio or even a TV going. The drawback with that in Russell’s adopted country is the hourly news bulletin. Why chance being told about the latest politician or cop or rabbi being indicted for rape or embezzlement? He’ll read about that in Haaretz online when he gets home, and about trouble on the West Bank, or if you will Judea and Samaria, or in and around Gaza, or up on the Lebanese border or the Golan Heights and Syria. The usual everlasting low-intensity conflict with the Arabs and the Iranians plays out just seconds or minutes away by jet.

Could it flare into an honest-to-God real war before his daily look at the newspaper? Of course, and if it does he’ll know quickly enough. Otherwise you don’t want the news while making bread. Music, the right music on a playlist you’ve customized for yourself, helps keep you in the zone to make bread as it should be made.

Everything at Russell’s Bakery is made by hand, naturally. Otherwise he wouldn’t call it artisanal and price a baguette at 10 shekels ($2.85) and a round loaf at 19 shekels ($5.40). Here, unlike at factory-type bakeries elsewhere in town, the only machines are those the doughs get mixed in. Additives? No way, just flour, salt, yeast, and purified water, and sometimes fruit or nuts. The wheat originates in Canada, Turkey, and Russia, but mainly in the U.S., the smallest portion originating in-country and only it needing to be grown in fields given sabbaticals if Russell is to hold on to his kashrut certificate. His imported wheat comes by ship into Haifa and is milled and bagged there. Whiteners? Bleach? No, disgusting. Preservatives? Perish the thought. And no processed salt, either, only the unprocessed Red Sea variety rich in minerals and flavorful.

All by himself with Joan and floury hands Russell scoops, weighs, trims, et cetera. Some pray. He makes bread. And he worries about Tadese and his young family. You see, here it’s not like in the States where the kids of undocumented immigrants get citizenship the moment they exit the womb. No anchor babies here, at least not by the letter of the law—and yet it’s difficult to imagine Bibi sending the police to round up a black man, his black wife, and their native-born, Hebrew-speaking black kids for transfer to Ben-Gurion airport in handcuffs and a van with grilled windows front and back.

Admittedly, the democratically-elected prime minister and some in the Likud and the rabbinical parties and the settler party are capable of doing or at least trying to do almost anything. Some, not Bibi yet but some, want to annex part if not all of the West Bank. Just what the Jewish state urgently needs, Russell thinks: a million or three million more Arabs inside trying to kill the Jews. Have you heard what the Arabs pretty much throughout the Middle East have been doing to each other lately?

Tadese and family are safe for the time being, seeing that, pending appeal, the High Court of Justice has frozen the government’s idea to deport African refugees. Is the law, under which they have to choose between going to jail and returning to Africa with a voucher for $3,500, really legal? And if the justices rule that it is, can you see the pictures and commentary on the BBC and CNN and al-Jazeera when families, women and children, are dragged to jail or the airport just before, during, or after Passover? That’s all Israel needs.

But not to worry, at least not too much, at least not yet. Even the government plan exempts, at least temporarily, children, women, parents of minors, and the very sick, whatever very sick means. In effect, Yerushalayim and Nasrawi, Tadese and his wife Fanos’s two little ones, might be anchor babies.

The baguettes in the oven are visibly turning golden and will be turning crusty, crunchy, chewy, just right. Important not to go by the timer alone. You have to keep an eye on what’s happening behind the window. Patience! Patience, focus, and quickness. Therefore Russell gives the baguette and ḥallah doughs an entire 24 hours to rise from mixing to using, and the other doughs 48, nothing less.

Quickness and patience and attentiveness—that’s what you need in this business, together with knowledge, experience, and the right ingredients in the right proportion and right order. Business? No, it can’t be just that. It’s got to be a vocation. Day in, day out, six days a week, a vocation honored year in, year out, year ’round except for Passover when Russell closes and flies to London.

 

Not that he’s been at it his whole life or even since that day, more than a generation ago, when he availed himself of the Law of Return (ḥok ha-shvut) to move to Israel.

It was thanks to this first law passed by the first Knesset, or, if you’re an anti-Zionist, thanks to this racism, that he moved from South Africa to Israel so easily. A racist law? Unjust? Why should Jews from South Africa, Ethiopia, Argentina, Los Angeles, wherever, be able to come and live in Palestine, and Palestinian refugees like Mahmoud Abbas and his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren not be free to come back and live in Safed, the eighty-something Abbas’s birthplace in the Galilee?

Well, no. Russell the left-winger thinks ḥok ha-shvut isn’t racist, and as somebody who grew up in the racist country par excellence he should know. If the Nuremberg Laws stripped anybody with so much as one Jewish grandparent of his or her job and rights, preparatory to sending them to the gas chamber, well, under the Law of Return anybody with as little as one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse or kid is entitled to return to Zion on a free El Al ticket and get instant citizenship, Hebrew lessons, vocational training, job placement, a relatively humane mortgage. Return from what? From the long exile, that’s what, according to classic Zionist ideology.

Just or unjust, this law enabled Russell and has enabled millions of other Jews and people related to Jews to arrive on aliyah, quitting the exile, the diaspora, and “ascending” or being flown to Zion. “Oleh,” the masculine singular noun and present-tense verb for a Jew relocating to his country, “olah” the feminine, “olim” the masculine plural, “olot” the feminine plural.

Nothing to be done about such binary terminology, incidentally—Hebrew being a Semitic language and thus patriarchal to its biblical core. You can’t escape gender in Hebrew, Arabic, Amharic—the language of Malcomo’s people—or for that matter in Tigrinya, the language of Tadese and his wife’s people. Every noun, every pronoun, every adjective, many verbs in many tenses: all gendered. Difficult for Anglos at first, but for Russell it’s become second nature.

The opposite of olim? Those Israelis guilty of “y’ridah,” meaning “descent,” “going down.” Down where? To the fleshpots and meaninglessness of exile and the diaspora, be it the cafes of the Boulevard St.-Michel, the last surviving quasi-delis of Manhattan, or, if you can sustain the prices and land a reservation, Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

Thirty-five years it’s been since Russell ascended. Like most Jews in South Africa he’d been formed in a Zionist youth movement—summer camp, singing and dancing around the bonfire, elementary Hebrew, and all that. But it wasn’t so much the ideology that spurred him out and pulled him here as it was not wanting to be drafted into the South African military. Nothing against militaries, you understand. He just didn’t feel like suppressing blacks. So up he came and made it into Golani—an officer no less—and was introduced to Lebanon and Hizballah.

Four years in Golani as a young oleh—privates, corporals, and noncoms do three, officers four. He was gratified to be able to overcome the initial culture shock. The best part was the camaraderie. After that and until forty-five he was subject to reserve duty for a month or two yearly. He went, invariably he went, no matter where they sent him.

You’re a pacifist? All right, then don’t lay down conditions on where you will and where you won’t bear arms and which orders you’ll follow and which not, unless they’re patently illegal—for Russell that’s politics, not pacifism, and if bareheaded Israeli left-wingers get away with it today, why not knitted-skullcap right-wingers in the future? What’ll be left of the IDF then? Yearly if he was in-country he’d retrieve his boots and dog tags and go when the khaki envelope landed in his mailbox. And even during the Palestinian uprisings you had moments. For instance, at the Erez crossing into Gaza during the first intifada when his men opened the trunk of a car to discover a load of IDF women’s uniforms headed, it seems, for a Hamas brothel. The moments and the camaraderie.

Discharged after four years of training and initial service, he took a B.A. in international relations at the Hebrew University, language of instruction Hebrew, a degree he’s never earned a shekel with. Instead he went into photojournalism, studying in Boston and making a living in London, Moscow, and Baku, taking pictures of this and that, almost marrying but finally not, then giving it up to run security for the synagogues and Jewish schools in post-apartheid Cape Town. There he lit on the vocation that would take him back to Israel.

Embracing it wasn’t simple. No tradition of handmade bread here then, so you had to get apprenticed to a master overseas. His masters were, first, Alessio, in Cape Town, a short-tempered Italian, the Michelangelo and Toscanini of bread, and then, in Stockholm, the unexcitable Johan Sorberg, purveyor of baked goods to the court of His Majesty Karl Gustav. Finally nine years ago he was ready to make a go of it. Not down in Tel Aviv but up here in Jerusalem, to be exact in Maḥaneh Yehudah.

EEEEEEEEYOW!!!!

What on earth is that? No, it’s all right, just a pair of cats out in the alley under the moon. Russell extracts a load from the baguette ovens, slides another in. The fragrance heady. What’s that Facebook quote? “The smell of bread is . . . the primal aroma of our earthly existence, the scent of harmony, peace, and home.” Courtesy of Jaroslav Seifert (1901-86), Czech author and Nobelist.

Very nice, but don’t let’s get carried away. It’s work. You’ve got to be tough if you’re going to make quality bread day in, day out, year in, year out, pausing only for the Sabbath and Passover. There’s a relevant quote: “It don’t take much strength to pull a trigger.” That’s how the Robert De Niro character in A Bronx Tale, a movie screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, lectures his son. “But try getting up every morning day after day and work for a living, let’s see him try that, then we’ll see who the real tough guy is. The working man is the tough guy.” Russell has these words quoted on Facebook.

Yet in bread it’s not just a matter of showing up for work religiously, as if for prayer. It’s also how you work. You’ve got to do it with your heart, with devotion—you’ve got to have the calling, otherwise the bread lacks integrity. Khalil Gibran quote: “For if you bake with indifference you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half a man’s hunger.” Rapidly but not indifferently as the moon fades, Russell weighs, trims, and shapes dough for baguettes to be slid into the Tiorinis and other loaves to be slid into the Matador on a tool known in Hebrew as a “kaf,” meaning a spoon, and in English in the trade as a peel. Unfortunately the Matador is an old dog needing to be retired.

Yes, day is on the verge of breaking. “White owl lifts off and disappears into the rays of the morning sun, leaving behind a thin trail of light”—more of Russell’s online imagery.

 

By this point the gang has started materializing. Everybody but Alvin will soon be here—Nadav, black-skinned Malcomo, Levi/Steve, Mordechai, Sergio, black-skinned Tadese, Hadar. Most will wear t-shirts featuring the owl. Nadav, Mordechai, and Hadar are native-born Israelis, sabras (from tsabar, the desert fruit prickly on the outside, sweet within), the rest except Tadese are olim. Except for Tadese, they’re all Jewish. All except white-bearded Alvin are young, all of the Jews except Malcomo and Hadar are of Ashkenazi descent, and everybody has a story.

Nadav? Swedish parents, a young man flashing thumbs-up Donald Trump-style.

Malcomo, known as Malcolm X? Born in Ethiopia, slightly built, a reservist in the IDF armored corps, a young mechanical engineering student at ORT vocational, ORT being a network of Jewish schools begun in Saint Petersburg in tsarist times.

Levi, also known as Steve? A new hire, ex-South African, skullcap, the knotted tassels of his undergarment dangling, a young Ḥaredi of the Lubavitcher flavor, Amish-style beard. The undergarment is worn as per Numbers 15:Speak unto the Children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations. . . . And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a-whoring.”

Mordechai? Also a Ḥaredi. Fringed undergarment hanging over black trousers, open-necked white shirt, black vest, black velvet skullcap, black beard, a Ḥaredi of the Gur flavor, a young man built like a halfback and smiling nonstop. In up-to-date American jargon you’d say he’s mentally challenged. There’s a euphemism in Hebrew, too—ba’al tsrakhim m’yuḥadim or “one with special needs.” So what? He’s unremittingly joyful, or seems to be, maybe because joy characterizes people with special needs, or maybe because thanks to the rabbis exempting him from studying Talmud morning, noon, and night he’s avoided nearsightedness and is free to do an honest day’s work.

Sergio? Clean-shaven, bareheaded, jeans, ex-Argentinean, young.

Ex-rugby standout Alvin? He’ll be materializing later.

As everybody begins going about his or her task Russell quits the butcherblock to focus on supervising. “The first responsibility of a leader,” he’s quoted Jacqueline du Pré as saying, “is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” How right she was! And so Russell oversees things downstairs and upstairs while leaving Tadese and Hadar to scoop, weigh, trim, let rest, shape, and repeat.

Theirs are possibly the two most interesting stories.

A decade it’s been since Tadese hiked across the Eritrean-Sudanese border at night, a Christian among Muslim and Christian refugees/economic migrants/asylum seekers or, like him, draft dodgers. When you’re drafted into the Eritrean army it’s for the same 20- or 30-year term of virtual slavery the prospect of which inspired any number of young Jewish men to sneak out of tsarist Russia and head to Ellis Island. Granted, the Jews entered the U.S. legally, while most of Tadese’s fellow draft-dodging and deserter trekkers entered Israel unlawfully.

To get through Sudan, which is not a place you want to be in for very long, and then Egypt, ditto, and then Sinai, you had to pay evil men who, after they’d been paid, might kill you or might not. If they didn’t, it was across the Sinai like the children of Israel. You weren’t guided by a pillar of fire but by Bedouin who wouldn’t kill you but might rob you of your cash, if you had any left, and put out their cigarettes on your body for relaxation and violate the women if there were any in your group.

Back then you didn’t have even much of a fence between Sinai and Israel. The point was to cross, then give yourself up to the IDF soldiers in jeeps who included young women in khaki toting M-16s. Having done that, you were OK. Nobody would kill or torture or rob or rape you or leave you to die of thirst or hunger or sunstroke. They gave you water, the Jews did, water and food and medical attention and shelter even if the shelter was a camp in the middle of nowhere where they kept you while processing your visa application.

Tadese’s people hadn’t known where he was or if he was alive or dead. Four months until his visa came through, followed by a ticket to the bus station in Tel Aviv where they let you off to manage as best you could, followed in his case by work on a building site.

He never slept rough, like some guys had to, but at first in a hut onsite before finding a rental where six men slept in one room. This was in a South Tel Aviv neighborhood where the Eritreans and numbers of Sudanese were already concentrating or being concentrated when he got to Israel and more kept arriving. They were chiefly young bachelors like him. Frankly? South Tel Aviv surprised Tadese. He’d been told Israel was like Germany or Sweden—clean, prosperous, safe, and you didn’t have to risk drowning in the Mediterranean to get there. In fact wherever you go in this country it’s incomparably safer than Eritrea, Sudan, and Egypt, incomparably cleaner and richer, too, but not unfailingly either so clean or so rich. The neighborhood he found himself living in with thousands and soon tens of thousands of black non-Jewish Africans already featured rats, needles, and prostitution and was inhabited by the white Jewish casualties of the Jewish state.

Not all of the locals were junkies and streetwalkers, of course—some just weren’t so well-off as your average Israeli. Not many were overly welcoming, and could you blame them? In this interlude of his, most of the faces in South Tel Aviv turned from white to black. Some of the guys, not all but some, would hang around jobless, lie in the park, fight, get drunk, bother the Jewish and Russian and Ukrainian girls, even those not selling themselves for the money no African had. There was a burglary or two and maybe a rape or two.

Around him a slum turned into a worse slum as the natives grew more and more displeased with the music, languages, food, and faces swamping theirs. Until one day a mob rioted, chasing and slugging blacks including women and children. That’s when he decided to try his luck up here.

Jerusalem!

First he cleaned offices and toilets in the mythical heavenly city every Christian in the Horn of Africa learns of in childhood. Six years now Tadese has been in the earthly Jerusalem and five at Russell’s. He lives with Fanos and the kids in a couple of dark and noisy rooms off Nevi’im (Prophets) Street and what money he can save he sends to his parents, and occasionally by difficult prearrangement speaks with them and is told things are as bad as ever, if not worse, in his village and native land.

The good news? He met Fanos, an Eritrean young lady, also Christian, and they married in a Jerusalem church. She too had hiked across Sudan, Egypt, and Sinai, four years after Tadese, and just in time before the wall outfitted with CCTV and radar and motion detectors and watchtowers and arc lights topped with concertinas of razor wire got erected on the Sinai border all the way from the Gaza Strip to Eilat on the Red Sea. More good news? He’s fathered two Israeli-born kids, a girl and a boy, come by a good job with a good boss, picked up enough Hebrew to get by.

The not-so-good news? Well, that law passed by the Knesset allowing the government to make those who sneaked in choose between jail and leaving for Rwanda with a voucher in hand for cash. He knows there are Jews who say that would be illegal, and shameful, especially for a Jewish state, and Russell and Alvin say that the judges in the high court have ordered the government not to go ahead yet and that whatever happens, women, children and families won’t be touched, at least not immediately. Nevertheless, it’s worrying.

 

Scoop, weigh, trim, put aside, shape, pop into the ovens. Tadese and Hadar work as meticulously as Russell if not so quickly. Hadar in owl t-shirt and bare arms and genuine Levi’s, jet hair in a ponytail, milky skin, and Tadese in Bangladeshi-made jeans—Tadese with enough Hebrew to get along but not to know the meaning of his young if no-longer-quite-so-young coworker’s biblical name.

Hadar: “glory” or “nobility.”

She’s of mixed Sephardi-Indian extraction. Sephardim: Iberian Jews who in medieval times were expelled or fled rather than accept conversion to Christianity. Some, as Hadar knows, found refuge in Holland but most ended up around the Mediterranean including the Ottoman province of Tunisia where there were already Jews going back to Roman times. Hadar’s mother’s people are from the Tunisian island of Djerba. Her father is an oleh from Mumbai and therefore not Sephardi. You see, Jews in Yemen, Ethiopia, Iraq, Persia, and India aren’t or weren’t Sephardim, having chosen to move or been exiled from the Land of Israel in another direction, east, before the Greeks and the Romans came and Jesus was born.

It’s complicated. Hadar, native-born, sweet inside and out, is partly Sephardi, partly a member of what’s known as the “Eydot ha-Mizraḥ”—“communities [or congregations] of the East.” The Mizraḥi story is both complicated and far from uninteresting. So is the whole story of what’s known in the Jewish tradition, and in the Zionist lexicon, as kibbuts galuyot—the ingathering of the exiles.

Anyway, she’s from Safed in Galilee, a town up in the hills where in the 16th century the Jewish mystic Isaac Luria was born and died and, thanks to this kabbalistic past, a town once visited by Madonna. Plus, a town where some nine decades ago the local Arabs, hearing that the Zionist Jews were about to level the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the mosque from where the Prophet, may peace be upon him, flew to heaven, massacred some of the Jews, all of them black-coated anti-Zionists.

Safed her birthplace as well as that of Mahmoud Abbas. When, just 70 years ago, the clean-shaven, bareheaded Zionist Jews took Safed in the war the Arabs had no choice but to start if they were to strangle the Jewish state at birth, the future president of the Palestinian Authority and his family and most of the other Arabs in Safed ran for their lives. Many years afterward, Hadar was born.

Scoop, weigh, trim, let rest, shape, pop into the ovens.

Hadar is or rather was dati—“religious”—but not ḥaredi If your ḥaredi man generally wears a black coat and black velvet skullcap, like Mordechai, and your married ḥaredi woman generally wears a wig over cropped hair or kerchief over shaved skull, and if dati men generally wear knitted skullcaps, and married dati women either hats or turbans, Hadar, unmarried, no longer dati, goes bareheaded.

Scoop, weigh, trim and so forth, and repeat.

Her parents enrolled her, her twin sister, and three other sisters in an all-girls dati school. One result? Years before coming to Russell’s she knew that wheat cultivated in the Land of Israel has to be grown in fields left unplanted every seventh year, otherwise the bread made from it won’t be kosher. Ditto for vineyards, grapes, and wine. You learn such rules, such commandments, and many others in dati schools. Another result? If you’re a girl in a unisex religious establishment where you have to wear a denim skirt to the ankles, never trousers or jeans, and a blouse with sleeves covering your arms past the elbows, you’re imbued alongside Jewish knowledge with not a little guilt, not a little shame. Just her personal opinion, from experience.

Her two brothers went into the IDF on graduation from an all-boys dati school while she and her sisters would’ve had to rebel if they wanted to follow suit. Instead they performed non-military national service. Life in trousers, in khaki, on mixed-gender bases where girls tote weapons like Gal Gadot is viewed in the circles where Hadar was raised as engendering immodesty and worse.

True, on WhatsApp you see photos of IDF young women, backs turned, khaki trousers dropped, advertising the names and insignias of their units in Magic Marker on their naked bottoms. Other postings go much farther. Yet non-military national service isn’t a guarantee, either—she knows somebody on it who became pregnant out of wedlock. Although wanting to go into the army, Hadar didn’t rebel. Two years she served, the first year caring for autistic kids, the second mentoring or trying to mentor juvenile delinquents.

After which, given her liberty, she came here to Jerusalem, studied nursing, earned her certificate, worked four years at various of the city’s Jewish hospitals. Midwifery appealed to her. Instead she ended up in hematology, a depressing business. It’s awful seeing patients you’ve grown close to die, you know, especially the kids, and it reduces your faith in Western medicine.

Nowadays she’s doing better. She quit nursing, maybe forever, maybe not. Having quit she tended bar, cared for old people, modeled at the Israel Museum before finding this job. And she has a boyfriend she cohabits with. Like her, he’s a sabra, native born, but unlike her Ashkenazi and a disbeliever by upbringing. He’s an archaeologist excavating a Byzantine church.

Three years they’ve been together, during which she’s become, no bones about it, thirty-one years of age. Childless, but not to worry. Her ponytail glossy, and yes, even in today’s increasingly religious Jerusalem you can have children without marrying. And so Hadar lives not unhappily in the present, enjoying life with her boyfriend, enjoying the city, enjoying reading, enjoying writing poetry, enjoying making bread.

Making it and selling it.

Here are the day’s first customers. They’re pensioners who can afford a treat, rather Ashkenazi-looking in their Birkenstocks, Reeboks, and New Balances. Wiping her hands, Hadar goes to serve them at the counter next to the signed, stamped, dated, and framed kashrut certificate and the individual and group photos of team members current and former. The certificate vouches for the place and its products being not just kosher but ultra-kosher, issued as it is by Agudat Yisrael, a major ḥaredi political, educational, and welfare conglomerate. She takes cash and makes change, or swipes plastic, while Mordechai and Levi do the bagging and Sergio puts together the morning deliveries and Nadav wheels hot breads into the alley to cool and Russell supervises as Malcolm X humps 30-kilo sacks of flour down to the mixers from upstairs. Slight as Malcolm X is, he’s a brute.

As that’s happening, Fanos appears with Yerushalayim and Nasrawi.

That’s right, Yerushalayim—Hebrew for “Jerusalem.” A little girl aged five, miniature parka, miniature jeans, miniature running shoes. And Nasrawi, meaning “Nazareth” in Tigrinya, a little boy aged three, miniature parka, miniature jeans, miniature running shoes. Two black kids spoken to in Tigrinya by mummy and daddy and replying in Hebrew, eyes shining. Both came into the world in Shaarey Tsedek (“Gates of Justice”), a Jewish hospital in town, a dati-run hospital accepting the private insurance that Russell buys for the family. Having scampered inside to greet their father they’re off to gan, as in gan y’ladim, meaning “children’s garden,” a loan from German, there having been no kindergartens in the Bible.

A mercy they’re ignorant of their and their mother’s and father’s uncertain status in the only country Yerushalayim and Nasrawi know. But are kids ever ignorant really? They’re off to gan and Fanos to her cleaning job as Russell supervises the making of tomorrow’s dough—measure the flour, water, salt, yeast, combine, mix, knead, pat, refrigerate—and Sergio takes off on his deliveries.

His first stop, on scooter, will be a coffeeshop in the shuk. By now the shuk has awakened. The dumpsters, spilling cats, are getting upended into trucks by Palestinians working for the municipality, and meat is being delivered from abattoirs, fruit and vegetables from kibbutzim, fish on ice caught overnight in the Mediterranean, gourmet domestic and imported cheeses, domestic milk, olives, halvah, whatever.

Back in the day, there was nothing imported and little gourmet. Authenticity—the shuk dripped homegrown authenticity. The stall owners kiddingly insulting each other were Jews from Kurdistan, Bukhara, Morocco, et cetera, workingclass to a man, and this was redder-than-red Likud territory. If the late Shimon Peres came in quest of votes, he did so with an extra bodyguard and was mocked. Not puzzling, really. The old-time shuk was a favorite Palestinian target. You had car bombs in the late 60s and during the 70s, and in the late 90s and early 2000s men and women blowing themselves to pieces along with random Jews, Arabs, and tourists, for which Peres, godfather of the Oslo so-called peace process installing the late Yasir Arafat in nearby Ramallah, was blamed.

Anyway, here’s Alvin in his IDF submariner’s cap. In his younger days he served in a combat unit on dry land, while since then each of his three sons has also been at the risky edge—one in the elite Egoz (“Hard Nut”) unit, another in Golani, the youngest now in submarines reported in the foreign press to carry nuclear missiles. Though his days on the rugby pitch are over, Alvin remains a strapping lad. His spade-shaped beard would be Herzl’s if the father of Zionism had lived to see his turn white as snow. The submariner’s cap sits on his head indoors and out except Thursday nights when he meets for poker with a quartet of ex-American right-wingers. For that he dons, in a spirit of irony, a MAGA cap. Trump! What a man! Although who knows—unlike Russell, who believes the reality TV star the Americans chose to be their face and voice to the world is a pyromaniac, Alvin who worked for decades in journalism hopes for, and can even imagine, something good coming of Trump’s acknowledging that Israel’s capital is in Jerusalem.

True, Alvin would’ve liked him to be explicit that if and when there’s a Palestinian state it may have its capital elsewhere in Jerusalem, too. And the commander-in-chief shouldn’t have remarked later, ex-tempore, that Jerusalem is off the negotiating table. But Alvin had no problem with that first announcement.

Unexpected for a Jew like him? Indeed—your stereotypical ex-South African transplanted to Zion is fine company, fit, fearless, frank, never averse to a Guinness, but unfailingly liberal or leftist if not Communist in what he hopes and says if not what he does.

What Alvin does in his mini-office upstairs is keep the books. He’s also a general factotum, helping Russell wrestle suppliers, mechanics, contractors, and kashrut inspectors—Jews to a man except for one Arab contractor. Lately there’s been the question of replacing the geriatric Matador with a new Tagliavini Tronik. Cost after import duty and value-added tax: 180,000 shekels ($51,000). Not peanuts, and Russell and his brother-in-law, who works in diamonds, have taken out a loan. All the paperwork and licenses and forms and what-have-you make getting a new state-of-the-art Italian oven in this bloody country no easier than getting a new bloody car.

 

After several hours Alvin takes a break. When he comes back, the customers are lined up and Nadav, Tadese, Hadar, Malcomo, and Levi are keeping at it and Sergio isn’t back yet from his deliveries. And Russell has earned a break of his own.

He’ll take it at the Roasters coffee shop. Along the way he points out failings in upkeep and law enforcement. The municipality does keep the shuk’s glass-roofed passageways in reasonable order, but in the alleys it’s every Jew for himself. Look at the setup around that water meter, the crumbling sidewalk. Graffiti as in the West Bank, and a stenciled hammer-and-sickle over there, maybe ironic, maybe not. As he’s finding fault, he’s repeatedly greeted by fellow shuk capitalists. No longer are they Sephardim exclusively, as it used to be, and no longer do they all have a high-school diploma at most. The shuk has changed.

Yes, the Palestinians rendezvousing with 70 virgins used to come here, but Maḥaneh Yehudah hasn’t been dangerous since what some at Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, Oxford, and the School of Oriental and Asian Studies call the Apartheid Wall got erected. A hideous thing it is, separating Jerusalem from the West Bank or Judea and Samaria. But thanks in part to it, no unpleasantness in the shuk for years now except for a couple of Palestinian teenage girls who three years ago stabbed, non-fatally, an elderly Palestinian man they took for a Jew and kept waving their scissors until one was shot dead by a cop. It happened on Jaffa Road which divides the shuk from a ḥaredi district and along which the new stainless-steel tram runs. This shooting and killing, in the judgment of the IDF chief-of-staff, was unnecessary; in the judgment of the Israeli street, the chief-of-staff was mistaken. The other girl? Subdued unhurt, tried, convicted of attempted murder, sentenced to thirteen years.

But otherwise no bloodshed for a long time and no guards or metal detectors reintroduced at any of the many entrances to the shuk even following Trump’s announcement on the U.S. embassy. Notwithstanding UN General Assembly votes and Haaretz and Guardian editorials deploring the president, notwithstanding the BDS crusade, the shuk jumps, and you hear, in addition to the usual Hebrew and Russian, more American English than ever, not to mention English and Irish and South African and Aussie and Kiwi English, plus snatches of German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Mandarin.

Three-and-a-half million tourists invaded the Jewish state last year, a record, most of them got to Jerusalem, and probably most of those who got to Jerusalem got to the shuk. You’re also overhearing more, much more French here and in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and Netanya and in Israel generally as French Jews—mainly but not exclusively the kids and grandkids of those who fled Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia a half-century ago but then not to Israel—call it quits. Russell understands you take your life in your hands wearing a skullcap or Star of David in public in some neighborhoods in France these days.

Look over there at Mullah’s well-reviewed felafel joint and that string of pennants each marked with the Star of David and the number 70, blue and white. Absolutely—in a few weeks the resurrected Jewish state will celebrate its 70th birthday. Is there going to be a Jewish state in 2048? Will it make it to a century, far less the proverbial 120 years of age? But what an unlikely success story it’s been so far!

Not only did the Jewish state rise from the grave, and the gas chambers, and the ovens, but it’s become indispensable not only to the Jews but to everybody. Whoever and wherever you are, you can boycott it and all its hardware and software from the latest Intel microchip to the bloodless anti-AIDS circumcision device, or you can live and work in the 21st century, but you can’t do both. Cape Town is about to run out of water because it won’t use an Israeli desalinization system. Let them drink and wash in Guinness. This nick on the rim of Asia, this villa in a lunatic neighborhood, this wager against the gods is an economic and military power and a hi-tech superpower and, yes, the UN survey is right, despite his own unhappiness with it Russell concedes it’s a hot spot of happiness and optimism.

The sign for Roasters is in both Hebrew and English, and the English dwarfs the Hebrew.

Lior the owner who trekked Central America after his IDF service brings Russell his coffee at a table outside, and Russell sips and ruminates.

Tadese and Fanos and Yerushalayim and Nasrawi and the rest of the Africans? If a person endangers his or her life getting out of a country, it must be what the president of the United States calls a shithole. East Germany, for instance, the GDR where Angela Kasner was born, grew up, and apparently declined to be a Stasi fink, must’ve been a shithole with Marxist-Leninist characteristics. And what about the country he or she risks dying or getting killed to get into? That must be heaven, be it West Germany or Israel.

No wonder Tadese and Fanos separately, and before they met, fled their homeland and risked all to come to the Promised Land. Nor is it any wonder that even this Israeli government won’t send them and their Israeli-born kids back where imah and abba came from. Eritrea a UN-certified shithole. What surprised Russell to learn from Haaretz a few years ago, though it shouldn’t have, is that despite Eritrea being what it is, and maybe half Muslim, maybe less, maybe more, it and his country have diplomatic relations.

Yes, there’s an Eritrean embassy in Tel Aviv and an Israeli embassy in Asmara. Maybe the explanation is the listening station the IDF keeps on Amba Sawara, the highest point in Eritrea, and the naval base on the island of Dahlak in the Red Sea. Haaretz, quoting foreign sources to dodge censorship, reported that the base hosts IDF gunboats and subs keeping an eye on traffic in the Bab al-Mandeb, especially Iranian weapons bound for Hamas in Gaza or Hizballah in Lebanon.

Shocking? No, it would be shocking to Russell if it weren’t being done. As quid pro quo, Eritrea’s dictator-for-life Isaias Afewerki, a Christian, a black revolutionary after Robert Mugabe’s heart, gets money and weapons from the Jews and medical care in Jerusalem. Ugly? No question. Avoidable? No, it’s the game all nation-states and not just those at war must engage in if they hope to prevail.

 

Where was he? Right—when he was first starting out, his brother-in-law in precious stones down in Tel Aviv agreed to invest as co-owner and silent partner. A space was rented in a Maḥaneh Yehudah alley, used ovens were purchased, a team was hired, and bread started to be made and sold.

From the start business was good. For a while it was so good a dedicated retail outlet was launched up here in the arcades, only to prove uneconomical. The rent exceeded the income. He, his brother-in-law, and Alvin should’ve known it would, because rents in the shuk, in Jerusalem, in the whole country, have gone mad. It’ll be enough of a job paying off the new Tagliavini Tronik.

But apropos of real estate, quite a few of the ex-Moroccans and ex-Kurds and ex-Bukharans who used to pass on their fruit and vegetable stalls father to son have graduated from the working class, having sold or rented to newcomers opening restaurants, bars, clubs. That’s why you have fewer stalls nowadays. Lots of Jewish housewives are doing their shopping in the city’s periphery at supermarkets undercutting the gentrifying shuk. Who knows? If trends continue, will Maḥaneh Yehudah go the way of Covent Garden and Les Halles? Maybe not, and pray God it doesn’t. So far, the redone shuk has diminished the exodus of the bareheaded young to Tel Aviv.

All right, back to check if everything is as it should be and to thank everybody. Half the loaves will be gone by now and the rest bound to vanish by closing time, which is 6:30, except Fridays when it’s 3:00. A half-hour before closing, the price of anything unsold is reduced by half. Then it’s sweep-up, file the rubbish in a dumpster, lock up the cash, padlock the shutters. Awake since 1:30 a.m., Russell trusts Alvin and Tadese with all that.

Heading back he draws attention to a traditional graffito: Mavet la’aravim—“Death to the Arabs.” Plus another, no less traditional: Ha-kibush mashḥeet—“The Occupation Corrupts.” There’s a pair of soldierettes toting M16s. Digital scales everywhere, harder to monkey with. As for right-wing pennants like the ones for the Beitar soccer team, named after the youth organization founded by Zev Jabotinsky, he remarks that nowadays you see fewer of them and more illustrated posters like the one over there hailing the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe of Brooklyn, white snowy beard, eyes like drills, possibly the messiah, possibly not.

You do still hear the odd Maḥaneh Yehudah vendor hollering the prices of his avocados, eggplants, strawberries, tangerines, et cetera, but compared with the past there’s less yelling. Less, not none. “Hey, Ibrahim!” a Jewish fruit and vegetable seller has just yelled half-kiddingly in Hebrew at an Arab stallholder across the way—there are still a few Arab vendors in the shuk as well. “How’s that Abu Mazen of yours?” Abu Mazen the nom de guerre of the octogenarian Mahmoud Abbas, reportedly not in the best of health. “Don’t worry,” comes the half-kidding reply in Hebrew. “He’ll live to a hundred and twenty!” One hundred-twenty: me’ah v’esrim in Hebrew, in Arabic “me’ah wa-eshrun.” Consanguineous languages, Hebrew and Arabic, half-brotherly, the idol-smashing Abraham being Isaac’s father and Ishmael’s too.

Now as Russell makes his way through the Iraqi shuk he passes the old Jewish guys at sheshbesh—a Turkish variant of backgammon. “Iraqi” because this section of the marketplace was established by refugees or olim from Baghdad, Basra, Ramadi. They sip tea, kibitz, kid, smoke, read Yisrael Hayom, “Israel Today,” a Sheldon Adelson-bankrolled free tabloid cheering whatever Bibi says or does. The old guys not unhappy. And passing Mullah’s falafel joint he beholds a couple of big-bellied Jewish women each on an iPhone, happily waiting for their sandwiches.

People who aren’t optimistic don’t have children, not generally, so doesn’t it speak volumes that the Israeli birthrate is the OECD’s highest? It’s not just the ḥaredi and the dati and the settler who are walking baby factories, or the Israeli Arabs, either. Pork-eating, Sabbath-ignoring, Labor-voting, career-minded, middle- and upper-class Israeli women too, even those of Ashkenazi heritage, squeeze out more kids than their sisters in the diaspora. Take for example Gal Gadot, multimillionaire mother of two and conceivably not finished.

Something to do with the Shoah? Who knows? Elohim hu gadol/y’ladim, zeh simḥah”—“God is great/Children, that’s happiness,” as the song goes. Queer how you can be not so well-off and want children, isn’t it? Optimism giving rise to happiness, or vice-versa? What came first, the chicken or the egg? Still, it’s those in velvet or knitted skullcaps, impoverished or not, who’re having the most Jewish babies and who maybe therefore are the most optimistic Israelis. They and not so much this Jew, this real Zionist, this Golani man, this valuable, admirable, ardent baker.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Food, Israel & Zionism, Jerusalem, Mahaneh Yehudah market