Mahane Yehuda Market, I’m So Glad I Found You!

On the way to Jerusalem last month my seatmate, a guy named Noam, entered my heart when he pointed out there was free Wifi on our bus to occupy my time during the three-hour journey. I repaid his kindness by giving him one of my Mentos mints. Our bonding was official.

We drove into the Jerusalem Central Bus Station and, after a security officer boarded, then walked slowly down the aisle looking at every person carefully to ensure none of us was a terrorist who would blow ourselves up upon entering the crowded station, Noam asked Would you like to have ice cream at my brother’s shop? I nodded happily. It’s in the market, Noam said. Which market? I asked. The market, he said, looking at me quizically.

The market was Mahane Yehuda, Noam explained, the largest shuk, or Jewish outdoor market, in Jerusalem. I later learned that is also, by a long shot, the largest Jewish market in the city. I’ve spent significant time in Jerusalem previously and am likely the only person to ever do so while remaining completely oblivious to Mahane Yehuda, but Noam was about to right that wrong.

We boarded the brand new light rail train, a controversial means of transport, as part of its tracks lie in East Jerusalem, a section of the city which might be at least in part be turned over to the Palestinians if a peace agreement with Israel is ever reached. Whatever its ultimate fate, now during its first two weeks of operation the train was free of charge and filled to capacity.

One of Jerusalem's light rail trains

This was Friday afternoon just before Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath which occurs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Since it’s Friday, Noam said as we began to whiz through, they’re selling things for as low as one shekel.

Scene from Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on Friday afternoon

The shuk was in full swing, packed with sellers of fruits, vegetables, Judaica, nuts and seeds and a sight that stopped me in my tracks. What is this? I shouted to Noam, now far up ahead and unaware I’d stopped. Ahh, that’s Halwa, he said when he noticed I wasn’t there anymore and walked back to me. How do you say it in English? I asked. There is no English equivalent. Indeed, there can’t be. This was the most delicious looking dessert I had seen in my life.

Two different kinds of Halvah at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem

Noam was in a hurry so we left the halvah behind and finally landed at his brother’s ice cream shop, where I ended up spending 17 Shekels for three scoops. I had thought it might be free. Oh, well. My only regret is now I was full of sugar but still couldn’t get that halvah out of my head. Noam and I said good-bye, and I continued to wander the market to soak up the atmosphere.

Fruit for sale at Mahane Yehuda souk in Jerusalem, Israel

After 10 or 15 minutes, I still had visions of halvah dancing in my head, so I did a U-turn on foot. Ah, there it was again.

Israeli desert called halva at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem

The halvah was pretty pricey so I ordered only one kind, a big fat slice of medium brown with cashews sprinkled on top. It wasn’t until later, when I was alone, that I finally opened the little cardboard box and bit into it. Ever so slightly crunchy, this delectable treat tasted like syrupy sugar. Every bite was a dream.

With the box tucked safely away, I weaved my way back to light rail train stop, now strangely barren. After a few minutes two teenage boys walked by, looked back at me, said something indecipherable in Arabic, and pointed to a sign flashing above my head, also indecipherable in Hebrew and Arabic. I got the gist quickly. In Israel all public transportation except for Arab-driven taxis ceases from a few hours before Shabbat until just before its conclusion. I had missed the last train and was now going to have to walk the several kilometers to my guesthouse in the Old City. One of the boys grabbed my suitcase handle without me even asking, and we began the journey to the Old City.

The dome of the rock, dominating the landscape of Jerusalem's Old City

Despite the fact that I missed my ride to my guesthouse, I am so glad I sat next to Noam on that bus. Without him, Mahane Yehuda and its delectable halvah would still be unknown to me.

6 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Andrea says:

    Is this the same halva that I’m used to? It’s sticky and nutty – kind of falls apart in your fingers? Because it looks more like giant shapes here and the one I’ve had in Turkey and Australia (an import, not sure where from but John’s Macedonian father buys it somewhere) is more like a log…

  2. Sabina says:

    Probably similar, Andrea. I googled it, and it’s popular in many countries, although I don’t remember ever seeing it, even in log form. It was kind of sticky and totally fell apart. It was wonderful :)

  3. Steve says:

    There’s something so wonderful about walking through large markets like this. I found a great English market in Cork, Ireland. I wandered through it for hours and bought a couple of gourmet cheeses with crackers. I’m thankful that I wandered into it since it was such a fun, vibrant places. The cheeses were excellent too.

  4. Sabina says:

    Markets are great. I didn’t want or need that much to eat in this case, but thankfully I found this incredible halva anyway. I’ll never forget it.

  5. Candice says:

    Whoa, halvah! I wanna try some of that!

  6. Sabina says:

    It was splendid, Candice. I’m sure some day you shall partake :)

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