In the Yemenite Quarter of Tel Aviv, where I live, work, and cook in the shadow of the city’s storied Carmel Market, mornings are usually a cacophony of noise. By 6 a.m., trash compactors are making landfill of the previous day’s detritus at the same time that a fleet of vehicles is distributing produce, meat, fish, cheese, and other provisions around the market, a century-old outdoor food bazaar that sits steps from my house in a historic Israeli neighborhood.
But right now the streets and side aisles of the shuk, a ragtag assembly of stalls you can traverse on foot from one end to the other in six minutes, are disturbingly quiet — and even more eerily clean.
There’s no carpet of cigarette butts tossed aside by fishmongers taking a break from filleting local amberjack and snapper, no hawkers slinging falafel batter into fresh vats of piping hot oil, no one peddling olives or vegetable slicing gadgets in a singsong patois, voices traveling up the shuk’s corridor courtesy of Mediterranean breezes supplied by the ocean a mere 200 meters away.
About three weeks ago, after Israel had already been on virtual lockdown for weeks in response to COVID-19, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the unilateral decision to close Israel’s iconic open-air food markets — my beloved Carmel among them — while leaving more conventional Israeli supermarkets open for business.
The shuk closure makes zero sense to me. I’m not sure how queuing up in a line outside of a giant enclosed grocery structure, waiting my turn to enter a petri dish of potential germ proliferation, is any safer than shopping in an outdoor market. I’m watching news reports about supermarkets and their inconsistent enforcement of mask-wearing, sanitizing, and staggered admission — not to mention the more than 40-plus supermarket employees who have died in the U.S. If many of America’s markets, including LA’s Santa Monica Farmers Market and the Union Square Greenmarket, are able to enforce new guidelines and remain open, why can’t the Carmel?
In the shuk, at least one could maintain a self-determined distance from others, choosing which vendors to patronize based on who seemed to be taking COVID-19 seriously, all the while keeping oneself away from other customers. And while I’m fully aware I could get coronavirus anywhere, I’d rather take the risk purchasing chicken wings from Victor, who shows me photos of his grandchildren, than from a stranger in a red vest with whom I have zero relationship.
I’ve never shopped in supermarkets since moving to Tel Aviv, and I am not about to start now. As someone who works from home, writing and developing cookbooks for myself and others, the computer and cutting board are my most frequent companions. That means that the shuk is more than my market, it’s my daily water cooler. Most days I pop out of the house to the shuk several times, taking a 30-second shortcut through a bougainvillea-lined side street to check in with all of my regular vendors, from the butcher where I buy locally raised lamb chops to the loquat vendor who saves me his best wares and the cheesemonger where I shell out my shekels for local feta that has been produced by the same family for upwards of 150 years.
But today the market remains closed for the most part. And my heart breaks for the vendors and restaurateurs who have seen their businesses decimated. Like taxi drivers, market vendors — many of whom have been plying their trade for generations — are a reliable nose for facts on the ground. Before the market was forcibly shut, with police cars patrolling, their blue lights flickering silently, the prevailing sentiment among them was that the coronavirus may be serious, but no more of a threat here in the market than in Israel’s supermarkets. And yet one of these is allowed to remain open while the other is, for now, shuttered.
I wish someone could answer me definitively: Why are supermarkets allowed to stay open while the shuk remains closed? It feels like Goliath flattening David without even a slingshot to give him a fighting chance. It sends the message that corporations are more COVID-resistant than corner shops — a sentiment the U.S. restaurant industry is currently grappling with in its own way — which is not only unfair but dangerously misinformed.
But the shuk is resilient. For a venue that has seen its fair share of complications over the years, from terror alerts and nearby SCUD missile attacks to inflation and recession, succumbing to COVID-19 is notably out of character, and I have faith the market will rebound.
In the meantime, though, a whisper network has begun to proliferate, a clandestine cluster of WhatsApp groups and emails alerting me to the fact that some of the shuk is, in fact, open.
A produce vendor I often buy from who operates on a side street not technically in the market, is quietly selling produce to those willing to line up and adhere to his strict enforcement of social distancing. It’s a highly local crowd of regulars who nod behind paper masks, our smiles discernible to one another by the crinkling at the corners of our eyes.
Once or twice a week I am able to participate, at least partially in the shopping ritual I have performed thousands of times since moving here. True, I can’t inspect the carrots and turnips for my chicken soup over myself — I have to leave the selection to a latex-gloved employee. But these are rare moments of connection in the market during what has been a disorienting time for many of us, and I’ll take what I can get.
Adeena Sussman is the author of Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen, and the co-author of 11 cookbooks, including Cravings and Cravings: Hungry For More by Chrissy Teigen. She lives in the shadow of the Carmel market in Tel Aviv.