Home > Dorothea Shefer-Vanson, Israel > Going to market in Jerusalem is a gender issue

Going to market in Jerusalem is a gender issue

By Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

MEVASSERET ZION, Israel — When I first moved to Israel, some forty years ago, there was one supermarket in Jerusalem, and perhaps a few more in Tel Aviv. My housekeeping requirements as a student were not very great, and I seem to remember my forays to the supermarket as rare occasions, requiring little more to be purchased than bread, milk and eggs. I lived on black coffee and chocolate biscuits, and ate proper meals only at the weekends, when kind relatives invited me for Friday night supper or Shabbat lunch.

After I got married and set up a household of my own things became more complicated. The corner grocery was the source of most of our purchases, and the procedure of going shopping was an arduous task. My limited Hebrew and the elderly shop-keeper’s non-existent English meant that I had to have a dictionary at hand or point to the items on the shelves, then watch with bated breath as he perched on a rickety step-ladder to get the items down for me. Then he would add up the cost, using pencil and paper, and before paying him I would do the same, or pretend to do so.

Much to my surprise, my husband insisted on buying all our fruit and vegetables, as well as basic foodstuffs such as rice, in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market. My surprise was doubtless confounded by the contrast with my father, whose only foray into shops was to buy flowers for my mother every Friday on his way home from the office. The idea of a man going shopping, and doing so in an open-air market to boot, was totally alien to me. My husband enjoyed this event, which evidently represented something of a weekly hunting expedition for him. I suspect that he would also indulge in a portion of falafel or a plate of humus at one or another of the well-known local eateries

My ignorance of male behavioural norms in the Middle East was understandable, considering my background. How could a girl brought up in London and born to parents originating from Germany be expected to know that in this part of the world women were traditionally expected to remain at home, while the outside world was a male preserve? And the open-air market was a male club, as it were, with cafes and restaurants where men would meet and exchange information, mainly about football and politics. To this day, incidentally, most of Jerusalem’s money-changers are to be found in or near the Mahaneh Yehuda market, although it is no longer largely a male preserve.

While women are no longer confined to the home, many men still choose to do the household shopping in the market. I have even been informed by an authoritative source that women don’t know how to choose good fruit and vegetables. It is true that in order to choose a watermelon one should pick it up, place it on one’s shoulder and knock it to test for the right resonance, and that is something for which strong biceps are required. It seems, however, that choosing tomatoes or cucumbers that are just right for a salad is also considered a masculine skill.

Be that as it may, the corner grocery stores have almost all disappeared, and these days a plethora of air-conditioned supermarkets and shopping malls vie for the patronage of shoppers, be they male or female. Even the open-air markets have been spruced up. Shopping in Israel is a very different experience today.


Shefer-Vanson, a freelance writer and translator based in Mevasseret Zion, can be reached at dorothea@shefer.com This article initially appeared in the AJR Journal, published by the Association of Jewish Refugees in the United Kingdom.

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