One of my favourite things about Jerusalem is Shabbat. When I lived in Sydney and Johannesburg, Shabbat was the day we’d walk to shul in our finery, while the rest of the world whirled by in their cars. Here, in Jerusalem, I’m completely in sync with my world.
The frenetic Shabbat preparation begins on Thursday. The energy revs up as the tick-tock of the city’s clock begins its countdown to Shabbat. I know to avoid Shuk Machane Yehuda from Thursday afternoon onwards, unless I want to join the jostling crowds converging en-masse to buy their salted herring, five-shekel challahs and Jerusalem kugel. Of course, it’s a treat to watch this live, colourful human theatre of shouting vendors and haggling buyers from the vantage point of a high barstool at The Roasters, over an Aussie-style flat white.
Above the general din, if you listen closely, you can hear the parting words, ‘Shabbat Shalom’ – may you have a peaceful day of rest – the blessing that we wish each other whether we’re Jewish, religious or secular, Moslem or Christian. It’s a blessing that stretches across all human borders and boundaries in Jerusalem.
Friday morning dawns with the streets quieter than usual. As my nine-year-old and I head out to the weekly Friday organic vegetable market, I see that the city wakes up slowly to its day off.
Ambling down the winding, narrow, bougainvillea-lined streets, I breathe deeply and smell pungent, frying onions and garlic wafting from the Jerusalem sandstone apartments. The aroma of chicken soup pervades the air, intermingled with the heady scent of wild growing jasmine and the mouthwatering fragrance of freshly baked cinnamon yeast cake. It feels like I could walk into any of these abodes and suddenly see my grandmother and join her for a steaming cup of cardamom tea.
The morning picks up its pace as I stroll onto Emek Refaim, a bustling, trendy main street full of strolling couples, hand in hand, pushing prams, and plastic shopping bags full of homemade hummus, meat kubbehs and chocolate rugelach.
I consider Friday mornings to be the most romantic time of the week. It’s the perfect “Sunday” for parents as the children are at school half-day. The round tables that line the streets outside the modish cafes are full of couples sipping cappuccinos, reading newspapers and sharing big, Israeli breakfasts. My favourite couples are the elderly ones who sit together over their coffee and croissants, their blue-veined hands intertwined.
By the time the children come home, the shopping is done, and hopefully, the Shabbat cooking as well. It’s now family time; a picnic in a park, a walk in the Jerusalem forest or an easy swim in the Emek public pool. Then, as the afternoon sun hikes its way through the sky, store-by-store, Jerusalem begins to shut down. The swimmers walk home wrapped in their towels, and the pop-up Friday flower stalls sell their last bunches of Shabbat flowers.
We’ve figured out that the last store to close on a Friday is Mousseline, a boutique ice-cream parlour opposite the president’s residence, and our family Friday treat is to drive there, through the now quiet Katamon streets, for our hit of hazelnut and vanilla cones.
Heading back home as Mousseline shuts its doors, the streets are now empty of beeping cars and whirring buses. People are dressed in their Shabbat finery (which in Israel is as simple as a white Polo shirt, beige trousers and sandals, and light, summer cotton dresses), and are ambling to shul for an early summer minyan, while others walk their dogs. The last bike, with a bunch of purple and white lycianthes tied onto the back, cycles home.
As the Shabbat siren sounds, highlighting the stillness, the Shabbat candles are lit throughout the city. After lighting, as I step onto the street, I can see Chassidic families with so many children I lose count, all dressed in matching outfits. Singles, who look like they've stepped out of the TV series, ‘Srugim’, carry their tinfoil quiches to their Friday night hosts, as Carlebach niggunim sing-song through the jigsaw of buildings that jostle for space.
The cooling evening breeze blows through the palpable silence. It’s a quiet pregnant with contentment, which comes as the engine of life slowly hums to a stop. It’s a tranquillity that everyone can feel, not just those who keep Shabbat. It’s the city’s gift to itself, this stopping, this silence, this peace that is Jerusalem, despite the politics, news and contention that often surrounds it. A man-made stretch of holy space in time, created by the people, who, in their own unique way, join in weekly to keep one peaceful, Jerusalem Shabbat at a time.