Earlier this month, our neighborhood grocery in Jerusalem celebrated its 20th anniversary, and we were all treated to a lavish party, with barbeque, beer and wine.
Why would the three owners, Shai, Eli and Nir, care about us so much? Because we care about them. Twenty years ago they came to our neighborhood, Beit HaKerem, took over a lousy, sleepy grocery, changed its name to Market, and turned it into an institution.
If Israel is a Startup Nation, then Market is a social startup. The three energetic Jerusalemites discovered the secret of all startups — a special need — and then went on to find the perfect solution for it. Our need, in this case, was not purely economic: you can buy their products for cheaper prices at the malls or at the Mahane Yehuda market. It seems that our subconscious need, which they so brilliantly unearthed, was rather social: We yearned for a place where you don’t only shop, but also interact.
Indeed, upon entering, one of the three owners will call you by your name, ask if your wife (whose name he knows as well) is OK, and whisper in your ear that he reserved for you your favorite bottle of wine. Pushing your cart, you’ll exchange friendly words with the Governess of the Bank of Israel or the former Chief Justice, or Mayor Nir Barkat — all residents of our neighborhood, or just hug friends you haven’t seen for a while.
Market is also an oasis of coexistence, a bit of fresh air in our strife-torn city. It employs eleven Arabs and nine Jews, who treat each other as family, and actually celebrate family events together.
Ours is a proud neighborhood. Ninety years ago, the first community building was built, to serve as a kindergarten and later become the Community Council House. Over the years, it was deserted and neglected. In 1988, the city, prompted by greedy entrepreneurs, decided to demolish it and build a lucrative skyscraper instead. But the otherwise docile residents were up in arms. Beit HaKerem is famous for the green old trees which tower over our four-story houses. We were determined not to let such a monstrosity happen in our midst.
We won. With our donations and the estate of Yitzhak and Rachel Yaacobi, two of the founders of Beit HaKerem, the building was refurbished and today it is Beit HaVa’ad HaYashan (Old Council House), where the elders of the neighborhood come to hear a lecture, drink a cup of tea and reminisce on the good old days.
When Dwight D. Eisenhower died in 1969, many lamented not only the passing of a president but also the demise of the old-time little towns, like Abilene, Kan., where Ike grew up and became a man. Those charming hotbeds of Middle America, where everyone knew everyone, have long surrendered to the anonymity and alienation of the big cities. Maybe today Abilene and its likes are hitting back with Donald Trump.
Anyway, far away, in Jerusalem, we do live in the big city and yet we manage to keep the spirit of the small town. If once the residents of Beit HaKerem gathered at the Council House, today it is Market grocery that keeps the community together.
In the meantime, a commotion starts at the butcher’s stand. A woman is accused of cutting in line. She says she was there before, just went to fetch some cheese. Voices are kept low — after all, we are a civilized neighborhood — but solid words are nevertheless exchanged, not without a trace of distant insult.
Omar the butcher waves his long knife, like a conductor who with his baton interrupts an errant orchestra. “Friends, please, it’s our anniversary.”
Our grocery is probably the only place in Jerusalem where an Arab with a knife can make the Jews smile.
Uri Dromi is director general of the Jerusalem Press Club, a former spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments and a retired colonel in the Israeli Air Force. He writes a column on Israeli affairs for the Miami Herald.