Ashdod had a small-town feel when I first used to visit there, back around 1977. My parents had just come to Israel and were living in the absorption center, studying Hebrew. There was a relaxed, seaside feeling when we’d saunter out in the late afternoon to enjoy the breeze, stopping to drink coffee at one of the many sidewalk cafés. Lots of Moroccan and Egyptian-accented French spoken in the street, in shops. Tiny eateries with three or four tables where my folks and I would order fish couscous. There was a small artists’ colony – a few cozy, rundown houses near the beach. We visited a painter my parents knew and found him waving his arms and explaining a large, colorful canvas to a group of admirers.
We’d sit and sip coffee and people-watch. Clusters of dark Bnei Israel women in saris would pass by, chatting in Malayalam with their handsome husbands and kids. Russian immigrants, newly arrived and still bewildered, cautiously getting the lay of the land. Jews wearing crocheted kippot, wearing black hats, wearing colorful embroidered Georgian caps. Sailors cocking eyebrows at every nice pair of legs. Ashdod is a port town, after all, and has been for thousands of years.
As today and as always, sunshine, heat, and the sea.
I went back to Ashdod last week to visit friends and hit the shuk. The town has grown very much since I knew it. Its small-town character has changed. Thousands of new immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia and a thriving ultra-Orthodox community have displaced the old, European-influenced Middle-Eastern culture. New neighbohoods and tall, sleek buildings have risen. I no longer knew my way around.
It seemed a less friendly town than the one I remembered. But it was probably just me, awash with nostalgia as I walked through the old places. My parents were younger than I myself am now. We would stroll together, three abreast, through the shabby, colorful streets or on the peaceful beach… How strange to realize that ordinary moments become rich memories.
But the bustling sea-side shuk forced me back into the present, and gladly I went. Wednesday is shuk day in Ashdod, and it takes place next to the beach promenade. Rising above the crowds is the sundial clock tower.
A multi-cultural crowd moved among the hundreds of stands. Besides Hebrew and French, I heard Amharic, Russian, Spanish and even some English.
Most of the produce was beautiful, like this bright orange pumpkin and baladi eggplant. The tiny artichokes would have been perfect for stuffing and frying, except, sadly, they were infested with snails.
Clothes in the shuk always intrigue me. Here’s a T-shirt for Maccabi basketball team fans…
and a startling new summer fashion: chamsot to avert the evil eye, on your sandals.
I always look for the one table displaying awful shoes in the shuk, and I found it.
So awful as to be actually rather cool.
Although you wouldn’t catch me dead in them.
I meandered on under the awnings, enjoying the colors and scents and glancing at vendors like this couple selling room perfumes.
A pair of hips swaying like The Girl From Ipanema, apricots in the background…
A street musician provided the music, although he was more into El Condor Pasa than bossa nova.
Hungry for some foodie pictures?
Here’s a vendor of lupine and big, coarse ful beans.
Lupines are tedious to prepare, being saturated with a bitter alkaloid. To make them edible, they must be soaked, rinsed, soaked again, cooked, drained, and then put to rest for 4-7 days in brine. Then they are rinsed and ready to eat. Sort of like olives, except for the cooking. But they’re nutritious and tasty – once someone else has done all that work.
A pot of ful beans, hot, floury, and savory with cumin.
And those stuffed vine leaves looked good.
I wouldn’t buy those candied pecans though, having watched a worker sifting them through his bare hands.
What can I say, I’m a fussy Westerner.
Almonds kept plump in water…
And in case all those goodies were making you feel a size larger, the herb man had fresh stevia plants for sale.
Kosher keepers should know that none of the prepared foods sold in the shuk are OK. Actually while my friend and I were standing and watching two Beduin ladies make hand-made flatbreads, a woman with a sharp face came up to us and hissed,
“Is this kosher? Do they take challah?” Warning us away.
But here are the flatbreads, some baked in a skillet that goes into a portable oven and some slapped onto a saj (the pan that looks like an upside-down wok).
That’s what our breads should have looked like, the day the bloggers got together to bake on a saj at Sarah Melamed’s house. (Our breads were still delicious, though.)
I venture to guess that the two bakers were the wives of the man who ran the stand.
He filled the breads with leben and chopped herbs and tomatoes, then rolled it all up into a neat package for eating out of hand. It looked mighty good. I’ve eaten saj bread (with a hechsher, at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem) – it has to be very fresh because it goes dry and tasteless quickly.
The bread vendor also had leben cheese in olive oil, bottles of that same oil, and fresh okra. What the dark seeds in the containers to the right are, I couldn’t tell. He wasn’t too thrilled at my taking photos so I didn’t linger to ask him.
On our way out of the shuk, the delicious smells of meat grilling over coals wafted around on a cloud of smoke.
“Tell them it’s the best!” ordered the vendor. It may well be, but I can’t testify to it.
It was hot. Behind the shuk is the promenade, with cafés overlooking the beach. To let the delicious sea breeze cool me down, I stood there for a while.
My friend suggested we just get on buses and ride around. So we did. I became a little more familiar with the new, sprawling Ashdod, so neatly planned with its independent neighborhoods.
At sunset, we walked over to the absorption center where my folks had lived for six months. The building stands near a garden that slopes down to the beach. I had often taken walks with my parents there.
Memories rose so strongly that tears rose too. It seemed I could almost hear my Dad’s voice, almost expect to see him walking and pausing to turn his head in his characteristic way to catch what Mom was saying. In one way, I was glad Mom wasn’t with me – I know she would have been overcome.
In another, I felt as if both of them should have been there with me. Remembering the Seder we made in the little bed/living room with its kitchenette . Dad became emotional, being in Israel after decades of hoping.
Hope and anticipation lay lightly on our hearts then. The future was a thing unraveling, far ahead.