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Shuk It Up, Baby!

December 15, 2005 By:
Yocheved Miriam Russo, JE Feature
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There's no telling what you might find in the lee of Tel Aviv's famous clock tower.

The Israel Antiquities Authority struck cultural gold in their ongoing dig at the tower base - first up was a 61?2-foot cannon, apparently used by Napoleon on that fateful March 7, 1799, when he charged Jaffa's city walls. Beneath that was a 12th-century human skeleton from the Crusader era.

Then, just last month, two extremely rare coins - minted for only a six-year period in Frankish Acre between 1251 and 1257 - came to light. The discovery had archaeologists walking around with goofy little grins on their faces for days.

But in this ancient section of Tel Aviv, it's not just archaeologists who walk around with goofy little grins. Lots of ordinary people do, too: The multi-block area just south of the tower is known as Shuk HaPishpeshim, Tel Aviv's famed flea market. In Hebrew, a pishpesh is a bedbug, not a flea, but since this anything-goes shopping area has been a fixture since the early 19th century, the difference really doesn't matter, especially since the main offering is unadulterated fun.

For bargain-starved Israelis, the flea market is a great place to save a few shekels on normal household items. For tourists, it's at the top of the "don't miss" list. No other place in Israel offers the same glimpse into the incredible diversity of the land, all through its many incarnations.

In its earliest days, the flea market was the informal site where new immigrants would go to sell off family treasures if times got tough and they needed money. As a result, the ethnic array of goods proved beyond compare: silver brought in from Russia, ceramics from Germany, hand-carved dolls and toys from Eastern Europe, art from France and Italy, ancient religious articles, handcrafted in every place a Jew had ever lived.

Today, all those same items still appear - even though now, sharp dealers usually spirit away the most valuable items first.

But not always. There's a litany of stories about real treasures found here, purchased for a steal, and then discovered to have significant value. One of Tel Aviv's most successful antique dealers recently revealed that he got his start spending days at the market, mining it for items of unrecognized value he could clean up and then sell.

The Ha'aretz edition of July 18 tells another story: In 1987, a Tel Aviv woman bought paintings at the market, only to later discover they were by Reuven Rubins, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Even literature has benefited: Editor/ journalist Roman Frister's most recent book, Impossible Love: Ascher Levy's Longing for Germany, is based on documents and scraps of paper found in an old suitcase he purchased at the shuk.

That said, most people aren't hunting for veritable treasures as much as for bargains and fun. For either of those, no one goes away empty-handed.

What's there? Everything!

There's big stuff - rugs, carpets, lamps, furniture - and little stuff - wall hangings, carvings, paintings, bells, chimes and jewelry. There's expensive stuff- gold or gemstones - and cheaper ones, like antique knock-offs.

Perhaps most interesting is the ethnic stuff -– drums from many cultures, water pipes, woven mats, blankets, table coverings. One shop features hand-carved items from South America, another (seriously incongruous here) has cornered the American Indian market, where everything from clothing to furniture is decorated with feathers, beads, leather fringes and cowhide.

Silver for all purposes, decorative and functional, is available. Pottery exists in styles and sizes too numerous to describe. Dishes are ubiquitous - some matching, some not - and to be found is hand-blown glass, some locally crafted yesterday, some imported hundreds of years ago.

The clothing alleys, especially for women, are almost beyond description. Some of them are wedged into passageways between buildings so narrow you can almost reach across them. The top of crevices are covered over with glass panels, so fans blow from all directions to control the heat.

One Faith Fits All!
Shopping is completely inter-denominational. A religious Jewish woman wearing long sleeves and skirt, digs through the same rack as a young Arab woman in a burka. Both stand next to a bare-bellied blond teenager looking for something different.

Shopping is a communal experience. Without even the privacy afforded by a Loehmann's or Filene's Basement, women try things on - some right in the aisle, over their street clothes, while others sneak back for a bit more privacy.

Everyone within elbow distance joins in the decision-making: "That's a good color," "It's too big/too small," "It's way too tight in the tuchas!" The commentary is helpful, as there are few mirrors and the salespeople assure you everything looks perfect.

And in terms of price, everything's up for grabs.

If a vendor says she wants 100 shekels (about $23) for a dress, chances are good it's yours for 50. If you buy more than one item or are especially adept at Middle Eastern negotiation, you might pay even less. If you can't get a price you like, then wait. Someone else down the line will probably have something even better, and you can try again.

Music blares from a blanket where one vendor has hundreds of old 78s with a south-of-the-border (the American border, that is) theme: First, the Trio Los Ponchos tear your heart out with "Ojos Verdes," then Werner Muller plays tango hits, which inspire a couple of former South Americans, both of them senior citizens and apparently not previously acquainted, to offer a demonstration of how a real tango should look.

They finish with a pretty respectable dip, and everyone applauds. The guy with the records is grinning ear to ear. In terms of marketing, that little dance was pure genius.

What on Earth … ?
Across the way, two young men with long, spiraled peyot and colorful North African kipot sell books and videos. In this sun, the videos seem questionable, but the books are interesting. Most are in Hebrew, including a tattered old paperback, adorned with a movie poster.

Hours later, the real dilemma hits: "My Fair Lady" was never a book. It was the movie version of George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion." What on earth was that?

Insider knowledge dictates that the best time to come is early on Sunday, because vendors like to make a good sale first off, as a favorable omen for the rest of the week.

Still, every day is a good day to visit the incomparable flea market in Tel Aviv.

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