A Spoonful of Scripture

Candy shopping in Jerusalem

by by Molly Young

Is there a direct relationship between piety and sugar consumption? I was in Jerusalem and I never saw so much candy. Candy in the Muslim quarter, candy in the Jewish quarter, candy in the Christian quarter. Tourists are not allowed in the Armenian quarter, but there is probably candy there too. Next to the yarmulkes are bins of liquid-filled grape suckers. Beside the keffiyehs are jelly blocks of Turkish Delight. The tea is so sweet it makes my teeth chatter. I used a pen to stir my morning tea and by the afternoon it was stickier than flypaper and covered in lint.

Me'a She'arim is the Orthodox Jewish section of Jerusalem. It is an interesting place to visit but not a fun place to be. There are forbidding signs posted in the streets: "Please Do Not Pass Through Our Neighborhood in Immodest Clothes," and on the doors: "Please Enter My Store in Modest Clothing." Religious solemnity feels a lot like hostility when it means that no one will look you in the eye except to glare. The men wear black hats, the women wear black stockings, and everyone is shaped like a matzoh ball, except for the skinny and hyperactive kids.

Despite narrow sidewalks and heavy traffic, the kids are moving fast, zooming around with curly earlocks flying. They are tanked up on sugar, or about to be tanked up on sugar. Candy stores are hard to miss in Jerusalem. They are everywhere, selling long pipes of taffy and bulging sacks of intricate sugary wheels. There are bags of dates and blocks of halvah solid enough to build a temple out of.

The loose candy is displayed in overflowing bins or jumbled up on tables. Most of them are warped but recognizable versions of familiar candies, but there are plenty that would make fine objects of study for the culinary anthropologist. Turkish Delight is a pinkish substance that tastes like a rose-flavored jellyfish. Sometimes it is flavored with walnuts, cinnamon, lemon or orange, but it is always dusted with sugar and stacked into terraced structures. So much glucose in so many guises.

Israelis even eat bowls of fruit jelly for dessert, as though toast were too much of an impediment to bother with. They scrape up the jelly with little spoons and wash it down with cold water. For the festival of Sukkot, a weeklong holiday, Jews each year construct small huts in homage to those their ancestors built after the exodus from Egypt. Some Orthodox Jews choose to live in these huts during the festival. In Jerusalem this past year, a giant hut, or sukkah, was constructed out of candy in a major plaza. Inside stood a jumbo chocolate fountain, several cotton candy machines and candy banks that dispensed jelly beans and bubblegum to thousands of small children. The mayor of the city operated the fountain, dipping marshmallows in the goo and handing them out. City officials estimated that two tons of candy were distributed throughout the holiday.

One of the stranger sweets to be found in Jerusalem is a pastry called knafeh. You can locate knafeh in every bakery being pulled from the oven on hot, round trays. It is doused in sugar syrup and sliced into bright orange squares. A layer of white cheese the texture of calamari is topped with ground pistachios, syrup, and a grain that feels like gravel but is actually semolina. Knafeh is a specialty of the region, and it is very good.
On an ordinary day in Jerusalem you can observe Orthodox Jews standing around in head-to-toe black, filling plastic sacks with pizza-shaped gummies and chocolate stars--a few light snacks for blistering hours of religious study. It appears as though these pious men and women have outsourced every speck of color from their lives into the candy stands only to buy it all back and fill themselves up with it. Or perhaps it is merely the flame of religious conviction acting as a furnace, demanding for fuel so many hundreds of fudgy calories.

Them baggy sweatpants and the Reeboks with the MOLLY YOUNG B'08.