In the Bustling Israeli Market, I Finally Learned How to Take Up Space

The shuk showed me the loud, bold, assertive Jewish woman I am supposed to be.

The thought of going on Birthright terrified me. While I enjoy traveling, I tend to hate the little parts of travel, like crowded planes and language barriers. Mostly, I hate situations where I might bother someone.

I was raised to avoid stepping on toes — literally and figuratively. Before I got to college, I had perfected the awkward art of minimizing myself. I became a master of shrinking myself down to fit through crowded rooms, lecture hall rows, and out of the way of less careful walkers. I planned out every step I took, and every word I said, out of anxiety about bothering someone else.

And so this is how I was during my trip to Israel. Careful with introductions, strategically choosing plane seats, doing everything I could to avoid conflict.

Then came Mahane Yehuda. On a Friday afternoon.

Mahene Yehuda is a massive outdoor market, called the shuk, in the heart of Jerusalem. It’s full of restaurants, bars, and shops of all varieties. The smells are overpowering, the sounds are absolutely deafening, and there isn’t a square inch of open space in the hours leading up to Shabbat.

My Birthright group split up and dove into the shuk headfirst. No one else seemed concerned that they may be seen as rude or unthinking for pushing past people. No one but me.

As my small group of friends started in, I couldn’t see a path in. People wanted falafel, hummus, tchotchkes. All I could see was a wall of people that I was somehow supposed to walk through. As my friends pulled me along, all I could think was I hope these folks don’t get mad at me, what if I knock something over, oh my God they’re gonna hate me. I tried to shrink back, but every time I did, there was someone else behind me that I was knocking into. I’d jump out of their way and into someone else’s. I found there was just no way to shrink small enough for the shuk. There was no possible way to minimize my way out of this one. I was scared I would get trampled, lost, and absorbed into the chaos of the market.

As I felt my chest tightening, my friends found a restaurant they liked. It looked like they had tables, so we could sit down for a bit in this hurricane. But before we sat, we were met by the stone wall that was Claudette.

“You will eat?” she demanded of us. “If you will not order food then you cannot sit.” We agreed that we would eat. She looked us over. After a moment, she let us inside.

As we ate, I just watched Claudette. She was in charge of her little restaurant, in command of every inch. She wasn’t afraid to get past people in her way, wasn’t afraid to move them herself when she needed to. To me, she was the feminist spirit of the shuk. Bold, unbothered, and completely willing to step on toes. I wanted to be her. Rejuvenated by hummus and Lebanese pizza, we took off again into the crowd.

Then, something amazing happened: I let myself take up space. I didn’t push, but I allowed myself to move through spaces even when it meant bumping into others, brushing shoulders, making room for myself. I walked where I wanted to be, and to my surprise, no one turned to yell at me or curse my ignorant American ways. I just got to where I wanted to be.

As the afternoon turned into evening and the Shabbat shoppers turned into Birthright partiers, we kept up this dance. My friends grabbed hands and we pressed our way through the other groups. There wasn’t an inch between the streams of people to breathe. To minimize here would leave me on the floor. Instead, I found myself on dance floors, taking as much space as I needed, as I wanted. The shuk showed me the loud, bold, assertive Jewish woman I am supposed to be.

Header Image: Shoppers walk through the Mahane Yehuda Market, often called ‘The Shuk.’ Photo by David Vaaknin for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

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