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Sunday, May 16, 2004

Lee Chong’s Makolet

My wife chuckles and shakes her head whenever she sees me take down and re-read my dog-eared copies of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, or Sweet Thursday. I like re-reading books in general (she prefers the ‘latest’ literary offerings), but these two in particular allow me to mentally live out the old-time, small town fantasy. I also really enjoy the effortless ‘emersion’ that takes place when re-reading an old favorite.

After the brief prologue, Cannary row begins:

“Lee Chong’s Grocery, while not a model of neatness, was a miracle of supply. It was small and crowded but within its single room a man could find everything he needed or wanted to live and be happy.

As I read, and then re-read this initial description of the contents of Lee Chong’s grocery - a passage I’ve read a dozen times before – I suddenly saw that fictional store through the lens of my new life in Israel. Steinbeck was unwittingly describing a makolet!

For those of you not familiar with this cherished Israeli institution, a makolet is a neighborhood store where one can buy ‘staples’ such as fresh bread (unwrapped, and often still warm from the bakery), milk, cheese, cereal, coffee, sugar, vegetables, light bulbs, batteries, beer, candy, and roughly 10,000 other absolutely essential items.

[Funny aside: On my first trip to Israel, I was sent out by my flat mates to buy milk and bread at the makolet. Being too embarrassed to ask directions, I followed a series signs and arrows that seemed to say 'makolet' down into the basement of a neighboring apartment building where I found myself alone in a bomb shelter (a miklat). The problem stemmed from the fact that to a neophyte, the Hebrew words for these two unrelated things look phonetically similar. A newcomer to English could be similarly confused by ‘karat’ and ‘carrot’, albeit with a less funny anecdote to share afterwards]

Anyway… unlike the nearly extinct neighborhood stores of my youth, the makolet seems to have stubbornly maintained its status as the hub of the Israeli neighborhood. While most people now do their ‘big shopping’ at supermarkets, early each morning you will still see a steady parade of husbands and children sent out to buy fresh milk, eggs, bread, butter, cream, yogurt, fruit, vegetables, etc. from the makolet.

On the way to school, kids often stop at the makolet to buy a ‘lachmahnia’ (a fresh baked roll) and ‘sakeet shoko’ (a small plastic bag filled with chocolate milk, consumed by biting off the corner and squirting the contents into the mouth). On the way home they might stop in again for an after-school treat. And for the remainder of the day, thousands of errands are run to this ‘miracle of supply’ to pick up whatever is lacking in the family larder.

One might think that the makolet only exists in small towns and villages. Not so. Even in big cities like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, most neighborhoods still have at least one makolet.

Here in Efrat we have two fairly large supermarkets, but nearly everyone I know has an account under the family name at the neighborhood makolet.

All in all, the makolet provides a very satisfying aesthetic and business arrangement. And in light of my somewhat ‘old-fashioned literary tastes, it is wonderfully reminiscent of a simpler time when places like the fictional Lee Chong’s sold nearly everything a person “needed or wanted to live and be happy”.

Posted by David Bogner on May 16, 2004 | Permalink

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Now that I get a nod and a Ma Nishma from my Makolet guy, I know that I'm a part of the community. Too bad I'm moving....

Posted by: Gil Ben Mori | May 20, 2004 1:47:40 PM

Yeah...but the way you really know you've made it is when the makolet guy starts ratting out your kids to you for all the junk they buy after school.

Posted by: David | May 20, 2004 10:25:18 PM

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