I believe Eema means mother or mom in Hebrew. When I spotted “Eema’s Market” in big block letters on a bright green frame, on the corner of Topanga and Ventura Boulevard in Woodland Hills, buried in that jungle of faceless stores and depressing mini malls that populate the entire Valley, my heart experienced a pang of warmth “Here’s a place where I can most likely find Middle Eastern ingredients and good challah on Friday” I thought to myself “without having to schlep to Fairfax Avenue”. And I have been back to Eema’s many times, despite finding little warmth inside and, rather than a surrogate mom, more of an imperious aunt ready to scold you at the smallest inadvertent mistake.
But I start at a disadvantage. I don’t speak Hebrew. The first time I waltzed in, many years ago on a Friday, I joined the line of women buying challah – the yellow bread was ready to go, organized in layers on the counter next to the cash register, almost eager to leave the store. It was quickly apparent I was the only gentile in there and the gray-haired woman behind the counter, a severe chignon at the nape of her neck, old-fashioned giant glasses perched on her nose, insisted on addressing me in Hebrew. I was instantly reminded of the day I wandered around the market in Jaffa, Israel and, finally tired and hungry, stopped at a counter that seemed to sell bread and all kinds of delicious looking pastries to a mob of people, ranging from soldiers with their rifles slung across their shoulders to old Arab ladies – when my turn finally came after elbowing my way through, local style, I could only point in desperation at my lack of usable language. I ended up back at the hotel with my bags of goodies that did not disappoint. The experience at Eema’s was similar but mainly because the lady of the castle made no effort to speak the English I knew she must have mastered to some degree.
It took a few years for Eema’s gruffness towards me to soften and for me to understand that the quality of roughness and directness typical of Israelis should not be confused with rudeness. Today I walked in looking for pomegranate molasses – I read somewhere that they impart an unmistakable flavor to vegetable dishes and cakes and I wanted to give it a go. Upon walking into the essentially furnished store (which also has a take out area where workers congregate to eat delicious hot food) I notice Eema is talking to an extremely beautiful girl, dark, tall and muscular – their conversation is in Hebrew and their “do not disturb us” gaze makes me feel as an intruder. I slide over towards the back shelves and, among bars of halva, all kinds of exotic spices and dodgy olive oil, I find pomegranate juice and pomegranate concentrate but no molasses. I tiptoe back to the counter, hoping Eema will notice my hesitant expression “What do you want?” she says in Hebrew and then, none the softer, she switches to English. Begrudgingly she walks back to the shelves I just emerged from, looks at the same bottles I just looked at and proclaims “I don’t have it – always have it, I must be out”. And walks back to her statuesque friend. Our interaction is over, she doesn’t try to sell me something else or to suggest when she might get the molasses back in. And that is why I keep on patronizing her store. I miss shopkeepers with a character instead of the generic teenagers that wish me a good day at the market with the same conviction they muster for their parents when asked how their day was. Besides, the treasure trove in the back of the Eema’s store is far more interesting that the semi-bare shelves. You just have to know what to ask for and hope she is not too busy with her girlfriends.
21932 Ventura Boulevard – Woodland Hills
Tel 818 702 9272