JERUSALEM, Oct. 1 (JTA) — The Mahane Yehuda market here was bustling on Monday morning before the start of Sukkot, but it wasn’t as packed as it usually is before the start of the eight-day holiday.
"People are scared," said Motti, who was selling willow branches for less than a dollar apiece off his flat-bed truck. "They don’t want to take any chances by being in a crowded place."
Customers were milling around the outdoor market, buying dates, grapes, challah and salted sunflower seeds for the holiday.
But if they were looking to find last-minute deals on the palm fronds, citrons, myrtle and willow branches that make up the four species used during the festival prayers — there weren’t any to be had.
Those hawking the lulav-and-etrog sets — as the four species are usually called — were also hard to find. For security reasons, the municipality, in cooperation with the market, herded all the lulav and etrog sellers into a closed parking lot next to the market.
The lot had only one entrance, manned by several police officers and a security guard. Everyone’s bags were checked at the entrance.
The police also weren’t being lenient with the few sellers who decided to buck the trend.
"You want to sell willow branches? Go get yourself a stand in the courtyard with everybody else," one officer yelled at Motti. "Don’t give me any trouble."
Soldiers and police officers were stationed throughout Mahane Yehuda.
Tensions were high following a car bombing in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot earlier Monday morning.
The bombing, which did not injure anyone, was carried out in a residential area of the capital because there is less of a police presence in Jerusalem’s periphery, according to Jerusalem police commander Mickey Levy.
Despite the attack, the lulav and etrog sellers downtown were doing a brisk business.
Most were selling sets of palm fronds, etrog and myrtle branches for around $15. Willow branches were being sold separately.
Buyers pored over the selection of citrons, checking their bumpy yellow skin for any blemishes or flaws. They shook the palm fronds, making sure the leaves weren’t bent or broken, and examined the willow and myrtle branches for brown spots.
"You can’t be too careful," said Chaim, who was purchasing three lulav sets, for himself and his two sons. "You want to be sure it’s all completely kosher."
Some sellers were offering rabbinically certified myrtle branches and citrons for buyers willing to pay a premium price of $25 to $35.
In other parts of the city, people were still buying the temporary huts used during the holiday.
The sets ranged in price — from small, plastic-walled versions that seat six, costing around $75, to larger, canvas-walled styles that seat 12 for around $220. Some kits included bamboo poles used for the roof of the sukkah.
Many buyers opted to find their own schach, the thatch-like covering used for a sukkah. Local entrepreneurs were selling batches of large palm fronds to be used for schach.
Despite the heightened security situation, several tourists making their way through Mahane Yehuda still relished the pre-Sukkot scene.
"It’s hard to believe they’re actually selling etrogim in a market," said one man who was in Israel for the holiday. "And they’re much cheaper than in New York. The hotels, though, those are still expensive."
While tourism is down considerably this year, most hotels haven’t lowered their rates.