There is a neighborhood in Tel Aviv in which time stands still. When you walk down its winding alleyways, you can almost picture how life used to be, before modern times. An unmistakable nostalgia floats on the breeze, gently whispering about generations past.
That neighborhood is Kerem Hateimanim — the Yemeni vineyard — or simply, the Kerem.
You’ll know you’ve reached the Kerem because the homes begin to look ramshackle. The small villas are mostly two to three stories high, some with copper or even tarp for roofs. And yet this feeling of an old Jewish ghetto beautifully adapts to a new era. The hodgepodge — sprinkled with balcony gardens and sidewalk plants — exudes a rare warmth.
Built in the late 19th century by Yemeni immigrants, the Kerem actually predates the city of Tel Aviv. It’s still home to one of the largest Yemeni communities in the Middle East — some 80,000 people.
Although some homes have been remodeled and refurbished for tourists and wealthy buyers, most have not. The remodeling that has taken place here is small scale and has managed to preserve the Kerem’s unique feel.
That’s not to say that prices haven’t risen or that newcomers don’t move in. It’s more that the feeling of development isn’t ostentatious. One local chalked it up to the fact that a lot of the families that built the original homes stayed put, and that the turnover is less frequent than in other parts of Tel Aviv.
And you can see that many of the residents are descendants of the Kerem’s original inhabitants. Residents greet each other with a common, neighborly familiarity. Although some foreigners, including Sephardic, Italian and Ashkenazi Jewish families, have moved in and around the neighborhood, the Yemeni traditions still prevail. A handful of Mizrachi synagogues — of the Middle Eastern tradition — are active in the area, and the local population is known to be rather traditional.
Shimeon Feinstein, a three-year Kerem resident and a kabbalah student and clean-tech executive, calls it the most unique neighborhood in Tel Aviv. “It’s the only area that really attracted me,” he said, “because it’s very special.”
When he spoke about the Kerem, Shimeon used kabbalistic images about tranquility and nature, and about human purpose.
It became apparent that the Kerem is a natural fit for Shimeon: Its delicate blend of tradition and progress — and its lure of solitude and mystique — is inviting for students of the inner spirit who, while not very religious themselves, want to learn and be surrounded by an open and devout environment.
And, perhaps most remarkable of all, the streets of the Kerem are quiet. So quiet, in fact, that it’s hard to believe the area is nestled between the urban chaos of Allenby Street and the rowdy vendors of the Carmel market.
Indeed, on the tranquil streets of the Kerem, one can stroll and get lost in time. A gentle breeze flows in from the Mediterranean Sea just three blocks away. All of a sudden, it seems, there is nowhere to rush to.
As opposed to neighboring Neve Tzedek, whose high-priced properties and independent boutiques can sometimes feel nouveau-chic or even downright yuppie, the Kerem is not overrun by bohemians or foreigners. It’s a simpler life.
And, if you want to experience how utterly unpretentious the neighborhood is, try one of the local restaurants serving up authentic local cuisine — from grilled meat and salad to hummus and dessert.
It’s a no-fuss affair, but your taste buds will sing.
It’s not just that the food has the lure of home cooking; local restaurant owners actually make you feel that you’re sitting in their very own home kitchen. They’ll insist that you eat while it’s hot and rush to refill your plate like a worrisome grandmother. Zion and Medina are two of the most famous eateries.
But the one dish you’d have to try is Marak Teimani — Yemeni soup. You could go to Yisrael’s or Shimon’s. Both restaurants face each other behind Akiva Street, both are run by local Yemeni families, and both serve a soup you won’t soon forget. The flavorful concoction of potatoes, beef or chicken, or both, in a spicy-yet-light beef broth, make your senses come alive. This is proper, hearty comfort food.
For a real kick, add a bit of schug, a Middle Eastern red or green hot pepper sauce, and hilbeh, a Yemeni paste made from fenugreek seeds and hot pepper. Hilbeh is thought to be one of the healthiest condiments in the world; apparently, it stays in your body for up to three days, fighting off bacteria and other bad things. (It’s not for nothing that cooking shows on Israeli TV go on and on about hilbeh.)
Orly, a Tel Aviv native with Yemeni and English roots, says that the soup reminds her of her step-grandmother who ran a jachnun factory in Johannesburg. Jachnun, another traditional Yemeni dish, is rolled dough cooked into a puff pastry and brushed with a special butter. It is typically served with a fresh tomato dip, schug, and a boiled egg — and Yemenis eat it for breakfast.
“It’s not quite as good as hers,” she said playfully about the soup, “but it’s pretty close.” Orly said that when she has one of “those days,” she comes to the Kerem to lift her spirits. “When I’m craving that feeling of home, I come here,” she added.
She’s not the only one that feels that way. Zohar Argov, an ’80s Israeli-Yemeni pop star credited with starting the Mizrachi music revolution in Israel, sang a famous song, “In Kerem Hateimanim.” Although Argov was not from the Kerem himself, he paid special homage to the neighborhood’s mystical spirit (performed by Zohar Argov; lyrics by Ruti Ben Yehuda):
“My feet walk in the Kerem
Love of Yemen
lives interwoven in the Kerem
like nuggets of gold
across from the rising sea
and from the sinking houses
songs of Yemen rise
on the wings of eagles”