Can Jerusalem keep all its residents happy on Shabbat?
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Can Jerusalem keep all its residents happy on Shabbat?

As some neighborhoods battle non-kosher eateries and open-for-sabbath activities, others aim to create pluralistic places for all. The future mosaic of the city may hinge on the results

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan brings in Shabbat with her daughter and the Nava Tehila band (photo credit: Tal Chalutz)
Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan brings in Shabbat with her daughter and the Nava Tehila band (photo credit: Tal Chalutz)

On a recent Friday afternoon, the refurbished First Station train complex in Jerusalem displayed a scene that was probably a first for the capital city. While diners sat nursing beers or coffees at the nearby cafes, several hundred people gathered at the center of the wooden deck that runs the expanse of the station, participating in a rousing Kabbalat Shabbat service accompanied by drums and guitars, courtesy of Nava Tehila, a local Jewish Renewal prayer and study group.

Alternative prayer services in the midst of the commercial space are all part of the grand plan of The First Station. As its entrepreneurial developer, Avi Mordoch, likes to say, he heads to the beach on Saturdays, while his mother goes to the Kotel.

“This place is for everyone,” he said during a preview tour of the station a few weeks ago, spreading his arms wide as if to encompass the entire religious morass that is Jerusalem. But when asked whether he expected any trouble over his decision to open a place of business that is open on Shabbat and includes non-kosher restaurants, Mordoch shrugged.

“I’m a private businessman,” said Mordoch. “No one will tell me what to do, and I won’t tell them what to do.”

For now, Mordoch’s hunch has proven correct, as Jerusalemites appear to be at peace with mixing kosher and non-kosher restaurants, as well as Shabbat and non-Shabbat activities, in the same space.

Moreover, in the mixed-message world of Jerusalem, where religious and secular rub shoulders on a daily basis, looking for their own version of life in the holy city, it’s been true for some time that private businesses can decide whether or not to open on Shabbat. The dozen or so restaurants and bars that are not kosher operate a roaring trade on the Friday-Saturday weekend, while the Rav Hen, Cinematheque and Smadar, the city’s three remaining movie theaters that remain open on Shabbat, are filled with customers on Friday nights and Saturdays.

But while the non-kosher eateries are allowed to remain open on Shabbat, there is often tremendous pressure for them to close, particularly in certain areas of the city that are home to religious residents who want to maintain that increasingly elusive Jerusalem peace and quiet.

Closed for business

Restaurateur Shachar Levy recently closed the successful, non-kosher, open-on-Shabbat Restobar, after years of battling his religious landlord.

"I am a religious woman. I never sat in Restobar, and chances are I never will. But on Shabbat, people want to meet friends, to relax from the work of the week and to feel like part of a community. Restobar offered that opportunity to people and therefore it's important for a place like that to exist," wrote councilmember Rachel Azaria back in March on her Facebook page (Courtesy Rachel Azaria Facebook page)
“I am a religious woman. I never sat in Restobar, and chances are I never will. But on Shabbat, people want to meet friends, to relax from the work of the week and to feel like part of a community. Restobar offered that opportunity to people and therefore it’s important for a place like that to exist,” wrote councilmember Rachel Azaria back in March on her Facebook page (Courtesy Rachel Azaria Facebook page)

When the non-kosher restaurant suddenly shuttered its doors in March, it was after months of protracted disagreements with landlord Laurent Levy, a French optical oligarch who has been buying up property in Jerusalem. Owners Shachar and Avigayil Levy posted letters on their Facebook pages and on the front of the restaurant, describing their public and legal battles for the right to maintain a secular lifestyle in the city in which they both grew up.

Levy (who is no relation to the Restobar owners) was not available to respond, said his assistant at the Optical Center, the non-profit foundation funded by Levy, whose company has 360 stores throughout Europe. Not much is known about Levy, a French immigrant who likes to reflect on his love for chocolate, music, Torah, and the Noahide laws on his website. What appears is that he’s amassed a fortune from his international optical business and is busy buying up Jerusalem real estate, including the space where Restobar was established, and where Café de Paris, a kosher café, has now opened.

It’s not just Levy who wants to see places of business shuttered on Shabbat. Yaron Tourjeman, one of the owners of Yehoshua, a popular cafe located on Gaza Street, just down the street from Restobar, finally caved to months of pressure from the residents of the building in which the restaurant is located and closed on Shabbat. Now he’s opening a second restaurant on Gaza Road, which, he said, “it seems” will be kosher.

“There’s a problem with opening on Shabbat on this street,” said Tourjeman. “I don’t have any problem with the religious residents, but there’s a need for non-kosher restaurants around there. There are residents in Rehavia who look for restaurants that are not kosher and open on Shabbat. We offered those two solutions, and you know what? Some kippah-wearing customers come to our place just to have a drink.”

According to Tourjeman, the building committee in which Yehoshua is housed obtained a court order against the café, ordering its closure during the weekend.

“It’s just so hard in Jerusalem,” he added. “It’s actually easy to succeed with a place that’s opened on Shabbat, because there’s such a need for it. But it’s neighborhood by neighborhood. On Gaza Street, we gave up. I think we’re heading in a direction of just having downtown places open on Shabbat.”

For Tourjeman, whose café is located in a Rehavia neighborhood filled with secular university students as well as religiously observant immigrants and old-timer Jerusalemites, the Shabbat battle was a losing one. Over in Mahane Yehuda, where three owners opened Machneyuda, a heavily-treif and highly successful bistro that requires reservations two weeks in advance, the decision was to keep it non-kosher but closed on Shabbat, in deference, and perhaps in careful accordance, with the unwritten rules of the close-knit shuk neighborhood.

A look at Chakra, which runs a restaurant and café, just across the street from two major Jerusalem synagogues (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
A look at Chakra, which runs a restaurant and café, just across the street from two major Jerusalem synagogues (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Roee Shalev, the former chef at Yehoshua and now part-owner at Chakra, another non-kosher Jerusalem establishment restaurant and café that sits in a stand-alone building on the edge of Independence Park, said there isn’t much pressure from neighbors, possibly because Chakra’s not located in a residential neighborhood. There are, however, two major synagogues across the street, Yeshurun and The Great Synagogue, just up the block.

Still, he said, “we have our crowd.”

“In this city, people don’t want to have to drive 45 minutes to get a meal on Shabbat or see a movie,” said Shalev. “We want to offer that option, so that people who don’t observe Shabbat can breathe a little and do Shabbat their way.”

It’s ironic, mused Shalev, 28. He moved to Jerusalem from the north, and immediately loved the city’s sense of the ingathering of the exiles, the many different types and sorts that populate the capital. “You have it all here,” he said. “So what happens to the type that wants to go out on Shabbat? They don’t get to do that?”

The constant discussion of it all is amusing to Asaf Rizi, one of the three owners of Adom, the restaurant group that moved its flagship bistro Adom from its downtown spot to the place of honor in the recently opened First Station. Rizi and his partners own five other Jerusalem restaurants, including the non-kosher Lavan in the Cinematheque, Colony, a non-kosher bar located near the train station, the kosher Little Italy right by the Inbal Hotel, and the strictly Mehadrin Cup ‘O Joe in Talpiot’s Ahim Yisrael mall, as well as a catering company in the Khan Theater.

A born-and-bred Jerusalemite, Rizi believes the decision to open non-kosher restaurants in Jerusalem is solely a financial one, and he’s clearly found success in his group’s chain of mostly non-kosher restaurants.

“We have an unusual audience,” he acknowledged, ticking off the particular needs of his customers. “We don’t carry seafood, because Jerusalemites don’t eat seafood and don’t want to meet up with it either. But there’s lots of meat and dairy on the menu. We stay open on Pesach and offer bread and yet we also make sure to have matzah, because people eat lots of matzah. People make their own rules.”

Jerusalemites basking in the newfound fun at The First Station, which mixes kosher and non-kosher, Shabbat and non-Shabbat activities (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)
Jerusalemites basking in the new-found fun at The First Station, which mixes kosher and non-kosher restaurants, including Adom, in the background (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

If Uzi Wexler were sitting with Rizi at Adom’s round captain’s table overlooking the well-stocked wine cellar, he’d be nodding his white-haired head. The long-time city bureaucrat who now runs the Sherover Foundation spent many years at the helm of the Jerusalem Development Authority, the joint agency of the government and Jerusalem municipality that he founded under the aegis of former mayor Teddy Kollek.

Wexler likes to talk about the many battles he’s fought on behalf of public projects that became residential battlegrounds, including the Begin Highway, and now, the Sherover cultural complex under construction in Abu Tor, the  Jewish-Arab neighborhood that sits across from the train station complex. Slated to include a movie theater, cafés, and an auditorium, the complex also overlooks the Tayelet, the winding park also built by the foundation, which has been the site of ongoing vandalism and several attacks over the years.

Wexler insists that the complex – which will be open on Shabbat – will help bolster the park and, consequently, the neighborhood. But residents, mostly the Jewish ones, who live in the part of Abu Tor that is closer to the complex, have repeatedly fought against the construction, bringing repeated work stoppages against the project. They’re concerned about noise, traffic, Shabbat disturbances, and ruining the pastoral calm of the neighborhood.

None of their complaints makes sense, insisted Wexler.

“Pastoral?” he exclaimed. “This is a city, not a village. And what about everything across the street,” he added, pointing out the nearby train complex as well as the Zappa music theater, restaurant, and supermarket complex, situated directly across Hebron Road, the four-lane street that separates Abu Tor from its commercial neighbors. “They call it a mall,” scoffed Wexler, chuckling at the perceived misnomer. “It’s 1,924 square meters! You need 15,000 square meters for a mall, you can’t even call this commercial.”

Walking along the Sherover Promenade or tayelet, which abuts the planned Sherover cultural center (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash 90)
Walking along the Sherover Promenade or Tayelet, which abuts the planned Sherover cultural center (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash 90)

The point, said Wexler, is that people get overly emotional about projects and structures in their neighborhoods, adding the NIMBY – Not In My Backyard – element to any battle. Shabbat might play into it, but he believes it’s about their undue fears, not any particularly serious bone of religious contention.

“There’s no rationale to their arguments,” he said, pointing out the long-ago refusal of Beit Hakerem to have an entrance onto the Begin Highway, which now skirts the neighborhood. “I’ve seen these kinds of fights over and over, it’s all asinine.”

“People need to be together, they need places where they can go out,” Wexler added. “I don’t start wars with the religious; that’s something you do on your own with God.”

When the religious court the secular

Perhaps it’s only the religiously identified Jerusalemites who can make a definable change in the city’s Shabbat landscape.

It was Councilmember Rachel Azaria, a self-defined mainstream Orthodox Jew, who took to heart the repeated comments of secular Jerusalemites who complained about Shabbat in their hometown, and who said they were considering a permanent move away after having spent time outside the city over the weekend. Azaria’s party, Yerushalmim several years ago created Berela, an organization for family-friendly activities held on Shabbat, in the local neighborhood community centers.

A Berela event on a recent Shabbat afternoon in Jerusalem, drawing secular residents and offering them family-friendly Shabbat activities (Courtesy Rachel Azaria Facebook page)
A Berela event on a recent Shabbat afternoon in Jerusalem, drawing secular residents and offering them family-friendly Shabbat activities (Courtesy Rachel Azaria Facebook page)

“It was a big deal,” said Azaria. “The ethos in Jerusalem is such that people though we couldn’t do it. We hired a producer [for an initial event that predated Berela] and he said, ‘Don’t do it on Shabbat.’ But when we organized it first on a Friday, only 36 people came. When we did it on Shabbat day, 600 people showed up.”

Azaria told the mayor, who reminded her that she was breaking city code by using a municipality building for a Shabbat activity. So she found a loophole by creating Berela, an independent organization, to run events.

“Today, I feel that something has changed,” said Azaria, who has spearheaded other pluralistic battles in the city, including the fight for non-rabbinate kosher certification for restaurants. “If you start counting the restaurants, maybe there are fewer open on Shabbat, maybe more. But that’s a different story because it’s hooked up to the kosher issue. The point is we’re changing the language in Jerusalem.”

The city lacks certain procedures that ease the development of a more pluralistic society, said Azaria. She pointed to restaurants down in Eilat and up north that have kosher certification but are open on Shabbat. One of them even has different dishes for during the week and for Shabbat, said Azaria.

“They have a procedure that works,” said Azaria, emphasizing that mainstream leaders Rabbi Yaakov Medan and Rabbi Aharon Leibovitch have agreed with her about the importance of making Jerusalem more pluralistic. “We don’t have that in Jerusalem and that’s the dance we have to learn. There are halachic solutions, and our response has to be to see how to make it work. I can tell you that it’s not easy to make the shift, but it’s part of what we need to work on in Jerusalem.”

Back at the train station, Rabbi Kagan mused about the experience of leading Kabbalat Shabbat services in such a public forum. The late Friday afternoon service at the station is a project led by the nearby Ginot Hair Community Council, and the Kabbalat Shabbat services will be conducted alternatively by Nava Tehila Ensemble and Invitation to Piyyut, another local group. But what’s fitting about the experiment is the entire concept, said Kagan, pointing out that Kabbalat Shabbat was done in the mid-afternoon in ancient times, prior to lighting the Shabbat candles, as the community courted the Shabbat queen in the town square.

“If Shabbat is the wedding, then this is the courtship,” explained Kagan. “The two parts haven’t come together yet.”

Perhaps, mused Kagan, the train station is Jerusalem’s courtship site, the seam line between east and west, religious and secular, offering that elusive option of ‘gam v’gam’ — bringing all of the city’s disparate parts together.

Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan at the recent Kabbalat Shabbat service in the train station (photo credit: Tal Chalutz)
Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan at the recent Kabbalat Shabbat service in the train station (photo credit: Tal Chalutz)

“We wanted to create a shift in the collective consciousness, about Shabbat arriving,” said Kagan. “This is not, ‘Shabbat is coming and why don’t you do it my way.’ Part of this whole initiative is that yes, Shabbat is important to all of us, and we’re going to celebrate it differently and that’s okay. We all learned about Kabbalat Shabbat in the same place, in kindergarten, where we were Ima shel Shabbat and Abba shel Shabbat (the Shabbat Mom and the Shabbat Dad), and we all loved it then. Now, some will go home and light candles and eat a meal, and others will get up and go for a nice stroll and then have a lovely meal at Adom.”

Doing Shabbat at the train station is a model for the wider possibilities of Jerusalem, she said. It allows everyone to celebrate, because it’s not yet Shabbat and “everybody can come and be who they are,” she said. “This is all of ours. We can ‘Jew’ in different ways.”

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